Editor’s note: Check out our new weekly classic movie reviews starting with 1936’s These Three.
Synopsis: Two school teachers and the man they both love face ruin when a malicious student cooks up a lie. (IMDB)
Starring: Miriam Hopkins, Merle Oberon, and Joel McCrea
Writer: Lillian Hellman
Director: William Wyler
Rating: PG (Canada)
Running Time: 93mins
In 1934, Hellman released her first play, The Children’s Hour, inspired by a true story of a gossip that destroyed the lives of two school teachers. It became such a success on Broadway the authorities decided to ignore the mention of lesbianism existing in the play, which was considered illegal at the time. When producer Samuel Goldwyn bought the rights to adapt it into a movie, some changes needed to happen. The Hays Code would not allow that subject to reach the screen.
To distance itself from the play, The Children’s Hour became These Three. Adapted by Hellman herself to the screen, the author changed the homosexuality subtext to infidelity. For Hellman, the most important aspect of her creation was to discuss the destructive power of evil, which can come in any shape or form, including that of a young schoolgirl.
These Three tells the story of two schoolteachers, Martha (Hopkins) and Karen (Oberon) who run a boarding school for girls. Karen is engaged to Joseph (McCrea) a doctor who also has the affections of Martha, who quietly suffers for her feelings. The two teachers are having problems with Mary (Bonita Granville) a difficult student who has a habit of lying and bullying the other girls from school, especially Rosalie (Marcia Mae Jones) who is terrified of her. Irritated by her last punishment for lying in class, Mary creates a story about Martha and Joseph having an affair inside the school, which shocks Mary’s grandmother Mrs. Tilford (Alma Kruger). Believing in her granddaughter and concerned that the students are being exposed to an unhealthy environment, Mrs. Tilford blows the story up and forces the school to close, destroying the lives of the three people involved in the gossip.
One of the most interesting aspects of the film is how current it still is; dealing with the malicious nature of gossip, bullying and how blind we are with the wrongdoings of our loved ones. Those are themes we are still talking about and facing in our society today and there are no easy answers for any of them. Especially because a lot of them happen out of our love and trust for other people. Sometimes it’s really hard to believe that the people we love are capable of monstrous things.
All these subjects are delivered with such a powerful punch due to the sharp script by Hellman, but especially because of an amazing group of actors at the top of their game. William Wyler was a great director of actors and although he was not allowed to choose his players here, they all responded very well.
Oberon as Karen plays the quieter teacher and the sadness in her performance is heartbreaking, especially when she starts doubting her beliefs about the gossip. Hopkins as Martha plays the combative one and she does an amazing job balancing her outrage with her shame and guilt of being in love with her best friend’s fiancée. She knows she’s innocent but she blames herself for just having those uncontrollable feelings. It’s tricky since she needs to play both feelings at the same time and she does it fiercely. McCrea is fine as Joseph, as is Alma Kruger as Mrs. Tilford, who has a terrific scene later on when she discovers that her granddaughter was indeed lying.
The two greatest performances of the film, though, come from the schoolgirls; Marcia May Jones as Rosalie Wells shows us how disturbing bullying can be to the person suffering it and it is excruciating to see her tearing apart between doing the right thing and her fear of being exposed; but especially Granville as Mary, the bully, is frightening as hell and commands our attention every time she’s on screen. Mary is spoiled, vindictive and manipulative and her performance is chilling, so much so that her evil presence is felt even when she’s not on screen. It’s not easy portraying and understanding evil being so young, but the actress did such a marvelous job she was nominated for the Academy Awards as best supporting actress in the first year of the category.
Watching old movies is always tricky; a lot of them haven’t aged well since so much has changed from the 1930’s. But These Three is still an impressive and magnetic film and a highly recommended watch.
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