In A Woman’s Face and The Little Foxes we meet two of cinema’s baddest bad girls: Anna Holm (Joan Crawford) and Regina (Bette Davis.) First, how did they get to be so bad?
Anna was physically scarred in childhood by a fire. Subjected to rudeness and mockery by pitiless smooth-faced people, she decided at age sixteen that if the world was going to be against her, she would be against the world. Consequently Anna embarked on a career of blackmail and presumably other criminal activity as well. Even as an adult, when we are introduced to this woman, she is still mocked by her cohorts on account of her disfigured face and abrasive personality. We understand that her character has been formed by her face, that beneath the scars there is another potential Anna. The cause of her problems is physical and amenable to correction.
Regina’s personality has been formed by different forces. Although quite presentable in appearance and possessing social status, she became embittered about being passed over in her father’s will which divided the estate between her two brothers. Further disappointment came with her husband, who was never sufficiently acquisitive or ruthless in business to satisfy her lust for wealth. The root causes of Regina’s personality could be called sociological. Her situation is the converse of Anna’s: Regina’s hard, aristocratic, disdainful face has been formed by her character.
Anna is influenced by sexual attraction and a certain kind of misdirected loyalty to become the pawn of Torsten Byrig, the lover who “saw the hard shining brightness of her.” He attempts to manipulate her into doing his dirty work, which she goes along with by posing as a governess and planning to kill the nephew who stands between Byrig and a fortune. Like the original causes of her personality, the cause of her willingness to murder a child is also physical (her infatuation for Byrig).
Regina is nobody’s pawn. Instead, she manipulates others. She sends her daughter to Baltimore to convince her husband to return, and attempts to coerce the same daughter into marrying her dumb cousin Leo. She rejects the girl’s young newspaperman suitor out of hand., Regina does not dissemble or pretend to be other than she is – even though her brother Ben repeatedly counsels “softness and a smile,” Regina makes no bones about the fact that she is a disciple of naked power. Her machinations are inspired only secondarily by material greed – her primary focus is hatred for the husband she perceives as weak and worthless. She tells him quite clearly, “I hope you die – I’ll be waiting for you to die” – she despises the man. The murder she commits is rather a sin of omission – she watches as he has a heart attack, spills his medication, crawls up the stairs… throughout all this, Regina sits rigid and implacable. When she’s sure Horace is dead, she makes a fuss and calls for help. Afterwards, when she finds out about the stolen bonds, her manipulations continue – if she’s not cut in for 75% she threatens to put her brothers in jail.
Anna is capable of change. Influenced by love for the boy under her care, and good feelings toward the doctor, Anna becomes a different woman. When her chance to carry out the planned murder comes, a ride in an aerocar, she is unable to proceed. When the second opportunity presents itself – the sleigh ride – she comes to a crux of decision and shoots Byrig rather than allow him to kill the boy. Another change in Anna is that somewhere along the way she has realized that sex does not equal love. Capable of change, Anna is also capable of guilt – after writing a note to the consul warning him of Byrig’s plans for murder, she planned to kill herself. But she is redeemed by love, and admits to the doctor that she just wants to be like the rest of the human race – get married, have babies, and so on.
Regina is not influenced by love for anyone. She probably thinks she loves daughter Zan and has Zan’s best interests in mind when arranging the marriage and scheming for money. She is capable of change only slightly and temporarily – crumbling near the end of the film, she shows unfamiliar weakness and asks Zan to sleep in her room for comfort – but this softness doesn’t last long. In the last shot of the film, Regina’s sinister face, mask firmly back in place, is seen at the window. She is her old self again, the self whose motives are plain. As she has told Zan, “I’m going to get you the world I always wanted.” – the world of wealth and power. She began with these priorities and she ends with them.