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Director William Wyler discusses The Little Foxes with star Bette Davis.  Copyright MGM

On February 15, 1939, when "The Little Foxes" premiered on Broadway, Lillian Hellman approached her aunt Florence Newhouse during intermission and pointedly asked, "Well, do you recognize your relatives?" The play was not flattering to the Marxes and Newhouses, the Demopolis families thinly disguised as the Hubbards in the drama about greed and manipulation in the Reconstruction South. If the theatrical stage has a Scarlett O'Hara, it is Regina Hubbard Giddens who conspires with her brothers to procure bond money from her husband Horace. Conveniently Horace suffers with a bad heart, and the resourceful Regina finds a way to use his health to her advantage.

Picture Left: Tallulah Bankhead of Alabama
Notorious Alabama actress Tallulah Bankhead, the daughter of U.S. Representative Will Bankhead, triumphed in the Regina role on Broadway. The response to the play, itself, was so favorable that Lillian became the "most famous woman playwright in the world" according to festival guest Deborah Martinson. In his book about Miss Bankhead, entitled TALLULAH!, festival guest Joel Lobenthal describes a "Foxes" incident that sent Lillian into a rare panic.

During a breakfast scene, the Hubbards casually share a local newspaper. Broadway director Herman Shumlin instructed stage manager Ben Krantz to duplicate a vintage Demopolis newspaper for the scene. When Hellman saw the props during a rehearsal, she screamed to the stage crew: "Get all those destroyed immediately. I'll be sued! I'll be sued for libel. Get them out!" The Demopolis newspapers were quickly destroyed.

Picture Above: Birmingham News ad for Tallulah Bankhead in
The Little Foxes, 1941. (click image to enlarge)

Until "Foxes," Hellman had been a celebrated member of the Marx family. When "These Three" came to the Marengo Theatre in Demopolis for a Sunday, August 23, 1936, showing, the DEMOPOLIS TIMES ad for the Wyler film exclaimed, "Written by Lillian Hellman formerly of Demopolis and the niece of Mr. Henry Marx!" Evidence also strongly indicates that Hellman visited her Alabama family. A plantation in "Foxes" called Lionnet resembles, by its description in the play, the Demopolis mansions owned by the prosperous Lyon family. Hellman friends and scholars also suggest that Regina is modeled on Hellman's grandmother Sophie and that Birdie is inspired by her mother Julia.

Picture to Right: Bette Davis as Regina in "Foxes." 
Copyright MGM.

The family emotions captured within "Foxes" caught the attention of Hellman's friend William Wyler. Undoubtedly he was aware of the family influences in "Foxes” given his marriage to a member of the Demopolis Tallichet family. Wyler and Hellman had their own vision of how "The Little Foxes" should be brought to the screen, and it did not include Jasper native Tallulah Bankhead. They favored box office queen Bette Davis, Wyler's love interest before his marriage to Margaret Tallichet.

Bankhead and Hellman clashed during the Broadway run of the play. Lillian claimed to be unnerved by Tallulah's "scarlet" reputation. Bankhead disliked Hellman's support of Russia against Nazi Germany and accused her of being a Communist. That accusation and Bankhead's high-maintenance tantrums did not sit well with Hellman. After the curtain came down on "Foxes," Hellman and Bankhead would not speak for thirty years.

Wyler's film of Hellman's Demopolis saga opened to huge lines around Radio City Music Hall on August 21, 1941. The movie was a smash hit in the United States and Europe. It was honored with nine Oscar nominations, a record for any Alabama based motion picture until "Forrest Gump" in 1994. The movie had its Alabama debut at Birmingham's Empire Theatre on January 15, 1942, with praise for the Bette Davis performance in the NEWS review.

Above: Scenes from Hellman and Wyler's "The Little Foxes," starring Bette Davis
Copyright MGM.

When Tallulah Bankhead appeared with the play in Birmingham a year earlier at the Temple Theatre, on February 11 and 12, 1941, the reviews had been more euphoric. Critic Vincent Townsend wrote after Bankhead's first performance: "Birmingham found out Tuesday night why THE LITTLE FOXES is one of the most talked of plays of the day, and why Miss Bankhead has been hailed as one of the greatest actresses of the day. Lillian Hellman, who wrote THE LITTLE FOXES, has created in Regina Hubbard Giddens a woman who knew what she wanted, a character that will long be remembered on the stage. Miss Bankhead has taken the Hellman creation and made it her own by breathing into the role all the nervous energy for which she is famous."

Above: Scenes from Hellman and Wyler's "The Little Foxes," starring Bette Davis
Copyright MGM.

Of Bankhead's performance, Hellman told interviewer Jan Albert in 1975: "She turned out at first as I've written many times: very, very, very good. And later on in the run of the play, not very good." Of Hellman, in her autobiography, Tallulah Bankhead wrote, "Great as is my admiration for Lillian Hellman as a playwright, I could never again rejoice in her company."

  For Information contact:
The Hellman Wyler Festival

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