The Little Foxes is the third of three films that William Wyler made with Bette Davis, and that represent some of her best acting. It followed 1938’s Jezebel, a sweeping southern drama, and 1940’s The Letter, a Singapore-set film noir. Though The Little Foxes has some strong merits, it never escapes its origins as an adaptation from the stage play by Lillian Hellman. Wyler opens up the story as best he can, but its dense dialogue keeps it from feeling cinematic. Furthermore, an oppressive atmosphere is inherent to this story, which gives the film some stuffiness that is entirely appropriate, but may deter the viewer.
Set in 1900, The Little Foxes is about a family in America’s Deep South, some of whom are hungry for money at any cost. The most ambitious of them all is Regina Giddens, played by Davis. Though Tallulah Bankhead had great success as Regina on Broadway, Davis scored the role when it was put to film, which certainly didn’t help the relationship between the two women. More importantly, there’s a significant difference between the conceptions each actor had of the character: Bankhead played Regina as a woman trying to survive in a man’s world, but Davis was convinced that Regina is simply evil.
While Regina uses every talent she has to gain control over her family, Davis herself controls every frame she’s in. Clothed in some of her most flattering costumes, she projects such reptilian malevolence that she becomes as beguiling as a cobra. She’s also not afraid to show ugliness, which benefited this and many of her other roles.
Most interestingly, Davis is always using her wardrobe to express Regina’s character. In one scene, she’s tossing back her gown’s improbably long sleeves; in another, she’s lifting the hem of her gown, with a clenched fist, so she can climb a flight of stairs; in another, just before she commits her most abhorrent act, she lifts back her veil and takes down her hat, which is topped by a dead bird. Regina wants to own things, and this desire restricts her. Her interactions with the things she wears show her anxiety, emphasise her ability to be alluring, and indicate when we are seeing her true face.
Three of the men in the Hubbard family are just as rotten as Regina. Oscar (Carl Benton Reid) is the source of the family’s wealth, which he earned by marrying Birdie (Patricia Collinge), an aristocrat. Birdie’s reward is physical and emotional abuse, and a responsive alcoholism. Ben (Charles Dingle), meanwhile, is a jovial man to whom cruelty comes easy. He may well be a match for Regina.
Even if Davis is playing Regina as full of venom, it’s still plain to see that the character is responding to the challenges she faces as a woman, including the way her brothers treat her. Ben tells her that she’d get more from men if she used a smile, which is not only patronising, but is also a lie. If she let her brothers walk all over her, they’d do it in a second. Unfortunately for Ben and Oscar, they need her husband, Horace Giddens (Herbert Marshall), to invest in their scheme. So, they need her to convince him, and she takes full advantage of this.
Oscar and Birdie have a son, Leo, who is played by Dan Duryea, making a distinguished film debut. Oscar and Ben plan to marry him off to Regina’s daughter, Xan (Teresa Wright). This is bad news for Xan, and not just because they’re first cousins. Leo is entirely vapid, unremittingly stupid, and so lazy that he can barely seem to expel enough air to speak. The only thing that gets him energetic, apart from fearing that Ben and Oscar’s plans might go awry, is thinking about what he’d like to do to a woman.
Xan is actually the film’s centre. Her real name being Alexandra, she is clinging to childhood in an effort to avoid facing what’s going on around her. She is aided by Birdie, who does everything she can to prevent Xan’s life becoming like hers, a family servant, Addie (Jessica Grayson), who offers perspective on how the Hubbards effect their town’s poor, and David Hewitt (Richard Carlson). David is a socially conscious writer who flirts liberally with Xan, but can’t stand her near-sightedness.
Xan will be most influenced by her father. He’s a decent man, but a severe heart condition leaves him weak. Much of the film’s tension comes from watching Horace attempting to fight as well he can. Regina responds by spitting at him, “I hope you die. I hope you die soon. I’ll be waiting for you to die.” The moment is shocking not just for Davis’ performance, but for how undeserving Horace is of such hate.
Wyler has clearly attempted to make this story visually interesting. He often uses reflections to open up the interiors, or to show what the characters are feeling. He also shoots the primary set, the Giddens house, from a variety of angles. The staircase in particular often emphasises the power dynamics at work. At a couple of points, Wyler has characters move into the frame while remaining unnoticed by the others. However, he doesn’t often put the camera in motion, which adds to the film’s static nature.
The Little Foxes is not shot as though it’s a play, but the dense script keeps the film feeling heavy and uncomfortable to watch. However, the story itself is not meant to be pleasant. With many fine performances and masterful writing, The Little Foxes shows us what it is meant to show: a parable about how petty greed is, and how easily it hurts people who aren’t guarded against it. The Hubbards are one small family, but the world has plenty of their kind.