Bette Davis is brilliant when playing evil. Her stinging delivery, coupled with withering stare makes her a formidable presence. She can be quite frightening – it explains why she did all those horror movies in her late career. In The Little Foxes, Davis stars as Regina Giddens, a ruthless woman who is eying the possible fortune that should result from a merger between her family and a Chicago businessman. Mrs. Giddens’ greed is matched by her brothers, Ben Hubbard (Charles Dingle) and Oscar (Carl Benton Reid), who want to convince her husband, Horace (Herbert Marshall), to put in money into the scheme.
The Little Foxes is based on the stage play Lillian Hellman. Its stage origins are pretty easy to spot: it’s not a graceless transition, and some of the soliloquies are pretty stagey. But overall, it’s a good filmization, with a great cast, led by the acidic Davis. This isn’t a perfect movie – the racist depiction of the black characters is pretty hard to swallow – at times, this deep South setting, complete with smiling black servants takes on a curdled Gone with the Wind note. Of course, the viewers are given little information about the black residents of The Little Foxes, and they only serve as minor characters filling out the supposedly “authentic” south.
The plot is suitably, high-level pot boiler: Oscar married the dotty Birdie (an excellent Patricia Collinge) to get his hands on her family’s land. He wants to pair up with his brother to start a cotton mill. Initially, he thinks he can marry his doltish son Leo (Dan Duryea) to Horace’s naive daughter Alexandra (Teresa Wright), but that’s a no-go, because the two youngsters hate each other, and Alexandra has her eye on a reporter, David (Richard Carlson), a progressive liberal, who shares her affection. Horace, like Birdie, knows his spouse only married him for his money – and like David, he has idealist ideas, refuses to join his ugly in-laws in their nefarious business. Unfortunately, he’s surrounded by a cast of characters who are all interested in getting their hands on ill-gotten fortunes.
Fans of Davis will enjoy this film – it has the requisite melodrama, with lots of chest-thumping and tears. Hellman isn’t known as a subtle writer, and she indulges in grand speeches and her characters show off almost-cartoonish evil (sometimes I expect Davis to cackle and twirl an imaginary moustache). The ending is suitably ambiguous – there are shades of Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth in Davis’ portrayal of Regina, and it’s hinted a bit in the end. All in all, an enjoyable film.