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Classic Movie Blog – These Three
The Original Fake News -1936
I was obsessed with Lillian Hellman when I was a young playwright. I read everything from her and about her. (I remember exactly what booksore I bought the used copy of her collection of plays-in Santa Monica California. I learned more about playwriting structure and what makes a good play from reading her plays than any place else-so did Paddy Chayefsky apparently. Hellman was wildly famous and successful in her day, especially in the 1930′s and 1940′s. Her first play was a smash hit on Broadway when she was not even thirty years old. The Children’s Hour was scandalous when it opened in 1934. At the core of the play is the damage lies and belief in lies can cause. But the scandalous element comes from its theme of lesbianism, which was hugely controversial and way ahead of its time.
William Wyler directed both big screen feature adaptations of the play, These Three in 1936, and The Children’s Hour in 1962. I had never seen the first version, although it had been on my movie wish list for decades. Finally, thanks to Amazon Prime Video I was able to watch it. Of course lesbianism couldn’t be mentioned in the film, so the scandal was reworked to be a lie about a love triangle between Karen (Merle Oberon), Martha (Miriam Hopkins) and Joe (Joel McCrea). Side Note: they are a gorgeous threesome: Oberon’s acting abilities may be limited, but the camera loves her-what a beauty. Hopkins, has a nervous, wound too tight quality in all her films, and here she uses it to her advantage as her world starts crumbling down around her. Is there anyone more affable from the Golden Age of Hollywood than the athletic, charming Joel McCrea. Yes this material is a bit “heavy” for him, but he wears suits so well, and gets in and out cars and jumps over fences so effortlessly.
Bonita Greenville, gives an impressive, and startlingly real performance as a real bad girl and received the film’s only Oscar nomination for best supporting actress – the first year the category was available. I have been waiting to see her performance, forever (I know I need a life, right – wait movies are my life)- and she didn’t disappoint.
William Wyler was nominated for a directing Oscar more than any other director, 12 times. His ability to tell a story cinematically never appears obvious, it just is there. What makes this film so powerful is the pacing and the remarkable light tone of the first part of the film. Wyler moves the camera often, when many directors hadn’t started doing this (this if pre-Citizen Kane). He creates a world, where everything is working for Karen and Martha, their success and lives are not perfect, but are real and fulfilled. By doing this, the turmoil and destruction that the lie creates has greater impact.
While watching it, I was struck by its timeliness or timelessness. It isn’t the love triangle lie that has resonance, that whole rumor is decidedly dated, it’s the idea of fake news, gossip, really spreading and how easy it is to believe something without any facts, just because it sounds like it could happen or it fits your emotional need at the time. They histrionics of the Mary (Granville) and Rosalie, seem so convincing (emotion over logic). The fight for truth is valiant, but sometimes futile. The theme of truth versus lies has sharp ironic resonance coming from Lillian Hellman, who cleverly adapted her own play here—because of her challenged veracity later in her career; especially regarding her memoirs. Was her fascination with the truth prescient here, or just a great story telling device?
Incidentally the 1962 film, (starring Audrey Hepburn, Shirley MacLaine and James Garner) is considered inferior, even if it was able to keep all the original material, including themes of lesbianism and the decidedly downbeat ending of the original play. I agree, but it’s hard to pinpoint why exactly. The first film has a tautness and lack of pretension that the later film doesn’t have. Although, the last shot of the remake is great. James Garner, tall and macho, but always likeable, is absolutely a perfect replacement for McCrea, but the first film is still better.