When the American Film Institute released their list of the 50 most memorable villains to appear in an American film over the course of the first century of filmmaking, among the notable figures of malevolence to make the list were Darth Vader, the Wicked Witch of the West and Hannibal Lecter. Situated at number 43 on the list—two places higher than the Joker and three spots below Freddie Krueger was a name that probably had quite a few moviegoers scratching their heads in confusion over. Who was this Regina Giddens that the AFI considered a more dastardly movie character than Goldfinger or Keyser Soze?
The answer to that question is that Regina Giddens is the epitome of malevolence in a play written by Lillian Hellman which debuted on the first in 1939. The Little Foxes has probably been mounted on some stage or another at any given time since that debut; its combination of uncomplicated staging and juicy roles for a handful of actors beyond that playing Regina has ensured its already long legacy of success is in no danger of suddenly coming to an end. Hellman’s corrosively targeted revelation across three acts of the destructive capability that is an inherent and unavoidable aspect of capitalism has ensured that its staging will be gripping independent of specific talents mounting the next production.
While The Little Foxes does not limit its choice of plum roles that actors love to take on to Regina, she nevertheless remains the central attraction because of the extraordinary talent that Hellman reveals in delineating a character whose unbound ambition and unlimited store of ruthless greed still has the power to jolt even in the aftermath of real-life analogues ranging from the smartest guys in the room at Enron to Bernie Madoff to Donald Trump.
The Little Foxes brings palpably to life the milieu of turn of the 20th century southern life among the faded aristocracy of those who managed to either survive or take advantage of the post-Reconstruction era. Most of the action is limited to the living room of Regina Giddens and her husband whose illness has already taken him halfway to his final destination with the grave. That living room exudes the sense of capitalist success that burns like a subterranean fire beneath the oblivious elegance above. Visiting the Giddens is one William Marshall who has arrived from Chicago with a mission to negotiate for the construction of a cotton mill.
Hellman’s own family was the inspiration for Regina and her equally scheming siblings, but the reality is that this story really could not be set anywhere else but the South, where capitalism had briefly—if for far too long—enjoyed its experiment of operating with complete freedom and no restrictions imposed by regulation. Nowhere north of the Mason-Dixon Line could Hellman have situated her allegory on the consequences that inevitably come due when wealth is attained through the most repugnant form of opportunism and where such an ideology is passed down through the lineage like a House of Usher-esque viral strain. Materialism, acquisitiveness and a general overriding lack of basic human decency is on full display in The Little Foxes and the most important thing to remember is that corrosive portrait of Dixie style capitalism is set nearly half a century after the Emancipation Proclamation and passage of the 13th Amendment.
Nevertheless, the specter of the legacy of slave labor and the supposedly genteel aristocracy that profited so robustly from that labor permeates throughout the narrative of the play, rising to the surface in dozens of subtle little moments that serve as convincing enough evidence that all the revisionism and dissembling of historical fact in the world will never allow the legacy of ownership of human beings as properties to ever be erased from the genome of the illusion referred to as the Confederacy.