Watching the first episode of the return of “House of Cards” reminded me of a review I read recently that said watching certain characters on the screen possesses “the fascination of rattlesnakes courting in a bathtub."
But the review was not about “House of Cards.” It was written by an uncredited movie reviewer in Time magazine about “The Little Foxes,” a movie from 1941 that collected nine Academy Award nominations, including “Best Picture.” It didn’t win that major award, but neither did the real best picture of 1941, “Citizen Kane.”
But like “Kane” all these years later, “The Little Foxes,” with a screenplay by Lillian Hellman (with help from Dorothy Parker, Alan Campbell and Arthur Kober, and based on Hellman’s play), still packs a wallop. And I am not comparing the greatness of “Kane” to “The Little Foxes.” But as the New York Times movie critic Bosley Crowther wrote at the time, “The Little Foxes” is a “most bitingly sinister picture” and “one of the most cruelly realistic character studies yet shown on the screen.”
The latter is thanks to Miss Bette Davis, who I think is one of the true acting geniuses in the history of movies.
“The Little Foxes’ is available on DVD, but not for streaming by either Netflix or Amazon. However, if you get TCM (Turner Classic Movies), you can either watch it or record it tonight, Feb. 26, 2014 — without commercial interruption. It’s on TCM at 10 p.m. ET (and 7 p.m. PT).
As we eagerly await this year’s Oscar celebration this weekend, watching "The Little Foxes” is a good warmup. The plot of the movie takes place in 1900 and revolves around the slave trade and the exploitation of slaves. But as Steve McQueen, the director of this year’s “12 Years a Slave,” has noted, many old Hollywood movies don’t realistically portray the horrors of slavery.
In this sense, “The Little Foxes” is more like another of this year’s nominees, "The Wolf of Wall Street,” in that it’s all about those who are doing the exploiting, with nary a nod to the pain and suffering of those exploited.
But unlike “The Wolf of Wall Street,” “The Little Foxes” is a piercing, stinging drama of piranhas tearing the surface flesh off one another, leaving only the raw, exposed nerves dangling, like live electric transmission wires that have tangled and touched, exploding.
It was a tough production. At the helm of the film was director William Wyler. Davis had worked with him twice before, making “Jezebel, and “The Letter,” and she believed he drew out the best in her.
But in making “The Little Foxes” they fought more than they ever had. Wyler insisted that Davis see Tallulah Bankhead, who was playing the lead in “The Little Foxes” on Broadway.
According to Gabriel Miller’s 2013 book about Wyler, “The Life and Films of Hollywood’s Most Celebrated Director,” “Davis felt that Bankhead portrayed [the character] as a cold, greedy, conniving and evil woman — an interpretation that made sense to her. Wyler, however, wanted a more shaded portrayal of [the character] as both funny and charming as well … .”
Miller then writes, “Finally, two weeks after shooting started, Davis walked off the set and went to Laguna Beach, where she had rented a house. ‘I was a nervous wreck,’ she said. ‘My favorite and most admired director was fighting me every inch of the way. I just didn’t want to continue.’”
Though Davis notoriously fought Jack Warner at Warner Bros. and refused to be in some pictures, she said this was the first time she had actually walked off a set and refused to work on a picture she had already began.
Miller continues, “[Producer Sam] Goldwyn implored her to return to the ['Little Foxes' set], but she adamantly refused. He then allowed her to take some time off, from May 12 to May 21. … Wyler was able to shoot around her. Rumors abounded in the press, and there was speculation that Davis was ill or pregnant. There were also rumors that she was going to be replaced by either [Davis rival] Miriam Hopkins or Katharine Hepburn. … Davis finally returned to the set on June 2, but she refused to accede to Wyler’s demands, and he was forced to accept her interpretation of the role.”
Wyler and Davis “never worked together again.”
That’s too bad, because their work together was indeed stellar.
On “The Little Foxes,” outside of Davis and Herbert Marshall, who plays her husband, Horace, most of the cast came from the original stage production of “The Little Foxes” and had never been in a major movie before. That includes Patricia Collinge, who plays Davis’ sister-in-law, Birdie, Charles Dingle (Ben), Carl Benton Reid (Oscar) and Dan Duryea (Leo). Duryea went on to have a terrific career in B-movie film noirs.
Peter McNally, in his 2008 book “Bette Davis: The Performances That Made Her Great,” talks about Davis performing with the original cast members of “The Little Foxes” in the film: “Because Davis was the consummate actress, she played well with the other Broadway actors. Tellingly, her character dominates the others, including her brothers. Davis had a star quality that none of her co-stars had; they were not Hollywood stars at all. So she not only became part of the ensemble, she added dramatic weight to the scenes in which she played. … With the ensemble approach, Davis not only blended in, but she did so without mannerism or upstaging. Her very stillness, at times, drew the audience to her character. She was the complex one, not the others. Gregg Toland’s deep-focus photography allowed one to see an entire scene in all its detail."
McNally then quotes Foster Hirsh in “Acting Hollywood Style”: “[W]ith few close-ups and forced to share the spotlight, Davis internalizes the character’s rage and her own … she gives a tight, brittle, murderously subdued performance.”
Interestingly, the other film Toland had shot earlier in 1941, most famously, was “Citizen Kane.”
But a year before, in 1940, Toland, who had shot “Wuthering Heights’ for Wyler and producer Goldwyn in 1939, was getting ready to shoot another Wyler film, this time at Twentieth Century Fox. The movie was going to be called “How Green Was My Valley,” based on a 1939 bestseller by Richard Llewellyn.
Early in 1940 the head of Twentieth Century Fox, Darryl F. Zanuck, had sent over to Philip Dunne, one of Twentieth’s hottest scriptwriters, a script of “How Green Was My Valley.”
In his 1980 memoir, “Take Two: A Life in Movies and Politics,” Dunne writes, “The script was long, turgid, and ugly, its central feature figure being an equally long, turgid, and ugly strike in a Welsh coal mine. A great part of the dialogue consisted of speeches and diatribes, pro- and anti-labor. The family which was the center of the script’s plot was torn apart by dissension and mutual hatred, and the overriding mood of the script was deeply depressing. I sent the script back to Zanuck with a note saying not only that I hoped I could be spared the assignment of rewriting it, but that I wondered what had persuaded him to buy the book in the first place.”
I mention “How Green Was My Valley” because it is the movie that beat out both “The Little Foxes” and “Citizen Kane,” among others, to win the Best Pict
ure Oscar for 1941. Though certainly not as ground-breaking as “Kane,” it’s a wonderful movie that I highly recommend. As it happens, TCM is also showing it tonight, after “The Little Foxes,” at 12:15 a.m. ET, which is 9:15 p.m. here on the West Coast. It’s also available to stream from Amazon, but not from Netflix. And it’s available on DVD and Blu-ray.
After Dunne sent his note to Zanuck, Zanuck simply had delivered to Dunne’s Fox office a copy of the novel. Dunne discovered that the initial adapters had missed the essence of the book. Dunne wrote that the book “was full of warmth, love, nobility and earthy humor. It was above all, the story of a family — strong, proud, loving and self-reliant …”
After Dunne finished his first draft, Zanuck said that he had hired Wyler to direct the picture, and suggested that Dunne and Wyler work together on a final draft. That pleased Dunne, since he and Wyler were friends.
Zanuck OK’d the final script and, Dunne writes, “Gregg Toland was assigned as cameraman and our Welsh village and mine went up on the studio’s ranch in the hills behind Malibu. We originally had intended to shoot on location in Wales itself, but with Britain at war in 1940, this was impossible.”
As casting began, Dunne writes, "the axe fell. [Fox’s] New York office, showing its usual impeccable taste, hated the script, hated the absence of real starring roles, hated Wyler’s reputation as an extravagant director, predicted disaster for the entire project, and refused to put up the money for it.”
A furious Zanuck endeared himself to Dunne forever, Dunne says, by writing “a defiant letter to New York saying that this was the finest script he had ever had, and that some day he would find a way to make this picture, even if he had to take it to another studio.”
A few month later, Dunne writes, director John Ford, who loved the script, “agreed to bring in the picture for a million dollars, and on that basis New York had told Zanuck he could go ahead.”
Dunne says that Irishman Ford, "with only a few minor changes, faithfully and brilliantly shot the script that Wyler, Zanuck and I prepared.”
Then Dunne writes, “I often have wondered what ‘How Green Was My Valley’ would have been like had Wyler directed it instead of Ford. There would have been differences, of course, completely different camera angles, different emphases, different shadings in the performances. But these differences wouldn’t have been much greater than the differences you might detect if you listened to Jascha Heifetz play Beethoven’s Violin concerto and then to … Yehudi Menuhim play the same work. In all the performing arts, individual interpretation is important, but never as important as the basic material.”
At the Oscar ceremony that year, Dunne writes, “ ‘How Green Was My Valley’ swept the board: best picture, best director, best supporting actor (there were no starring parts), best photography and art direction — in fact, best-just-about-everything except best screenplay.”
That prize was won by “Here Comes Mr. Jordan.”
Several months later, both Dunne and Ford found themselves in Washington, D.C., working for Uncle Sam.
Dunne noticed an award on Ford’s desk, from the New York film critics, also honoring him as the best director of 1941. Dunne complimented him, and Ford dismissed the compliment. Dunne writes, “ ‘I said, perhaps a little bitterly … that I would have loved to have gotten more out of the picture than just my salary.’
“ ‘You greedy bastard,’ he said, ‘you got the Oscar. What more do you want?’
“When I told him I hadn’t won the Oscar he was silent for a moment, I think really shaken, and then said, ‘Ah, the ballots were probably counted by Republicans. Come on out and have a drink.’
"I thought that was the end of it, but two days later his New York Film Critics Award arrived in my mail. On it he had scrawled in red crayon: ‘Thanks, Phil. Affection, Jack.’”