I remember the biggest impression I had from William Wyler’s The Big Country was the effortless blocking of the frame where several subjects at several different distances from the camera were perfectly placed to create aesthetically pleasing images. I found it remarkable, and I finally spun up The Little Foxes, Wyler’s earlier adaptation of Lilliam Hellmann’s play of the same name, and I found the same thing. It’s never flashy, but it’s always purposeful and impactful. Wyler was never a flashy director, but he was obviously one who understood that the space of the frame was as much about depth as it was about up and down. What he does so effortlessly reminds me of what Ingmar Bergman learned to do over the course of his career, especially in Fanny and Alexander.
The Hubbards are three siblings in their middle ages who represent new money in the South. One of them, Oscar, married Birdie, the last in a line of old school Southern aristocrats, inheriting her name and property while the Hubbards provide the spitfire of work ethic, grit, and underhandedness that the original family never really had. Besides Oscar, there is the unmarried Benjamin as well as the sister, Regina who had married the now absent Horace Giddens, off in Baltimore recovering his health. Regina and Benjamin have a daughter, Alexandra, who lives with Regina. The three Hubbard siblings have a plot to attract a cotton mill to their sleepy little town using their nationally low wages as a selling point to the investor from Chicago.
After the investor leaves, happy with the arrangement, the problems are revealed. Oscar and Benjamin can raise their $75,000, but Regina can’t on her own. Her money is all owned by Horace, who’s off in Baltimore, and they’re not exactly on speaking terms. He comes back because Regina sends Alexandra, using her as a tool to get him back so that the three siblings can work him into giving them the $75,000. The problem is that he sees the three as scheming amoral monsters, and he doesn’t want to help them. So, he resists, potentially crashing their plans. Sure, they could go outside the family, but they’d lose control. They need the money from inside the family. Oscar’s son, Leo has an idea, though. His Uncle Horace has a safety deposit box at the bank that he owns and Leo works at. Leo can get into that box and steal $75,000 of $90,000 in bonds, invest the money, buy the bonds back, and replace them before Horace ever notices since he looks in the box so infrequently.
Well, that’s not going to go too well. Of course Horace finds out, and he finds an inventive way to undercut Regina specifically, even though she has nothing to do with the theft. In return, Regina takes her rage out, almost passively at the same time, on Horace, giving her a win in the fight, allowing her to invest the money and even take an overlarge share of the profits. And yet, she ends up losing in the end.
The key to her loss is Alexandra. Alexandra is a sweet hearted girl untouched as of yet by the venom of her mother and uncles. Her future is manifested by Oscars wife Birdie. Birdie is also a good natured woman, several decades older and beaten down. She often disappears because of headaches that are excuses for bouts of heavy drinking. This is what the Hubbards do to people. They either make them like them or they beat them into a pulp emotionally and psychologically. Alexandra has a choice, and she ends up choosing to simply not take part. Since Regina was doing her part in the effort to build the mill as a vehicle for wealth for her and her daughter, Alexander walking away makes the exercise empty. Regina has pushed away anyone who ever really loved her, and all she has are her two awful brothers.
Some ways that these relationships are really sold in this movie is through those marvelously deep focus shots that Wyler was able to use to frequently to great effect. There are wonderful shots with Birdie three levels deep into the frame, simply broken as she listens to her husband and his siblings, unable to stick up for herself or what she thinks is right. She ends up surrounded by her venomous family in the frame, making her seem trapped, even though no one is actually looking at her because she’s ten feet behind everyone. It’s simply intelligent and three-dimensional use of the frame, and something I wish filmmakers did more of. Those shots of Birdie end up getting recalled late in the film with Alexandra in the same position as she becomes more and more like her sweet aunt.
William Wyler was a very good director who understood the visual elements of filmmaking better than most. In adapting this play, he used the tools of cinema to help tell the story in a visual way that’s engaging and involving, much like how David Lean intelligent adapted Hobson’s Choice for the screen. This is a hidden gem of a film.