Interesting ante-Bellum New Orleans role mantic drama. Rex Harrison is gambler Stephen Fox. Maureen O’Hara, his love interest, is Lilli D’Arceneaux; more D’Arceneauxs include sister Aurore (Vanessa Brown), and their father Viscount Henri (Gene Lockhart). Notable among many other characters are Andre LeBlanc (Richard Haydn), Sean Fox (Charles Irwin), Etienne Fox (Jimmy Moss), Captain Farrell (Victor McLanglen), Desiree (Patricia Medina), Belle (Suzette Harbin), and Otto Ludenbach (Hugo Haas).
We start in 1795, in Ireland, Stephen’s mother has “brought shame on the house of Harrow” by giving birth to him, illegitimately. Fast forward to 1827, on a Mississippi River steamboat. Lilli (Odelie) and Aurore witness a man put off board, basically exiled to die, on a sand bar. It’s Stephen, rescued by Captain Farrell’s riverboat. Stephen needs a bribe to escape his benefactor, however.
Stephen gets ashore at New Orleans. He and an accomplice, Andre, waylay a drunk. At Andre’s mansion, the D’Arceneaux sisters drop by with an invitation to that night’s ball; Lilli is fairly shocked to see Stephen, both because she considers him an interloper, and because she thought him dead. But Stephen’s clever with the old Viscount, so he gets invited to their gambling table, as well as getting another dance with Lilli.
Next day, a picturesque market scene, and another, less pleasant kind of market–a slave auction. Soon Stephen starts gaming with Otto, whose bankroll he has no trouble taking. Otto even loses his plantation, Harrow; the cardplay is very tense and dramatic. It’s capped off by an equally tense duel. Otto cheats, but only scores a near miss, whereas Stephen kills his antagonist.
Lilli affects to be insulted by Stephen, bringing goodies to Otto’s widow; but Stephen has come to the rescue first. Then he basically corners her; at this point they’re both jerks–just that Stephen’s aggressive works better than Lilli’s passive. Andre comes to Harrow to tell him that the D’Arceneauxs will be off to Paris for a year. Well, the year passes. In the meantime, Stephen has got a proper mansion built and fixes to have a ball, obviously inviting the D’Arceneauxs.
His ulterior motive is to stir things up with Lilli. She plays the piano, and seems happy to be with him. “There’s nothing here but love for you” he tells her, honestly. She’s also honest in that she admits that she’s afraid of him, “you make me feel uneasy.. the way you look at me, as if I were a slave…” That sounds about how it seems. “I want you, anyway I can get you.” He replies, ominously. Very oddly, that line clinches the deal for her. They marry.
In a show of meanness, Lilli upbraids two slaves for putting voodoo dolls in pillows made for the bride and groom; she then burns the things. Farrell, swashbuckler that he is, shows up with his rowdy crew, to offer congratulations to them. Just as stiffly as she was with the voodoo stuff, Lilli is dismissive and contemptuous of them. All the more reason why he would’ve been better off with her sister. Wisely, Andre has married Aurore.
To sort of mollify Farrell and his crew, he carouses for awhile; Lilli’s so stubborn that she doesn’t even let him back into their room. He apologizes, giving her a gift. She affects to be mistreated, but she’s incredibly haughty. The Viscount knows that things are rocky, visiting Stephen in a gambling joint. Stephen seems lost in drink and dice. At the plantation, the slaves are having a voodoo festival.
Actually, they’re celebrating or paying homage to the fact that Lilli’s expecting. “Do you think I want your child?!” he tells Stephen bitterly. Belle, coincidentally, gives birth to a son at the same time “My child no slave, him prince!” she tells Stephen, who wants her child as his child’s personal slave. He takes the baby from her, she jumps in the Mississippi. Such a powerful scene.
Stephen and Lilli’s son, Etienne, is fine, with a small impediment. In the masterful way that the screenplay can advance quickly, the boy’s soon celebrating his sixth birthday. Meanwhile, Stephen’s expanding his holdings; he and Lilli seem to have stabilized their marriage, but they don’t kiss goodnight. He’s going out: true to form, with her misplaced anger, she goes off on her slave. Anyway, she finds him, with Desiree.
Etienne’s education seems to consist of vices: fencing and card playing. And dangerous stuff: jumping hedges on horseback in bad weather, with the offer of rum, no less. Now Stephen is the creepy one. He can match her perfectionism by refusing to acknowledge that Etienne has a disability. As they argue over Etienne, he falls down the stairs, and dies.
With the advent of the financial panic of 1837, he’s goes on a buying spree; he loses his fortune, so he’s right back where he started. Interestingly, his ploy helped a few others avoid ruin. It’s probably the only altruistic thing he’s done–inadvertent as it might be. Lilli sort of adopts Belle’s child, Little Inch (Rene Beard). Stephen’s been hanging out with Desiree. Lilli goes to see him–but he just seems to have packed it in. She wants him back, and have another baby with him.
The slaves have packed it in too: “white man finished!” as they think Stephen’s dead. Amazingly, she gets them working again. She’s selling off everything to try and raise enough to keep the plantation. She and Stephen, reunited, mourn over Etienne’s grave.
This was hard to watch in placces because of the very blunt depiction of slavery. Not just that there’s slave characters, but the scenes are more lurid than the stereotypical manual labor stuff: a slave auction, and the ‘delivery’ of newly bought slaves, which is paralleled with a discussion of hogs, in case we miss the animalistic association. The most wrenching scene is Belle’s hopeless hostility to Stephen. His racism is so ingrained that he really doesn’t understand why she feels the way she does.
It’s very surprising and commendable that we have this unvarnished view; even alongside movies in our post-Civil Rights era, this film does much to unveil the myths of slavery. Actually, tolerance in general is an overall theme; as mentioned, Captain Farrell comes off very well in comparison to the status- and caste-conscious Lilli. It’s disgusting that her snobbery gets in the way of accepting praise from the man who not only helps their business, but saved her husband’s life.
This is much more than melodrama, not only for its social commentary, but slso because we see both Stephen and Lilli change, more or less in opposite directions. Andre and Aurore are sort of the decent dependable counterparts to the up-and-down natures of Stephen and Lilli. The plotting and pacing kept things churning along, not an easy for a relatively long movie; the skipping ahead device was helpful. Harrison and O’Hara didn’t have the greatest chemistry; but that nearly works, as they’re not supposed to be playing characters that are all that likeable.
A very entertaining and engrossing experience, The Foxes Of Harrow does quite a lot with what could’ve been a mere costume drama. Not that period details were lacking; the settings built convincingly authentic atmosphere. In some vital ways, more satisfying than Gone With the Wind. 8/10.