“That’s cynical. But cynicism is an unpleasant way of telling the truth.”
The fact The Little Foxes didn’t win an Oscar wasn’t for a lack of trying as all nine of its nominations were well earned. An adaptation of Lillian Hellman‘s stage play from just two years prior directed by William Wyler, this tale of a ruthless trio of siblings hardly shy about admitting they “stole” their wealth through marriage is witty, biting, and authentic in its look at cheaters, victims, and those standing idly by. The early nineteenth century setting puts its Alabaman city at the center of a cotton factory bid—the promise of free water-fueled energy and extremely low wages (courtesy of state laws) making the Hubbards attractive bedfellows for Mr. Marshall’s endeavors. But for how much will they sell their souls to ensure the deal sticks?
You’d be surprised. Or perhaps not since “man of the family” Ben (Charles Dingle) is quick to share how the land of the one true well-bred person in the house—his brother Oscar’s (Carl Benton Reid) wife Birdie (Patricia Collinge)—was now under his control. So he smiles as he sticks his hand in Marshall’s back pocket. Oscar remains quiet to let Ben speak except when silencing Birdie’s natural inclination to be friendly. And sister Regina Giddens (Bette Davis) plays the ever-present hostess working her feminine wiles to sweeten the pot while also proving as cunning as big brother. They have him hook, line, and sinker and the only casualties are the city in which they live and the wellbeing of the cheap labor they yearn to exploit.
There’s a wrinkle, though. Being the era it is, Regina has no money of her own. Any inheritance from her parents went to Ben and Oscar and all Giddens finances are her husband’s (Herbert Marshall‘s Horace). Unfortunately too, she married a nice man unlike those bred with the Hubbard name. She may have been able to persuade him for cash years earlier, but their current estrangement proves highly problematic. Horace isn’t healthy and he’s been a day’s travel away for months seeking help from the country’s best doctors. Never having gone to visit puts her sway in a precarious position. The only chance she has of buttering him up to throw a third share stake into Ben’s philanthropy is to utilize their daughter Alexandra’s (Teresa Wright) pure innocence.
It’s with her that The Little Foxes finds its unclaimed commodity. On one shoulder is her father’s wisdom about being generous and having the capacity to think independently—bolstered by local crush David Hewitt (Richard Carlson) who so desperately wishes she’d exit her mother’s shadow. On the other shoulder is the Hubbard name and domineering presence of Regina. Even when Alexandra wants to do something of her own volition, however, it just takes one “No” from Mom to turn her ambition into defeat. She’s too close to the corruption and tyranny her “kind” uncles have wrought, happy to pass time with Aunt Birdie in seeming obliviousness. But David and the town know what’s really going on. If only they can save this girl from suffering her presumed fate.
To a point the film is about where Alexandra ends up. Will she turn into her mother? The way she talks to hotel concierges proves she may. Will she turn into Aunt Birdie and watch as the man she’s forced to marry under false pretenses—all signs pointing to her simple and malleable cousin Leo (Dan Duryea)—becomes a monster? If the family’s unyielding desire to bargain for wealth and power wins out, Horace passes away, and David fails to open her eyes. Or will she grow into someone her father would be proud to call his own? This is the option we optimistically pull for because she’s finally old enough to listen and put the pieces together. The reasons everyone hates the Hubbards start to make sense.
There’s such a powerful message of compassion and youthful freedom in her evolution that the absolute villainy of her elders never quite transforms into cartoon. Because we get behind Alexandra and watch her traverse the rocky terrain of adulthood, the conniving of those using her like a pawn become complex forces to overcome rather than two-dimensional adversaries to knock down. They cannot be defeated—even Horace understands this. They may be slowed, but that only gives them the capacity to reach lower depths in order to combat the obstacle. Ben, Oscar, and Regina will be holding their heads high with a wry smile for years to come. Victory only exists through escape so we devise pleasure in Alexandra’s awakening as well as the Hubbards’ dirty tricks against it.
Hellman’s script is a force of wickedness—the back and forth comings and goings inspired by her own Marx relatives. The dialogue is fast-paced and razor sharp; every interaction between Regina, Ben, and Oscar a delight to experience as each looks for the upper hand without disguising the avenues in which they do. The children—Leo too—are commodities to exploit for their own salvation no matter the consequences to their wellbeing. Each Hubbard lives for control and that drive has gotten them this far by ruining those they’ve trampled upon to achieve success. Oscar is okay to stand in the background, but Ben and Regina haven’t the patience. They are cruel because they are effortless and Davis earns her place as a Great Villain of American Cinema.
It’s said that Tallulah Bankhead—who played Regina onstage—portrayed the character as a victim fighting against the contempt of her brothers rather than a woman cognizant of her actions seeking pleasure in the demise of others like in a game. Davis reportedly plays the role this way because she wanted to put on her own stamp. She actually championed having Bankhead cast instead as that interpretation was the way Regina should be played, but the producers said no and we get this cruelty instead. I’m not saying it doesn’t work, but I’d be interested seeing the other version. It would make the proceedings even more complicated, depressing, and real. Either way, Wyler delivers a powerhouse production. It’s impossible to look away as it turns darker and darker.