Bette Davis, Richard Carlson, and Teresa Wright in The Little Foxes (1941)


(director: William Wyler; screenwriters: Lillian Hellman/with additional scenes & dialogue by Arthur Kober/Dorothy Parker/Alan Campbell/ based on the play by Lillian Hellman; cinematographer: Gregg Toland; editor: Daniel Mandell; music: Meredith Willson; cast: Bette Davis (Regina Giddens), Herbert Marshall (Horace Giddens), Teresa Wright (Alexandra Giddens), Richard Carlson (David Hewitt), Dan Duryea (Leo Hubbard), Patricia Collinge (Birdie Hubbard), Charles Dingle (Ben Hubbard), Carl Benton Reid (Oscar Hubbard); Runtime: 117; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Samuel Goldwyn; RKO; 1941)
“When viewed today, the hysterical melodrama seems creaky.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Lilliam Hellman adapts it from her own hit 1939 Broadway play. It’s a bitingly grim film about the destruction of a Southern family caused by greed and the bad effects from American capitalism. Tallulah Bankhead starred in the stage version but producer Samuel Goldwyn got Bette Davis, under contract to Warner Brothers, to star in the film version by initiating a studio swap with Warner’s by loaning out their contract player Gary Cooper, so he can appear in their Sergeant York. William Wyler (“Roman Holiday”/”The Westerner”/”The Children’s Hour”) ably directs (he had to put up with a Davis insisting she play the part without compromise, which turned out to be a good move) and Gregg Toland provides the stunningly beautiful photography. Teresa Wright makes her acting debut as Davis’ daughter, as does Patricia Collinge (holdover from Broadway) as the sweet but tipsy and disillusioned Birdie Hubbard–the wealthy wife of the Charles Dingle character Ben Hubbard.

It’s set in 1900 in the Deep South, in a small-town where the enterprising carpetbagger Hubbard family run the town’s best businesses. Industrialist William Marshall (Russell Hicks), from Chicago, visits the Hubbard family and says he plans to build a cotton mill here. Regina Giddens (Bette Davis) is a shrewd businesswoman who is married to a dispirited dying but ethical man, Horace Giddens (Herbert Marshall), the president of the local bank. He opposes the mill, saying it will ruin the town by exploiting the poor, and refuses to give her the $75,000 needed to invest in it. But Regina’s odious brothers Ben (Charles Dingle) and Oscar Hubbard (Carl Benton Reid) hunger for more wealth and drink a toast to their guest as investors. She doesn’t care if her husband lives or dies, as she so desperately wants to inherit the family’s entire fortune and will do anything to make her sick dream come true. For starters she tries to arrange the marriage of her nice daughter Alexandra (Teresa Wright) to the slimy and dim-witted Leo (Dan Duryea), Oscar’s bank teller son, in order to get the investment money. Oscar will give her the money just to get his shiftless son married. But Alexandra doesn’t bite. Leo is pushed by dad into stealing Horace’s bonds (worth $90,000) that’s kept in a safe deposit box. Regina finds out about this and uses it to blackmail the brothers into giving her a big piece of the cotton mill action.

Regina, because of her greed, slyly sticks her scheming knives in her own deceitful brothers’ backs and, to top that, callously neglects to give her good husband his pills when he is dying of a heart attack (the film’s most memorable heartless scene). The cold-hearted Regina is left alone when, in the end, her virtuous daughter, the one person she cares about in this world, calls her out as “one who eats the earth.” She then elopes with nice-guy newspaperman David Hewitt (Richard Carlson), son of the town’s poor seamstress, and deserts Regina.

Davis is at her theatrical best, as she hams it up in her unsympathetic icy villainess role as the one who poisons everything she touches.

When viewed today, the hysterical melodrama seems creaky.