Southern aristocrat Regina Hubbard Giddens (Bette Davis) struggles for wealth and freedom within the confines of an early 20th-century society where a father considered only sons as legal heirs. As a result, her avaricious brothers, Benjamin (Charles Dingle) and Oscar (Carl Benton Reid), are independently wealthy, while she must rely for financial support upon her sickly husband Horace (Herbert Marshall), who has been away undergoing treatment for a severe heart condition.
Oscar, having married and maligned the sweet-souled, now hopelessly alcoholic Birdie (Patricia Collinge) to acquire her family's plantation and its cotton fields, now wants to join forces with Benjamin to construct a cotton mill. They approach their sister with their need for an additional $75,000 to invest in the project. Oscar initially proposes a marriage between his son Leo (Dan Duryea) and Regina's daughter Alexandra (Teresa Wright) – first cousins – as a means of getting Horace's money; but Horace and Alexandra are repulsed by the suggestion. When Regina asks Horace outright for the money, he refuses. She tells him his refusal is not important since he will die soon and she is eagerly waiting for that day to come. Alexandra overhears the conversation and is distraught. She then comforts her father after Regina leaves the room.
Ben and Oscar, aware of Horace's refusal, pressure Leo into stealing Horace's railroad bonds from his personal security box at the bank to complete the sum needed to construct the mill. After returning home from an impromptu trip to his security box at the bank, Horace informs Regina of the theft of his bonds. Regina, realizing her two brothers stole the bonds through Leo, who works at the bank, schemes to acquire a larger share of the mill by blackmailing her brothers about their theft.
Immediately, Horace states he is changing his will to leave Alexandra everything except the railroad bonds which, he will claim, he freely lent to Leo. This story will thwart any attempt by Regina to blackmail her brothers over their theft and will deny her any claim to an ownership stake in the mill. Alexandra is rescued from a larger misfortune, that of marrying the repugnant Leo, by Birdie, the only person able to do so, who wills herself the courage to tell the younger woman not to marry the wrong man (i.e. Leo), lest she bear the consequences for the rest of her life. Unfortunately, Oscar overhears part of the conversation and, after Alexandra is out of earshot, slaps Birdie hard.
Regina argues with Horace about her contempt for him; and, when he suffers a heart attack, she makes no effort to get him his medicine from upstairs. Horace climbs the stairs to get his medicine but collapses on the way up. The final scenes of the film involve a dying Horace surrounded by family, a doctor and servants who await the chance he may survive. Eventually, Horace dies, leaving no one to contradict Regina if she accuses her brothers of theft. She thus blackmails her brothers, demanding that she be given 75% ownership of the mill business, and they are left with no choice but to accept her demands.
Alexandra hears this conversation; and, upon the brothers' leaving, she confronts her mother about the nature of her father's death on the stairway. Regina denies any wrongdoing, but Alexandra is skeptical. Alexandra then states the importance of not idly watching people do evil, and Regina tells her daughter that she cannot do anything to stop her from leaving the household, while hoping that she stays. Alexandra runs away with newspaperman David (Richard Carlson). Regina is left wealthy, but completely alone.
The title comes from Chapter 2, Verse 15 in the Song of Solomon in the King James version of the Bible, which reads, "Take us the foxes, the little foxes, that spoil the vines: for our vines have tender grapes." The same passage also inspired the title of an unrelated film, Our Vines Have Tender Grapes.
Tallulah Bankhead had received critical acclaim for her performance in the 1939 Broadway production of Hellman's play, but director William Wyler, who previously had teamed with Bette Davis on Jezebel and The Letter, insisted on casting her in the lead role instead. Producer Samuel Goldwyn agreed, since none of Bankhead's films had been box office hits. (Coincidentally, Davis had recreated on film another of Bankhead's Broadway roles, Judith Traherne in Dark Victory.) However, Davis was reluctant, "On The Little Foxes I begged the producer, Samuel Goldwyn, to let Tallulah Bankhead play Regina because Tallulah was magnificent on the stage. He wouldn't let her." Initially Jack L. Warner refused to lend Davis to Goldwyn, who then offered the role to Miriam Hopkins. When Wyler refused to work with her, Goldwyn resumed negotiations with Warner and finally secured Davis for $385,000. As a contract player at Warner Bros., Davis was earning $3,000 a week, and when she discovered how much Warner had received for her appearance in Foxes, she demanded and ultimately received a share of the payment.
Wyler encouraged Davis to see Bankhead in the original play, which she did despite major misgivings. She later regretted doing so because after watching Bankhead's performance and reading Hellman's screenplay she felt compelled to create a totally different interpretation of the role, one she didn't feel suited the character. Bankhead had portrayed Regina as a victim forced to fight for her survival due to the contempt with which her brothers treated her, but Davis played her as a cold, conniving, calculating woman wearing a death mask of white powder she insisted makeup artist Perc Westmore create for her.
In her autobiography, A Lonely Life, Davis gave a different version about having to see Bankhead in the play. "A great admirer of hers, I wanted in no way to be influenced by her work. It was Willie's intention that I give a different interpretation of the part. I insisted that Tallulah had played it the only way it could be played. Miss Hellman's Regina was written with such definition that it could only be played one way." "I had to do that part exactly the way Tallulah did it, because that's the way Lillian Hellman wrote it. But I was always sad that Tallulah couldn't record Regina from the theatre, because she was marvelous." Charles Dingle, Carl Benton Reid, Dan Duryea, and Patricia Collinge all reprised their critically acclaimed Broadway performances. Critics preferred Bankhead's rendition of the role to Davis's, though the supporting cast was highly praised.
The character of David Hewitt was not in the original play. Hellman created him to add a second sympathetic male to stand alongside Horace among all the venomous Hubbard men.
Davis and Wyler frequently fought during filming, about everything from her appearance (Wyler thought she looked like a Kabuki performer, but Davis wanted to look older than her age as the part was written for a 40-year-old) to the set design (which Davis thought was far too opulent for a family supposedly struggling financially) to her interpretation of the role (Wyler wanted a more feminine and sympathetic Regina, akin to Tallulah's interpretation). Davis had yielded to Wyler's demands during production of The Letter, but this time she held her ground. Not helping the situation was the fact Los Angeles was experiencing its worst heat wave in years, and the temperature on the soundstages regularly rose above 100 degrees. Davis finally walked off the picture. "It was the only time in my career that I walked out on a film after the shooting had begun," she later recalled. "I was a nervous wreck due to the fact that my favorite and most admired director was fighting me every inch of the way ... I just didn't want to continue." The actress retreated to her rented house in Laguna Beach and "flatly refused to come back to work. It took a little courage, to say the least. Goldwyn had it in his power to sue me for the entire cost of the production." A week later she returned to the set after rumors she would be replaced by Katharine Hepburn or Miriam Hopkins began to circulate, although Goldwyn was not about to bear the expense of scrapping all the footage with Davis and refilming the scenes with a new actress. Even though the film was a critical and commercial success and nominated for nine Academy Awards, she and Wyler never worked together again.
The film premiered at Radio City Music Hall in New York City. The New York Times reported it was seen by 22,163 persons on its opening day, setting what was then an all-time attendance mark for a normal opening day at the theatre.
In 1946, Hellman wrote the play Another Part of the Forest, a prequel to Foxes. It was adapted for the screen in 1948.
In 2003, the character of Regina Giddens, played by Davis, was ranked #43 on the American Film Institute list of the 50 Best Villains of American Cinema.
In his review in The New York Times, Bosley Crowther observed,
Lillian Hellman's grim and malignant melodrama... has now been translated to the screen with all its original viciousness intact ... [It] leaps to the front as the most bitingly sinister picture of the year and as one of the most cruelly realistic character studies yet shown on the screen ... Mr. Wyler, with the aid of Gregg Toland, has used the camera to sweep in the myriad small details of a mauve decadent household and the more indicative facets of the many characters... Miss Davis's performance in the role which Talluluh Bankhead played so brassily on the stage is abundant with color and mood... she does occasionally drop an unmistakable imitation of her predecessor... Better than that, however, are the other members of the cast. Charles Dingle as Brother Ben Hubbard, the oldest and sharpest of the rattlesnake clan, is the perfect villain in respectable garb. Carl Benton Reid as Brother Oscar is magnificently dark, sullen and undependable. Patricia Collinge repeats her excellent stage performance... The Little Foxes will not increase your admiration for mankind. It is cold and cynical. But it is a very exciting picture to watch in a comfortably objective way, especially if you enjoy expert stabbing-in-the-back.
From starring Bette Davis down the line to the bit roles portrayed by minor Negroes the acting is well nigh flawless ... Marshall turns in one of his top performances ... On top of the smooth pace, Wyler has handled every detail with an acutely dramatic touch.
The film was popular at the box office but because of the favourable terms Sam Goldwyn enjoyed with distributor RKO, RKO recorded a loss of $140,000 on the film.Academy Award for Best Picture (Samuel Goldwyn)
Academy Award for Best Director (William Wyler)
Academy Award for Best Actress (Bette Davis)
Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress (Patricia Collinge and Teresa Wright)
Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay (Lillian Hellman)
Academy Award for Best Music, Scoring for a Dramatic Film (Meredith Willson)
Academy Award for Best Film Editing (Daniel Mandell)
Academy Award for Best Art Direction (Stephen Goosson, Howard Bristol)
The Little Foxes was presented February 11, 1946, on Screen Guild Theatre. The 30-minute adaptation starred Davis, Wright and Dingle in their roles from the film. Tallulah Bankhead (reprising her Broadway role) also gave a radio adaptation.
In 1975, the eighth episode of the ninth season of The Carol Burnett Show featured a take-off of the film called "The Little Foxies", with Carol Burnett as "Virgina Grubber Gibbons", Roddy McDowall as "Morris Gibbons", Harvey Korman as "Bosco Grubber", Vicki Lawrence as "Burly Grubber" and Tim Conway as "Theo Grubber".