Saturday, February 24, 2007

THE LITTLE FOXES (Samuel Goldwyn 1941) MGM Home Video

The Little Foxes (1941) put a period to a rather tempestuous alliance between director William Wyler and Warner's 'fifth brother', Bette Davis. The two had begun their association as respectful collaborators on the set of Jezebel (1938). By the time that film wrapped, Davis and Wyler had become lovers; an on again/off again affair that lasted out their working together again on Somerset Maugham's The Letter (1940). But by the time Davis stood before the cameras to immortalize this play by Lillian Hellman, she and Wyler were quite simply at each other’s throats. In hindsight, the fireworks behind the scenes augmented Davis’ unrelentingly bitter performance as Regina Giddens, the ruthless matriarch of an unscrupulous Southern family of backstabbers.

The screenplay by Hellman, Dorothy Parker, Arthur Kober and Alan Campbell opens with a bittersweet coup. Regina's elder brother, Oscar (Carl Benton Reid) has entered into a loveless marriage with Birdie Hubbard (Patricia Collinge), an emotionally fragile creature with an alcohol problem, simply to inherit a portion of her family's plantation and cotton fields. 

Oscar's plan all along has been to enrich his own family's dwindling coffers by now entering into an alliance with his elder brother, Ben (Charles Dingle) to build a cotton mill that will restore the family's reputation to prominence. In this shuffle, Oscar has all but discarded his wife. Having realized the error in her marriage too late, Birdie gently tries to advise her niece, Alexandra (Teresa Wright) against a similar fate being perpetrated on the unsuspecting girl by no less than her own mother, Regina (Bette Davis).  

Once proud and prosperous, Regina’s determination to be flush with riches once again spurs her to plot the financial ruin of her two brothers, while orchestrating a forced romance between Alexandra and devious first cousin, Leo (Dan Duryea), Oscar's son. Such a marriage would surely afford Leo - and more indirectly Regina and Oscar - access to Alexandra's paternal inheritance.

Alexandra, however, is infatuated with David Hewitt (Richard Carlson); an impertinent telegram operator who immeasurably enjoys goading Alexandra to wild distraction. Like Birdie, however, David really only has Alexandra's best interests at heart.  

The bond Alexandra shares with her ailing father, Horace (Herbert Marshall) is a special one. He has always loved her and been protective of her, respecting Regina's wishes in Alexandra's upbringing, though ever cautious of the negative influences she may exude. Yet, despite Regina's obvious affects, Alexandra has remained unspoiled and true to her own heart. Regrettably, this admirable innocence is not to last.

Regina asks Horace outright for his money but he refuses.  Her next course of action is to align her deceptions with Oscar - both convincing the rather dimwitted Leo, a bank clerk, to steal Horace's railroad bonds from his safety deposit box. Discovering this plan afoot, Horace summons Regina to the parlor and informs her that he has decided to change his will. Alexandra will inherit everything. Furthermore, he will give Leo the bonds, thereby cutting her out of Oscar and Ben's cotton deal entirely. However, before Horace can solidify these plans he suffers a fatal heart attack as Regina looks on, quietly refusing him the medication that might save his life.

A grieving Alexandra remains oblivious to her mother's treachery. Regina now turns her attentions to blackmailing Oscar and Ben. She will have Leo arrested for stealing her late husband's bonds unless both brothers agree to give her seventy-five percent ownership in their mills. With little recourse, Oscar and Ben reluctantly agree. But their acquiescence comes at a terrible price for Regina. 

Having at long last awoken to the evil that Regina has perpetrated upon the entire family, Alexandra confronts her mother. She denounces Regina and tells her she will never be a party to her devious ways again.  David comes to take Alexandra away, leaving Regina the heir of the Giddens' estate, but thoroughly isolated in this resplendent cage she has constructed for herself.

The Little Foxes is a magnificent, if sadly underrated classic in Bette Davis' canon of film work. Davis is chilling as the intellectually scheming, morally repugnant, yet utterly charming - at least on the surface - enterprising matriarch. In later years, William Wyler would go on record with his own disappointment about Davis' performance, that he believed lacked heart. To be certain, Davis’ Regina Giddens is a spider woman with no redemption. She is both self serving and wholly unsympathetic, existing in a sort of soulless vacuum of her own design.

That said, there are few actresses of any vintage, including Davis' own, who could present so malignant a creature so compellingly on the screen and still make her magnetic to an audience. When Davis' Regina Giddens appears in a scene, nothing and no one else matters.  Like the rest of the clan, we as the audience, are brought to heel in shock and awe and perhaps even tremble at this demonic creation who will stop at nothing to achieve her own desires. 

The film's themes of innocence lost and regained are well established in both Teresa Wright and Herbert Marshall's tender and understated performances, and to a lesser extent, through Birdie's flawed attempts to intervene on Alexandra's behalf while living in constant fear of her own husband. 

But The Little Foxes is also a superb drawing room melodrama, painstakingly paced by Wyler. As seen through master cinematographer, Gregg Toland's deep focus lens, the omnipotent darkness and decay of this forgotten southern family is affectionately recaptured with rather sumptuous accoutrements. These extol and exaggerate the Giddons' dead family legacy, best exemplified through Stephen Goosson's sublimely cluttered Art Direction and Howard Bristol's equally claustrophobic Set Decoration.  In the final analysis, everything works in service of the story and the result is a disturbingly vial, multifaceted movie that will likely endure for many good years yet to come.  

MGM Home Video’s DVD is rather disappointing. Despite a refined gray scale with solid deep blacks and very clean whites with minimal age related artifacts, the entire image is marred by a relatively high concentration of digital anomalies; edge enhancement, shimmering of fine details and pixelization - all of them quite distracting. One hopes to someday see this film properly remastered for Blu-ray. It certainly deserves better visually than what it has received! 
The audio has been rather awkwardly re-channeled by Chace Audio to produce a pseudo-stereo effect that predictably exhibits all the limitations in fidelity one would expect. This is primarily a dialogue driven narrative. The original mono, also included on this disc, will therefore do quite nicely. A theatrical trailer that appears as though it were fed through a meat grinder is the only extra included.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)


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