Review: William Wyler’s “The Little Foxes,” Starring Bette Davis and Herbert Marshall

Bette Davis in
Bette Davis in "The Little Foxes"

When Bette Davis and William Wyler first worked together on Jezebel in 1938, it led to Davis winning her second Oscar. Two years later, The Letter got them both nominations—and so they quickly reunited in 1941 for The Little Foxes, an adaptation of Lillian Hellman’s hit play. As successful as the film was, it would be their last together, as their constant arguments over how Davis played her part ruined their working relationship once and for all.

When we meet Regina (Bette Davis) and her two brothers Ben and Oscar (Charles Dingle and Carl Benton Reid) in the year 1900, they’re anxiously awaiting the arrival of businessman William Marshall (Russell Hicks) to their small Southern town. The three siblings are hoping to work with Marshall to build a cotton mill, and given the extremely low wage rates in the area, Marshall is more than willing—provided the three can come up with the investment money. Regina is forced to turn to her wealthy husband Horace (Herbert Marshall), who has been away from the family for some time to treat his heart condition. When Horace returns and refuses to put in the money, a chain of events that turn the whole family against each other are set in motion.

Director William Wyler with stars Teresa Wright and Bette Davis on the set of "The Little Foxes"
Director William Wyler with stars Teresa Wright and Bette Davis on the set of “The Little Foxes”

The more trashy and melodramatic paths the play explores could lead to a fairly silly and stagey costume drama, but with expert Hollywood craftsmen like Wyler and cinematographer Gregg Toland behind the camera, the film thrives. Much of the story takes place within an old Southern mansion, but it never feels like a set. Toland’s classic deep-focus cinematography lets us explore the rooms within his frames, watch characters moving in their backgrounds, or appreciate Wyler’s deft staging.

Of course, Davis’ performance is what really holds the production together. Tallulah Bankhead played Regina onstage, and after seeing her performance, Davis resisted taking on the part: “I insisted that Tallulah had played it the only way it could be played,” she later wrote. “Miss Hellman’s Regina was written with such definition that it could only be played one way.”1

Wyler felt that approach would be too one-note, contending instead that he “wanted Bette to play it much lighter.”2 They also argued about the makeup Davis insisted on wearing to play the older woman (she was thirty-three at the time). Their fights led to Davis walking off set, and though she returned to finish the film, the two never worked together again. It’s difficult to say who was right in this debate, but no one can deny the stunning viciousness Davis imbues Regina with. This is a character who can be elegant and composed one minute and shouting, “I hope you die!” the next. Davis is one of the few actresses of her generation who could really pull off such a performance (Bankhead presumably being another).

Though Davis is an obvious standout, this is an excellent ensemble all around. Much of the cast was pulled straight from the stage, and for many of them it was their first time acting on film. Patricia Collinge, Charles Dingle, Carl Benton Reid, Dan Duryea, and John Marriott all reprised their stage roles in the film. Collinge was deservedly nominated for best supporting actress (as was Teresa Wright) in the role of the alcoholic with a heart of gold, the lone adult in the family who sees just how awful they all are. This is the kind of character who could end up as the dull audience surrogate. Instead, she’s the most tragic character, made all the more so by Collinge’s warm performance.

Each of Wyler and Davis’ collaborations let them grow as artists. Jezebel lets Davis play a spoiled brat who redeems herself in the film’s close, and has nice period atmosphere, but feels minor next to the other two films. The iconic opening scene of The Letter instantly eclipses Jezebel, as we see Davis viciously empty a revolver into a man. The Little Foxes feels like a culmination of these two films, a far more elegant costume drama that allows Davis to play a character who is not just unlikeable, but truly rotten.

Where to Watch

Buy it on DVD

For More on The Little Foxes

Read the review in The New York Times

Watch the Trailer

References   [ + ]

1. Davis, Bette, The Lonely Life (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1962), p. 254.
2. Herman, Jan, A Talent For Trouble (Cambridge: Da Capo Press, 1997), p. 223.