Friday, June 29, 2012

William Wyler Blogathon: 'These Three' and 'The Children's Hour'

Famed writer Lillian Hellman’s play “The Children’s Hour” was first staged on Broadway in 1934, and William Wyler made two film versions of it – “These Three,” released in 1936, and  “The Children’s Hour,” released in 1961.

Because of its subject matter, the material was altered for the first film to meet the Production Code, firmly in place by the mid-1930s. Unhappy with those changes, Wyler remade the movie in the early 1960s when changes to the Production Code allowed him to more closely follow the source material.

The results are two very different films, each one surprising in its own way.  

Based upon a 1930 true crime story, the play centers on a private girls school run by two women, Karen Wright and Martha Dobie. One problem student, Mary Tilford, confesses to her influential grandmother that she has seen the two schoolmistresses doing wrongful things together late at night. This lie gets Mary out of school, but it also ruins the two women.

Despite its gay subject matter, which theater owner Lee Shubert said “could land us in jail,” the play was an immediate hit on Broadway in 1934. However, the fact that the story dealt with lesbianism led several major cities, including Chicago and Boston, to ban the play.

Hellman came to Hollywood when she accompanied lover Dashiell Hammett, who was adapting “The Thin Man” for MGM. She was hired by independent producer Samuel Goldwyn to work on the screenplay for “The Dark Angel” starring Merle Oberon. Hellman liked Goldwyn, and the two discussed a film version of “The Children’s Hour.”

Meanwhile, actor Joel McCrea was trying to persuade Goldwyn to hire his new wife, actress Frances Dee, and the two men screened her latest film, “The Gay Deception.” However, Goldwyn was more interested in the film’s director – William Wyler. And Goldwyn wanted Wyler to direct his latest acquisition, “The Children’s Hour,” for which he paid $40,000 for the rights.  

Goldwyn signed both Wyler and Hellman to three-year contracts, and the director and writer became fast friends. Wyler wanted to move his career to the next level, and he realized Goldwyn stood for quality. The two men would ultimately make eight films together, although by the end they would no longer be speaking to each other.  

The Production Code clearly stated that “sex perversion or any inference of it is forbidden.” Goldwyn, known for malapropisms, was asked about the two women being lesbians. He reportedly replied, “That’s OK, we’ll make them Americans.”

Hellman stressed that the story is really about the power of a lie and that the basis of that lie could be changed, and this led to the altered story for “These Three.” 

 
In this movie version, Karen (Oberon, above center) and Martha (Miriam Hopkins, above right) are first seen graduating from college together. Nearly broke, the two women travel to the one thing that Karen owns – her late grandmother’s small-town home. It may be run down, but quirky neighbor Dr. Joe Cardin (McCrea, above left) convinces the two that they can fix it up. The women agree and decide to open a private girls school. Joe introduces the women to the wealthy and influential Amelia Tilford (Alma Kruger), who supports the women and enrolls her granddaughter, Mary (Bonita Granville), in the school.

Mary ends up telling her grandmother that she has seen Karen and Joe doing things together late at night, which leads to Mrs. Tilford pulling Mary from the school and calling all of the other parents and advising them to do the same with their children.

Lillian Hellman said of Wyler at this time, “He’d hold the camera on an actor’s face for what seemed like forever, and then suddenly you’d see some look of recognition in an actor’s eye or somebody would step out of a shadow into the light and you’d be shocked out of your seat.”

It was also on this film that Wyler first worked with famed cinematographer Gregg Toland. Toland initially wanted to quit, as Wyler was ordering him around like a technician. However, in his defense, Wyler had never worked with someone like Toland, and eventually they began getting along to the point that they worked together for years until Toland’s death in 1948.

“When he photographed something, he wanted to go beyond lights and catch feelings,” Wyler said of Toland.

Before looking at “These Three” more closely, let’s jump ahead in time. 

 
Wyler was never completely satisfied with “These Three” because of the concessions he had to make mainly due to the Production Code. After the enormous success of “Ben-Hur” in 1959, Wyler decided it was time to undertake a remake of “The Children’s Hour” that more closely followed the play. Oddly enough, in “Ben-Hur,” writer Gore Vidal had written the story in a way that provided a gay subtext to the relationship of Judah Ben-Hur and Messala. Meanwhile, the number of films pushing the envelope with gay themes, including “Advise and Consent,” “The Best Man” and “The Children’s Hour” led the Production Code to change its rules on filming “sex peversion.” This would allow treatment of gay themes, although what would follow would mostly be unflattering.

Meanwhile, Hellman was delighted at the remake of “The Children’s Hour,” but timing thwarted her ability to write the screenplay. She was teaching at Harvard, so she wrote an outline while Wyler kept her in the loop. Unhappy with parts of the screenplay, he asked Hellman for some rewrites, which she did.  

In this version, the action starts at the newly successful school operated by Karen (Audrey Hepburn, below right) and Martha (Shirley MacLaine, below left). All are happy, and Joe (James Garner) wants to marry Karen. But Mary Tilford (Karen Balkin) is tired of school, and this time the lie she tells to her grandmother (Fay Bainter, in her last film role and Oscar-nominated) is about Karen and Martha, with ruinous results. 

 
Outside of the basis of the lie, there are several differences that set the two films apart:

First, Bonita Granville plays Mary in “These Three” as a calculating girl who has been this way for a long time and knows the consequences of what she is doing. She clearly believes she can get away with manipulating everyone around her. Granville is terrifying and terrific – and Oscar-nominated for her work. Also good is Marcia Mae Jones as Rosalie, who is bullied by Mary into being an accomplice. In “The Children’s Hour,” Balkin plays Mary as an opportunistic, run-of-the-mill brat who seems to be flying by the seat of her pants but unaware of the long-term impact of her actions. It doesn’t help that you can see Balkin acting, and at times she appears to be channeling “The Bad Seed.” It’s a weakness that affects the entire film, and any adult could see through her histrionic outbursts, even a loving grandmother.

Second, McCrea’s natural, easygoing charm works in “These Three,” and he can seamlessly turn from casual to serious with just the simplest of actions or inflections.  However, the likable Garner seems too relaxed at first and a bit lost toward the end of “The Children’s Hour.” The “Maverick” star just seems out of his element.

Third, while the 1961 version begins as the play does, the 1936 version does a better job of developing the two women’s friendship and hard work that precedes the opening of the school. This first version establishes Mary as a problem child long before she enrolls. These are effective changes to the play that help the original film.

In fact, “These Three” is the stronger of the two movie versions. It’s a far more serious and realistic film than you would expect from a mid-1930s offering. Mary’s domination of her grandmother may be expected, but her bullying over Rosalie is truly frightening. Oberon is better than usual, despite falling into her halting delivery style toward the end. Hopkins is fantastic, and at times she manages to convey a love of Karen, even though the script has been stripped of these references. Although the film ends in a traditional Hollywood way, the overall movie is a powerful examination of the consequences of a lie.

Wyler clearly is coming into his own as a director. Despite his nervousness – he knew the impact that “These Three” could have on his career, both good and bad – Wyler constructs the film with confidence. The opening five minutes establishes everything you need to know about the characters, and his handling of the actors, especially the women, demonstrates his ability to elicit strong performances.  

Hopkins actually is featured as Martha’s tiresome Aunt Lily in the 1961 version and acquits herself nicely. But Wyler backed off of the material here, eliminating scenes in the middle that dealt with Martha’s unrequited love of Karen. MacLaine, with the backing of Hepburn, even went to Wyler and asked that this motivation be restored. To her credit, MacLaine still acts as if Martha’s awakening starts far earlier than the film would lead you to believe. 

 
It’s unfortunate that Wyler (above, second from left, with Balkin and MacLaine) did this, especially with changes to the Production Code. Still, films that dealt with homosexuality during this time treated it as a big shocking secret, and references in “The Children’s Hour” to the “sick” and “sinful” affair are cringe-worthy today. But the story does work as a glimpse into the torturous psyche of a gay women who is trying to sort out her feelings at a time when it’s not acceptable. When Martha tearfully confesses her feelings to Karen, it’s a heart-wrenching moment because of the pain she feels. How sad that gay men and women had to endure such turmoil. It’s MacLaine’s brilliance that makes these scenes work so well. Thankfully, Wyler’s idea to tack on a happy ending didn’t happen, although what does occur was criticized for not being audience-friendly.

As for Hepburn, this was her second film with Wyler, who directed her so successfully in “Roman Holiday.” Wyler liked the idea of casting her against type, and coming off “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” she trusted him implicitly. MacLaine and Hepburn – who got along extremely well during shooting – have a nice chemistry together onscreen. Unfortunately, while Hepburn gives an understated performance, Wyler doesn’t ask much of her, and she was capable of doing far more with the role. Still, they would work one more time together on “How to Steal a Million.” 

In the end, “These Three” is a much more satisfying as a drama, while “The Children’s Hour,” while flawed, contains some emotionally devastating scenes that help you forget some of its shortcomings. These are interesting chapters in Wyler’s career, and while these may not be as famous as his other films, they are worth seeing. I would suggest watching them together in one viewing to grasp the changes between the two, both overt and subtle.

This post is part of the William Wyler blogathon hosted by The Movie Projector. Please check out the other fantastic posts!

34 comments:

  1. An excellent analysis of two very interesting films. I agree with your assessment of both, and you draw out some fine points about the acting. Granville really was a force to be reckoned with in the first film. Your idea of watching them both together is a very good idea. Well done.

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    1. Thank you! Granville was a force ... really terrific in "These Three."

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  2. I think you make some really perceptive comparisons of the two films, and I agree with your assessments of their strengths and weaknesses, particularly in the use of the children (the child in the 2nd film is a terrifying monster out of nowhere, which lessens the film's theme of the power of a lie). I also think that Hopkins, when given the right material, could turn in a terrific performance, as you note, and as she did in the earlier film (though, as you point out, Garner seems way out of depth in the 2nd film). Thanks for such a great post.

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    1. Thank you. I agree with you about Hopkins. Wyler used her so effectively in "The Heiress."

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  3. "The Children's Hour", despite the emotional rawness from MacLaine, has always left me feeling detached from the story. On the other hand, "These Three" involves my heart and mind. Oh, how I long to slap that Mary! Margaret Hamilton does that for us. If you listen closely to the movie you can hear Margaret whisper "Bonita" under her breath during that scene. Years ago on "The Mike Douglas Show" Miss Hamilton talked about that scene and how "dear Bonita" begged Margaret not to really slap her. Well, an actress has to do what an actress has to do.

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    1. MacLaine's performance draws me into the piece, but I do agree the movie doesn't fully involved as it should, considering how well "These Three" does that. That's a fun story about Hamilton and Granville!

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  4. It's been a long time since I have seen both of these films. That said, you do a fantastic job comparing the differences of the two films. I do remember the little girl in THE CHILDREN HOUR being a coniving little brat. The only other director I came think of who remade his own film is Hitchcock with THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH. Again, congrats on a wonderful contribution to the Wyler blogathon.

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    1. Thank you, John. And thanks for the Hitchcock tidbit. Now that you mention it, Frank Capra is another, with "Lady for a Day" and "Pocketful of Miracles."

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  5. Filmboy, an excellent comparison of the two films. It's rare but not unheard of for a director to remake his own film, but when it does happen there's typically a change of genre--say from comedy to musical comedy or from gangster film to Western. The reason for the remake in this instance is the most unusual I'm aware of, that the director had to make subject compromises for the Code the first time around and wanted another chance to do it the way he really wanted.

    I thought you chose all the right areas for comparison, and I have to say I agree with you right down the line. I'm not as big a fan of "These Three" as some, but I'd give it the edge as the more satisfying version. One reason, I think, is that with or without lesbianism, the story seems to me a more comfortable fit with attitudes of the 30s than those of the 60s, even the early 60s. Lesbianism aside, though, what most strikes me is how little Wyler changed his approach to the material, fine-tuning details here and there but essentially staying true to his original vision.

    I agree with your preference for Oberon over Audrey Hepburn even though I'm not particularly fond of her and adore Audrey. Audrey seems so sweet and naive that it makes her character rather bland. I also agreed with your comments about Bonita Granville versus Karen Balkin. The wonderful Veronica Cartwright was so good in a smaller role in "The Children's Hour" that I wondered why Wyler didn't cast her as the evil child instead. A smiling villain is always scarier than a snarling one! And James Garner did seem overly reliant on his charm in the first part of the film--rather like Hepburn--and floundering with the emotional turmoil required in the later parts. MacLaine, though, a particular favorite of mine at this point in her career, when she was known for lighter roles, is just marvelous. Maybe it's not so surprising that in both versions this troubled character inspires the most compelling performance.

    I was hoping someone would want to cover these two films in one post and was thrilled when you chose to do so. I find comparisons easier to do than other approaches, but harder to do well and with a real point, and you did a great job here. A fine post that I thought added some welcome variety to the blogathon.

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    1. Thank you, R.D. I'm glad I had the opportunity to write about these films, as "These Three" is too often overlooked. It's a fine film. It's funny you mention Veronica Cartwright, as I was thinking the same thing. She was underused as Rosalie and would have made a fine Mary. Thank you for organizing this blogathon on one of the all-time great directors.

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  6. Brian, this is a terrific comparison piece, and certainly as R.D. contends above in response a very unique instance of a director wanting to right a wrong he felt was caused by forced compromises. In any case I quite agree that the earlier film edges out the later one, though There are some explosive scenes and performances in the later film to qualify it as a solid drama. Wyler is clearly more confident with THESE THREE during the time is was near the peak of his powers, and he gets (as you note) some brilliant performances from Granville, Oberon, Hopkins and McCrae, and lenser extraordinaire Greg Toland is one hand once again. Interesting that Hellman adapts again in the later version, and Hopkins is cast in a different role. Franz Planer does some excellent work as lenser for Wyler, much as he did for the director in THE BIG COUNTRY.

    I can really watch either film at any time, and much appreciate this well-written and argued essay.

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    1. Thank you, Sam. It was a pleasure to rewatch these films again for this entry, and I'm glad you enjoyed it.

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  7. Brian, A thoughtful comparison of Wyler's two versions of "The Children's Hour." I have also preferred "These Three" (though I think the original title could've been retained, even with the changes that were made to the plot). While Shirley MacLaine is brilliant in the later version, I've always felt Audrey Hepburn and James Garner were basically miscast. And your point is well taken that Bonita Granville's interpretation of the young liar in "These Three" is definitive and a superior approach.

    You comment regarding "These Three" that Wyler "constructs the film with confidence." Having been very much in a "Wyler frame of mind" lately, it strikes me that his best films all reflect that confidence. The same applies to your observation on "These Three" that, "the opening five minutes establishes everything you need to know..." Wyler had a genius for staging opening scenes (as Howard Koch remarked, he had an "instinct for staging").

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    1. Thank you! I agree that Wyler understood the importance of the opening of any film. Your review of "The Letter" reflects this as well. It's not just introducing characters and characteristics, it's setting the proper tone for the film as well.

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  8. How wonderful to read an analysis of these two films that is so nicely blended together. The circumstances of their creation demand a back-to-back appraisal just as the films themselves invite you to view them, one after the other. Always surprising how Hollywood gravitated to subjects it had no way of handling, censorship-wise. I too think the first film is the more satisfying drama, but my love of histrionics (little Veronica Cartwright is terrific) makes me ENJOY the Hepburn/MacLaine version. I very much enjoyed reading your post, thanks!

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    1. Thank you, Ken. I'm glad you enjoyed it. R.D. mentioned in his post above that Veronica would have made a better Mary, and I agree.

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  9. So far I've only seen 'The Children's Hour' (agree with everyone else that Shirley MacLaine gives the standout performance here) but do intend to see 'These Three' very soon and will be returning to your posting and the comparisons between the two which you have made. You've done a great job here!

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    1. Thank you! Let me know what you think of "These Three" after you see it.

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  10. CFB,
    Let me get this out of the way real quick. So glad to see you back. You've been missed!

    A fantastic idea to show the comparisons, differences in the two films.

    Wyler must have been thrilled to have the opportunity to work his magic with another Hellman play. Things just seem to have fallen into his creative lap often.

    Love the quote "That's OK! We'll make them Americans!" If only that solved all of our problems. Ha Ha

    I really enjoyed all of the behind the scenes info and how these two films came to be.
    You've given us a very interesting and thoughtful review of both.

    Page

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    1. Hi Page, Thank you! It's good to be back. I've missed you and everyone else. I've been watching a lot of films lately and writing first drafts of posts so that I have a supply when my next crazy busy time at work hits in early September. This hopefully will minimize my absences.

      Glad you liked the review. Isn't that quote great? That is one of my favorite Goldwyn malapropisms.

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    2. You did a wonderful job in comparing the two films. THE CHILDREN'S HOUR, is my favorite of the two versions. The first time I saw the film I hated the Grandmother, for what she did to Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine's character's, but.. the second time around I saw how much she was also a victim and wished they could have found it in their hearts to have forgiven her..

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    3. What a keen observation. Thank you for adding that, and I agree with you.

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  11. CFB, this was a terrific idea for a Wyler post and you did a wonderful job in contrasting the two films. Still, I think THE CHILDREN'S HOUR is easily the better of the two versions. While I agree with the general consensus that Shirley MacLaine gives the standout performance, I think Hepburn and Garner are fine as the lovers who see their dreams crumble around them. Also, I think it's clear early on that Martha loves Karen. That's the beauty of MacLaine's performance, the way she captures the significance of a simple glance.

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    1. Thank you, Rick. And thank R.D. for the idea -- he suggested it to me and I ran with it. I saw "The Children's Hour" many years ago and was so-so on my feelings for it. Watching it again for this blogathon, I liked it more than expected.

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  12. I loved this post - what a great comparison. I'm with you - "These Three" is a much more interesting film for me. In "The Children's Hour" there was so many missed opportunities, whereas in the earlier film, much unspoken thoughts, feelings and and action gave the film more heft. And, as you say, Miriam Hopkins knocked it out of the park. Shirley MacLaine gives a fine performance, too, but I guess I'm a sucker for "read between the lines." Great post!!

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    1. Thank you! I also like the "read between the lines" aspect of films. "Ben-Hur" is a great film to watch like that!

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  13. Wonferful post Classicfilmboy, and great analysis of the two films. I haven't seen "These Three" and will now look for it. It seems contradictory but the restraints imposed by the Production Code often led to films that had to dig deeper in order to tell their story. The comparisons you make of film and remake would be a great topic for a blogarhon. At any rate, welcome back and great re-entry post.

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    1. Thank you, Christian. I agree that one of the positive results of the Production Code was the need to be more creative or dig deeper to tell the story. Today's "anything goes" mentality sometimes results in a loss of creativity or originality. Let me know if you see these films and what you think of them.

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  14. Wow, I could not agree more with every point you make. One would think the 1960s version would be more powerful, but not in this case. Bonita Granville really was a brat in this, and she portrayed a similar accusatory character a year later in "Maid of Salem", about the Salem witch trials.

    A fascinating compare and contrast between the two films. A great entry in the Wyler blogathon.

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    1. Hi Kevin, thank you for the compliment. I have not seen Maid of Salem, so I will look for it.

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  15. I greatly enjoyed your write-up, Brian, and your outstanding comparison of these two films. I have always liked These Three more than The Children's Hour. In fact, I saw The Children's Hour again recently and could barely sit through it -- it's so emotionally over the top, what with all the screaming and crying and whatnot. It's just too much. Also, I'd never thought about why I was so turned off by the performance of the little liar in The Children's Hour, but you hit the nail right on the head. Excellent post!

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    1. Thank you! It took a second viewing of "The Children's Hour" to begin understanding why Balkin wasn't as effective as Granville.

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  16. Enjoyed reading your post very much, CFB. Learned a few things about William Wyler as well and about a movie I'd seen many MANY years ago and have forgotten, THESE THREE. Don't think I ever saw THE CHLDREN'S HOUR, though I may have. Old lady memory is like that. :)

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    1. Thank you! Hopefully you will have a chance to check out "The Children's Hour." Let me know if you do.

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