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Merle Oberon teamed up with two other Samuel Goldwyn stars, Joel McCrea and MiriamHopkins, along with first-time Goldwyn director William Wyler to make thefirst film to demonstrate the legendary "Goldwyn Touch," TheseThree, in 1936. Although fans of The Children's Hour, the playon which it was based, may be amazed at the sanitizing of the legendaryBroadway hit, the film version is in many ways more true to the spiritof the original than its more faithful 1961 remake.
The idea for The Children's Hour had been suggested to fledglingplaywright Lillian Hellman by her longtime companion, Dashiell Hammett.While reading an anthology of true-crime stories, Bad Companions, hecame across an account of two Scottish school teachers whose lives had beenruined by the false accusation of lesbianism levied by one of theirstudents. Hellman turned the story into her first hit play, though when itopened on Broadway she didn't know if she would be feted or arrested. Atthe time, any mention of homosexuality on stage was illegal in New YorkState. The play was such a success and so widely praised by critics thatthe authorities overlooked its subject matter (the law would rarely beenforced until it was repealed in the '60s).
But the Production Code Administration's ban on homosexuality as a filmtopic was much stronger than any mere law. So strong, in fact, thatindependent producer Sam Goldwyn was the only filmmaker to bid for therights. According to legend, when he was warned that he couldn't film theplay because it was about lesbians, he replied, "That's okay; we'll turnthem into Armenians." In truth, he was convinced to purchase the screenrights when Hellman argued that the play was really about the power of alie. She even accepted his offer to write the screenplay, changing the lieabout the two school teachers being secret lovers into a rumor that one hadspent the night with the other's fiancΘ. Even so, the Production CodeAdministration forbade Goldman to use the original title or even publicizehis purchase of the film rights. Hellman titled her screenplay TheLie, and it wasn't until after shooting was completed that the storydepartment came up with the title These Three.
Goldwyn knew that he needed a director with a subtle touch to make the filmwork. He was studying Frances Dee's work in The Gay Deception (1935) whenhe realized he was more interested in the film's direction than herperformance. So he contacted director William Wyler and offered him thefilm and a long-term contract. Wyler had started his career directinglow-budget westerns at his second cousin Carl Laemmle's studio, Universal,but left in search of bigger projects. That was just what Goldwyn wasoffering him, though Wyler cautiously asked for a three-year contractrather than the five-year deal the producer had offered, just in casethings didn't work out.
At first, Wyler had cause for concern. Goldwyn had already cast the leads inThese Three with Oberon, Hopkins and McCrea. Of the three, Hopkinswas the only really strong actor, and she had a reputation for temperament.Oberon -- though a recent Oscar® nominee for her first Goldwyn film,The Dark Angel (1935) -- was considered more of a great beauty than a greatactress. And McCrea was a lightweight leading man. Wyler tried toconvince Goldwyn to cast Leslie Howard in the male lead, but the producerwas determined to build up his stable of contract stars. Unfortunately,Goldwyn later told the leading man that Wyler didn't want him, which causedproblems on the set.
With his leads already cast for him, Wyler put most of his energies intofinding the perfect child actress to play Mary, the student whose liestrigger the film's crises. He wanted the opposite of Shirley Temple, themost popular child star of the time, and found it in Bonita Granville,whose intense, complex performance brought her an Oscar® nomination forBest Supporting Actress. During filming, Oberon feared that Wyler wasthrowing the film to her and even convinced McCrea to complain to theproducer, but Goldwyn simply shouted, "I'm having more trouble with youstars than Mussolini is with Utopia!"
This didn't mean that Goldwyn was giving Wyler a free hand. They fought onthe set constantly, though the director usually got his way. Wyler shotHopkins' big confession scene, in which she admits to being in love withMcCrea, from behind the actress, showing Oberon's reaction to her speech.Goldwyn objected. After screening the film with Wyler and Goldwyn'snine-year-old son, Sam, Goldwyn shrieked at the director for an hour,claiming that the audience wouldn't understand the scene if they couldn'tsee Hopkins' face. Finally, Wyler asked Sam if he understood what thescene was about. The child explained it perfectly, to which Goldwynreplied, "Since when are we making pictures for nine-year-olds?" But thescene stayed as Wyler had shot it, and the critics loved it.
These Three brought Goldwyn the best reviews of his career. Thoughhe had had hits before, he had never enjoyed such a critical success.Novelist Graham Greene, who reviewed films for England's theSpectator, wrote "I have seldom been so moved by any fictionalfilm....After ten minutes or so of the usual screen sentiment, quaintnessand exaggeration, one began to watch the incredulous pleasure of nothingless than life." With this film, critics began talking about "The GoldwynTouch," which his PR department described as "something that manifestsitself gradually in a picture; the characters are consistent; theworkmanship is honest; there are no tricks and short cuts; the intelligenceof the audience is never insulted." (in A. Scott Berg, Goldwyn: ABiography). But though the producer tried to take credit for thisquality himself, most historians now feel "The Goldwyn Touch" was largely aresult of Wyler's perfectionism and taste.
Ironically, when Wyler directed a faithful screen version of TheChildren's Hour in 1961, after the Production Code had been amended toallow homosexuality as a screen subject, the film fell flat. One problemwas Hellman's limited participation in the film. Although she and Wylerhad maintained a close friendship since working on These Three,scheduling conflicts had prevented her from doing more than a few quickre-writes. More important, however, was the director's failure to adjustto changing times. By the '60s, the child's accusations that her femaleteachers were secret lovers just didn't seem as scandalous as they had inthe '30s. The lie had lost its power over time, and, despite the censors'blue pencil, remained much more convincing in the original TheseThree.
Producer: Sam Goldwyn
Director: William Wyler
Screenplay: Lillian Hellman. Based on her play The Children's Hour
Cinematography: Gregg Toland
Art Direction: Richard Day
Music: Alfred Newman
Cast: Miriam Hopkins (Martha Dobie), Merle Oberon (Karen Wright), JoelMcCrea (Dr. Joseph Cardin), Catherine Doucet (Mrs. Lily Mortar), Alma Kruger(Mrs. Tilford), Bonita Granville, (Mary Tilford), Marcia Mae Jones (RosalieWells), Margaret Hamilton (Agatha), Walter Brennan (Taxi Driver).
by Frank Miller