THESE THREE (William Wyler, 1936)

According to the production code governing the content of Hollywood movies in most of the 1930s (and beyond), “Sex perversion or any inference of it is forbidden.” Given the way that America (even more so) then viewed it, homosexuality was therefore taboo as either a subject or a theme, much less a visible reality. Directors, of course, might be able to sneak in a small coup or two, such as George Cukor, who was gay, did in Camille (1936) by making consumptive courtesan Marguerite Gautier’s one kind, loyal and steadfast friend a gay man; but such details could exist as faint hints only on the fringes of a film, not at the center of the action to which the mainstream (and censors) attended. When he suggested he might produce a film of The Well of Loneliness and someone remarked that its protagonist is a lesbian, Samuel Goldwyn is reputed to have said, “So what? We’ll make her an American.” Goldwyn didn’t produce a film of the Radclyffe Hall novel, but he did produce These Three, the first of two film versions by William Wyler based on Wyler’s friend Lillian Hellman’s play The Children’s Hour, in which a schoolgirl’s vicious lie that they are lesbian lovers shuts down a private school and ruins the lives of two schoolteachers, one of whom commits suicide. The censors forbade Goldwyn and the studio involved, United Artists, from using the play’s title, from advertising any connection between the film and the play, and from announcing or even alluding to lesbians or lesbianism in any way. Thus the new title (and a good one it is), which refers now to the two young women, best friends, and the doctor they both love (one is engaged to marry him; the other is secretly in love with him), and thus the odd line in the credits, “Original Story and Screenplay by Lillian Hellman,” who not only rewrote her play to divest it of any trace of the matter offensive to the Hays Office, transforming the lie to one of heterosexual relations between the doctor and the schoolteacher to whom he is not engaged, but also drastically revised the play’s finish, eliminating the suicide and managing a reconciliation of the engaged couple. Wyler’s powerful and—this is rare for Wyler—affecting film rendered another version of the film superfluous, but after the huge success of his flimsy Ben-Hur (1959), with the Production Code (like the recent blacklist) a thing of Hollywood’s past, he made another film based on the play, this time retaining the original nature of the child’s lie, the suicide, and the play’s title. Universally, this fancier, more poetical film was rightly deemed inferior to These Three, the subject of this essay.

Hellman herself regarded the play’s allusion to lesbianism a “side issue.” Her focus was the force of a lie; her commentary (as she herself identified it) was aimed at fascism, particularly what was currently happening in Germany in the mid-Thirties. Even more particularly, Hellman, who was Jewish, worried about the scapegoating lies that Nazism aimed at German Jews in the midst of an enormously depressed economy. The later film version isn’t really about lesbianism either; part of the trouble with that film—Hellman didn’t write it; John Michael Hayes did, and he changed many things—is that it doesn’t seem to be much about anything.* Its mood is lugubrious, and its “tragedy” comes prettily packaged in highly decorative (rather than expressive) imagery. The urgency that Hitler gave to the first film is palpable. Indeed, the child, Mary Tilford, seems (like Hitler) the very embodiment of hatefulness—and she has a powerful ally: her grandmother, who believes her lies, and who, wealthy and powerful (unlike the schoolteachers, who are working-class and without social standing), marshals the community against Martha Dobie and Karen Wright so that each and every pupil is withdrawn from the school that the two young women own and operate. In both play and film, Hellman is careful to portray Amelia Tilford as another victim of her granddaughter, but in terms of the play’s anti-fascist allegory it’s clear that she represents those powerful entities, at home and abroad, that aided and abetted the rise of Nazism in Germany. (In the later version, no pity is extended to the grandmother, although the oblique misogynism that arises from this is tempered by the fact that Fay Bainter, playing her, gives the film’s most touching and accomplished performance.)

These Three opens at Martha and Karen’s college graduation: two shots, oppositely facing, show the row of graduates set against itself. The graduates are uniform in their dress and position, making a perfect line of individuals, but the diplomas in their hands are at different angles, further creating a subtle sense of distress, tension and self-division. The crowd of onlookers are graduates’ family members, but Martha and Karen, both orphans, have only each other; literally, one has her arm around the other. Karen’s 80-year-old grandmother has just died, while Martha’s Aunt Lily, the self-centered, appropriative personality who raised her, makes an unwelcome appearance at the ceremony. The two girls decide to open a school, using the country property that Karen’s grandmother bequeathed to her. It’s a financial struggle for them just to get started, for the property is in great disrepair, but they are given a boost by two individuals of some status: Joseph Cardin, a psychiatrist attached to the local hospital, and Amelia Tilford, one of the moneyed lights of the town, who sets the new school on a path of success by enrolling her ward, her granddaughter, Mary. (In the later version, the doctor, no longer a psychiatrist, and the rich woman are related, clarifying the sense in which power, while seemingly extended to buttress the teachers’ endeavor, is really arrayed against them, waiting to pounce.) Martha and Karen thus become surrogate mothers to a schoolful of young girls at least in part to offset, it is implied, their own motherlessness.

Joe and Karen fall in love and plan to marry, further encouraging Martha to keep her own feelings for Joe private, secret. But Aunt Lily, seeing the truth, needles Martha on the score of jealousy, in reality the projection of her own mean-spiritedness; an erstwhile stage actress long between engagements, she has pushed her way into the school, giving it, with her niece and Karen, a staff of three. (Ostensibly she teaches elocution, but mostly she disparages the children for their inability to read Shakespeare with genuine emotion.) One evening, Joe drops by after a hard day at the hospital to see Karen, who is (inexplicably—a mistake) away and falls asleep in Martha’s room. This is the germ from which Mary Tilford, who hates the school, will concoct the illusion of a moral cancer. Punished for repeatedly lying, Mary bolts the school and whispers in her grandmother’s ear just what Mrs. Tilford needs to hear to set into gear the monstrous act of closing the school. The three damaged by the lie—Martha, Joe and Karen—visit her and, in a memorable shot of their backs in a row, fail to win her over to the truth. They sue Tilford for slander and lose, partly because Aunt Lily has refused to testify; the judge publicly savages whatever is left of their reputations by proclaiming that the “innocent” Mary and another child, whom Mary has terrorized into supporting her lies, should never have been dragged through the ordeal. Can’t anyone see the truth? Does anyone care about the truth? Or is the whole point this: society must pretend that the two struggling, hardworking young women “can make it” while in fact working behind the scenes to defeat them and to blame them for this defeat? The hospital fires Joe and Karen breaks up with him, no longer sure that her fiancé and her best friend haven’t been lovers. Once given life, then, the lie has grown and increased the unnecessary toll it has taken. Ultimately, the truth comes out and Martha sacrifices every bit of her own happiness so that Joe and Karen, the two persons she loves, can be reunited.

Wyler, as Andrew Sarris has noted, is a meticulous craftsman, but in this instance he has managed to be something more; he has brought the melodrama to life. For one thing, he has made a fully breathing film rather than an embalmed “photographed play.” For another, he has found the means to suggest the presence of the invisible: the cancerous lie that we neither see nor hear except for the trail of its consequences. This sense of the organic nature of the lie, alas, would be completely missing from his ill-fated remake twenty-five years hence. But Wyler—like Hellman, Jewish—likewise may have felt in the 1930s under the gun, as it were, of Hitler’s and Nazism’s immediate reality and danger. All this seems to have dissipated by the time of the remake. There is nothing in the least bit allegorical about the later Children’s Hour.

Well cinematographed in black and white by Gregg Toland, and remarkably well edited by Daniel Mandell, These Three is also very well acted. Two of the performances, in fact, are brilliant: Miriam Hopkins, a poignant Martha, and Bonita Granville, a terrifying, manipulative Mary. (In the remake, Hopkins plays, hilariously, Martha’s aunt.) Joel McCrea, at his best, is charming as Joe, and Walter Brennan is also at his best as a “taxy” cab driver. Merle Oberon, who plays Karen, is very beautiful and she tries exceedingly hard, but even at her best, as here, she is a formulaic actress who selfconsciously speaks her lines, giving them a calculatedly moony lilt. The contrast between her and Hopkins, who is to the bone as Martha, is great.

A footnote. Composer Alfred Newman’s sweeping, heartrending main theme heard in The Razor’s Edge (Edmund Goulding, 1946) was first heard in These Three ten years sooner. In These Three the theme embodies two impulses: sexual sublimation; (Martha’s) transcendence of sexual frustration. In The Razor’s Edge the same music embodies the protagonist’s spiritual odyssey, his thirst for knowledge, his entirely asexual aspiration. There is an implicit commentary here about the relationship between sex and spirit that has the music of one film glossing the same music of the other. My conclusion: film music composer as auteur.

* Martha’s suicide in the remake is motivated almost entirely by her discovery of a repressed sexual interest in Karen, which led the actress who plays Martha, Shirley MacLaine, to conclude that the theme of the piece is the grain of truth in a lie—a notion that completely contradicts the original impulse behind the play that the lie that Mary tells has no basis in fact. Indeed, in Mein kampf Hitler staked out the political strategy of telling a lie loudly and often enough that it becomes accepted as a given by the public. At the time of the release of The Children’s Hour MacLaine made hurtful statements the anti-Semitic implications of which perhaps she did not grasp. Sometimes actors promoting a film would be well advised not to speak at all.

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