The Little Foxes

The Little Foxes, 1941, RKO Radio Pictures. Starring Bette Davis, Herbert Marshall. Co-starring Teresa Wright, Patricia Collinge. Directed by William Wyler. B&W, 116 minutes

One evening in the Deep South of 1900, the Hubbard family anticipates dinner with a leading businessman, William Marshall (Russell Hicks), from Chicago. The Hubbard brothers, Oscar (Carl Benton Reid) and Ben (Charles Dingle), and their sister Regina Hubbard Gibbons (Bette Davis), hope to persuade the man to build a cotton mill in their town. The Hubbards are prominent locally, largely because of the wealth their father earned while he was alive, “cheatin’ the poor,” as the Gibbons’ maid Addie (Jessica Grayson) says. However, that wealth is diminishing, and they believe a cotton mill can generate the millions they feel they deserve.

Mr. Marshall is persuaded, and after he leaves, the brothers are gleeful. What they did not anticipate was some clever bargaining by Regina, who had been left out of her father’s will and has longed for a share of the family wealth ever since. Regina is married to the kind and gentle Horace Gibbons (Herbert Marshall), and she promises her brothers that Horace has the $75,000 that would be his share to help finance the mill. However, if he is to provide the money, Regina expects a larger share of the profits. Horace knows nothing of this bargain. He has a weak heart and is in a sanatorium in Baltimore. Regina sends their daughter, Alexandra–known as Zannie (Teresa Wright)–to bring him home.

Oscar and Ben anticipate a wedding between Oscar’s son Leo (Dan Duryea) and Zannie, joining the family wealth, but Regina, Horace, the maid Addie, and Oscar’s wife Birdie (Patricia Collinge) are all vehemently against it. A despairing Birdie, in particular, begs Zannie not to marry Leo, and Zannie laughs her off, saying she has no intention to do so. Birdie, who has been driven to drink by her husband’s cruel behavior, knows what a bad marriage can do to the soul.

Once home, still in a weakened state, Horace quickly realizes that Regina hasn’t brought him back because she missed him, but rather to obtain his money for the mill. Weaker than ever, he tells the siblings he wants no part of it. But that doesn’t stop Ben, Oscar, and Leo from coming up with a plan to get Horace’s money. Leo, a teller at Horace’s bank, will open Horace’s safe deposit box and take most of the bonds kept there. Leo has already told his father that Horace leaves his safe deposit box keys with the bank manager, and they are easily accessible from the manager’s desk.

It is from here that the true depths of the Hubbard siblings’–particularly Regina’s–greed and ambition are shown, until the final moments of Horace’s life.

Dan Duryea, Carl Benton Reid

The Little Foxes was nominated for nine Academy Awards, among them Outstanding Motion Picture, Best Director (William Wyler), Best Actress (Davis), Best Supporting Actress (Collinge and Wright), and Best Screenplay (Lillian Hellman). It won none.

Wright’s nomination was notable in that this was her film debut, after being discovered by Samuel Goldwyn for her performance in the play Life With Father. Wright’s character Zannie was a stark contrast to Davis’ character Regina. Zannie was young and naïve,  with a youthful optimism. Throughout the film Zannie slowly becomes aware of who her mother and uncles are, and eventually walks away from them.

A particularly revealing scene with Zannie, Birdie, and Horace has a drunk Birdie confessing to her lack of love for her son and husband. She tells how Oscar wooed her, being kind to her because he wanted access to the cotton fields her family owned. “He used to smile at me,” says Birdie of the courtship, “he hasn’t smiled at me since.”


Patricia Collinge, Teresa Wright, Jessica Grayson, Herbert Marshall

The film The Little Foxes was based on Lillian Hellman’s play of the same name. Tallulah Bankhead played Regina onstage, and many critics preferred her interpretation of the role. For those not familiar with Bankhead’s performance, and many who were, Davis was riveting. She was well-suited to play the forceful character, fighting for what she believed should be hers. That fight led to some reprehensible behavior.

The title of the film comes from the King James version of the Bible verse, “Take us the foxes, the little foxes, that spoil the vines: for our vines have tender grapes.” This is a movie all classic film fans must see. The characters are complex and compelling, and the plot moves quickly after a bit of a slow start. As a tale of greed and corruption, it is as relevant today as it was the year it was released. Human behavior, it seems, is the same through the ages.


Herbert Marshall, Bette Davis