These Three (DVD Review)29 Feb, 2016 By: Mike Clark
Available via Warner Archive
Stars Miriam Hopkins, Merle Oberon, Joel McCrea, Bonita Granville.
Long cited as one of the more artful end runs around the Hollywood Production Code, this first of eight pictures in the fruitful Samuel Goldwyn-William Wyler association is an unacknowledged (at least in the credits) first screen version of Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour. She wrote the screenplay herself and was as pleased with the result as the critics were — its success perhaps a factor in Goldwyn and Wyler getting the nod to make the hugely successful screen version of Hellman’s The Little Foxes five years later.
The key change here, of course, was the scuttling of any references to lesbianism in the story. As in Wyler’s own semi-liberated but surprisingly inferior 1961 remake — which used the play’s original title but came too early in the Code’s breakdown to exhibit any courage of convictions when it came to even mild specificity — the key plot element deals with the false accusation by a truly dreadful student that the two teachers/administrators at her girls’ boarding school are engaged in a sexual relationship. But in These Three, the community whispers (which spread like the foliage fire at the beginning of Apocalypse Now) have to do with a perceived heterosexual love triangle involving the two women teachers and a local male doctor. When you consider that morals clauses were being used in the supposedly anything-goes Hollywood at the time to void the studio contracts of wayward stars, a perceived ménage at a girls’ school would still have been enough of a taboo concept to negate most claims that the text was watered down all that much. Hellman agreed, reasoning that the toxic effect of an unchecked whopper falsehood was really the point of the story.
Miriam Hopkins and Merle Oberon play the teachers, and such double-barreled beauty would be enough to stop any straight guy in his tracks, trying to figure out which way to go. The doc (Joel McCrea) elects to pursue the latter, which does throw Hopkins into a repressed tizzy (and this at a time when Hopkins was the hottest screen actress around, as in The Smiling Lieutenant, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Trouble in Paradise, Design for Living and The Story of Temple Drake, to name the five essentials). This is because the character really does have a major yen for McCrea though never acts upon it — which causes all the more pain when the bratty student spreads her lies, of which her sexual innuendo is merely the most serious.
This little snot is played by an Oscar-nominated Bonita Granville — an actress who, of all things, grew up to produce the TV version of “Lassie” when it owned a major chunk of early Sunday night TV when it came to the ’50s boomer demographic. Hers is rightfully regarded as one of the most memorable child-actor performances of all time, though the characterization has all the charm of, say, a young Carly Fiorina. And I do think that Marcia May Jones (as Granville’s pitiably badgered schoolmate victim) delivers pretty close to an equal punch in a great performance that never gets its merited credit.
Granville, in the care of a rich grandmother with blinders, is a real case: telling lies, transparently faking a heart attack, blackmailing Jones. The only adult on o her is Margaret Hamilton in a hilarious bit as a maid who likes to bat this psycho around for fun — a good example of an occasional light Wyler tone that helps temper the rest. McCrea fits into this directorial approach as well as a guy who never seems to get too rattled when his entire world starts to collapse. He’s a lot better in the role than the ’61 version’s James Garner, who always conveys an impression that he doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing in the picture instead of a Doris Day comedy. His co-leads, for the record, were Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine, who also weren’t as emotionally compelling as Oberon and Hopkins (though you’d have to have to say the later actresses had tougher roles). Hopkins, by the way, took on the flakey-aunt role the remake (in These Three, it’s Catherine Doucet), while ’30s Oscar winner Fay Bainter got a late-career nomination as the grandmother.
This Warner Archives release opens with a college graduation scene that offers no photographic contrast, and there are so many speckles and pockmarks on the image throughout that I suspect (but can’t recall for sure) that the old Pioneer laserdisc from a million years ago wasn’t much inferior. Not all of what we see is as visually wanting, but the image quality sometimes even changes in the same scene, and we never get a sense that this is a movie Gregg Toland shot. But the story and performances still really work and make for a tight 93 minutes — though Wyler would have had an even better film (though possibly a commercial underperformer) had he lopped off the final scene to more fully emphasize Hopkins’ plight.