I should like the 1941 adaptation of Lillian Hellman’s play The Little Foxes more than I do. Its domestic drama, period setting and historical sophistication accord closely with my interests. I have been nonplussed by it in the past, but I thought I would give it another try, since what I look for in a movie has changed somewhat since I last saw it. I thought I might appreciate it more this time around.
Certainly there is a lot of good in it. Bette Davis, in the central role of Regina Giddens, a bored, frustrated Southerner scheming with her brothers to get money out of her husband to invest in a local cotton mill, is in tight control. While reportedly at odds with director William Wyler about her interpretation of the role, Davis acquits herself admirably as does the entire cast. Whatever his disagreements with the star, Wyler deserves credit for coaxing such strong ensemble performances from all the actors. Along with cinematographer Gregg Toland and art director Stephen Goosson, Wyler also constructed an evocative narrative space, used most effectively in the oft-excerpted climactic scene on the Giddens’s staircase.
And yet, for all the good in the film, I still find it hard to sit through, much less like. Part of the problem is that most of the characters are thoroughly unpleasant. Hellman doesn’t give anyone much opportunity to be remotely charming. Indeed, the one self-consciously “charming” character, Regina’s brother Ben Hubbard (Charles Dingle), is the worst of the lot, a talkative, smarmy, thoroughly unlikable weasel who grates every time he opens his mouth. The supposedly positive characters, such as Regina’s husband Horace (Herbert Marshall) or her sister-in-law Birdie (Patricia Collinge) are so ineffectual they inspire pity, not interest.
Families acting badly can nonetheless be entertaining, so snarling, vicious behavior in itself is not enough to explain my edginess with the film. Perhaps it is because the viciousness is so humorless. None of the Hubbards or Giddenses have much wit, and the one character calculated to lighten things a little, local journalist David Hewitt (Richard Carlson), is far too obviously an add-on. There’s nothing to respond to but meanness, greed and corruption. The two families don’t even have the style that goes with wealth, just raucous, ostentatious vulgarity.
Which brings things back to the writing. Hellman deserves credit for the strong social statement at work in the story. The black servants, for example, are largely free of the patronizing depiction of African-Americans typical of the period. And a little speech from Ben that broadly outlines the class structure of the South is more than a touch unusual to hear in a Hollywood film, even if the delivery is obnoxious. Which is not to say the story is a tract; the characters are not simply mouthpieces for Hellman’s political convictions. What they and the film lack, however, is a sense that there is more to the world than scheming, parochial vindictiveness. It’s a mean vision of meanness.