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Friday, January 15, 2016

THE LITTLE FOXES (1941)

The last of three major collaborations from Bette Davis & director William Wyler, and the most prestigious, if not necessarily the best. Adapted by Lillian Hellman from her own ripe melodrama about three venal, backstabbing Southern siblings, Wyler’s film is so cunningly staged & cinematically savvy, even minor events play out as dramatic masterstrokes. Note a father/son shaving scene (brilliantly shot by Gregg Toland just off CITIZEN KANE/’41) that hatches a major plot twist or the spatially connected character introductions from a dozen equally memorable visually orchestrated episodes. The higher-browed critics tend to bemoan Hellman’s air-tight melodramatic constructions, so ‘well-made’ they suffocate. But they also earn their audience-pleasing ‘ring,’ or do at their best. Call it honest pandering. Even powerful when you get to watch so many pros running thru their paces at this level. Remarkably, most of the supporting cast are making film debuts (five from B’way) with Wyler guiding Dan Duyea, Teresa Wright, Patricia Collinge & Charles Dingle toward substantial careers. Yet, it’s still Davis’s film. Wyler wanted a more naturalistic Regina than Davis gave him; she’s more bird of prey . . . and with the hat to prove it, only removing her death mask make-up once at her dressing table; just enough to show a human face under the icy grip. A brief sighting that lends a note of real tragedy to Hellman’s greedy roundelay.

DOUBLE-BILL: You can get a good idea of what Wyler brings to the directing table by contrasting this film with Hellman’s WATCH ON THE RHINE/’43 helmed by Herman Schumlin. Schumlin, the original stage director of LITTLE FOXES and RHINE was much helped by an exceptionally lovely perf from Davis, but is otherwise cinematically dead in the water.

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