Time has proven Bette Davis right--no one could top Tallulah Bankhead's Broadway portrayal of the vituperative Regina Giddens, the central figure of Lillian Hellman's now creaking, but still compelling Deep South potboiler. During filming, William Wyler was often heard to say, "We'll have
to get Bankhead." Would that he had. Davis, in an impulsive stampede to make the role her own, took an opposite track to the character. Or perhaps Wyler did; every Davis bio tells it differently. Either way, it's wrong. In her rice powder, with her mouth drawn into a tiny, hard line (it makes her
look more beaked and birdlike than ever) she loses the hothouse-flower sensuality that Bankhead brought to her manipulations. And it was precisely that certain quality that justified Regina's ability to manipulate men to high heaven in the turn of the century South.
FOXES tells the story of the Hubbards (whose exploits are also detailed in ANOTHER PART OF THE FOREST , from Hellman's prequel), as greedy a bunch as ever drank mint juleps. Regina's brothers (Dingle and Reid) ask her to persuade her husband Horace (Marshall) to supply the rest of the cash
they need to build a cotton mill. Milking her position for all the leverage possible, Regina sends her daughter (Wright) to fetch Horace, recovering from a heart attack at a Baltimore sanitarium. The weakened man, however, proves a bigger hurdle than anyone had bargained for.
This is the third and last time Davis worked with Wyler, following the triumphs of JEZEBEL and THE LETTER. The furious battles enacted by the two on FOXES are Hollywood legend--a sad farewell to a legendary collaboration. Perhaps the rest of the principals didn't cotton to Davis's tantrums (having
grown accustomed to Bankhead's); except for Wright, in her film debut, they look like wolves successfully moving in on her acting territory. Collinge, in fact, almost steals the movie. The other newcomer, Duryea, does move in; it's overkill that needed slapping down.
We are not, however, discounting FOXES's impressive technical achievement. Many of the sequences directed by Wyler and shot by cinematographer Toland (famed for his deep-focus work in CITIZEN KANE) have been hailed by film scholars, especially during the memorable murder scene (featuring Davis's
Kabuki look). Orry-Kelly's costumes for Davis are either great or wrong. Somehow FOXES feels embalmed instead of lived; still we enjoy the drama done aloud.
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