Saturday, August 20, 2011

 

“Then, too, one loses today and wins tomorrow…”


By Ivan G. Shreve, Jr.
Playwright Lillian Hellman was inspired to exploit the lifelong rancorous discord between her father’s family (the Hellmans) and mother’s clan (the Marxes) as the basis for her play The Little Foxes, which premiered at the National Theatre on Feb. 15, 1939, and soon became a certified smash, running for more than 400 performances. Foxes, which focuses on the tale of a despicably powerful and wealthy Southern family, starred the legendary Tallulah Bankhead in the role of Regina Giddens…and if Bankhead’s box office performance at that time hadn’t been so abysmal, she might have reprised the part in the 1941 film adaptation, produced by Samuel Goldwyn and directed by William Wyler in their penultimate collaboration. Instead, Wyler elected to use Bette Davis, with whom he had worked previously in Jezebel (1938) and The Letter (1940)…and Davis was certainly not unaccustomed to “aping” Tallulah’s work, having also starred in 1939’s Dark Victory (in the role that Talloo also had played on stage). Foxes may have been a stage triumph for the redoubtable Miss Bankhead, but 70 years ago on this date the film version of the play put more than 20,000 people in theater seats at Radio City Music Hall (according to The New York Times, breaking then-existing attendance records) and allowed them to witness one of Bette Davis’ greatest turns in her magnificent movie career.


The title of Hellman’s work is culled from a biblical verse (Song of Solomon 2:15): “Take us the foxes, the little foxes, that spoil the vines: for our vines have tender grapes.” (I bet you could get a novel and movie out of that last part, too.) The “foxes” are the Hubbard family, a moneyed old-South clan at the turn of the 20th century, who’ve earned their fortunes through unprincipled venality. Oscar Hubbard (Carl Benton Reid), the son of a mercantilist (who capitalized on the misfortunes of those affected by the Civil War), married his dipsomaniac wife Birdie (Patricia Collinge) to gain possession of her family’s cotton plantation and through her sired a loutish son (Dan Duryea) that answers to “Leo.” Older brother Benjamin Hubbard (Charles Dingle) is a confirmed bachelor, so he gets a pass on the “bringing-more-Hubbards-into-the-world” precept, but he’s every bit as cold-blooded as Oscar…only he’s able to conceal it with a smile and a certain sebaceous charm. The lone female Hubbard is Regina Giddens (Davis), who because of her gender was overlooked in her father’s will (the custom of the time) — she compensated for this by marrying Horace Giddens (Herbert Marshall), a bank clerk who later started his own firm (the Planters Trust) and, while not as independently flush with cash as the Brothers Hubbard, manages to decently provide for his wife and daughter Alexandra (Teresa Wright).

Oscar and Benjamin invite businessman William Marshall (Russell Hicks) to Regina’s home ostensibly for dinner and “Southern hospitality” but also to cement a deal that will establish a cotton mill in their small Alabama town. Ben and Oscar want Regina in on the deal (in order to keep the business in the family and free from outside interference) but before Regina comes across with the $75,000 investment she angles for a larger percentage (40 percent instead of 33 and 1/3) for her and Horace, knowing that their participation is integral to the arrangement. The brothers reluctantly agree and Regina arranges for her daughter “Xand” to travel to Baltimore and bring back Horace, who has been seeking medical treatment for a heart condition. (Regina and Horace are estranged, but she knows he cannot refuse a request from his beloved Alexandra.)

Horace and Alexandra are forced to spend a night in Mobile before completing the last leg of their journey, and it is here that the audience learns that despite Horace’s necessary absences, it is he who has exerted the positive influence on Alexandra, particularly when he shames her into apologizing to a woman that she’s insulted, a female with “powder on her nose” who was in the company of Xand’s boyfriend, newspaperman David Hewitt (Richard Carlson). Father and daughter arrive home and Horace is fussed and clucked over by Regina and her brothers; they soon reveal their ulterior motive after being pressed by Horace, who tells the Hubbards that he’ll need time to consider the offer.

Disgusted by the family and their unscrupulous business methods (the cotton mill will be staffed by underpaid labor and fueled by public water obtained by buying off the governor); Horace declares he’ll have no part of Project Hubbard. So Ben, Oscar and Leo revert to Plan B — Leo, an employee at Horace’s bank, has knowledge that Horace is keeping $90,000 in railroad bonds in his rarely checked safety deposit box…and it takes very little effort to pressure Leo into swiping the bonds to complete the cotton mill transaction. Horace, during an excursion to the bank to examine his will with the purpose of making changes to the document, soon discovers that he’s a little light in the bonds department and informs Regina of the theft.

Armed with this information, Regina schemes to blackmail Ben and Oscar into giving her a larger share of the proposed cotton mill, but Horace has other plans: he’s going to have his will changed so that Xand will inherit every bit of his estate except for the bonds — which he will state in a codicil he gave to Leo as a loan. Furious that all she will reap from the mill deal is the initial $75,000, Regina sits motionless when Horace succumbs to a heart attack on the stairway after not being able to get to his medication in time. He later dies, and Regina maneuvers her brothers into agreeing to cede her a 75 percent share in their business venture. However, as another biblical verse (Mark 8:36) reminds us: “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” — Regina will become an immensely wealthy woman but she also will be completely alone, since Xand has announced her intention to leave her mother's household and never return.

Depending on whose version you subscribe as to who was responsible — Wyler’s or Davis’ — the film version of The Little Foxes’ Regina Giddens was radically different from the interpretation offered by Tallulah Bankhead in the original play. On stage, Bankhead played Regina as a sympathetic survivor, forced to use whatever means necessary to compensate being both a woman and on the receiving end of her brothers’ contempt. It was decided that in an effort not to mimic Bankhead (again, both Willy and Bette claim it was the other’s idea) Davis would take an entirely different approach: her Regina was as a cruel and pitiless schemer sporting a powder-white death mask that the actress asked makeup artist Perc Westmore to create specifically for the character. (Wyler hated the effect; he thought she looked as if she had drifted in from a Kabuki play.) Apparently the “three-strikes-you’re-out” rule also works in cinema because even though the tempestuous actress and authoritarian director had been able to iron out their differences on Jezebel and The Letter, their squabbles on Foxes (for example, they clashed over the set décor — Davis thought the Giddens house a tad opulent for a family that was supposed to be struggling financially) finally reached a boiling point (the fact that L.A. was in the throes of a heat wave didn’t help matters much either) and Davis walked off the set, the first time she had done so in her career. Bette was lured back when rumors that she would be replaced began to circulate (which is surprising, since it seemed highly unlikely producer Goldwyn would take a bath scrapping the already-shot footage…and one of the actresses named, Miriam Hopkins, was thumbed down by Wyler before production on the film even began) and she finished the picture. The Little Foxes was nominated for nine Academy Awards (including Wyler as best director and Davis as best actress) but this did little to stop the hemorrhage — the duo never worked together again. (Which is a shame in light of the fact that Willy's direction of Bette in Jezebel won Davis her second best actress Oscar and kicked off a streak of five consecutive best actress Academy Award nominations with Wyler responsible for three of them.)
When I first got a gander at Bette Davis as Regina Giddens, my first reaction was nothing short of a startled gasp…but with the passage of time, I’ve become more and more supportive of her interpretation of the role. I don’t think soft and sympathetic would have worked for the character, particularly in the now-famous scene where husband Horace, having accidentally dropped and broken a bottle of his heart medication, pleads with his callous wife to go and get the spare he keeps in his upstairs room. Regina sits in her chair completely frozen and stationery, watching ol’ Hor struggle in excruciating pain, and it’s not until he snuffs it on the stairwell that she decides to call for help. I’m not sure a more sympathetic Regina would have remained stock-still and allowed that to happen…and Davis’ ghastly white makeup and immobile demeanor is incredibly effective. This scene alone probably got Davis’ Giddens on the list (at #43) of the American Film Institute’s 50 Best Villains of American Cinema.

William Wyler (whose reputation as a perfectionist earned him the nickname “90-Take Wyler”) was the most nominated director in the history of the Academy Awards with 12 (stretching from 1936-1965, winning three), and The Little Foxes provides prima facie evidence why this was so. His breakup with Davis notwithstanding, he’s able to coax incredible performances out of the movie’s cast…which works to the film’s advantage, seeing as how the plot creaks a bit and hasn’t aged as well as it ought. The biggest surprise in Foxes is Herbert Marshall, who’s able to hold his own against the formidable Davis; watching him handle her Regina (I love his line about “finally tying her hands”) is a joy to behold, and you sort of get the feeling that were it not for his weakened condition, he’d definitely be ruling the roost in that household more often. (Contrast this with frequent Davis co-star/doormat George Brent — I get the feeling that even if doctors were to give Brent’s Horace a clean bill of health, she’d still have him for breakfast.)

Wyler also was fortunate to poach four of the thespians who had appeared in the original stage production of The Little Foxes: Charles Dingle, Carl Benton Reid, Dan Duryea and Patricia Collinge…all reprising their stage roles. Of these four, only Dingle had appeared in films before, and though he’d often play courtly Southern scoundrels in films before and after he was actually a native Hoosier. His Benjamin Hubbard is a comically sinister presence — a man who meets adversity and setbacks with a chuckle and pithy adages like “Cynicism is an unpleasant way of telling the truth.” Duryea always has been a favorite at my home stomping grounds of Thrilling Days of Yesteryear (he’s one of the silver screen’s most delectable villains) and he makes an amazing film debut as the yardstick by which yobbos are measured (watch him dine with his family in the opening breakfast scene or the bit where he steps on his mother’s dress and you’ll understand what I mean). In 1946, Lillian Hellman wrote a “prequel” to Foxes entitled Another Part of the Forest…and when that property was brought to the silver screen in 1948, Duryea was the only cast member in the 1941 film to grace this version, playing the part of a young Oscar Hubbard.

But the performer who makes the lasting impression in Foxes is Collinge, whose giddy, talkative Birdie is constantly (and unjustly) squashed and belittled by most of the characters in the film; the scene where she admits to Alexandra that her history of “headaches” is just fiction and that she actually suffers from alcoholism will literally tear your heart out. Her lovely rapport with Teresa Wright (also a newcomer) is nothing short of exquisite (there’s an incredible scene where Birdie begs Xand not to even consider marrying her hated son Leo, and then she must lie when she’s slapped by her abusive husband by telling Xand she’s twisted her ankle); they act like mother and daughter even though they’re merely aunt and niece…and you can’t tell me Alfred Hitchcock didn’t notice this when he cast the two actresses as the real deal in Shadow of a Doubt (1943). (Both Collinge and Wright justly received best supporting actress Oscar nominations.) The only actor who comes up short in Foxes is Richard Carlson, who plays the part of Alexandra’s would-be paramour David. Carlson was a competent if unremarkable B-movie presence who just has difficulty keeping up with this first-rate cast. In his defense, if his character of the newspaperman feels as if it were grafted onto the movie it's because it was: Hellman added him to the screenplay in order to provide another sympathetic male presence (and moral conscience) for Alexandra amidst the nest of vipers known as the Hubbard tribe.

In his review of The Little Foxes for The New York Times, critic Bosley Crowther observed: “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.” Again, even though many of the film’s elements are a bit musty and fusty it’s still a treat to sit back and watch a disturbing morality tale of people who in the final analysis are just no damn good. Standing front and center is that amazing performance by Bette Davis as the cold and calculating Regina Giddens; a woman whom you just know has to be icy to the touch…but having been brought up in that dysfunctional household (you’ll need to watch Another Part of the Forest as a companion piece…and good luck tracking it down) it’s not too hard to understand why. The conclusion of Foxes seems to hint at a forlorn future for that magnificent screen villainess — but the cynic in me (and you remember what brother Ben said about cynicism) believes that Regina won’t suffer too long without companionship before the news of her good fortune spreads like wildfire outside that insular little town. As she tells Horace at one point in the movie: “I'm lucky, Horace…I've always been lucky…I'll be lucky again…”

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Comments:
I've only seen one stage production: A Broadway revival in the 1990s with Stockard Channing as Regina and I really can't imagine any sympathetic way to play the part. The revival was so-so, but the set was so beautiful that at intermission (It was at Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont, so no curtain), I actually left my seat to go up to the stage to get a closer look. I wanted to move into that set. All that intricately designed mahogany fixtures. Maybe it was too ornate for the struggling family, but damn it was gorgeous.
 
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