The Little Foxes and Lillian Hellmann
The Little Foxes is one of the forgotten plays, puzzling since its roots in capitalistic greed, wealth and family conflict make it a timely piece for a 21st century world loaded with questions as to who owns the wealth and who doesn’t. Hellman became an overnight sensation when her play The Children’s Hour, the story of two school teachers accused of lesbianism, was a hit on Broadway in 1934. Though Hellman claimed she was only briefly a member of the Communist Party, in her largely fictional memoir, Pentimento, it was still obvious enough in her work to get her banned from working in Hollywood once the HUAC had her banned from working during the McCarthy scare. Paranoia or not, a strain of liberal socialism runs through many of her plays, which often center around family units, their relationship towards money, and the decisions they make from either the gain or lack of. In Hellman’s world, money is what either gives or takes you away from the thresholds of human life. One is reminded of Addie, the house maids words when she proclaims there are those ‘who eat up the whole earth and all the people on it…and there are people who stand around and watch them do it.’ The Hubbard Clan of The Little Foxes, are the one who swallow the earth, their obsession with money bringing the matriarch, Regina Gibbons, to the death of her frail, wealthy husband when he refuses to help invest in a cotton gin that Regina plans to swipe of most of the profits. The play, premiering on February 15, 1939 with Tellulah Bankhead, was a success and Hellmann eventually helped write the film adaptation, which starred Bette Davis and was directed by William Wellman.
The Film and Bette Davis
Much controversy fell over Bette Davis’ portrayal of the callous aristocrat Regina Geddins, originally created on Broadway by Tellulah Bankhead in her massive come-back role. Davis reluctantly saw Bankhead’s interpretation and instantly decided to go another direction in her characterization of Regina, a decision Davis apparently regretted for a multitude of reasons, one being the backstage bickering between her and William Wellman, resulting in her most valuable director vowing to never make another picture with Davis after the experience. Davis stressed later that the only woman capable of truly playing Regina was Bankhead, the charm and inner torment of her character made complete on stage. Davis, against Wellman’s wishes, turned Regina into her own creation. Here, is Davis’ most stylized role, in a career most remembered in the stylized characters she depicted. But this reputation among camp affacinado’s and critics is a complicated, and certainly more multi-faceted dillemma if one chooses to look back at Davis’ staggering filmography. It seems that Davis in her original incarnations is not as well remembered by audiences as she is remembered through the dozens of drag queens and comedians who have impersonated her, facets of her range and devotion to her craft lost like so many things ‘on your climb up the ladder’, as she quips in All About Eve. Female Impersonator and Playwright Charles Busch says it best when explaining Davis’ acting when on Margot Channing says, ‘She is playing a campy lady, its not a camp performance—there’s a big difference.’ What makes Davis so endlessly appealing to even contemporary audiences is not the mere camp factor of a swishy, cigarette smoking, plotting bitch roaming room to room, but the utter believability she gives each character, no matter how ridiculous their dialogue or persona may be. While one may argue she is an actor known for stylized roles, this is merely a facile layer, an icing atop of a multi-layered cake. Even her most notorious and campy performance as Jane in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane is far from over the top as it potentially could be. What is over the top is the very scenario, a has-been Child Star feeding rats to her afflicted sister, under layers of make up and frilly dresses. What appears is a real and terrifying persona, devoured by alcohol, debauchery and sadism. Outrageous as she is, and the concept may seem, Davis gives Baby Jane the seething reality that makes the film work as an ultimate piece of horror, not a work of pure camp. While one may call Jane her most stylized performance on film, the credit in fact, goes to her role as Regina in Wellman’s The Little Foxes, a work that is entirely her own creation.
Unlike Bankhead’s deceptively frothy and charming Regina, Davis gives an almost Kabuki like callousness to her interpretaion that is decidedly not camp, in a film that is entirely so. Davis worked closely with make up man Perc Westmore to make what many called a sort of ‘death mask.’ Davis’ Regina is coated with a ghostly shade of pale, her lips tight and sadistic, the scene of her death was described by Ellen Burstyn as having ‘no milk of human kindness seep through.’ The fluidity of earlier southern madame’s such as her 1938 performance in Jezebel is absent in the tight Regina. Never had Davis calculated each move, playing the money hungry Regina like a cobra coiled tight in a metal spring. While Bankhead would more than likely coddle and wink at her audience that would noticeably be made up of gay males, Davis gives the film a chilling seriousness that allows the rest of the film to truly work, and breath life into Hellman’s complicated script.
Camp and The Little Foxes
Even within the atmosphere of the film adaptation, characters come and go with the coughing ease of an old Vaudevillian melodrama. Men twirl their moustaches, chomp their cigars and plot the demise of their rich, dying father in law, a dim-witted nephew is bonked on the head like a character in the Three Stooges, servants shuck in and out, young daughters make burning protests of love and righteousness. The world of Hellman’s works consist of primaries. White and Black, rich and poor.
It is unfortunately or not, undeniable to acknowledge the camp value in The Little Foxes on more than one front, if not at least a sense of profound humor, an element often misunderstood in Hellman’s work. Hellman writes in her memoirs that she got her first taste of ‘angry humor’ from her writing The Little Foxes, regarding her often comic childhood memories of her own family in Alabama, of which she claimed were ‘wild and funny’, made up of wealthy Bankers and shopkeepers, Hellman describes them as ‘broken sprits who wished the world was nicer, but who were still so anxious to inherit the money they made no protest.’ her mothers side consisting of wealthy Bankers and Storekeepers.
The humor and agony of life is prevalent in Hellman’s work, something her critics have often damned her for. Though she did not always manage to balance the two often, and even in The Little Foxes, it comes off jarring in its more physically violent scenes, it is a film that lingers in the mind long after it has finished.