The Little Foxes (film)

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The Little Foxes
Little foxes.jpg
Original poster
Directed by William Wyler
Produced by Samuel Goldwyn
Written by Lillian Hellman
Starring Bette Davis
Herbert Marshall
Teresa Wright
Music by Meredith Willson
Cinematography Gregg Toland
Edited by Daniel Mandell
Distributed by RKO Radio Pictures
Release dates
  • August 29, 1941 (1941-08-29) (U.S.)
  • August 20, 1941 (1941-08-20) (Premiere-New York City)[1]
Running time
115 minutes
Country United States
Language English

The Little Foxes (1941) is an American drama film directed by William Wyler. The screenplay by Lillian Hellman is based on her 1939 play of the same name. Hellman's ex-husband Arthur Kober, Dorothy Parker and her husband Alan Campbell contributed additional scenes and dialogue.[2]


The focus is on Southern aristocrat Regina Hubbard Giddens, who struggles for wealth and freedom within the confines of an early 20th-century society where a father considered only sons as legal heirs. As a result, her avaricious brothers Benjamin and Oscar are independently wealthy, while she must rely for financial support upon her sickly husband Horace, who has been away undergoing treatment for a severe heart condition.

Having married his much-maligned, alcoholic wife Birdie solely to acquire her family's plantation and its cotton fields, Oscar now wants to join forces with Benjamin to construct a cotton mill. They approach their sister with their need for an additional $75,000 to invest in the project. Oscar initially proposes a marriage between his son Leo and Regina's daughter Alexandra – first cousins – as a means of getting Horace's money, but Horace and Alexandra are repulsed by the suggestion. When Regina asks Horace outright for the money, he refuses. She tells him his refusal is not important since he will die soon and she is waiting for the day to come. Alexandra overhears the conversation.

Ben and Oscar, aware of Horace's refusal, pressure Leo into stealing Horace's railroad bonds from his personal security box at the bank to complete the sum needed to construct the mill. After returning home from an impromptu trip to his security box at the bank, Horace informs Regina of the theft of his bonds. Regina, realizing her two brothers stole the bonds through Leo who works at the bank, schemes to acquire a larger share of the mill by blackmailing her brothers about their theft. Immediately, Horace states he is changing his will to leave Alexandra everything except the railroad bonds which, he will claim he freely lent to Leo. This story will thwart any attempt by Regina to blackmail her brothers over their theft and will deny her any claim to an ownership stake in the mill.

Regina then argues with Horace about her contempt for him, and when he suffers a heart attack she makes no effort to get him his medicine from upstairs. Horace climbs the stairs to get his medicine but collapses on the way up. The final scenes of the film involve a dying Horace surrounded by family, a doctor and servants who await the chance he may survive. Eventually, Horace dies, leaving no one to contradict Regina if she accuses her brothers of theft. She thus blackmails her brothers, demanding that she be given 75% ownership of the mill business, and they are left with no choice but to accept her demand.

Alexandra hears this conversation and upon the brothers' leaving, confronts her mother about the nature of her father's death on the stairway. Alexandra states the importance of not idly watching people do evil, and Regina tells her daughter that she cannot do anything to stop her from leaving the household. Alexandra runs away with newspaperman David. Regina is left wealthy, but completely alone.


The title comes from Chapter 2, Verse 15 in the Song of Solomon in the King James version of the Bible, which reads, "Take us the foxes, the little foxes, that spoil the vines: for our vines have tender grapes."[3] The same passage also inspired the title of an unrelated film, Our Vines Have Tender Grapes.

Tallulah Bankhead had received critical acclaim for her performance in the 1939 Broadway production of Hellman's play, but director William Wyler, who previously had teamed with Bette Davis on Jezebel and The Letter, insisted on casting her in the lead role instead. Producer Samuel Goldwyn had no reason to argue, since none of Bankhead's films had been box office hits. (Coincidentally, Davis had recreated on film another of Bankhead's Broadway roles, Judith Traherne in Dark Victory.) Initially, Jack L. Warner refused to loan his star to Goldwyn, who then offered the role to Miriam Hopkins.[4] When Wyler refused to work with her, Goldwyn resumed negotiations with Warner and finally secured Davis for $385,000. As a contract player at Warner Bros., Davis was earning $3,000 dollars a week, and when she discovered how much Warner had received for her appearance in Foxes, she demanded and ultimately received a share of the payment.[3]

Wyler encouraged Davis to see Bankhead in the play, which she did despite major misgivings. She later regretted doing so because she felt compelled to create a totally different interpretation of the role, one not necessarily suiting the character. Bankead had portrayed Regina as a victim forced to fight for her survival due to the contempt with which her brothers treated her, but Davis played her as a cold, conniving, calculating woman wearing a death mask of white powder she insisted makeup artist Perc Westmore create for her.[4]

In her autobiography, A Lonely Life, Davis gave a different version about having to see Bankhead in the play. "A great admirer of hers, I wanted in no way to be influenced by her work. It was Willie's intention that I give a different interpretation of the part. I insisted that Tallulah had played it the only way it could be played. Miss Hellman's Regina was written with such definition that it could only be played one way."[5] Charles Dingle, Carl Benton Reid, Dan Duryea, and Patricia Collinge all reprised their critically acclaimed Broadway performances.

Herbert Marshall, Teresa Wright, and Bette Davis

The character of David Hewitt was not in the original play. Hellman created him to add a second sympathetic male to stand alongside Horace among all the venomous Hubbard men.

Davis and Wyler frequently fought during filming, about everything from her appearance (Wyler thought she looked like a Kabuki performer) to the set design (which Davis thought was far too opulent for a family supposedly struggling financially) to her interpretation of the role (Wyler wanted a softer, more sympathetic Regina). Davis had yielded to Wyler's demands during production of The Letter, but this time she held her ground. Not helping the situation was the fact Los Angeles was experiencing its worst heat wave in years, and the temperature on the soundstages regularly rose above 100 degrees. Davis finally walked off the picture. "It was the only time in my career that I walked out on a film after the shooting had begun," she later recalled. "I was a nervous wreck due to the fact that my favorite and most admired director was fighting me every inch of the way ... I just didn't want to continue."[3] The actress retreated to her rented house in Laguna Beach and "flatly refused to come back to work. It took a little courage, to say the least. Goldwyn had it in his power to sue me for the entire cost of the production."[3] A week later she returned to the set after rumors she would be replaced by Katharine Hepburn or Miriam Hopkins began to circulate, although Goldwyn was not about to bear the expense of scrapping all the footage with Davis and refilming the scenes with a new actress.[4] Even though the film was a critical and commercial success and nominated for nine Academy Awards, she and Wyler never worked together again.[2][3][4]

The film premiered at Radio City Music Hall in New York City. The New York Times reported it was seen by 22,163 persons on its opening day, setting what was then an all-time attendance mark for a normal opening day at the theatre.[6]

In 1946, Hellman wrote the play Another Part of the Forest, a prequel to Foxes. It was adapted for the screen in 1948.

In 2003, the character of Regina Giddens, played by Davis, was ranked #43 on the American Film Institute list of the 50 Best Villains of American Cinema.


Critical reception[edit]

In his review in The New York Times, Bosley Crowther observed,

Lillian Hellman's grim and malignant melodrama ... has now been translated to the screen with all its original viciousness intact and with such extra-added virulence as the relentless camera of Director William Wyler and the tensile acting of Bette Davis could impart ... [It] leaps to the front as the most bitingly sinister picture of the year and as one of the most cruelly realistic character studies yet shown on the screen ... The test of the picture is the effectiveness with which it exposes a family of evil people poisoning everything they touch... Mr. Wyler, with the aid of Gregg Toland, has used the camera to sweep in the myriad small details of a mauve decadent household and the more indicative facets of the many characters. The focus is sharp, the texture of the images hard and realistic. Individual scenes are extraordinarily vivid and compelling ... The Little Foxes will not increase your admiration for mankind. It is cold and cynical. But it is a very exciting picture to watch in a comfortably objective way, especially if you enjoy expert stabbing-in-the-back.[7]

Variety said,

From starring Bette Davis down the line to the bit roles portrayed by minor Negroes the acting is well nigh flawless ... Marshall turns in one of his top performances ... On top of the smooth pace, Wyler has handled every detail with an acutely dramatic touch.[8]

Time Out London said,

Lillian Hellman's play ... now creaks audibly. But you are unlikely ever to see a better version than this, caressed by Gregg Toland's deep focus camerawork, embalmed by Wyler's direction and Goldwyn's sumptuous production values, galvanised by some superlative performances. The sulphurous Davis, her face a livid mask as she dispenses icy venom behind feline purrs, outdoes herself to provide the proceedings with a regally vicious centre.[9]

The New York Herald Tribune said, "A fine play has become a far finer film. The language of the screen has never proved more eloquent, moving, and dramatic."

Box Office[edit]

The film was popular at the box office but because of the favourable terms Sam Goldwyn enjoyed with distributor RKO, RKO recorded a loss of $140,000 on the film.[10]




  1. ^ "The Little Foxes: Detail View". American Film Institute. Retrieved April 13, 2014. 
  2. ^ a b Landazuri, Margarita. "Article: The Little Foxes." Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved: August 20, 2012.
  3. ^ a b c d e Stine and Davis 1974, pp. 148–153.
  4. ^ a b c d Higham 1981, pp. 211–212.
  5. ^ Davis 1962, p. 207.
  6. ^ "Film record set by 'Little Foxes'; 22,163 Persons Saw Movie at Music Hall on Thursday, a New Opening Day Mark." The New York Times, August 22, 1941.
  7. ^ Crowther, Bosley. "The Little Foxes (1941): 'The Little Foxes,' Full of Evil, Reaches the Screen of the Music Hall." The New York Times, August 22, 1941.
  8. ^ "Review: The Little Foxes." Variety, August 22, 1941.
  9. ^ T.M. "Review: The Little Foxes." Time Out London. Retrieved: August 20, 2012.
  10. ^ Jewell 2012, p. 254.


  • Davis, Bette. The Lonely Life: An Autobiography. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1962.
  • Higham, Charles. The Life of Bette Davis. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1981. ISBN 0-02-551500-4.
  • Jewell, Richard B. RKO Radio Pictures: A Titan is Born. Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 2012. ISBN 978-0-52027-179-1.
  • Stine, Whitney, and Bette Davis. Mother Goddam: The Story of the Career of Bette Davis. New York: Hawthorn Books, 1974. ISBN 0-8015-5184-6.

External links[edit]