"One gets lost fighting a lie."
William Wyler directed both film versions of Lillian Hellman's first Broadway success The Children's Hour, first in 1936 as These Three and then in 1961 under the original title with the original lie intact. Hellman wrote the screenplay in 1936 and the adaption for the 1961 film. These Three and its story of the impact of lies made quite an impression on me as a teenager. My overwhelming memories from that first viewing are of the beauty of Gregg Toland's cinematography, the emotion in Alfred Newman's score and Martha Dobie's loneliness.
Joel McCrea, Merle Oberon, Miriam Hopkins
"Two well-educated young women, also neat and clean, wish position."
Friends Karen Wright and Martha Dobie have their University Degrees in hand and the future looming before them. Martha's only family is her self-absorbed Aunt Lily, a refugee from the theatre. Karen's last relation, a deceased grandmother has left her a farmhouse in Massachusetts and the two young women put their energies into creating a girl's school. Their neighbour, Dr. Joseph Cardin helps with friendship and handyman skills. The socially prominent Mrs. Amelia Tilford supports their efforts among her set and provides their first student in her granddaughter Mary.
Karen and Martha create a warm and inviting atmosphere at their school which is appreciated by most of the students. This is despite the oppressive presence of Martha's aunt, Mrs. Mortar, who insinuates herself into the school as an elocution teacher. Among the students, the spoiled Mary Tilford proves to be a bully and a trouble-maker. Joe and Karen have fallen in love and makes plans to be married. Martha has also fallen in love with Joe, but she stoically keeps her feelings to herself.
Bonita Granville, Alma Kruger
Mary Tilford is not a long range thinker and says of herself that she works better at making it up as she goes along. Mary makes a lot of things up, sometimes out of whole cloth and sometimes out of bits of fabric she picks up from observation. She knows how to flatter and cajole Mrs. Mortar. She knows how to bully her classmates to use to her advantage. Both Karen and Martha have been patient and kind in their treatment of Mary, but the fairness or not of her most recent punishment leads to a major meltdown. She starts with feigning illness and follows it up by running back home to her grandmother. The family maid, Agatha, has no illusions where Mary is concerned, but Mrs. Tilford is a softie where her granddaughter is concerned. Mary has to come up with a good story to be allowed to leave this most recent school placement.
Mary's story is that something untoward has been happening at the school between Martha and Karen's fiancee, Joe. Classmate Rosalie Wells can back up every twisted lie Mary comes up with because Rosalie is being hideously blackmailed over a "borrowed" bracelet. Mrs. Tilford is shocked that inappropriate behavior is being exhibited by those caring for children and she spreads the news which results in the wholesale withdrawal of students from the school.
Alma Kruger, Bonita Granville, Merle Oberon, Miriam Hopkins, Joel McCrea
"When three people come to you with their lives spread out on a table for you to cut to pieces, then the only honest thing for you to do is to give them a chance to come out whole."
Joe, Karen and Martha bring a slander suit against Mrs. Tilford and the jury decides in her favour. Mrs. Mortar, whose testimony ought to have helped, avoided the court. Karen and Martha are left with nothing. Joe is dismissed from the hospital. Lost in the fight Karen allows doubts about Joe and Martha to cloud her judgment. Joe return to Vienna where he studied medicine. Martha admits to her feelings for Joe to Karen, truthfully affirming that those feelings remained hers alone. Nonetheless, the world of three innocent people is completely shattered.
The drama is exquisitely played out by the cast led by Miriam Hopkins (The Stranger's Return, Design for Living) as Martha Dobie. Martha is at heart a kind person and with her slapdash and isolated upbringing she would have every right to have turned out differently. Martha is devoted to her friends and to wanting to make a pleasant existence for her charges. Her love for Joe is not returned and even that she accepts as another of life's inevitable blows. Karen is played by Merle Oberon (Wuthering Heights, 'Til We Meet Again) at this point in her career at the height of her loveliness. She is a heroine worthy of the audience's care. Joel McCrea is especially appealing as Joe, whose humour and strength is put to the ultimate test.
Catherine Doucet (Poppy, It Started With Eve), whose Broadway career began in 1906 and began in films in 1915, is an everlasting irritation and annoyance as Lily Mortar - as she should be. Miriam Hopkins, in the last of the five films she made with William Wyler, would play this role in the 1961 film. Alma Kruger (Dr. Kildare series, Saboteur) made her film debut as Amelia Tilford. She is a grand dame to the world, yet easily manipulated by her affection for her orphaned granddaughter. She is heartbreaking.
Marcia Mae Jones, Carmencinta Johnson
Bonita Granville (Nancy Drew series, The Glass Key) was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for the role of Mary Tilford in the first year of that category. Mary is horrid and despite the best intentions of those around her, you get a sense that there is no hope for the character. Marcia Mae Jones (Baby Face, Heidi) is the conscience stricken Rosalie, constantly under threat from Mary and her performance is every bit the equal of Miss Granville's. Wyler's handling of a crucial scene among three students including Carmencita Johnson (The Wind, Frankenstein) is excellent as all three young actresses behave naturally and true to their characters.
Bonita Granville, Margaret Hamilton
The audience is not disappointed when Mary's lies finally become known and we get a touch of he comeuppance. The maid Agatha, played by Margaret Hamilton (My Little Chickadee, The Wizard of Oz) dispenses a slap heard around the world. I recall Ms. Hamilton telling a tale on The Mike Douglas Show that Bonita, who was a good kid, was frightened about the slap and kept pulling away and ruining the shot. In the shot we see in the film, listen closely and you will hear Agatha/Margaret whisper under he breath "Bonita, come here." before giving her the genuine deal Wyler requested.
These Three has lost none of its power through the years as an emotional and cautionary piece of drama. Watch and compare versions and I think you will agree.
TCM is screening These Three on Friday, March 4th at 8:00 pm as part of the tribute to Star of the Month, Merle Oberon.