An early scene in The Little Foxes (William Wyler, 1941) features Birdie Hubbard (Patricia Collinge) sitting in her house, alone at the table, after the husband and son she doesn’t love have left her for the bank they both work at. Framed with the table in front of her, and staircase behind, she sits below a birdcage, which has a little birdie flitting about inside the bars. An obvious metaphor, the birdcage is still a powerful figure to provide a parallel visual to a woman trapped by society and expectation. But there is more, in the case of Birdie’s entrapment. She must suffer the punishing comments and intimidation of her sister in law, Regina Giddens (Bette Davis).
Regina is a bitter woman, whose eyes flicker with hatred. She is as excellent as so many Bette Davis characters are, and her eyes flickers as much as any of her characters should. The moment in the film’s final chapters when she pauses, as though she is really shamed by her estranged husband Horace (Herbert Marshall) and genuinely scared that she will be left with nothing. It’s not only her eyes that betray her but her entire body, which tightens back into her armchair and grips against its form. For a long time, her demeanour doesn’t change, except that, perhaps, she seems to be getting more and more fearful. Then she acts; her eyes widen and she darts out of her chair, shouting for the housekeeper; a complete reversal from the still, silent, listening body of only a moment before. It is a powerhouse Bette moment.
The film is one that is defined, visually, by Wyler’s use of thirds to divide up the frame. This is largely spatial, with the large houses of the aristocratic South set up perfectly for such shots. As well, though, these shots always pit one person against another, or leave them excluded. It’s a technique that travelled with him through his career, threaded through even until Funny Girl in 1968. He wasn’t entirely happy with Davis’ performance, with whom he had worked before with great results (on Jezebel , The Letter , but Wyler certainly makes a good film.
The final set of thirds is this; Regina withdrawing into the shadows. Is she now trapped? Only by what she has done herself. Not surprisingly, because Bette Davis is the star with whom we should associate and because Marshall, extremely pleasant as always, does not have enough screen time, I want her to succeed. It is her versus her even more vulgar brothers, after all; more vulgar because they they possess the automatic privilege of their gender, or of what society is able to provide to their gender. Regina, along with Birdie, is alone, behind bars.