From Stage to Screen: William Wyler’s These Three (1936)

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In 1934, Lillian Hellman’s play The Children’s Hour debuted on Broadway. Starring Anne Revere, Katherine Emery and Robert Keith, the production was a huge critical and commercial success, running for almost two years. But Hellman’s story almost didn’t make it to the stage because of its then-controversial subject matter. Based on a true story in Scotland in the early 1800s (which had been suggested to Hellman by her partner Dashiell Hammett), The Children’s Hour recounts the struggles of two young teachers, Karen Wright and Martha Dobie, as they try to open a small boarding school for girls. With a successful opening and their young students very eager to learn, the two teachers are proud of their accomplishments and what lies ahead for them and their students. But one of the students, the granddaughter of a wealthy, influential figure in the community, spreads a lie: Ms. Dobie and Ms. Wright are romantically involved with one another and flaunting their relationship in front of the students. While the rumors of the lesbian affair are false, Ms. Dobie reveals in confidence to Ms. Wright that she has developed feelings for her. Ms. Wright, who is in a relationship with local doctor Joseph Cardin, doesn’t take Ms. Dobie seriously. Wracked by guilt over her unrequited feelings for Ms. Wright and devastated by their school’s untimely closing and subsequent ouster from the community, Ms. Dobie commits suicide.

With the success of The Children’s Hour, Samuel Goldwyn purchased the filming rights to Hellman’s story. But because of the tight restrictions in place, thanks to the Production Code, drastic changes had to be made to the story. For the initial Broadway run, Hellman faced some opposition to the content as it was expressly forbidden to mention, or even allude to, homosexuality on stage in New York. But since the play was a critical success, censors and government officials chose to overlook the play’s controversial content. The Production Code was far less forgiving, so Goldwyn hired Hellman to adapt her own work for the screen. To slide past the censors, Hellman was forced to change the title from The Children’s Hour to These Three (1936), and had to shift the focus of the love triangle, moving Ms. Dobie affections to Dr. Cardin instead of Ms. Wright. For the main leads, Goldwyn cast Merle Oberon as Ms. Wright, Miriam Hopkins as Ms. Dobie and Joel McCrea as Dr. Cardin.

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Goldwyn hired William Wyler, who had just been placed under contract, to direct These Three. This production was Wyler’s first major assignment for Goldwyn. It was a huge break for the director, as he had been languishing in low-budget, second-tier productions during his time at Universal. But Wyler and Goldwyn had a bit of a rough start to their professional relationship, as both men had a dispute over the stars of These Three, not to mention constant struggles over creative decisions. For instance, Wyler felt Joel McCrea was not right for the role of Dr. Cardin. Wyler fought to have Leslie Howard cast instead, losing out to Goldwyn’s preference. As great as McCrea is in the film, Howard’s interpretation of Dr. Cardin would have been an interesting and completely different take on the role, and would have further cemented his status as a romantic leading man. (Only to be promptly undone by his performance in 1939’s Gone with the Wind. Due to a lousy part, not Howard’s acting.) When McCrea caught wind of Wyler’s preference, thanks to Goldwyn telling him, the actor was upset, resulting in tension between him and Wyler. Wyler and Goldwyn also clashed on set, particularly over creative choices, such as camera placement. Goldwyn much preferred straight-forward storytelling, especially with the camera. Wyler was eager to incorporate more artistic visual storytelling and demanded the creative freedom to do so. Despite lacking the clout and influence, Wyler was mostly triumphant in his disputes with Goldwyn, and ultimately proved himself to be a capable and inventive director. These Three also marked the very first collaboration between Wyler and cinematographer Gregg Toland. And while this film isn’t what first comes to mind when discussing Wyler and Toland’s work, it’s clear the two were sort of testing the waters with the camera angles and lighting that would later become synonymous with their creative partnership.

As for the changes in Hellman’s original story, These Three proved to be a powerful, gut-wrenching story carried by the three main leads, as well as the young Bonita Granville, who plays the lying and conniving Mary Tilford. Granville is so convincing in the role that she not only makes the audience squirm at her horrific behavior, but she serves as a poster child for effective birth control–right up there with Veda Pierce. Granville holds her own against her adult co-stars, often stealing the scene right from under them. For her performance, Granville was nominated for Best Supporting Actress (the first ever awarded), losing out to Gale Sondergaard in Anthony Adverse (1936). Sondergaard is one of the few bright spots in the overblown historical drama, but there is no question that Granville should have won.

William Wyler later revisited Hellman’s story in his 1961 film The Children’s Hour, starring Audrey Hepburn, Shirley MacLaine and James Garner. In a more permissive era, Wyler was able to return to the play’s original storyline. And while a faithful adaptation, The Children’s Hour is often considered inferior to These Three by classic film fans and critics. I don’t think it’s due to the content of the storyline, but rather society’s changing attitudes. It just wasn’t that shocking.

Jill Blake

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9 Responses From Stage to Screen: William Wyler’s These Three (1936)
Posted By Lyndell Smith : October 7, 2017 2:02 pm

I would like to see THESE THREE as i have seen The Children’s Hour several times. Remembering the storyline, I can imagine Bonita Granville would be perfect as the monstrous child. (I can’t even remember who played her in the later version.) Immediately after naming the cast, my inner response was that Joel McCrea was too sweet for the part–and I like him a lot.

Posted By Emgee : October 7, 2017 4:17 pm

I remember reading somewhere that for Hellman the story was as much about the power and devastating effects of lies as about forbidden love.

Yet another example of a movie seriously damaged by censorship; the original story was so much more powerful than what they had to work with in this movie. And still i agree with most classic film fans and critics. I thought that The Children’s Hour, though well -intended and more frank, was very heavy handed. Good but not great.

Posted By George : October 7, 2017 4:19 pm

“I can’t even remember who played her in the later version.”

That was Karen Balkin. I know: Karen WHO? I had to look it up.

A better-known child actress, Veronica Cartwright, was also in the cast.

Posted By Helen : October 7, 2017 8:47 pm

It’s worth a mention that Alma Kruger as the grandmother and Marcia Mae Jones as the bullied girl who’s coerced into substantiating the lie as also very good in this version of the story.

Posted By Helen : October 7, 2017 8:48 pm

Are also not as also.

Posted By swac44 : October 8, 2017 2:10 pm

I still have a lot of affection for The Children’s Hour, if only for Shirley MacLaine’s vulnerable performance. (Audrey Hepburn’s, maybe not so much.)

Posted By kingrat : October 9, 2017 8:16 pm

Part of the problem with THE CHILDREN’S HOUR is that the suicide now feels so outdated and even homophobic. If Shirley had stayed alive and gone to Greenwich Village, she might have met Claire Bloom in THE HAUNTING.

THESE THREE works better for me as a movie. It’s ironic that the bowdlerized version now looks fresher than the 1960s version.

Posted By Emgee : October 10, 2017 3:06 pm

That suicide bothered me as well. In the 30′s, well possibly but in the 60′s?

Posted By Marian Shelley : October 11, 2017 11:59 am

On the lighter side of the movie…there’s a scene where Merle Oberon and Joel McCrea are at a fair and she is eating cake. If you watch the scene, when the frames change, so does the kind of cake she is eating. One frame she’s eating a white cake and in the next frame she’s eating a chocolate cake.

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