The most impressive things about The Little Foxes are, in no particular order, Bette Davis’s performance (specifically her micro expressions), Patricia Collinge’s supporting performance, director Wyler’s composition, director Wyler’s staging of the narrative (adapted by Lillian Hellman from her play and set in a constrained area but a living one), Herbert Marshall’s performance, and Gregg Toland’s photography. Actors Teresa Wright and Charles Dingle almost make the top list. They make up the second tier. Then you get into the other great supporting performances and things like Daniel Mandell’s editing or the set decoration and it goes on and on.
Because The Little Foxes is an expertly made film. The script is strong, Wyler’s got Gregg Toland shooting this thing, Wright’s character got hidden range (too hidden), and Davis can do this role. Davis and Wyler didn’t get along but the conflict never comes through because Davis’s character is supposed to be so against the grain. Bickering with the director through your performance is a great way to generate grain to move against.
Even though Wyler does a great job translating a play to the screen, the film skips a little too much. Wyler and Toland have this great foreground and background action thing going so they can get multiple things done at once (occasionally with middle ground action too). But it’s a device to keep Little Foxes lean. The first thirty-six minutes, taking place over a day, sings. Wyler gets done with it and it’s like the film is just starting. He’s introduced the cast, he’s introduced the setting. It’s laying the ground situation in action. It’s awesome.
And for a while it pays off and just keeps getting better. Little Foxes is about the machinations of a nouveau riche Southern family in 1900. Well, not quite riche enough but almost. Davis and brothers Dingle and Carl Benton Reid (in a sturdy but inglorious performance) have a plan, they just need Marshall–as Davis’s convalescing husband–to get on board. Only maybe Marshall thinks the family is awful. Foxes has some peculiar politics, with Marshall and Richard Carlson as progressives (and the only decent white men in the picture).
Collinge’s part in the film, reductively, is to forecast the possibilities for Wright’s future. Collinge does a great job with it and the scenes are beautifully written–her relationship with Wright in the first act is a standout both for acting and cinematic brevity–but she disappears in the third act. She’s got no place in the story, which is kind of a problem because the story was the family and then it just turns into this business deal thing.
It’s too abrupt, but Wyler’s able to make it at least flow a little thanks to Toland and Mandell’s contributions. There’s a throwaway scene in the third act where Carlson gets to slap around porto-bro Dan Duryea. Not to fault Duryea with that description, he’s awesome in the part. Lovably dopey and still somewhat dangerous. So Wyler gives the audience a reward for sticking through the mussed third act.
Even though the grand finale is part of that mussing, Davis and Wright really bring it together and make it work long enough for Wyler and Toland to finish the movie. Dingle and Marshall also go far in making it happen, but it’s Davis and Wright. It’s got to be the mother and daughter showdown, even though the film never exactly promised such a thing. And you get to see Wright develop her character without an inch from Davis. Is it an inch in character or out? Doesn’t matter, makes their scenes beyond tense. Maybe because Davis wasn’t in the second act much. The Little Foxes, with Marshall, Wright, Carlson, Collinge, and Jessica Grayson just sitting around enjoying each other’s company in one scene, becomes almost genial. Wyler doesn’t promise happiness, but he does acknowledge people actually enjoy life.
Davis has to come back with a vengeance to remind the audience there is no happiness, no enjoyment. Because the world’s a bad place. It’s actually a really downbeat ending even though everyone kind of gets a happy ending. Characters win, humanity loses.
Foxes has got some problems–it’s too short as it turns out–but Wyler and company turn in an excellent picture. Confident, beautifully shot, beautifully acted, well-paced. But in that confidence is a lot of safety. Wyler’s most ambitious with his composition, not the film overall.
This post is part of the Second Annual Bette Davis Blogathon hosted by Crystal of In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood.