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The collaboration between director William Wyler and actress Bette Davis produced three memorable films: Jezebel (1938), which won Davis her second Academy Award; The Letter (1940), and The Little Foxes (1941), both of which earned Oscar nominations for film, star, and director. The creative tensions which drove the partnership and worked so well during Jezebel were tested during The Letter, and finally exploded during The Little Foxes.
Lillian Hellman's 1939 play of a Southern family destroyed by greed had been a Broadway hit starring Tallulah Bankhead. When Samuel Goldwyn bought the film rights to The Little Foxes, Bankhead hoped to recreate the role of Regina Giddens, the greediest and most monstrous of the three siblings, in the film. But director William Wyler wanted no one but Bette Davis, and Goldwyn agreed. After all, Bankhead had made several films in the early 1930's, and they had not been successful. To add insult to injury, Davis had starred in the film version of another of Bankhead's Broadway hits, Dark Victory (1939). So when she found herself at a party with Davis, Bankhead saw her chance. She approached Davis and said, "So you're the woman who gets to play all my parts in the movies. And I play them so much better!"
"I couldn't agree more, Miss Bankhead," Davis claimed she replied, walking away. In fact, Davis had seen Bankhead's stage performance in The Little Foxes reluctantly, afraid it would influence her portrayal. After seeing it, and reading Hellman's play and screenplay, Davis came away convinced that Bankhead's interpretation was the only possible way to play the role. Her conviction would lead to epic battles with her director.
Before Davis could sink her teeth into the role of Regina, however, she flexed her considerable star power. Goldwyn had offered Jack Warner $385,000 for the loan of his most valuable star, Davis. Yet Davis herself was only earning $3,000 dollars a week. Davis reportedly marched into Warner's office and told him he would not pull any "David O. Selznick pocket-the-money-and-pay-the-star-a-pittance" stuff with her. She demanded a share of the $385,000. Eventually, she got it.
Davis also got a top-flight production from Goldwyn. Besides Wyler as director, she got a script by Lillian Hellman herself. And when Hellman had to leave the project to go into rehearsals with her play, Watch on the Rhine (1941), Goldwyn hired Hellman's ex-husband Arthur Kober, Hellman's close friend Dorothy Parker, and Parker's husband Alan Campbell to do more work on The Little Foxes script. Goldwyn also hired Davis' The Letter co-star Herbert Marshall to play her husband, and talented newcomer Teresa Wright to play her daughter, along with several members of the original Broadway cast for the film version of The Little Foxes. Cinematographer, Gregg Toland, fresh from his innovative work in Citizen Kane (1941), contributed his striking deep-focus photography.
Production on The Little Foxes got underway, and so did the fights between Davis and Wyler. Both Wyler and Goldwyn hated Davis' harsh rice-powder makeup, which they said made her look old. That's the point, she insisted, she was playing a woman in her forties. Davis thought the sets and costumes were too rich looking; she felt they should be shabbier. Davis was playing Regina as hard, cold, arrogant, ruthless. Wyler wanted her to soften the character, to show wit and sexiness. Davis refused, saying that she was playing the part as Hellman had written it. During the making of their previous film together, The Letter, star and director had also clashed on interpretation. Davis had yielded, but she was still convinced she'd been right. This time, she remained adamant. Their fights were angry, loud, bitter. The tension was exacerbated by a heat wave that put the temperature on the set at over 100 degrees. Davis finally snapped, and walked off the set and off the picture. Rumors flew that she would be replaced by Katharine Hepburn, or by the Southern-born Miriam Hopkins, who coveted the role. Eventually Davis returned, and when The Little Foxes opened to universal raves, she was vindicated. The film was nominated for eight Academy Awards. Even Lillian Hellman would say that this version of The Little Foxes was the best. But Davis' victory was bittersweet. Wyler, her favorite director, never again asked her to be in one of his films.
Director: William Wyler
Producer: Samuel Goldwyn
Screenplay: Lillian Hellman, with additional scenes & dialogue by Arthur Kober, Dorothy Parker, and Alan Campbell, based on the play by Lillian Hellman
Cinematography: Gregg Toland
Editor: Daniel Mandell
Costume Design: Orry-Kelly
Art Direction: Stephen Goosson
Music: Meredith Willson
Principal Cast: Bette Davis (Regina Giddens), Herbert Marshall (Horace Giddens), Teresa Wright (Alexandra Giddens), Richard Carlson (David Hewitt), Dan Duryea (Leo Hubbard), Patricia Collinge (Birdie Hubbard), Charles Dingle (Ben Hubbard), Carl Benton Reid (Oscar Hubbard).
BW-117m. Closed captioning.
by Margarita Landazuri