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The Little Foxes (1941)

220px-Little_foxesThe more I see Bette Davis, the more I enjoy her movies. She’s been a bit of an acquired taste for me, but you usually have to really like Bette Davis to enjoy her films because she tends to dominate them. However, though she is wonderful in The Little Foxes, there is also plenty of room for her co-stars and it is actually a very good ensemble performance.

The Little Foxes was originally a play, written in 1939 by Lillian Hellman, who adapted her own play for the screen in 1941, even adding a character. The play was critically well received, but Hellman felt that the movie was even better, which was also critically well received. It was directed by William Wyler, who had already directed Davis in her Oscar winning role in Jezebel (1938) and Oscar nominated performance in The Letter (1940). She would be nominated for another in The Little Foxes.

The title of the play comes from the Bible, Song of Solomon 2:15: “Take us the foxes, the little foxes, that spoil the vines: for our vines have tender grapes.” The little foxes who are spoiling everything are the three Hubbard siblings, wealthy upstarts in the South during the early 1900s, preying on the world for their own gain.

Ben Hubbard (Charles Dingle) is the eldest, richest, sharpest, most ruthless and still unmarried. Oscar Hubbard (Carl Benton Reid) married a former southern belle (Patricia Collinge) to get hold of her plantation and has one son, the improvident, useless Leo (Dan Duryea). Their sister, Regina Giddens, married a banker, Horace Giddens (Herbert Marshall), and they had one daughter, Alexandra (Teresa Wright).

Around these characters, the story follows three main story threads: the three sibling’s attempts to finance a cotton mill, Regina’s attempts to gain financial independence from her husband and brothers and Alexandra coming of age and coming out from under her mother. And through the story, the brothers will discover that they have grossly underestimated their sister.

Bthe-little-foxes-parlor-sceneen and Oscar don’t have enough money to fund the mill and they and Regina want Horace to invest some of his own. However, Horace – who has a bad heart and a limited time to live – is not interested. He knows he’s dying and has had it with the machinations of his brothers-in-law and was hoping that his wife and he could stop fighting and come to an understanding. When he returns from the hospital, he is disappointed to discover that nothing has changed and all the three want out of him is money, which he refuses to give.

Meanwhile, Alexandra is spending a lot of time with a young, local newspaperman, David Hewitt (Richard Carlson), who loves her. She, meanwhile, is coming to understand what is going on around her: why her parents are arguing, how unscrupulous her uncles are and how their business practices keep wages unfairly low and take advantage, especially, of the black community, and of how unhappy her beloved Aunt Birdie (Patricia Collinge) is in her marriage to Oscar. She has a more distant relationship with her mother, but worships her father and is upset at how her mother’s attempts to get him to invest money are wearing him out.

William Wyler and Bette Davis fiercely disagreed during the filming of the movie, mostly over Davis’ portrayal of Regina. Wyler wanted her more sympathetic and Davis wanted to play her as a woman who looked her age and was coldly ruthless, though I think Davis’ performance still leaves room for shades of sympathy, or at least understanding, for her. But really, when a woman drives her husband into a heart attack and then calmly sits by without even getting up to get him his pills, there are only so many ways to play a character like that.

Regina’s father was a man who apparently came from nothing and worked his way up, leaving everything to his sons, but nothing to his daughter, who he seems to have neglected and regarded as being of little importance. In desperation, Regina married Horace Giddens, but was disappointed and disgusted to discover that Horace was not an ambitious man. He had his bank and that was enough for him.

Herbert Marshall. Teresa Wright, Bette Davis

Herbert Marshall. Teresa Wright, Bette Davis

What Regina wants is not just wealth, but independence. She wants to live somewhere else (Chicago, perhaps), travel, do things, and she intends to do all these things with her daughter, Alexandra. At first, I was not quite clear how much she cared for her daughter, but I think in her own way she does and that she believes herself to be a good mother. I was also initially surprised at how little she interfered in Alexandra’s life, but she says at one point that she never liked to be interfered with as a girl and so she doesn’t interfere with her daughter, either. She is also projecting all her childhood desires onto her daughter; she assumes that Alexandra would want the things she wanted.

Another theme in the film is standing by while others do wrong. This is spoken by Birdie Hubbard, brilliantly portrayed by Patricia Collinge. Birdie had once believed that Oscar loved her, only to discover that he had been after her plantation and the respectability that her aristocratic family line could bring him. She is an alcoholic now, but she is devoted to Alexandra. She loves her far more than her own, weaselly son, Leo. But she is afraid that Alexandra will end up just like her, dominated by the Hubbards, meek and cowed and obedient to their will.

There is a wonderful scene where the three apparently weak ones, Horace, Alexandra and Birdie enjoy an affectionate tea, free of the presence of anyone else. Also present is Addie (Jessie Grayson), the black woman who is part housekeeper and part surrogate mother to Alexandra, and David Hewitt. Birdie reminisces about her beloved mother and past life on her plantation and how she was deceived by Oscar. And she says something that makes an impression on Horace, that her mother always said; that one ought not to stand by and let people do wrong.

3faf20d22a42f7583b02ac540919452cThe acting is really top-notch, especially Patricia Collinge, as the pathetic, tragic, cowed woman who holds on to her memories for dear life and has so much affection to give, but so few people to give it to. Patricia Collinge is actually, along with Charles Dingle, Dan Duryea and Carl Benton Reid,  reprising her role from the play. Also in the play, Tallulah Bankhead (Lifeboat) played Regina, but Wyler wanted Bette Davis for the film. Davis and Marshall were reunited from The Letter and Teresa Wright and Patricia Collinge would go on to be mother and daughter in Shadow of a Doubt.

Herbert Marshall has one of the most lovely speaking voices in the movies and it lends him such tragic, tired wisdom. Dan Duryea plays a weasel as only he can and Charles Dingle is absolutely perfect as the insufferably good-humored but utterly ruthless business man. And Bette Davis shines as she schemes with, argues with and ultimately triumphs over her brothers. But her triumph comes at a great cost.

The film’s ending is one of those classic endings that really make the whole movie sing. It’s part cynical that the little foxes will continue to prey on the world, part commentary of the cost for a woman when she tries to make her own way, and part hopeful for the future in that there are people who will stand up to them, like David Hewitt and Alexandra.

 
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Posted by on November 19, 2014 in Movies

 

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The Letter (1940) – Bette Davis and Her Unsympathetic Roles

lett2Bette Davis liked playing unsympathetic roles; she actually preferred it. Her first one was in 1934, her breakout role, as Mildred Rogers in Of Human Bondage with Leslie Howard. She was so impressive that her name was written as an add-in on the ballot for Best Supporting Actress, though she lost. She went on to play so many of these roles that it was all I ever heard about  when I first began to watch her films. But in the first fifteen movies that I saw her in, she was thoroughly sympathetic in them all.

Of course, I even sympathized with her in Jezebel, so perhaps I just have the wrong perspective on things. I kept hearing about how bad her character was in that movie, but really, she just seems extremely proud, stubborn and willful – her own worst enemy – but not especially evil.

However, I am happy to say that I have finally seen a movie where she plays a genuine Jezebel type. The Letter, directed by William Wyler, is based on a short story by W. Somerset Maugham. Set in Malaya, it is about Leslie Crosbie (Bette Davis), wife of a rubber planter, who shoots gambler Geoff Hammond because he was drunk and assaulted her…or so she says. Her husband (Herbert Marshall) is devoted and protective and gets his lawyer (James Stephenson) to defend her at the trial- everybody thinking the trial will be a mere formality. Local opinion is strong against Hammond, especially when they find out that he had a Chinese wife (Gale Sondergaard).

still-of-bette-davis-and-herbert-marshall-in-the-letter-(1940)-large-picture

Bette Davis with Herbert Marshall

However, it soon comes to Mr. Joyce’s attention that there is a letter, in the possession of Hammond’s wife, that she is willing to sell. A letter that indicates that perhaps Leslie’s relationship with Hammond was not what she said it was and might cast doubt on her story in court. Every instinct of professional ethics is against it, but friendship with Leslie’s extremely devoted and trusting husband convinces the lawyer to buy it.

This is one of the finest performances I have seen Bette Davis give. She plays Leslie Crosbie so demurely, so properly, ladylike, watchful, always working on her fine lacework, but still managing to convey the inner passion underneath it all that no one else can see, except the lawyer and only because the letter demonstrated to him that she is not as she appears.

I read a fascinating article on the blog The Hollywood Revue, called “The Significance of White Lace in The Letter (1940),” that talks about Leslie’s penchant for lace work. Leslie is always working on lace projects and at one point even goes out wearing a shawl of white lace when she goes with the lawyer to get the letter from Hammond’s wife.

Sen Yung, Bette Davis and James Stephenson

Sen Yung, Bette Davis and James Stephenson

The Hollywood Revue points out that white symbolizes innocence and “it’s as though she’s trying to create a shroud of innocence for herself” with her constant wearing of white clothes and making white lace, as well as demonstrating her “attention to detail” in her lies. I think the lacework is also a symbol of irony. Lacework seems very domestic and tranquil, but highlights the difference between Leslie’s apparent employment and her secret life. Yet another possible meaning of the lacework is that Leslie uses lacework to channel all her pent-up energy into something that requires tremendous focus and concentration to create something highly intricate. Or is it “the tangled webs we weave?”

I could probably go on forever about the lacework, but it is a wonderful detail in the film, highlighted repeatedly by the camera and by comments made by other people.

Leslie’s husband is played by Herbert Marshall, who has one of the loveliest speaking voices in cinema. His love for Leslie is so strong, but curiously blind. He would forgive her anything and seems, as his lawyer notes, to have lived ten years with his wife and hardly known her at all. He doesn’t, apparently, love the real woman… or even know her. Joyce is played by James Stephenson, who was a relatively unknown actor at the time and did a marvelous job. He is torn by his conscious and utterly fascinated by the obscure depths of this woman he has to defend.

Bette Davis, lace in hand, with James Stephenson

Bette Davis, lace in hand, with James Stephenson

Not only is the acting is good, but it is a beautiful film visually, and is full of memorable moments, most notably the opening scene, when the quiet night is broken with the sounds of gunfire, then we see a man stagger out of a house, with Bette Davis behind him, shooting repeatedly.

I do have one complaint, however, regarding this marvelous film, which is the ending. Sometimes censorship makes a movie better (like Double Indemnity), but in this case I think it weakened the film. In the play, Leslie Crosbie lives out the rest of her life without her husband. However, since crime could not go unpunished under the Hays Code, William Wyler had to change the ending. What happens instead is that Leslie is murdered by Hammond’s widow. The widow is seen by a guard (presumably so the audience is assured that she, too, will be identified later and pay for her crime – I must say that Hammond sure picked a murderous lot of women to love) and the camera pans over to Leslie’s lace, laying over her chair in her room.

My problem with this ending is that the film seemed to me to be building to something else. There is a dramatic scene near the end when Leslie admits to her husband – after he forgives her and asks if she loves him – that she still loves the man she killed. The very bleakness of this statement, however, is undercut by having her murdered very soon afterwards, a convenient out that saves her from having to live with what she did. I was expecting her to turn into the crazy lace lady, always doing her needlework, without soul, without thought, living her days out having killed her own heart. The actual ending of the film, I felt, is deflating and not consistent with what came before.

The ending does not, however, detract from a very good film. And I did still find it in my heart to feel for her, despite her evilness. Perhaps I’m just chronically in sympathy with her.

 
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Posted by on August 20, 2014 in Movies

 

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