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!

Sunday, June 24, 2012

William Wyler Blogathon Starts Today!

Today the William Wyler blogathon begins! Wyler is one of the best directors in Hollywood history, having made an extraordinary amount of classics during his career, including "Jezebel," "Wuthering Heights," "The Letter," "The Little Foxes," "Mrs. Miniver," "The Best Years of Our Lives," "Roman Holiday" and "Ben-Hur."

The blogathon is hosted by The Movie Projector, a fantastic blog that you should check out. Please join the many bloggers who will be participating in this important event. I will post my entry on Friday, which will explore "These Three" and "The Children's Hour," two films from Wyler based on the same source material: Lillian Hellman's play "The Children's Hour."

To view all of the participants and to link to their blogs, go to The Movie Projector. Please leave feedback on any entry you read; your comments are important to us and we always like to hear from you!

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Happy Father's Day!

Happy Father's Day! I hope everyone is enjoying the day. I will be visiting my dad this week -- he is 86 and still golfing, which I think is terrific.

I also want to take a moment and talk about the future of Classicfilmboy. I love my blog, and I love classic films, but life sometimes intervenes and there just isn't enough time to do everything that needs to get done.

As some of you know, I resigned this spring from the Board of Governors for the Classic Movie Blog Association. I didn't feel I had the time to properly fulfill my duties and was too often not participating in important conversations related to CMBA. If I was to continue this blog, I knew something had to give.

But thankfully I am now in a position to reboot, in a way, the blog. I am buying a new computer this week as my old one has been dying for the past six months. Once that is hooked up, combined with my office move at work, I should be ready to move forward. I'm also stockpiling posts -- and will continue to do so during the next few months -- so when I hit my busy time this fall, I will have pre-written entries to keep the blog running smoothly. Also, I will be limiting my blogathon participation to two or three per year, which should help when I do hit a crunch time with other obligations in my life. Finally, I may schedule down time once or twice a year so I can give myself a break without worrying that I'm not keeping up. If this happens it will be well-communicated with specific date parameters -- and I will always keep my Audrey of the Month going, because I can't live without my Audrey :)

So ... starting with next week's William Wyler Blog-a-thon, which I am definitely looking forward to, Classicfilmboy will be back and ready for action with weekly posts. I'm very excited, because I love this blog and want to keep it going for a long time. Thank you all for your patience, and I look forward to being more active this summer!

Friday, June 8, 2012

Audrey of the Month

OK, just so you know I'm not joking, here is my poster of Audrey in my new office at work. My first day in the new space was Monday, and she was there on Tuesday. Plus you can see a photo of Audrey from "My Fair Lady" on the top shelf on the right. Below is another view of my office, with two smaller Audrey movie posters and a large "Casablanca."