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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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Shadow of a Doubt (1943) – Evil Amidst Innocence

220px-Original_movie_poster_for_the_film_Shadow_of_a_DoubtAlfred Hitchcock is known as the master of suspense and I have seen and enjoyed many of his movies. However, my personal favorite – and reportedly his, too – is Shadow of a Doubt, which I believe is also his most human and relatable.

When Alfred Hitchcock first left England to make movies in America, many of his early American movies were still set in England: Rebecca (1940) and Suspicion (1941), but he wanted this movie to be more uniquely American in setting. He chose as his location Santa Rosa, California, and he did much of his shooting on location.

At the center of Shadow of a Doubt is the evil that comes to an innocent small town and an innocent family. Charlie Newton (Teresa Wright) is named after her mother’s much loved younger brother, Uncle Charlie or Charles Oakley (Joseph Cotten). She feels that they are extremely close, because of their names, but also because of how they think and feel. She likes to say that they are like twins. The movie begins with Charlie feeling like the family has gotten into a dull rut and what they need is Uncle Charlie to visit them. When Uncle Charlie does come unexpectedly, she and her entire family are thrilled and excited, especially her mother, Emma (Patricia Collinge).

The family with Uncle Charlie: Patricia Collinge, Henry Travers, Charles Bates, Teresa Wright, Edna May Wonacott, Joseph Cotten

The family with Uncle Charlie: Patricia Collinge, Henry Travers, Charles Bates, Teresa Wright, Edna May Wonacott, Joseph Cotten

What they do not realize is that Uncle Charlie’s money (he is described as being “in business”) has actually been acquired through murder. He is a serial killer, the Merry Widow Murderer, and he is on the run from the police and hiding out at their home. Hitchcock is simply masterful in how he builds his movie. Not long after he arrives, Charlie begins to suspect her uncle in some way and soon she figures out the truth. It is this growing of Charlie’s suspicions and Uncle Charlie’s realizations of her suspicions and how the two of them deal with each other that provides the tension. And Charlie’s realization that not only is her uncle a serial killer, but he’s quite willing to kill her, too, which is not at all the same thing as being willing to kill a random stranger.

What I love about this film is how infinitely relatable it is. It’s not glamorous, like many of Hitchcock’s other films. There are no gangs, international espionage, spies, thefts of priceless jewelry, epic chases, women running about in impossibly gorgeous clothing (I’m thinking, here, of Grace Kelly). The people in it are people we can imagine knowing or being like, people we might even have met.

We don’t dress like Grace Kelly and Cary Grant isn’t going to walk into our lives, but we can understand a family member – someone we assume we can trust – and we can imagine ourselves reacting to that situation. Would we tell our mother that her favorite brother is a serial killer; would we think our family would believe us? We can all imagine ourselves being at a loss trying to deal with this situation.

Charlie with her Uncle Charlie

Charlie with her Uncle Charlie

I think what Shadow of a Doubt taps into is how little ordinary people expect to encounter evil. We read about it and people in the movies always seem awfully eager to suspect and discover crime and conspiracy, but in real life we don’t really anticipate encountering that, especially in our own family. We generally expect to find real life somewhat prosaic.

I think it is also significant that it was made in 1943, during WWII. There is a sense of lost innocence for Charlie, having encountered this terrible evil that is in her uncle. He was originally a romantic figure for her, presumably emblematic of the world outside her safe and ordinary existence, but his view of the world is that it is a “sty,” an ugly place so ugly that it doesn’t matter what happens in it, even murder. He is the one to shatter her peaceful, sheltered and innocent view of life. He is like the Nazis horrifying the world with unimagined evil. It is partially a coming of age story for Charlie.

The cast is marvelous (Hitchcock always did have marvelous casts). Teresa Wright had recently enjoyed great success in The Little Foxes, The Pride of the Yankees and Mrs. Miniver, where she won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress. She is perfect as Charlie: innocent, but intelligent, grappling with the enormity of what she has learned, but not backing down. Joseph Cotten usually played nice guys, but he is excellent as Uncle Charlie, displaying charm, but always with hidden menace. Patricia Collinge is Charlie’s mother, who seems incapable of seeing the tension between Charlie and Uncle Charlie and is so blinded by her love of her brother, as if he represented everything good about life to her: her happy childhood, her young dreams and hopes. Henry Travers (known as Clarence the angel in It’s a Wonderful Life) is her father, a banker who relaxes by discussing murder mysteries and murder methods with his friend, Herb (Hume Cronyn), which provides a great deal of the whimsical humor in the film.

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Uncle Charlie doesn’t like to be photographed – Macdonald Carey, Wallace Ford, Teresa Wright, and Joseph Cotten

There is also a standout performance by Edna May Wonacott as Charlie’s sister, Ann. She is a bookworm who doesn’t quite like Uncle Charlie but never really knows why or even thinks about it. There are also two detectives lurking about (Macdonald Carey and Wallace Ford), who think Uncle Charlie might be the Merry Widow Murderer, and are cultivating the acquaintance of Ann and Charlie.

One of Hitchcock’s best and by far my favorite of his films. Suspenseful, but also more character driven then his usual movies. He tries to explore Uncle Charlie’s motivations and Charlie’s coming of age is a definite departure for Hitchcock. Coupled with his emphasis on the ordinary rather than extraordinary, it is a highly compelling, relatable, human, and even endearing story. It absolutely captured my imagination.

 
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Posted by on October 15, 2014 in Suspense

 

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