On How ‘The Foxes of Harrow’ Is Definitely Not Like ‘Gone With the Wind’

foxesposterTo cap this year’s Summer Under the Stars series, TCM devotes the last day of August to British actor Rex Harrison, best remembered as Professor Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady. Harrison’s extensive career was more diverse and interesting than his signature role suggests, which is true of most actors whose life-long work has been reduced to one famous role.

During the 1940s, Harrison was under contract to 20th Century Fox, where he was cast in a variety of films, including Anna and the King of Siam, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, and Unfaithfully Yours. Supposedly, Harrison was unhappy at Fox because he felt the studio did not appreciate his talents for sophisticated romantic comedy. He was granted a release from his contract, though I suspect Fox’s decision to let him go had more to do with the scandal resulting from Harrison’s role in the suicide of Carole Landis. Frankly, this is the only phase of Harrison’s career that I find interesting. There is something unlikable about his movie-star image, which began as an arrogant, supercilious cad in the 1940s and evolved into a stuffy patriarch by the 1960s. The publicity surrounding his unsuccessful marriages and dalliances only furthered this aspect of his persona. At least his roles for Fox either used this persona to its best advantage or softened it.

ODALIE WATCHES AS THE SCOUNDREL STEPHEN FOX IS THROWN OFF THE RIVER BOAT.

ODALIE WATCHES AS THE SCOUNDREL STEPHEN FOX IS THROWN OFF THE RIVER BOAT.

Many of Harrison’s movies for Fox were box office hits, but The Foxes of Harrow was not well received by the public, and it got mixed reviews from critics. The film is flawed for sure, but there is much about this historic drama set in the antebellum South that I found fascinating. It airs at midnight on Saturday night, after The Rake’s Progress. (Two other films that the actor made for Fox also air that day: Anna and the King of Siam at 8:00pm and Unfaithfully Yours at 3:00pm.) The Foxes of Harrow stars Harrison as Stephen Fox, the illegitimate son of an aristocratic family in Ireland. Just after his birth, he is given away to a working-class family on the condition that he is never seen at Harrow again. Three decades later, the adult Stephen Fox makes his living as a notorious gambler aboard the river boats that cruise the Mississippi River. Caught cheating on one river boat, Fox is abandoned on to a sandbar in the middle of the river as Odalie D’Arceneaux, the beautiful daughter of a Creole plantation owner, watches his dilemma with some interest. When her maid remarks how attractive he is, Odalie, played by Maureen O’Hara, notes, “Of course, he’s a scoundrel,” revealing that the familiar feminine weakness for bad boys dates back centuries.

HARRISON AS  THE HANDSOME ROGUE STEPHEN FOX

HARRISON AS THE HANDSOME ROGUE STEPHEN FOX

As a scoundrel, Fox always extricates himself from sticky situations, and he is soon in New Orleans. He helps a Creole aristocrat out of an embarrassing ordeal, securing the wealthy man’s friendship and an introduction into Odalie’s social set. Fox is determined to win Odalie’s hand, but she resists him at every turn. Using his gambling skills, he wins the admiration of the Creole plantation owners as well as the deed to a failing plantation, which he re-christens Harrow. He brings Harrow back to life through hard work and an uncanny ability to predict the market for cotton and sugar cane futures. Odalie marries Stephen, who is now a successful and important member of her community, but their marriage is anything but a happy one. As the bitterness between them grows, Fox becomes a hard, cynical man. Harrison’s star image as a cad serves him well as he plays Fox as an embittered but still rakish rogue, who walks a thin line between being disillusioned and just plain unlikable.

Comparisons are often made between The Foxes of Harrow and Gone With the Wind, because of the antebellum setting and the tumultuous courtship of the two principle characters. However, I find the comparison to be superficial. GWTW takes place during the Civil War and Reconstruction, which entails a wholly different set of themes than The Foxes of Harrow, which is set at the height of the antebellum era. Also, Rhett and Scarlet experience ups and downs in their passionate relationship, while Odalie and Stephen’s ugly marriage is definitely not the stuff of high romance.  Most importantly, the source material for each film is written from different perspectives regarding the mores and customs of the Old South: While white Southerner Margaret Mitchell penned Gone With the Wind, African American author Frank Yerby wrote the novel The Foxes of Harrow.

FRANK YERBY

FRANK YERBY

Born in Georgia, Yerby was educated at Paine College and Fisk University, where he earned a master’s degree. The daily realities of racial discrimination prompted him to move to Chicago in 1938, where he attended the University of Chicago and got involved with the Federal Writers Project for the WPA. Traveling back and forth between the North and the South, he worked at a variety of skilled jobs while writing short stories and novels. The Foxes of Harrow, a historical romance, was published by Dial Books in 1946 and optioned by Twentieth Century Fox for $150,000. According to the TCM page on this film, The Foxes of Harrow was the first novel by an African American writer to sell more than one million copies, and Yerby was the first black author to become a millionaire. Though working within the conventions and constraints of historical romance (melodrama), Yerby managed to depict a racial landscape that was far more complex than Mitchell’s and black characters who defied stereotypes and wielded authority.

The novel was adapted for the screen by Wanda Tuchock, who codirected Finishing School, the Ginger Rogers pre-Code film that I wrote about a few weeks ago. In contemporary reviews of the film, much has been made of the way the script gutted the book’s African American storyline. I have not read the book, so I will paraphrase from other sources. In the film, the ethnic diversity that has always made New Orleans unique and sophisticated has been reduced to Creole plantation owners and their African slaves. An elder-woman and voodoo queen among the slaves, Tante Caleen, who wielded much influence over Stephen Fox in the novel, is barely included in the film. She has only one memorable scene, which warps her character into that of an old woman who practices voodoo against the wishes of Stephen and Odalie. Stephen’s mistress, Desiree, is a quadroon in the book, but she is white in the film, largely because the Production Code forbade any hint of miscegenation. The slave uprising, which is considered a historical foreshadowing of increased turmoil over slavery in the book, is diluted in the film to be an example of Odalie’s inability to run the plantation without Stephen.

THE SLAVE AUCTION IN NEW ORLEANS

THE SLAVE AUCTION IN NEW ORLEANS

The critics are correct: The novel’s depiction of the slaves and their plights has indeed been reduced to a few key scenes. However, I found the adaptation by Tuchock, who is credited with the story for the all-black musical Hallelujah, to be deliberate in terms of what it did include. In other words, while Tuchock did cut out sections of the book that would have been controversial for any Hollywood movie in 1947, she also deliberately re-structured the storyline. In doing so, the film shifts the story toward a different theme, one that suggests a female perspective. The criticism of slavery as an institution is still in the film, albeit subtle and slight. In an early scene in the French market in New Orleans, Stephen Fox views his first slave auction. In this market, customers can buy fresh fruit, goods, regional delicacies to munch while browsing, an alcoholic beverage—and slaves. Upon witnessing the slave auction, Stephen remarks to his aristocratic friend with just the right amount of acidity, “They seem to trade in everything here.” The scene establishes the idea that certain human beings are property in this aristocratic, patriarchal society. And, while the story does not focus on slavery, it does showcase another institution in which people were sometimes treated like property—marriage. Stephen works as hard to court Odalie as he does to restore Harrow; both are measures of his success in status as a member of the land-owning aristocracy. He tells Odalie he is restoring Harrow for her, yet his idea of courtship is not to romance her but to insult her and strip her of her pride. His goal is not to win her over, but to simply win her—as though she were a prize. This is evidenced during the wedding night, when Stephen chooses to drink a few rounds with the group of uncouth river rats who had rescued him from the sandbar. Alone and afraid in a house filled with drunken louts, Odalie locks her door. When a drunken Stephen finally returns upstairs to a locked bedroom, he breaks the door down in a rage and forces himself on her. That the act is rape and not consensual sex is telegraphed in the image of a broken door, torn from its hinges and cast in ominous shadows. The door is shot from Odalie’s point of view.  The night’s encounter results in the birth of a son, whom Stephen treats as his property to mold and shape based on his warped vision of the world.

STEPHEN TEARS DOWN THE DOOR TO GET TO ODALIE, A VISUAL METAPHOR IF THERE EVER WAS ONE

STEPHEN TEARS DOWN THE DOOR TO GET TO ODALIE, A VISUAL METAPHOR IF THERE EVER WAS ONE

The most interesting aspect of Tuchock’s script is the way Odalie and Stephen’s relationship is paralleled with that of a slave and his wife. Stephen buys a beautiful slave woman who has just arrived from Africa. She is angry, rebellious, and refuses to act subserviently. She arrives at Harrow in ropes, lashing out at anyone who tries to get near her. A slave named Tom, who is Stephen’s right-hand man, eyes the proud African woman with lust and envy. Stephen tells him, “If you can get her off the wagon, she’s yours.” This sequence occurs in the period when Stephen is courting Odalie, who admits her attraction to him, but she resists his attempts to wear her down.  Later, Tom and the new slave, renamed Belle, are presented as man and wife. While there is obvious passion between them, there is also unresolved tension. Likewise, Stephen and Odalie have an underlying attraction for each other but remain estranged. Neither Stephen nor Tom respect their wives’ wishes or feelings, which has horrible consequences for both couples. Stephen’s callous disregard of Odalie on their wedding night taints their marriage, while Tom’s inability to understand Belle’s plan for their son on the night of his birth results in tragedy.

I recommend The Foxes of Harrow because of its dark view of the antebellum South, compared to Gone With the Wind, and for its even darker view of marriage in which women are treated as property or as objects to be won. It’s a view that is not erased by the tacked-on ending in which, in true Hollywood fashion, a feeble attempt is made to restore order on the plantation and to suggest hope for an institution that has been subtly compared to slavery.

21 Responses On How ‘The Foxes of Harrow’ Is Definitely Not Like ‘Gone With the Wind’
Posted By Devora : August 26, 2013 12:39 pm

I have never seen this movie. Thx for the review. Now I will be sure to watch.

Posted By Arthur : August 26, 2013 2:16 pm

Susan, thank you for the heads up. I will watch this film on Saturday.

In what I believe was his final novel, many years later, Yerby revisits the same territory in his book, The Darkness At Ingrahmms’ Crest, but here the hero is an enslaved Black man with nearly supernatural powers.

The way Stephen knocked that door down and came after the woman, may have been the inspiration for Cary Cooper’s behavior with Patricia Neal in Fountainhead. And, yes this film is an interesting comparison to Gone With the Wind.

BTW in 1957 Gable reprises his Gone With The wind Role in Band of Angels. He has the same exact outfit, but different sensibilities in keeping with the later era. Here Sidney Poitier plays a rebellious enslaved African

Posted By Susan Doll : August 26, 2013 2:27 pm

Arthur: Thanks for the info on Yerby’s last novel. I found his life story interesting, and I may actually try to track down one of his novels. I like romantic historical novels, as I think melodrama is an underrated aesthetic.

I have seen BAND OF ANGELS, though it was a while ago. I remember liking it quite a lot.

Posted By LD : August 26, 2013 3:57 pm

Have yet to see FOXES OF HARROW or read the book but they both sound very interesting. I have seen BAND OF ANGELS which was made a decade later and could deal with miscegenation. The production code must have been somewhat flexible. Both SHOWBOATs touched on the issue, as did PINKY, which will air on TCM tonight. Miscegenation also appears in RAINTREE COUNTY, although it may be imaginary.

As for Rex Harrison, his appeal as “Sexy Rexy” didn’t impress me much, until I saw him in THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR.

Posted By medusamorlock : August 26, 2013 4:55 pm

Now I know what I’ll be DVRing on Saturday night! I agree about Harrison’s screen image — I think he’s a bit more pleasant and appealing in “The Ghost and Mrs. Muir” also for Fox, but that might be because of the serene and lovely Gene Tierney softening his aloofness.

Interesting info about Yerby — quite an output he had.

They also used to say that “Reap the Wild Wind” was a kind of GWTW-like movie, and I like that one a lot.

Great post!!

Posted By Arthur : August 26, 2013 6:09 pm

They once asked Yerby, “When are you going to write the great American novel.” And he shot back, “Show me the great American audience and then I’ll try to write the great American novel.” He seemed a bit defensive about the commercial nature of his writing.

At any rate, the inability to deal squarely and fairly with race, the great unresolved issue, may be at the crux of the inability to write the great American novel. Yerby’s tales all danced around race. Darkness and Ingraham’s Crest goes so far in the other direction, the Black hero has is literally a superhero, it is hard to read. Doctorow’s Ragtime may have hit the nail squarely on the head.

Posted By bettyg : August 26, 2013 10:22 pm

I did read the book a long time ago. My Mom had it with all her old books from the forties. As I recall, there were several scenes that were pretty erotic for the forties! I’m sure those scenes were NOT used in the movie!

Posted By Doug : August 26, 2013 11:20 pm

My mother also had some works by Yerby-I thought that they were romance novels-I guess I did judge some books by their covers.
As a kid I thought that Harrison was okay, if a bit cold. All right in Dr. Doolittle, though I was more impressed by Samantha Eggar. Ah, youth!
“Stephen’s mistress, Desiree, is a quadroon in the book, but she is white in the film, largely because the Production Code forbade any hint of miscegenation.” Stupid production code got knocked into insignificance when the great artist Brooks cooked up some dandy miscegenation in “Blazing Saddles”.
We may never become totally colorblind, but I appreciate that these days whomever can be with whomever else without comment.

Posted By Arthur : August 27, 2013 2:53 am

My mom also introduced me to Yerby. It was her favorite author. The Foxes of Harrow is basically a Romance novel with a hint of race. In New Orleans they had Quadroon Balls in which women who were one quarter Black could marry a white man and their one eighth black child would be considered white. That’s how much Yerby had to “white” wash his novel. But the film even took that out.

Posted By Funbud : August 27, 2013 9:35 am

The movie made a great impression on me as a kid when I would see it (repeatedly) on the “Million Dollar Movie” in the NYC area. They showed a lot of Fox and Warner Bros films, MGM not so much.

I remember tracking the book down in college and reading it. It has several quite erotic scenes for the time including one where O’Hara’s character consults a voodoo priestess to help with her frigidity. Needless to say, that one didn’t make the screenplay!

Yerby’s novel “Goat Song” (1967)on quite a different subject (the Ancient Spartans) is well worth a read. I’ve often thought it would make a good movie or sword-and-sandals TV series.

Posted By jennifromrollamo : August 27, 2013 10:50 am

Interesting read and perturbed with myself for not dvring this movie. Hoping TCM airs it again in the future. A brit movie that is a lot like GWTW is The Wicked Woman, starring Margaret Lockwood, James Mason, and Michael Rennie. http://www.criterion.com/films/28017-the-wicked-lady

Posted By jennifromrollamo : August 27, 2013 10:50 am

Oops- I mean The Wicked Lady. The 1945 version is the better of the two versions out there. Faye Dunaway starred in a remake.

Posted By Kingrat : August 27, 2013 12:55 pm

Susan, thank you so much for the post. I’ll be recording this one. For those who enjoy the other “Scarlett O’Hara” movies like REAP THE WILD WIND and JEZEBEL, there’s also Susan Hayward and Tyrone Power in UNTAMED, with an Irish Scarlett-like character and a South African setting. It’s not on a par with them, but still interesting.

Posted By Susan Doll : August 27, 2013 1:02 pm

Jenni: You can still DVR this movie. It is on this coming Saturday, Aug. 31, at midnight on Rex Harrison’s day under the Summer Under the Stars banner.

Posted By Susan Doll : August 27, 2013 1:03 pm

I am glad this movie generated interest, though, like I said, it is flawed. Wish we all lived in the same city, we could have a Foxes party and watch it together.

Posted By Arthur : August 27, 2013 1:16 pm

Susan, next best thing would be for those who are available this Saturday at midnight, watch it live and send comments immediately after.

Posted By jennifromrollamo : August 27, 2013 4:01 pm

Thanks Susan for the update! I thought it had aired this past Sat.

Posted By Mike McCrann : August 28, 2013 7:13 pm

This movie is very interesting as I watched it on the Fox Movie Channel a few months ago. I had never seen it and was very curious especially after the way Maureen O’Hara trashed Rex Harrison in her memoirs. (Almost everyone else who worked with Harrison said pretty much the same.) Curiously he was apparently very civil to Doris Day in Midnight Lace but co-star Myrna Loy said she was invisible to him. The best part of Foxes of Harrow is Maureen O’Hara who was gorgeous and fiery in the role. And Rex Harrison for all his personal drawbacks was very entertaining in his Fox 40s films. My only complaint about Summer Under The Stars is that the TCM Guide had listed Escape as one of Harrison’s films to be shown. This Joseph L. Mankiewicz 1948 film was shot in England with the glorious Peggy Cummins. It is never shown and I have never seen it. Sounds like they could not get a print from Fox either as it has been replaced. Rumor has it that Harrison wanted to go to England to be close to Carole Landis who was filming there too. The contemporary reviews of Escape were not too hot but it is starting to become a “lost” title. Watch Foxes of Harrow. Not really good but pretty fascinating. When Maureen gets her whip and goes after the slaves all hell breaks loose!

Posted By LD : September 1, 2013 8:39 am

Last night I watched all but the first half hour of FOXES OF HARROW. I enjoyed it, especially Maureen O’Hara’s performance. It was interesting comparing Odalie and Belle. They were higher in social status than their husbands, Belle was apparently royalty, but within their respective systems they were powerless. Both women were captured and refused to use the only weapon they had, the ability to manipulate by using charm. They are not Scarlett O’Hara. Defiance is not as powerful a weapon as seduction. The characters differ in how they choose to resolve their situations. The film gives a negative perspective of a woman’s place in antebellum society.

Posted By Lourdes Wade : May 6, 2014 6:59 pm

I love Rex Harrison and am very disappointed in TCM that none of his movies have been aired. I most wanted to watch Blythe Spirit and have never seen it on TCM. I am a great fan of TCM but this does disappointment me greatly. I would like to see Rex Harrison feature week of movies instead of just one day in August with only a couple of movies on for him. He is a great actor of his time there is no one quite like him.

Thank you.

Lourdes.

Posted By Lourdes Wade : May 6, 2014 7:01 pm

Rex Harrison Featured in TCM All his movies please a tribute would be nice showing all his moview – “WHEN”?

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