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James J  Cremin Written by James J Cremin
Jun. 17, 2009 | 9:52 AM

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The Little Foxes - The Subtlety of William Wyler

On June 15, 2009, there was a special screening of THE LITTLE FOXES (1941) that the American Cinematheque presented in collaboration with the Pasadena Playhouse.  After the screening, there was a q and a moderated by Michael Schlesinger with members of the current production of Lillian Hellman’s play at the Pasadena Playhouse.

The play itself was first produced in 1939 and the Regina Giddens role was then played by Tallulah Bankhead whose mannerisms Bette Davis copied in the film version. Other revivals has had Anne Bancroft, Elizabeth Taylor and Stockard Channing.  The current Regina is Kelly McGillis, who will not see the film until the play has had its run.  She was not present at the Egyptian but the current stage director/adaptor Damaso Rodriquez was, along with cast members playing Leo and Alexandra, costume designer Mary Voigt and a member of a Southern writers organization.

I can not comment about the play as I have not seen it and actually want to focus on the film itself.  It was produced by Samuel Goldwyn for his own studio.  Lillian Hellman wrote the screenplay and there were three credited writers that must have contributed to the changes of the film version to the stage version.  In fact, the Richard Carlson character David Hewlitt was created strictly for the movie, providing the love interest for the Teresa Wright character Alexandra Giddens.  Also mentioned was Hellman’s prequel to this, entitled ANOTHER PART OF THE FOREST (1948).

The film director is William Wyler, not only Goldwyn’s favorite director but also Bette Davis’s.  He was also instrumental in introducing Audrey Hepburn in ROMAN HOLIDAY and he helmed the blockbuster BEN HUR (1959).  Upon seeing THE LITTLE FOXES last night, I realized there was a subtext to all his work as somehow the issues of class always appeared.  He never preached about it, just showed it.

That was quite a trick when he interpreted Hellman.  After all, Hellman wasn’t subtle at all.  She courageously tackled sensitive subjects and along with husband Dashiell Hammett, RED HARVEST, was blacklisted in the 1950’s.  Though THE LITTLE FOXES does get a bit over melodramatic, there is a timeless relevance as to how it addresses ruthless businessmen and how it affects the lower classes.

Ben Hubbard (Charles Dingle) and Oscar Hubbard (Carl Benton Reid) are the ruthless ones here.  Ben is the mastermind while Oscar is merciless towards wife Addie (Jessie Grayson) and uses his not so bright son Leo (Dan Duryea) to steal for him.

Just as ruthless but being a female, their sister Regina has to rely on financial support from sickly husband Horace Gibbens (Herbert Marshall giving the best performance of his career).  In order to attempt to coerce Horace in her brothers’ business scheme, she sends daughter Alexandra, who doesn’t know the reason, to bring him home from Baltimore.

Even in the same house, Regina and Horace live apart.  Horace has a heart condition and can barely handle the stress Regina and her brothers give him.  On the other hand, he enjoys the love of his daughter and her boyfriend David.

Though the time is set in 1900 when slavery was abolished, treated as sub humans throughout especially by Regina are the African Americans in this movie.  There is a brief scene where black children drool over the quite extravagant leftovers from the back porch.  The servants do not shoo the children away as they know there’s a need as the kids are truly hungry.

Only the concerns of the white people are addressed even when the black people are around.  It wasn’t lost on me the black maid does not partake in any refreshment and just knits when the nicer white folks have tea.  David remarks the white people may have the pianos but it’s the colors who have the voices when he and Alexandra listen to the African Americans singing.  That’s the closest Wyler allows on commenting on the race segregation at this time.

As for the rest of the plot of THE LITTLE FOXES, much is revealed in Horace’s concern of the workers when finally confronted by Ben.  I’d much rather one sees the movie on how it plays out than reveal it,  especially on how Regina is able to turn the table on her brothers.

I strongly believe Wyler left a lot of the subtext in for viewers to draw their own conclusions.  Goldwyn famously said if you want to send a message, go to Western Union.  But right under his nose and others, Wyler sent messages through his work.

Wyler gave Humphrey Bogart his first sympathetic gangster role in DEAD END.  Bogart’s character gets alienated even by his own mother (Margery Main) and girlfriend (Claire Trevor).  The underlying cause is his own class struggles. 

Wyler and Davis both won Oscars for JEZEBEL.  In this, Bette’s Southern belle actually uses the politics of the North and South to attempt to get a man who’s really out of her class.  It just won’t work out and ends the way she never expected.

The underlying subtext of THE LETTER also deals with race, this time the whites, mainly English, and the Chinese.  This was made just before THE LITTLE FOXES.  Here, the Bette Davis character does

THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES famously ushered in the alienation of being handicapped.  Harold Russell played the vet with no human hands.  It also has one of the most ironical scenes in history of alcoholic Fredric March not accepting Dana Andrews as a potential son in law because they belong in different classes.

ROMAN HOLIDAY has princess Audrey Hepburn yearning to join mankind as a normal human being.  But because she was born into royalty, she can’t.

There’s plenty more but I’ll just close with BEN HUR.  In Christ’s time, a Jewish slave (Charlton Heston) faces with Roman former friend (Stephen Boyd) in a chariot race.  That’s very much a class struggle.

William Wyler was a man of his time as well as being brilliant enough to be timeless.  It’s good to gain insight from one who knew how to not preach it, just show it.




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