Tuesday, April 28, 2009

The Little Foxes

"The Little Foxes" (William Wyler, 1941) This is a good one (and thanks go to MGM's "This TV" network for digging it up)-a "feel bad" play as only Lillian Hellman could cook it up (adapted by her for the screenplay and aided by Hellman cronies and Dorothy Parker), it is basically the play as staged in 1939, featuring the same cast with four notable exceptions: Teresa Wright (her first film) as ingenue Alexandra Giddens, Richard Carlson as a potential beau and a playing-field-evening "good" man, Herbert Marshall as the sickly father Horace Giddens, and as the bitch-mother from Hell, Bette Davis. She's the only female in the avaricious Hubbard clan in the turn of the century South, where every thought and relationship is geared towards more wealth and power. There is some good among the vipers but all subject to being poisoned by the venom--Aunt Birdie (Patricia Collinge), married for her land and now abused and alcoholic, daughter Alexandra who has managed to survive with a conscience, Horace, the weak, dying father who has escaped to save his life and whose fortune the plot revolves around, and the servants, symbols of the subjugation in which the Hubbards hold their world.

The scenes of Carlson and Wright are designed to bring a ray of hope to this clutch of venal graspers, and a way out for the vulnerable Alexandra, whose life could be ground in the gears of the Hubbards' plan, just as surely as if she was the cotton in the very mill they're trying to finance illegally. It brings more of a balance to the play where she and the saintly (but weak) Horace are the only trace of decency with power.

And the credits are staggering: Hellman would later scratch out preachy screeds, but she's at the heighth of her gifts here (with the levening of Parker,
Arthur Kober, and Alan Campbell). William Wyler's direction is never, ever natural, but very inventively staged, and he's aided by one of the most innovative and creative of cinematographers Gregg Toland, the two men bringing out the best in each other (and the score is provided by Meredith Willson, creator of "The Music Man"). This would be the last collaboration between Wyler and his star of choice, Bette Davis—the two had a falling out during this film. Not that you can tell, Wyler is Davis' best co-conspirator, designing shots that evoke her mood and thinking. In a pivotal scene, he keeps Davis in close-up while dramatic events are happening behind her, her head swivelling in the exact opposite way from where the events are occurring, like she's watching with eyes in the back of her head. It's already an eerie, black-hearted scene, but Wyler keeps the focus on Davis' Regina Hubbard (literally, this is one shot where the background is out of focus) in her deliberate sins of omission, making the scene extremely theatrical, while exploiting the virtues of the cinema.

You don't hear about this movie much—it's barely mentioned at
the official Wyler web-site. But it's a must-see, as a lesson in filming a play effectively, in a superb presentation, and with top-notch performances perfected on-stage and buffered for the screen.

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