However, she has become such an iconic figure that I think that it’s easy to forget just how versatile she could be. She was ferocious in Of Human Bondage. She was poignant in Dark Victory. She was majestic in All About Eve. Even when she eventually ended up appearing in stuff like Burnt Offerings, she still managed to command the screen. Of course, nobody played evil with quite the style and power as Bette Davis at her prime. And if you ever have any doubt about that fact, I would suggest watching the 1941 Best Picture nominee, The Little Foxes.
Based on a play by Lillian Hellman, The Little Foxes is a dark Southern melodrama that takes place in 1900. The once mighty Hubbard Family has fallen on hard times. Brothers Benjamin (Charles Dingle) and Oscar (Carl Benton Reid) have inherited their father’s money and Oscar has made himself even more wealthy by marrying the poignant alcoholic Birdie (Patricia Collinge). However, when Oscar and Benjamin decide that they want to build a cotton mill, they discover that, even with their own fortunes, they are still $75,000 short.
They turn to their sister, Regina (Bette Davis). As quickly becomes obvious, Regina is a hundred times more intelligent and clever than either one of her brothers. However, because she’s a woman, Regina was not considered to be a legal heir to their father’s fortune. As a result, after his death, she was left penniless. In order to survive, Regina had to marry the wealthy but sickly Horace (Herbert Marshall). When Regina asks Horace for the $75,000, Horace refuses. He wants nothing to do with either one of her brothers.
With the reluctant help of Oscar’s son, Leo (Dan Duryea), the brothers steal the money straight from Horace’s bank account. Regina, however, finds out about the theft and schemes to blackmail her two brothers….
For the majority of the film, you are totally on Regina’s side. Despite the fact that Regina is ruthless and obviously taking advantage of Horace’s weakened state, you find yourself making excuses for her. Her brothers are both so sleazy and greedy and Regina is so much smarter than her idiotic siblings that the film occasionally feels like a dark comedy. It’s fun watching her get the better of them and you find yourself assuming (and hoping) that Regina will somehow be redeemed by the end of the movie.
And then it happens.
Aware of both Regina’s scheme and the fact that she never loved him, Horace announces that he’s going to change his will and he’s going to leave his entire fortune to their daughter, Alexandra (Teresa Wright, in her Oscar-nominated film debut). He also tells Reginia that he’s going to say that he lent Leo the money, which would make it impossible for her blackmail scheme to work.
It’s while they’re arguing that Horace suddenly suffers a heart attack. And as Horace struggles to climb up a staircase so that he can get his medicine, Regina calmly sits in a chair and shows not a hint of emotion as he dies. It’s such an unexpected and effective moment, largely because Bette Davis’s performance was so good that it kept both the viewer and Horace from realizing just how monstrous Regina truly was.
It’s hard to think of any contemporary actress who could so totally and believably embody a character of Regina Gibbons. It takes courage to commit so fully to playing such an evil and hateful character. Bette Davis had that courage and her performance alone makes The Little Foxes worth watching.