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The Little Foxes is yet another one of Wyler’s masterpieces, and very different in terms of plotline and directorial approach from Wuthering Heights. Wuthering Heights was required to show the majesty and emptiness of Yorkshire moors, and the imposing mansions of Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange. The Little Foxes was the adaptation of an already successful Broadway play by Lillian Hellman, and is almost entirely set in the house of one Southern lady. Wuthering Heights brought a sweeping novel to life; The Little Foxes bought a cloistered play to fulfillment.
The Little Foxes concerns a conflict-ridden southern family whose members are mostly motivated by purely selfish motives. The family consists of Regina Giddens and her two brothers Ben and Oscar Hubbard; they live in adjacent houses. They are concluding a business deal with a Northerner to open a cotton mill in Tennessee. The deal cannot be finalized without financial assistance from Regina’s husband, Horace Giddens, who is sick of the rapacious ways of his wife and her brothers. He gets his way, but in a twist of fate turning on his deteriorating health, so does his wife.
Betty Davis (a great actress of her time, she won a Best Actress Oscar for her role in Jezebel, also directed by Wyler) plays Regina, and much of the controversy surrounding the movie consisted in the battle between Wyler and Davis over the interpretation of her role. According to Wyler’s biographers, Davis wanted to play Regina as a selfish bitch with no kindness in her. Wyler wanted Regina’s role to have shades of charm, love and sensuality. In Wyler’s words “I felt Regina should be amusing, worldly, very attractive, very appealing to an audience. Bette wanted her to be a cold, icy villainess.” Ultimately Davis played the role her way, but it soured, perhaps for ever, her relationship with Wyler.
The Little Foxes is a classic example of how a play can be successfully adapted into a movie. The play mainly takes place in Regina’s living room and bedroom. Wyler, noticing the spatial limitations, organizes the movie around the spiral staircase in Regina’s house. In most of the emotive scenes, Regina talks from the top of the staircase to the people below, thus symbolically emphasizing her superiority in the conversations. The most powerful scene of the movie is also staged around the staircase. Horace is seen climbing the stairs, tottering with exhaustion and feeling the beginning of a heart attack. He cries out for help to Regina who remains frozen in her chair in the living room downstairs. As Horace is desperately negotiating the staircase to get his medicine, the camera fuzzes his movements in the background and pans to Regina’s face in the foreground. Davis plays the moment to perfection, her face registering a mixture of fear, anticipation and cruelty.
Wyler added a few outdoor scenes to the original play and also introduced a budding romance between Regina’s daughter, Alexandra Giddens and David Hewitt, a newspaper reporter who hates the Giddens family. Wyler also injected a touch of humor in one scene by having David rush after Alexandra wearing only a bowler hat and night clothes. But Wyler’s genius lay in making the indoor scenes as dramatic as the best Hollywood thriller, while remaining true to the theatrical origins of the movie.
Andre Bazin said of the movie “There is a hundred times more cinema, and better cinema at that, in one fixed shot in The Little Foxes than in all the exterior traveling shots, in all the natural settings, in all the geographical exoticism, in all the shots of the reverse side of the set, by means of which up to now the screen has ingenuously attempted to make us forget the stage.”
– Nigam Nuggehalli