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The Little Foxes William Wyler

2011-02-02

Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes concerns the Hubbard clan, a ruthless, upwardly mobile family who play out their drama against a backdrop of the South in transition. Crushed by the terrors of reconstruction, the romanticism of the old South gave way to the vitality of industrialism, bringing with it the foxes: the scrappers, the moneymakers. They have nothing but contempt for the old Southern aristocracy whose land and position they covet but whoie values they ridicule. The Hubbards have married into this aristocracy because it suits their purposes, but they do not pretend to membership. They revel in their middle-class status.

The leader of the family is the eldest brother Ben. Charles Dingle repeats his stage role, full of joviality, openly proclaiming himself "a plain man, and plain spoken," while hatching devious plots to increase the wealth of the family business and maintain his position as leader. Carl Benton Reid is brilliant as Oscar, the younger brother who has married into the landed gentry at Ben's direction and still follows his lead, vainly attempting to match his ruthlessness and secure a position for his son, Leo. Dan Duryea's performance as Leo is masterful. In his high-pitched whine, he fawns on his uncle Ben's every pronouncement; currying favor on all sides he still manages to put his foot in his mouth every time he opens it. He is constantly curbed by his uncle, whose barbs are explained and softened by his nervous father.

Regina Giddens represents the female of this species. Handsome and clever, she is a match for Ben, fully as ruthless and yet more shrewd. Bette Davis plays her with a reptilian grace that both fascinates and repels. Davis' Academy Award nomination was well deserved, and only the popularity of Alfred Hitchcock's Suspicion secured the Best Actress award for Joan Fontaine. Regina's daughter Alexandra seems a role tailor-made for Teresa Wright. She is young and innocent, apparently having no part of the Hubbards in her. We see her with her alcoholic Aunt Birdie (Patricia Collinge), who is gay and charming when she is away from the deliberate cruelties of her husband, Oscar. In the nervous gestures and breathless conversation of her aunt, Al­exandra begins to see what might become of her if she remains under the sway of her mother.

The family gathers to entertain Mt Marshall, a prominent Chicago busi­nessman who plans to build a local cotton gin in partnership with the Hub-bards. In an after-dinner scene we observe the Hubbard character. As Birdie and Alexandra play a piano duet Oscar watches his possession perform, Leo surreptitiously catches flies, and Ben tries to interrupt the recital, relentlessly pursuing Marshall with business conversation as the visitor tries to follow the music. Regina silences Ben, stares Leo into dutiful attention, and the recital concludes. She then turns her sexual charms on a receptive Marshall. Marshall asks her to Chicago in an invitation that has obvious sexual overtones. As he leaves, Regina exults to Birdie, "There'll be millions, Birdie, millions." Middle-class riches are not enough for Regina; she craves great wealth and Chicago society.

Lillian Hellman's The Little Foxes concerns the Hubbard clan, a ruthless, upwardly mobile family who play out their drama against a backdrop of the South in transition. Crushed by the terrors of reconstruction, the romanticism of the old South gave way to the vitality of industrialism, bringing with it the foxes: the scrappers, the moneymakers. They have nothing but contempt for the old Southern aristocracy whose land and position they covet but whoie values they ridicule. The Hubbards have married into this aristocracy because it suits their purposes, but they do not pretend to membership. They revel in their middle-class status.

The leader of the family is the eldest brother Ben. Charles Dingle repeats his stage role, full of joviality, openly proclaiming himself "a plain man, and plain spoken," while hatching devious plots to increase the wealth of the family business and maintain his position as leader. Carl Benton Reid is brilliant as Oscar, the younger brother who has married into the landed gentry at Ben's direction and still follows his lead, vainly attempting to match his ruthlessness and secure a position for his son, Leo. Dan Duryea's performance as Leo is masterful. In his high-pitched whine, he fawns on his uncle Ben's every pronouncement; currying favor on all sides he still manages to put his foot in his mouth every time he opens it. He is constantly curbed by his uncle, whose barbs are explained and softened by his nervous father.

Regina Giddens represents the female of this species. Handsome and clever, she is a match for Ben, fully as ruthless and yet more shrewd. Bette Davis plays her with a reptilian grace that both fascinates and repels. Davis' Academy Award nomination was well deserved, and only the popularity of Alfred Hitchcock's Suspicion secured the Best Actress award for Joan Fontaine. Regina's daughter Alexandra seems a role tailor-made for Teresa Wright. She is young and innocent, apparently having no part of the Hubbards in her. We see her with her alcoholic Aunt Birdie (Patricia Collinge), who is gay and charming when she is away from the deliberate cruelties of her husband, Oscar. In the nervous gestures and breathless conversation of her aunt, Al¬exandra begins to see what might become of her if she remains under the sway of her mother.

The family gathers to entertain Mt Marshall, a prominent Chicago busi¬nessman who plans to build a local cotton gin in partnership with the Hub-bards. In an after-dinner scene we observe the Hubbard character. As Birdie and Alexandra play a piano duet Oscar watches his possession perform, Leo surreptitiously catches flies, and Ben tries to interrupt the recital, relentlessly pursuing Marshall with business conversation as the visitor tries to follow the music. Regina silences Ben, stares Leo into dutiful attention, and the recital concludes. She then turns her sexual charms on a receptive Marshall. Marshall asks her to Chicago in an invitation that has obvious sexual overtones. As he leaves, Regina exults to Birdie, "There'll be millions, Birdie, millions." Middle-class riches are not enough for Regina; she craves great wealth and Chicago society.

Horace on his deathbed uses his last breath to comfort his daughter and urge her to leave with David Hewitt, while downstairs Regina confronts her brothers with Leo's theft and demands seventy-five percent of the mill. They bitterly agree, but Ben suggests that Regina might well be charged with murder. She smiles and defies him to prove it. Alexandra overhears this exchange and in spirited defiance damns them all and vows to leave. She tells her mother,

Addie said there were people who ate the earth and other people who stood around and watched them do it. And just now Uncle Ben said the same thing. . . Well, tell him from me,"Mama, I'm not going to stand around and watch you do it. I'll be fighting as hard as he'll be fighting, someplace else.
Alexandra leaves, crossing the square in the rain to meet David, while Regina watches from an upstairs window, coldly composed, expressionless, satisfied to remain in the web of her own device.

Although The Little Foxes received eight Academy Award nominations, it failed to win in any category. However, Teresa Wright did win the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her performance that year in Mrs. Miniver. Admittedly, it was a very stiff year in Oscar competition. Sergeant York, How Green Was My Valley, Citizen Kane, The Maltese Falcon, and Suspicion were only a few of the films in contention. However, more importantly, The Little Foxes presented a view of the middle class that was popular with only a minority of the artistic establishment. If Ben, Oscar, and Regina had been peculiar only to their story, the film might have been more successful. But Ben proclaims, "There are hundreds of Hubbards sitting in rooms like this, throughout the country. All their names aren't Hubbard, but they are all Hubbards and they will own this country someday." It is this ugly, unrelieved view of the much maligned merchant class that makes The Little Foxes so coldly admired.

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