Independent producer Samuel Goldwyn was no stranger to the murky intersection of personal relationships and business. He was pushed out of more than one company he helped found, including Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, less for business reasons than for personal antipathy. Given this background it is no wonder that Goldwyn was attracted to Lillian Hellman’s play The Little Foxes, which explores the violence and exploitation possible in just about any relationship (connubial, sibling, friend, etc.) when business intertwines with personal relationships.
The Hubbard family has clawed its way up from social and economic irrelevance to prominence in their unnamed Southern town by the turn of the twentieth century. They are a breed of new capitalists who displaced the old Southern aristocracy in the decades after their defeat in the Civil War. They did not, however, get rich through hard work or innovation, but through the exploitation and outright cheating of the poor, and by picking the bones of struggling families of the old aristocracy. (Ben Hubbard even marries Birdie, the daughter of one of these clans, to gain access to the prestige of her family name.) The Hubbard siblings, Oscar, Ben, and Regina, value profit and power above all else. They are even willing to sacrifice their own relationships with each other and their respective families in order to secure profit.
Their latest scheme is to building a textile mill to their city. Bringing manufacturing to a town that already provides the raw materials (cotton) isn’t in itself a bad deal, but the carrot they dangle before a prominent Northern investor is the promise of laborers willing to work for $3 a week rather than the $8 he has to pay in the North.
Brothers Oscar and Ben are in, ready with their share of the investment needed to get the mill going, but Regina needs to convince her estranged husband Horace to put in as well. Horace, however, is convalescing from a serious heart condition in Baltimore and Regina connives to get him back home so she can convince him to invest in the mill, even though she knows he will be reluctant. Horace has grown more and more disgusted with the business tactics of the family he married into and sees the mill as another way for the Hubbards to suck up more of their town’s riches. His refusal to commit forces Regina and her brothers to scramble to make sure the deal goes through – and they aren’t above a little dishonesty.
The rest of the film is a rousing competition of wills and cunning as everybody maneuvers for the best position to maximize their own profits. Ben and Oscar hatch a scheme to cut out Regina and she retaliates by blackmailing them into a greater share and on and on it goes.
Hellman’s play translates well to the screen, especially with some remarkably good performances. Bette Davis delivers one of the best performances of her prolific career as Regina, dominating every scene with nothing more than her presence. Herbert Marshall appears as Regina’s husband Horace. He plays Horace as a sensitive man tired of his wife’s greed, but quietly accepts her by going away. He manages to take one last stand against this mill, but Regina’s determination may prove too much for his weak heart. Since the entire Hubbard family can’t be rotten (and I’m even leaving out Oscar’s son Leo, a dumb and arrogant kid that, knowing the course of U.S. history, is probably bound to be a U.S. Senator or something) we also have Regina and Horace’s daughter Alexandra played by Teresa Wright. She is sweet and naïve, completely unaware of her mother’s and uncles’ nefarious double-dealings. Though her character does not get the screen time others do, at the end, the movie is more about her coming of age and disillusionment about her family as anything else. (A principled young newspaper reporter was added to the screenplay as her love interest and to prod her toward the light, probably because Hollywood big shots couldn’t conceive of a woman having an idea of her own, without a sensible man planting it in her head.)
William Wyler’s direction and Gregg Toland’s photography buttress the strong performances and polished writing to complete one of the best movies of 1941. For me this would have been a shoo-in for best of the year if it were not for a sparkling, socially-conscious comedy and a pesky, but unavoidable masterpiece.