"The Little Foxes"
*** 1\2 (out of ****)
Long before Michael Douglas taught us "greed is good" there was Bette Davis in "The Little Foxes" (1941).
"The Little Foxes" was directed by the legendary Hollywood filmmaker William Wyler and nominated for nine Academy Awards including best picture, director (Wyler), actress (Davis) and screenplay (Lillian Hellman). It was based on a 1939 stage play, also written by Hellman, and starred Tallulah Bankhead.
Although "The Little Foxes" is the story of family greed between two brothers (Charles Dingle and Carl Benton Reid) and a sister (Bette Davis) it is not much of a stretch to interpret "The Little Foxes" as a movie about the dangers of women.
Here is a movie that addresses the cliche all women are power hungry, desire good social standing, do not marry for love but are gold diggers and will use their femininity to their advantage against men.
Bette Davis stars as Regina Giddens, a woman who married a wealthy businessman, Horace (Herber Marshall), who suffers from a heart condition. The two appear to be in a loveless marriage, as Horace is away seeking medical care as Regina seems to hardly care. In fact, she has never once visited Horace at the hospital.
Regina is too busy conniving with her brothers; Benjamin (Dingle) and Oscar (Benton) regarding a business deal involving building and investing in a cotton mill. Once built the family will pay low wages to exploit the working class. In order to secure their dominance of the business and their share of profits, it is agreed each sibling put up a third of the cost, thus giving them full control of the company. Benjamin and Oscar have acquired their portion but will Regina, through her husband Horace, be able to put up her share? Time is running out and Horace is still in another state, dealing with his illness.
The plan is to use Regina and Horace's daughter, Alexandra (Teresa Wright), as a pawn to lure Horace back home so Regina and her power / money hungry brothers can prey upon him and convince him to invest in their scheme.
While "The Little Foxes" may show "the dangers of women" the male characters in the movie are not innocent either. The men are greedy and engage in questionable business practices. They are willing to manipulate people to further their own agenda. Regina may have married for money but so did her brother Oscar. He married Birdie (Patricia Collinge), whose family owns a plantation. Birdie has many regrets in her life, like once actually believing Oscar married her because he loved her, and so now, to deal with all of life's disappointments, including a son, Leo (Dan Duryea), she openly admits she doesn't love, she turns to drinking. This allows people to discredit anything she says by simply labeling her "a drunk". Would you listen to what a drunk has to say?
"The Little Foxes" becomes a story about more than men and woman and the gender stereotypes which follows them and a story about good old-fashion American greed. The thirst for power which consumes so many and the reckless depths to which they will immerse themselves to in order to achieve their goals. Everyone loves money and wants more of it but remember what the Bible tells us, "the love of money is the root of all evil".
It is also through the Bible the movie is given its title. In Song of Solomon it reads "Take us the foxes, the little foxes, that spoil the vines: for our vines have tender grapes". Foxes are generally considered to be destructive animals, representing evil. Of course there is also the connotation that foxes are manipulative and sneaky, hence the saying, "sly as a fox". Therefore one may interpret the title of the movie as referring to the siblings, they are the little foxes, the sly manipulative foxes, which cause destruction.
Another interesting aspect of "The Little Foxes" also centers on female characters. If the Regina character represents all the negative female stereotypes than the daughter, Alexandra, is at a crossroads. If she listens to her mother, she will become another fox. Will Alexandra follow a different path? A path set forth by a male character, David (Richard Carlson), a journalist who has everyone's number. He is in love with Alexandra, and she with him, though both are too stubborn to admit it.
What is interesting within the dynamic between Alexandra and David and Regina and Horace is the man represents logic and knowledge. They want to set the female characters on the right path. The men want to offer their knowledge and wisdom to the female characters but will Regina's greed and feelings of resent of being a woman prevent her from taking a man's advice? Regina's resentment stems from the fact she must rely upon a male for financial security. Her brothers are capable of controlling money. They are able to put up their third for the investment but in order for Regina to become involved in the scheme she must get the money from a man, her husband. Regina is not in a position to make business deals. Business is not considered a woman's place.
Alexandra on the other hand is naive. She is not wise to the ways of the world. David is. That is why the character is given a profession of journalist. Journalist, in movies at least, have usually been presented as cynical figures. They know all about the corruption and crooked politicians. David, though a young character, is one of the wisest in the movie. The question is will Alexandra copy her mother and show resentment towards a male figure or learn from his knowledge?
What makes "The Little Foxes" so enjoyable to watch are the fine performances given by this cast. Bette Davis plays the kind of character audiences had grown to expect from her. A woman that is a bit cold. A woman that dares to challenge society's conventions. A woman that dances to the beat of her own drum. Watch Davis in "Jezebel" (1939), "The Letter" (1940) or "Mr. Skeffington" (1944). In none of those movies is Bette Davis playing a sweet, innocent "feminine" character. That was not Davis' style.
Also worth noting is "The Little Foxes" was the third and final collaboration between William Wyler and Bette Davis. Their previous movies were "Jezebel" and "The Letter". Mr. Wyler has the prestige of being the most nominated filmmaker in the history of the Academy Awards. Mr. Wyler received a total of 12 nominations and won on three occasions for "The Best Years of Our Lives" (1946), "Mrs. Miniver" (1942) and "Ben-Hur" (1959). Mr. Wyler is routinely mentioned among the greatest American filmmakers of his era alongside John Ford and Orson Welles.
"The Little Foxes" is a Hollywood classic that every film lover should see. Open your eyes to the performances given by Bette Davis and the work of William Wyler. If you love movies you should be able to appreciate each of these artist's talents. I worry today's younger movie fans don't acknowledge back in the golden era of Hollywood films, these movies were about something. Hollywood movies were challenging ideas society had. Yes, there was a censorship code being enforced but the great movies found ways to work around that. Movies like "The Little Foxes" managed to be about ideas. Thought-provoking ideas. I ask today's movie fans, yes, censorship may be more lenient today. Artists are able to express themselves more freely then 70 years ago. But, I ask you, how many of these Hollywood movies are about something?