Movie Review – The Little Foxes

The Little Foxes (1941)
Written by Lillian Hellman
Directed by William Wyler

The art of performance was born from the theater. People got up in front of a crowd and acted out stories. There were no screens. It was often by the light of a fire. Or, in more developed regions, an amphitheater. When the film first became a popular trend among “the kids,” there were many adaptions of stageplays. They weren’t shot with much emphasis on style as the aesthetics of the film medium were being figured out at the time. However, after several decades movies became their own way of telling stories, with the elements of cinematography and editing helping to shape things. 

Plays would still be adapted, but now you had a different experience than in a theater with live actors. The director’s hand was even more prominent as they chose where your eye would be directed. For May, I will be reviewing many of America’s most renowned stageplays that have been adapted for film. While I was an English major in college, my knowledge of these stories beyond their titles is sparse. I read all the prominent Shakespeare plays, but beyond that, American drama was not in much of my curriculum. I read A Streetcar Named Desire and August Wilson’s Fences, but that was it. So, I wanted to experience these stories, revisiting some while watching others for the first time.

The Little Foxes quickly turned from a Broadway play to a movie in two years. Set in the deep American South of 1900, the story follows the Hubbard family, a trio of siblings who inherited a cotton plantation from their ruthless businessman father. Regina (Bette Davis) is the only daughter and, as a result, is sidelined by her brothers, Benjamin and Oscar (Charles Dingle and Carl Benton Reid). Their wealth comes from the family business, while Regina depends on her husband, Horace (Herbert Marshall). Horace is absent when the story begins; he has a heart condition that has him laid up in a sanatorium in Baltimore, far from the family plantation. 

A visit from a wealthy investor, William Marshall, has the brothers giddy about a cotton mill being built in town which will help them expand their empire. The idea is that they will be able to pay workers in this region far less than Marshall’s hometown of Chicago and reap a massive profit for themselves. Regina sees herself being shut out even further, and an invitation from Marshall leads her to threaten the boys with ruining their investment opportunity. She wants a larger percentage of ownership and offers up Horace’s cash as a bargain. Her teenage daughter Alexandra (Teresa Wright) is sent to bring her daddy home, which she does. However, Horace’s taste for the Hubbard clan has wholly soured. All Regina can do once he arrives is beg him for the money. Eventually, the Hubbard siblings devise an evil plan using Oscar’s son, Leo (Dan Duryea), to steal Horace’s railroad bonds locked up in the bank where Leo works as a teller.

Lillian Hellman, the writer of the play and screenplay, was one of many artists blacklisted in the 1950s due to the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), led by Senator Joseph McCarthy, assisted by such figures as Roy Cohn and Robert Kennedy. HUAC and its insidious witch-hunt for communists was not purely a Republican effort as contemporary media likes to frame it. One of the great martyrs of the Democratic Party, Bobby Kennedy, was handpicked by McCarthy, a family friend of the Kennedys to act as assistant counsel. So, the persecution of Leftists in America has always been bipartisan. 

Hellman’s story saw her emerge from the union of a comfortable middle-class mother and a shoe salesman father in New Orleans. Her years were spent half in NOLA and the other in New York City. Through her travels to the big city, she learned a lot about the theater industry and witnessed labor oppression when back in Louisiana. She got married at age 20 but often lived on her own. At 24, she ended up in Bonn, Germany, where she continued her education. During this time, she flirted with joining a Nazi youth organization because of how they advocated for a “kind of socialism.” However, when they became aware she had Jewish heritage, they turned on her, and Hellman realized who they were. Her experience in this regard is still important, as contemporary American fascists are using pro-labor language to lure in disaffected working-class people while also spewing the vilest hatred for the marginalized. In the same way, corporations can feign sympathy for diversity with surface-level initiatives that are done for PR reasons, so too will the supposedly “grassroots” fascists speak to the workers who are broken down. It is difficult to find anyone who wields power or collects it in the United States that isn’t a duplicitous figure.

The theater has always been a far more progressive place to tell stories than the film industry. Hellman wrote The Children’s Hour, about a pair of teachers at a girl’s boarding school who become scandalized by an accusation of lesbianism. One of the women is indeed queer, and her turmoil leads to a tragic finale. When The Children’s Hour was developed into a film in 1935, the Hays Code wouldn’t allow for the direct mention of homosexuality, so it had to be changed to more “acceptable” hetero-normative circumstances. The play would get a more faithful adaptation in 1961 but still had to be cagey about its subject matter.

In The Little Foxes, much of the dialogue is centered around a vision of America that is to come. Hellman was incredibly prescient in how she was able to survey the landscape of labor in the 1930s and extrapolate the inevitable outcome. This is expressed with glee by Hubbard’s top sibling, Oscar when he remarks: 

Until one loses today and wins tomorrow. I say to myself, years of planning, and I get what I want. And then I don’t get it… But I’m not discouraged. The world’s open for people like you and me. There are thousands of us all over the world. We’ll own the country someday. They won’t try to stop us. We’ll get along.”

This is countered later in the story by Horace when he can no longer contain his disgust for this vulture-like family and the way they gobble up all they can: 

Maybe it’s easy for the dying to be honest. I’m sick of you, sick of this house, sick of my unhappy life with you. I’m sick of your brothers and their dirty tricks to make a dime. There must be better ways of getting rich than building sweatshops and pounding the bones of the town to make dividends for you to spend. You’ll wreck the town, you and your brothers. You’ll wreck the country, you and your kind, if they let you. But not me; I’ll die my own way, and I’ll do it without making the world worse. I leave that to you.

Nothing about this film is escapist, which is why I love the theater. Movies have, more often than not, existed as a way for people to escape from their daily struggles. There’s nothing wrong with finding some relief in entertainment. However, they came to a point where American film, in particular, eschewed any sense of wanting to reflect the world as it is to their audience. Instead, we now live in a media landscape in which no semblance of reality exists in any of our entertainment. From sitcoms to prestige dramas to blockbuster movies, it is rare to see working-class people struggling or even have finances brought up as an obstacle. Was Malcolm in the Middle the last long-running working-class sitcom? Even worse is how much media goes out of its way to not acknowledge the devastating (and still ongoing) COVID pandemic. The world of American cinema is, more often than not, an unreality, a simulacrum of a fantasy. That’s why we often feel nothing when the end credits roll. There was nothing human on the screen for the entire runtime.

The Little Foxes is a story about the people who make America rotten. These are the same types of people you found at the laughable January 6th insurrection attempt. Reporters have found the majority of those people were small business owners. They were the petite bourgeoisie throwing a temper tantrum over imagined wrongs & fueled by petty hatreds. A swarm of little foxes getting into the hen house and then not knowing what to do other than smear shit on the walls and steal souvenirs. A revolution of the deluded. These people believe they have some divine right to gobble every crumb they encounter. They fantasize about being slave drivers and often are in their businesses. Then they complain when people quit, and no one wants to work for their shitty establishment anymore. 

It’s a shame that a film like The Little Foxes seems to have been forgotten by the film buffs. Instead, they want you to shove more Marvel or Star Wars down your gullet and ask for a fifth helping. Theater can speak across the barriers of time and remind us of universal struggles. The fight of today is one that has been raging for centuries. Because in the end, there is only one war, and it has been going on since humanity began to form societies, and that is the Class War. It’s the only war that matters. 


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