In Southern aristocratic society at the turn of the twentieth century, Regina (Bette Davis) is focused on becoming independently wealthy from her terminally ill husband, who traditionally would only consider a son a legal heir. With her brothers, Oscar (Carl Benton Reid) and Ben (Charles Dingle), she decides to convince her husband to make an investment in a cotton mill company. She sends their daughter, Alexandra (Teresa Wright) to travel to Baltimore and bring him home. They take their time, simply because Horace (Herbert Marshall) is weak, but the brief father-daughter bonding time makes the illness less noticeable. From the moment he arrives, Regina, Oscar and Ben all just pester Horace and try to persuade him into the investment that will only cripple the local working class. When Horace declines, Regina is furious but Oscar and Ben find less honest ways to find the extra money.
With all this unhappy money talk stuffing up the house, there are also issues of young Alexandra’s future. At some points she seems to be following her mother’s terrible example, at other times she resembles her meek and miserable aunt Berdie (Patricia Collinge). Regina and Oscar want Alexandra to marry her cousin Leo (Dan Duryea), Oscar’s conniving son who misuses his job at the bank. But there is also David (Richard Carlson), the energetic young man who works for the newspaper and tries to write about the truth people have a right to hear that is kept out of his paper. David doesn’t act as high class as Alexandra’s meddling family, but he is twice as sincere and confident. He even sees Alexandra off at the train station in his pajamas.
Bette Davis puts up a magnificent performance as Regina. She seems almost unnaturally tall in her gowns that are so tight in the middle. There’s an air of domination every time she’s seen standing. Her cold expressions make us think that she is always plotting. And her quick coy manner of speech, always about money or manipulation, tells us that we can never trust her. Frankly, Davis makes Regina to be a classic, conspiring evil woman who only finds happiness in money and causing others pain and was rightfully nominated as Best Actress.
We see the poisonous effects Regina has on those around her. Alexandra has a few despicable moments that she knows would make her mother proud. It’s her father that sheds a positive moral light on Alexandra, making her realize the horrible influences she has been around.
At the heart of the story, adapted from Lillian Hellman’s play, is a moral of caution. The mill Regina and her brothers want to invest in will thrive on hard labor at terrible wages. While they are well aware of this, they conspire only with the intention to make themselves rich, not caring that their plan will only bring pain to everyone around them. The title of the film comes from a line in the Song of Solomon, “Take us the foxes, the little foxes, that spoil the vines: for our vines have tender grapes.” Alongside this idea of removing the destructive beings is the idea that it is just as wrong to watch the destruction happen without doing anything to stop it. It’s a tender moment watching all the good hearted characters in the story come together in a moral realization, and so triumphant when they act.
“I’ll die my own way, and I’ll do it without making the world worse. I leave that to you.”