Little Foxes, The (1941): William Wyler Directs Hellman’s Drama, Starring Bette Davis and Herbert Marshall

William Wyler’s screen version of The Little Foxes was based on Lillian Hellman’s 1939 stage play.

Hellman adapted her play, with her ex-husband Arthur Kober, Dorothy Parker and her husband Alan Campbell contributing additional scenes and dialogue.

Bette Davis assumed the lead role that Tallullah Bankhead had played with great success on Broadway, but was not considered a commercial marquee name.

Since The Little Foxes opened just a year before Orson Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons comparisons between the two films were inevitable. Surprisingly, some critics favored the Wyler film. For example, one critic wrote that Little Foxes dealt with similar themes but had more cumulative power than Magnificent Ambserons, though admitted that Wyler’s film lacked the tremendous talents that Welles demonstrated in his.

Significantly, the nasty viciousness in the Hellman’s work remained intact in the film version. Set at the same time as Magnificent Ambersons, around 1900, Hellman’s morality drama examines the corruption and greed of the Hubbards, a second-generation family, in the Old South.

Regina Giddens (Bette Davis), a shrewd businesswoman, schemes, first against her dying husband, then against her two brothers. “You’ll wreck the town,” charges Horace (Herbert Marshall) at his ambitious wife, “you’ll wreck the country, if they let you, you and your kind.” Trapped in a loveless marriage to submissive, sickly man, Regina retorts, “I’ve always had contempt for you.” “Why did you marry me” asks the helpless Horace. “I thought you’d get the world for me,” she replies, conveying her disillusionment with love and marriage.

At the end, Regina cold-bloodedly lets Horace die by refusing to hand him his medicine. As a result, she also loses her only daughter, Alexandra (Teresa Wright), whom she truly loves. Left alone, Regina is framed behind a window, imprisoned in her own house, as her daughter leaves with David, the son of the poor seamstress from the “wrong” side of the tracks.

Regina’s greedy and domineering matriarch stands in sharp opposition to Isabel’s submissive and sacrificing mother in Magnificent Ambersons. And Alexandra, the sensitive adolescent, stands in diametric opposition to selfish brat that George, Isabel’s son is.



Directed by William Wyler
Produced by Samuel Goldwyn
Screenplay by
Lillian Hellman
Based on
The Little Foxes
by Lillian Hellman
Music by Meredith Willson
Cinematography: Gregg Toland
Edited by Daniel Mandell
Production company Samuel Goldwyn Productions
Distributed by RKO Radio Pictures
Release date: August 29, 1941, after a premiere in New York City 0n August 20.
Running time: 115 minutes

Narrative Structure: How the Plot Unfolds

Southern aristocrat Regina Hubbard Giddens (Bette Davis) struggles for wealth and freedom within the confines of an early 20th-century society where a father considered only sons as legal heirs. As a result, her avaricious brothers, Benjamin (Charles Dingle) and Oscar (Carl Benton Reid), are independently wealthy, while she must rely for financial support upon her sickly husband Horace (Herbert Marshall), who has been away undergoing treatment for a severe heart condition.

Oscar, having married and maligned the sweet-souled, now hopelessly alcoholic Birdie (Patricia Collinge) to acquire her family’s plantation and its cotton fields, now wants to join forces with Benjamin to construct a cotton mill. They approach their sister with their need for an additional $75,000 to invest in the project. Oscar initially proposes a marriage between his son Leo (Dan Duryea) and Regina’s daughter Alexandra (Teresa Wright) – first cousins – as a means of getting Horace’s money; but Horace and Alexandra are repulsed by the suggestion. When Regina asks Horace outright for the money, he refuses. She tells him his refusal is not important since he will die soon and she is eagerly waiting for that day to come. Alexandra overhears the conversation and is distraught. She then comforts her father after Regina leaves the room.

Ben and Oscar, aware of Horace’s refusal, pressure Leo into stealing Horace’s railroad bonds from his personal security box at the bank to complete the sum needed to construct the mill. After returning home from an impromptu trip to his security box at the bank, Horace informs Regina of the theft of his bonds. Regina, realizing her two brothers stole the bonds through Leo, who works at the bank, schemes to acquire a larger share of the mill by blackmailing her brothers about their theft.

Horace states he is changing his will to leave Alexandra everything except the railroad bonds which, he will claim, he freely lent to Leo. This story will thwart any attempt by Regina to blackmail her brothers over their theft and will deny her any claim to an ownership stake in the mill. Alexandra is rescued from a larger misfortune, that of marrying the repugnant Leo, by Birdie, the only person able to do so, who wills herself the courage to tell the younger woman not to marry the wrong man (i.e. Leo), lest she bear the consequences for the rest of her life. Unfortunately, Oscar overhears part of the conversation and, after Alexandra is out of earshot, slaps Birdie hard.

Regina argues with Horace about her contempt for him; and, when he suffers a heart attack, she makes no effort to get him his medicine from upstairs. Horace climbs the stairs to get his medicine but collapses on the way up. The final scenes of the film involve a dying Horace surrounded by family, a doctor and servants who await the chance he may survive. Eventually, Horace dies, leaving no one to contradict Regina if she accuses her brothers of theft. She thus blackmails her brothers, demanding that she be given 75% ownership of the mill business, and they are left with no choice but to accept her demands.
Alexandra hears this conversation; and, upon the brothers’ leaving, she confronts her mother about the nature of her father’s death on the stairway. Regina denies any wrongdoing, but Alexandra is skeptical. Alexandra then states the importance of not idly watching people do evil, and Regina tells her daughter that she cannot do anything to stop her from leaving the household, while hoping that she stays. Alexandra runs away with newspaperman David (Richard Carlson). Regina is left wealthy, but completely alone.

Bette Davis as Regina Hubbard Giddens
Herbert Marshall as Horace Giddens
Teresa Wright as Alexandra Giddens
Richard Carlson as David Hewitt
Dan Duryea as Leo Hubbard
Patricia Collinge as Birdie Hubbard
Charles Dingle as Ben Hubbard
Carl Benton Reid as Oscar Hubbard
Jessica Grayson as Addie
John Marriott as Cal
Russell Hicks as William Marshall
Lucien Littlefield as Manders
Virginia Brissac as Mrs. Hewitt
Terry Nibert as Julia
Henry ‘Hot Shot’ Thomas as Harold
Charles R. Moore as Simon