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The Little Foxes is a 1941 American drama film directed by William Wyler. The screenplay by Lillian Hellman is based on her 1939 play of the same name. Hellman's ex-husband Arthur Kober and Dorothy Parker's husband Alan Campbell contributed additional scenes and dialogue.


The focus is on Southern aristocrat Regina Hubbard Giddens, who 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 and Oscar are independently wealthy, while she must rely upon her sickly husband Horace for financial support.

Having married his much-maligned, alcoholic wife Birdie solely to acquire her family's plantation and its cotton fields, Oscar 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 and Regina's daughter Alexandra - 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, so Leo is pressured into stealing Horace's railroad bonds from the family business. In order to acquire a larger share in the mill, Regina threatens to report the theft to the police. In retaliation, Horace says he will claim he gave Leo the bonds as a loan, thereby cutting Regina out of the deal completely. When he suffers a heart attack, she makes no effort to give him his medicine, and he dies without anyone knowing his plan, thus enabling Regina to blackmail her brothers. The price she ultimately pays for her innate evil is the loss of Alexandra, who elopes with newspaperman David Hewitt.


The title comes from Chapter 2, Verse 5 in the Song of Solomon in the King James version of the Bible, which reads, "Take us the foxes, the little foxes, that spoil the vines: for our vines have tender grapes."

Tallulah Bankhead had garnered critical acclaim for her performance in the 1939 Broadwaymarker production of Hellman's play, but director William Wyler, who previously had teamed with Bette Davis on Jezebel and The Letter, insisted on casting her in the lead role instead. Producer Samuel Goldwyn had no reason to argue, since none of Bankhead's films had been box office hits. (Coincidentally, Davis had recreated on film another of Bankhead's Broadway roles, Judith Traherne in Dark Victory.) Initially, Jack L. Warner refused to loan his star to Goldwyn, who then offered the role to Miriam Hopkins. When Wyler refused to work with her, Goldwyn resumed negotiations with Warner and finally secured Davis for $385,000. As a contract player at Warner Bros., Davis was earning $3,000 dollars a week, and when she discovered how much Warner had received for her appearance in Foxes, she demanded and ultimately received a share of the payment.

Wyler encouraged Davis to see Bankhead in the play, which she did despite major misgivings. She later regretted doing so because she felt compelled to create a totally different interpretation of the role, one not necessarily suiting the character. Bankead had portrayed Regina as a victim forced to fight for her survival due to the contempt with which her brothers treated her, but Davis played her as a cold, conniving, calculating woman wearing a death mask of white powder she insisted makeup artist Perc Westmore create for her.

character of David Hewitt was not in the original play. Hellman created him to add a second sympathetic male to stand alongside Horace among all the venomous Hubbard men.

Davis and Wyler frequently fought during filming, about everything from her appearance (Wyler thought she looked like a Kabuki performer) to the set design (which Davis thought was far too opulent for a family supposedly struggling financially) to her interpretation of the role (Wyler wanted a softer, more sympathetic Regina). Davis had yielded to Wyler's demands during production of The Letter, but this time she held her ground. Not helping the situation was the fact Los Angeles was experiencing its worst heat wave in years, and the temperature on the soundstages regularly rose above 100 degrees. Davis finally walked off the picture. "It was the only time in my career that I walked out on a film after the shootiong had begun," she later recalled. "I was a nervous wreck due to the fact that my favorite and most admired director was fighting me every inch of the way . . . I just didn't want to continue." The actress retreated to her rented house in Laguna Beachmarker and "flatly refused to come back to work. It took a little courage, to say the least. Goldwyn had it in his power to sue me for the entire cost of the production." A week later she returned to the set after rumors she would be replaced by Katharine Hepburn or Miriam Hopkins began to circulate, although Goldwyn was not about to bear the expense of scrapping all the footage with Davis and refilming the scenes with a new actress. Even though the film was a critical and commercial success and nominated for nine Academy Awards, she and Wyler never worked together again

The film premiered at Radio City Music Hallmarker in New York Citymarker. The New York Times reported it was seen by 22,163 persons on its opening day, setting what was then an all-time attendance mark for a normal opening day at the theatre.

In 1946, Hellman wrote the play Another Part of the Forest, a prequel to Foxes. It was adapted for the screen in 1948.

In 2003, the character of Regina Giddens, played by Davis, was ranked #43 on the American Film Institute list of the 50 Best Villains of American Cinema.


Critical reception

In his review in The New York Times, Bosley Crowther observed, "Lillian Hellman's grim and malignant melodrama . . . has now been translated to the screen with all its original viciousness intact and with such extra-added virulence as the relentless camera of Director William Wyler and the tensile acting of Bette Davis could impart . . . [It] leaps to the front as the most bitingly sinister picture of the year and as one of the most cruelly realistic character studies yet shown on the screen . . . The test of the picture is the effectiveness with which it exposes a family of evil people poisoning everything they touch. And this it does spectacularly. Mr. Wyler, with the aid of Gregg Toland, has used the camera to sweep in the myriad small details of a mauve decadent household and the more indicative facets of the many characters. The focus is sharp, the texture of the images hard and realistic. Individual scenes are extraordinarily vivid and compelling . . . The Little Foxes will not increase your admiration for mankind. It is cold and cynical. But it is a very exciting picture to watch in a comfortably objective way, especially if you enjoy expert stabbing-in-the-back."

Variety said, "From starring Bette Davis down the line to the bit roles portrayed by minor Negroes the acting is well nigh flawless . . . Marshall turns in one of his top performances . . . On top of the smooth pace, Wyler has handled every detail with an acutely dramatic touch."

Time Out London said, "Lillian Hellman's play . . . now creaks audibly. But you are unlikely ever to see a better version than this, caressed by Gregg Toland's deep focus camerawork, embalmed by Wyler's direction and Goldwyn's sumptuous production values, galvanised by some superlative performances. The sulphurous Davis, her face a livid mask as she dispenses icy venom behind feline purrs, outdoes herself to provide the proceedings with a regally vicious centre."



  1. The Little Foxes at Turner Classic Movies
  2. Stine, Whitney, and Davis, Bette, Mother Goddam: The Story of the Career of Bette Davis. New York: Hawthorn Books 1974. ISBN 0-8015-5184-6, pp. 148-153
  3. Higham, Charles, The Life of Bette Davis. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company 1981. ISBN 0-025-51500-4, pp. 211-212
  4. New York Times article
  5. New York Times review
  6. Variety review
  7. Time Out London review

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