A Stealthy Fox: Bette Davis in The Little Foxes (1941)

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***This post is part of The 4th Annual Bette Davis Blogathon, hosted by the In The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood blog. ***

***Some spoilers***

“[Bette Davis’ character] lies in wait like a coiled snake (or a stealthy fox set to pounce).” (Carr, par. 5)

I’m back after my month hiatus from blogging! I’ve got a lot on my plate this year so I’ll be blogging less than once a week but still putting out quality blog posts for all my fabulous blog followers :-).

It seems befitting to come back from break where I was working intensely on the final revisions and edits for my upcoming book The Specter which will be the first book of my historical family saga, The Waxwood Series and blog about another intense and creative worker — Bette Davis.

The Golden Age of Hollywood was an era where actresses and actors were controlled by studios and creativity on their part was limited. Davis took more risks than most actresses of the era and was never one to shy away from a juicy psychologically complex character, especially one with flaws and questionable ethics. For this reason, I think the 1940’s produced some of her best work. This isn’t to say that Davis didn’t already begin to acknowledge the value of playing characters who weren’t so admirable (like Mildred Rogers in 1934’s Of Human Bondage) but the forties proved to be her best with characters like Leslie Crosby in 1940’s The Letter and 1942’s Now, Voyager. One of my favorite Davis characters from this period is Regina Giddens in The Little Foxes (1941).

To be sure, the material on which the film is based is already an excellent set up for complex psychological characters. The film was first a play by Lillian Hellman who was actually a favorite of mine in my undergraduate days. The story tells of the deterioration of a wealthy Southern family at the turn of the 20th century (if you’ve read about my Waxwood series, some of this will sound familiar to you). Family dramas are always complex because of so many underlying psychological dysfunctions even in the best of families that come to light in the stories.

And the Hubbard family is no exception. As Jeremy Carr points out in his article “Close up on Willian Wyler’s ‘The Little Foxes’: Family Drama Down South”, no one in the family is really ver nice: “These are not very pleasant people, and the world created by Hellman and realized by Wyler is one of hypocrisy and cruelty” (Carr, par. 4). They are, in fact, pretty deplorable (most of them). Some of the reasons for this are overt but some are more inferred than stated and never faced which is what makes the stories and characters so compelling.

This is especially true of Davis’ character Regina, the only woman in the family (other than her daughter Alexandra, played by Teresa Wright). To say Regina is hard-hearted would be an understatement. She is an ice queen with her perpetual seething expression and deadpan voice and her cold and calculated mannerisms (she never smiles or laughs throughout the entire film unless it’s in mockery). She seems to live to manipulate everyone around her — her two older brothers (who are no slouches in the manipulation department themselves), her ill husband, her innocent daughter. And yet, like most foxes, she gets snared in her own trap as those she thinks are the weakest turn on her.

Bette Davis as Regina

Photo Credit: Publicity still of Bette Davis as Regina in The Little Foxes, 1941, RKO Radio Pictures: Loeba/Wikimedia Commons/PD US not renewed

At first glance, it might seem Regina is evil and cruel simply by birth (after all, the rest of the family are no saints). But when you take a closer look, you see there are very definite reasons why she is the way she is. It boils down to a matter of a strong woman who wanted to be free to do as she pleased but for whom freedom was denied because of social and gender conventions.

For example, her determination to have a share in the shady business deal her two brothers are cooking up stems from a desire to move to Chicago with Alexandra so her daughter can have a chance to “meet the right people” and have “everything I didn’t”. The film implies Regina’s father left everything to his sons but nothing to his daughter. This would make sense as in the 19th century, the separate spheres assumed women were taken care of by their husbands, not their families. Regina had ambitions far beyond the claustrophobic Southern town in which she lived so she married a banker Horace Giddens (Herbert Marshall). But Horace proved to be a disappointment as his ambition did not match hers and he stayed “an insignificant little clerk”. Thwarted by family and marriage, Regina has no option but to pursue her ambitions on her own and in her own way. Unfortunately, those ways come at a cost to herself and others.

Another example of the strength of Regina’s character is how she goes about getting what she wants. Many women in the 19th and early 20th centuries knew the value of feminine wiles and used them to get what they wanted because they knew if they tried to do it in a direct way, they would be seen as aggressive and threatening to men. But Regina’s strong will doesn’t allow for this playacting. She is aggression in all its splendor. Her older brother Ben (Charles Dingle) has to constantly reminder her softness and sweetness is the way to go if she wants something from any man but she brushes him off with arrogant confidence that she “knows what she’s doing”. Only once does she consent to smile for him and it’s a smile so frightening that it makes you shudder.

In the end Regina does take control and in a way that is reprehensible and vicious:

“Initially deferential to her brothers, she slyly assumes her more appropriately domineering role by the film’s conclusion. The degree of her spitefulness and the full magnitude of just how distressingly far these people may be willing to go becomes clear toward the end of the picture, in a terrifying scene of passive malice.” (Carr, par 5)

But Regina is also spurned by the one person whom she had built her hopes upon — her daughter. In the final scene, with her dead husband whom she helped to kill lies in the room they share, she almost timidly asks Alexandra if she’d like to sleep in her room for the night. Alexandra answers with a coolness worthy of the Hubbard name, “Why, Mama? Are you afraid?” This sign of vulnerability is perhaps endearing but it comes a little too late.

I’ve read that Davis and William Wyler, who directed the film and with whom Davis did some of her best work in the 1940’s, had intense squabbles about the way in which Regina should be portrayed. Wyler envisioned a woman who was a little softer, a little sweeter, who had outward Southern belle charms and not the ice queen Davis insisted upon. Davis, of course, got her way and the result is a more psychologically complex character whose psychological reality helps create the multi-layered woman character Davis was so famous for playing.

Works Cited

Carr, Jeremy. “Close up on William Wyler’s ‘The Little Foxes’: Family Drama Down South”. Notebook. MUBI. 15 February 2016. Web. 3 April 2019.

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5 thoughts on “A Stealthy Fox: Bette Davis in The Little Foxes (1941)

    1. Thanks, Patricia! I totally agree with you. The Hubbards are very fascinating. That’s probably why they did the prequel to The Little Foxes (which I know you reviewed on your blog not long ago 🙂 ). It’s the kind of family that I know as a writer, I could have written a whole series about, plus short stories and novellas on the side.
      Tam

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  1. I’m so happy Bette Davis got to play Regina the way she envisioned – after all, she is no Jezebel. This film is so good, and your great review made me want to revisit it in the near future.
    Kisses!
    Le

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    1. Le, thank you so much for your comments! I agree that it’s lucky for the movie viewing public that Davis got her own way with the character. She had some amazing instincts for what would work with characters and what wouldn’t (same story with her character in The Letter).
      Tam

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  2. It’s a terrific role for Ms. Davis! It also have inspired the first “prequel” with ANOTHER PART OF THE FOREST, in which Ann Blyth played Regina.

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