The Foxes of Harrow
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Twentieth Century-Fox drew on Rex Harrison's "sexy Rexy" image for this 1947 romance set in the Antebellum South. Some critics would suggest he had gone to the well once too often with this one, as the role bore obvious echoes of Rhett Butler and Showboat lead Gaylord Ravenal, but it still provides a fascinating glimpse at the actor's early career, before he became inescapably linked with the role of Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady (1964).
Harrison stars as Stephen Fox, the illegitimate grandson of the master of the House of Harrow in Ireland. While seeking his fortune as a gambler in the U.S. he falls in love with aristocratic Creole Maureen O'Hara, prompting him to build a plantation empire in pre-Civil War Louisiana. Class differences tear the lovers apart until a financial crisis forces them to reevaluate their love.
The Foxes of Harrow was one of the best-selling novels of 1946, prompting Fox to pay $150,000 for the screen rights. The book bore more than a passing resemblance to other historical romances like Gone With the Wind and Anthony Adverse, but its first-time author was an original. Frank Yerby was the first African-American writer to become a millionaire, and his debut book was the first by an African-American writer to sell more than a million copies. When Fox bought the screen rights, he also became the first African-American to sell a novel to a major Hollywood studio. As a condition of the sale, he told Ebony magazine, he insisted that his black characters not be turned into the stereotyped slaves of most Hollywood films, but rather maintain their humanity. Fox dealt with those demands by reducing the book's African-American characters to mere walk-ons, with only Belle, a slave recently brought over from Africa, retaining any of her anger and revolutionary fervor. In addition, Harrison's part-black mistress, Desiree, became a white woman played by Patricia Medina.
Most of the changes were caused by studio head Darryl F. Zanuck's desire to focus the film on the romantic story in hopes of creating another Gone With the Wind (1939). Changing Desiree's race was purely practical. The Production Code forbade any depiction of interracial romance, which also would have led to the film's being banned in several Southern states. The Code also dictated that the relationship between leading man and mistress be purely platonic. Any physical comforts she supplies after Harrow's estrangement from his wife are only implied.
Originally, Zanuck wanted to cast Gregory Peck as Stephen Harrow. When that fell through, he turned to Harrison, an actor he had imported from England a year earlier. This would be Harrison's first true romantic lead in the U.S. His first two roles at Fox were King Mongkut in Anna and the King of Siam (1946) and the eponymous spirit in The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947). Harrison was none too pleased with the assignment, fearing that it indicated the studio's failure to grasp his true talents as a romantic comedian. To his thinking, he should have been playing the kinds of roles given Cary Grant, but the film industry had typed him as a character lead. They even made him grow a moustache for the role of Stephen Harrow. Although moustaches had helped make Clark Gable, Ronald Colman and David Niven stars, the look did little for Harrison, who would never wear one again.
For leading lady, he cast Maureen O'Hara, an ironic choice given that the British-born Harrison was playing an Irishman while the Irish to the bone O'Hara was cast as a Creole. Although O'Hara would become noted later as a singer of Irish folk songs and would appear in musicals on stage, this was the first film in which she would sing. Like the film's director, John M. Stahl, O'Hara had been angling to work on Forever Amber (1947), Fox's big historical romance at the time. Her consignment to The Foxes of Harrow instead may have resulted from her status as a shared star. Her contract was jointly owned by Fox and RKO, and neither studio was eager to promote her in major star vehicles knowing that another studio would benefit from the investment.
Although only shot in black-and-white, the film still bore an impressive price tag of $2.75 million, with sets lavish enough to win an Oscar® nomination. The critics, however, were rather divided. Although Variety saw commercial prospects in the admittedly overlong feature and praised Harrison and O'Hara for "[carrying] the highly dramatic scenes with surprising skill," Bosley Crowther savaged the film in The New York Times with words like "dull" and "pompous." Harrison was criticized for acting with "a grim and somewhat testy air which is mildly sardonic and intriguing but doesn't reveal anything." Worst of all, they reported that audiences at the premiere engagement in New York were laughing at the dramatic scenes. The film ended up losing money, though Zanuck would blame the loss on his having let the budget grow too large. Earlier the studio had optioned a sequel from Yerby, but when he presented his story outline, the matter was dropped.
Producer: William A. Bacher
Director: John M. Stahl
Screenplay: Wanda Tuchock
Based on the novel by Frank Yerby
Cinematography: Joseph LaShelle
Music: David Buttolph
Cast: Rex Harrison (Stephen Fox), Maureen O'Hara (Odalie 'Lillie' D'Arceneaux), Richard Haydn (Andre LeBlanc), Victor McLaglen (Captain Mike Farrell), Vanessa Brown (Aurore D'Arceneaux), Patricia Medina (Desiree), Gene Lockhart (Viscount Henri D'Arceneaux), Hugo Haas (Otto Ludenbach), Roy Roberts (Tom Warren), Andre Charlot (Dr. Terrebone), Joseph Crehan (Riverboat Captain), Celia Lovsky (Minna Ludenbach), William Schallert (Philadelphia Banker).
By Frank Miller