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As we reflect on the mothers of film history with Jon Lucas and Scott Moore’s Bad Mom’s, which will be hitting theaters later this week, we must look past the Norma Bates, the Joan Crawfords, and the Margaret Whites to find one of the most fearsome, unrelenting moms out there, The Little Foxes’s Regina Hubbard Giddens (played by Bette Davis). The Little Foxes is all about wealth, cousin lovin’, and Regina who may be one of the most manipulative, greedy, and downright un-motherly mother’s out there. Sadly, this is also the last film Davis and director William Wyler, who brought audiences The Letter and Jezebel, worked on together due to artistic differences.
Set in the early 20th century, Regina and her brothers Oscar and Benjamin encounter a profitable opportunity to run a cotton mill. But the weight of this opportunity rests on Regina and whether or not she can acquire $75,000 from her rich but ill husband Horace. More than money is at stake here however; if Regina can follow through with the last leg of the plan, she not only becomes wealthy but also independently wealthy. Women during this time were deemed unfit for self-sufficiency and incapable of living a life without a man to oversee their daily activities. And as viewers get acquainted with Regina, it becomes clear that she doesn’t exactly agree with this confining female role.
The three siblings try a few methods of attaining this necessary $75,000. First, unite Regina’s daughter Alexandra (Teresa Wright) and Oscar’s son Leo (Dan Duryea) via marriage, because who doesn’t think a first cousin marriage is a good idea? (Horace, who is completely repulsed, does not think the marriage is a good idea.) Second, simply ask for the money, but what kind of movie would The Little Foxes be if it worked out that easily? Third, steal Horace’s bonds right out of the bank. Leo works for said bank, so all feel this is a solid scheme until Leo turns out to be equally greedy. Finally, wait for Horace’s heart to fail. So which does Regina choose? All three. She tries all three heartless options until one finally works.
But it’s not her greed or schemes that make Regina so chilling, it’s how utterly unaware of her own capabilities and failure to reflect on the implications of her actions she is. Regina goes above and beyond, stomping on her own daughter’s future, suggesting cousinly love to attain fortune, and casting Alexandra aside when she refuses to take part. Bound by her final choice, Regina unconsciously goes for option three. An option she never agreed or disagreed to until it starts to happen right before her. One would think that with such big eyes she might be able to see that assisting in her husband’s death is likely to have some serious consequences. For starters, you’re most definitely going to be haunted by both the spirit of your dead husband and your own guilty conscience. Regina and Alexandra were already on rocky terms due to the above reasons and Regina's withholding of motherly affection, if there was any motherly affection to withhold. Unfortunately for Regina, after Alexandra tells her mother to shove her greed up her ass (but in a much more 1940s, Hays Code kind of way), she discovers being alone and independently wealthy is worse than being wealthy and stuck with an obnoxiously kind family.
The Little Foxes, despite its unique and off-putting story, was a complete hassle to make. For starters, Davis was contracted through Warner Bros. and for those unaware of the old Hollywood studio system, actors were bound by contract to work with one studio and forced to make a certain number of movies a year whether good or bad. It wasn’t just Davis’ contract that was problematic but also her appearance. Wyler and producer Samuel Goldwyn strongly insisted that Davis be made up to look like her usual attractive self because the movie was already so disconcerting that to then take away her glamour would be box office suicide. God forbid people go to the theater to see someone like Bette Davis act instead of look pretty. But thanks to Goldwyn’s one-time deal to switch Gary Cooper for Davis, and Davis’ insistence that she look like the old witch her character was written as, the film turned out to be as successful and disturbing as screenwriter Lillian Hellman meant it to be.