Saturday, April 13, 2013

The Little Foxes (1941)

Director: William Wyler                                Writer: Lillian Hellman
Film Score: Meredith Wilson                        Cinematography: Gregg Toland
Starring: Bette Davis, Herbert Marshall, Teresa Wright and Richard Carlson

The Little Foxes is a fascinating criticism of Southern society a generation after the Civil War. The real importance of it can be seen when juxtaposed with a similar film from a year earlier. Much of the script, from the story itself, to the family setting, to the pacing of the dialogue is certainly influenced by Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. But where Wilder’s New England town has an underlying joy beneath its gruff exterior, Lillian Hellman’s town in the Deep South seems as corrupt and rotten as it was in the antebellum period. There is a certain cruelty, a bitterness, a shame pervading the families and characters that inhabit the film that make it difficult to watch at times. And that is one of the traits of a good film, something that challenges us to see and understand things we’d rather forget.

Bette Davis plays the conniving matriarch of an extended family that incudes her brothers, Charles Dingle and Carl Benton Reid, and Reid’s son Dan Duryea, as well as her husband, Herbert Marshall, and her daughter Teresa Wright. Dingle and Reid are attempting to make a business deal to open a cotton manufacturing plant in town along with Northern businessman Russell Hicks, but they need Marshall’s money to close the deal. Marshall, however, is a sick man, terminally ill and with little motivation to make the deal. With Davis already spending her inheritance and Reid with thoughts of grandeur in his head, the backstabbing and double-dealing all under the polite veneer of Southern hospitality is nearly sickening.

Davis, of course, plays Bette Davis, and with her usual confidence. She is teamed again with Marshall, no doubt to capitalize on their success in Warner Brothers’ The Letter. It is odd to see Herbert Marshall play the sickly invalid after normally associating him with more commanding roles. This was also the debut of Teresa Wright, an actress who would have a long a successful career. One of the sub-plots involves her and her love interest, Richard Carlson, well before his days as an icon of 1950s science-fiction films. The story is not an easy one to watch. The treatment of the blacks seems little changed from the days of slavery, and this of course reflects the continuation of the corrupt society that continued right up until the 1960s and lingers to this day.

William Wyler and Gregg Toland do a good job of staying out of the way, which is admirable in itself. Likewise Meredith Wilson’s score is rather generic and adds little to the production. But this is as it should be. It’s Hellman’s story that is the real star. The film had a slew of nominations that year at the Oscars, but wasn’t able to win a single category, which is understandable. It’s not a brilliant film, as a film. Nevertheless, The Little Foxes remains a powerful story with a powerful message, not only an important part of American history but an important part of film history as well.

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