William Wyler’s The Little Foxes, based on Lillian Hellman’s stage play, examines the corruption and greed of a wealthy Southern family at the turn of the 20th century. The film focuses on shrewd businesswoman Regina Giddens (Bette Davis) and her equally greedy brothers, Ben (Charles Dingle) and Oscar (Carl Benton Reid). Regina and her siblings get word that an enterprising industrialist is planning on building a cotton mill in the family’s hometown. Regina and her brothers want to get in on the lucrative endeavor, but they need money from Regina’s husband, Horace (Herbert Marshall). The only problem is that Horace, who is a dying, yet ethical man, is holding out on giving Regina any money since he believes the mill will ruin the town and exploit the poor. Regina could care less if her husband lives or dies. She is only interested in her own financial security. Oscar and Ben go behind Regina’s back and enlist Oscar’s smarmy son, Leo (Dan Duryea) to steal the dying Horace’s bonds from the bank. Eventually all hell breaks loose as Regina schemes against her deceitful brothers and then refuses to give medicine to her husband as he dies in front of her.
The film belongs to Davis as the icy villainess. Davis is high on melodrama in nearly every scene and she’s a lot of fun to watch as the cool and calculating matriach who manipulates everyone in her path. As with any good morality tale, the villian gets her come uppance and good eventually triumphs over evil. The film is beautifully filmed by Gregg Toland and the witty, biting script was adapted from the stage by Lillian Hellman herself.
The Little Foxes was nominated for nine Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director (Wyler), Best Screenplay (Hellman), Best Film Editing, Best Score and Best Art Direction. Three women came away with Academy Award nominations for their roles in the film. The first was Bette Davis as Best Actress for her work as Regina Giddens. The other two nominees were nominated for their supporting turns. Teresa Wright, nominee, (162), received a Best Supporting Actress nomination for her role as Alexandra, Regina’s sweet and virtuous daughter. Alexandra begins the film as a naive and silly young girl, but once she sees what her mother is capable of, she discovers her inner strength and spirit and she’s able to stand up to her monstrous mother. This was Wright’s film debut and her first Academy Award nomination. She would later go on to score a second nomination (and eventually win) in the same category one year later for her role as yet another daughter- this time in Mrs. Miniver. The second actress to receive Academy Award attention was Patricia Collinge, nominee, (161) for her role as Birdie Hubbard, Oscar’s physically-abused, alcoholic wife. Collinge’s Birdie is extremely sympathetic. She is one of the few beacons of goodness in the entire Giddens-Hubbard family tree. Birdie’s monologue about growing up and seeing her husband for the first time is exceptional. Collinge and Wright, though incredible in their respective roles, lost the Best Supporting Actress Oscar to Mary Astor in The Great Lie.