The idea for The Children's Hour had been suggested to fledgling playwright Lillian Hellman by her longtime companion, Dashiell Hammett. While reading an anthology of true-crime stories, Bad Companions, he came across an account of two Scottish school teachers whose lives had been ruined by the false accusation of lesbianism levied by one of their students. Hellman turned the story into her first hit play, though when it opened on Broadway she didn't know if she would be feted or arrested. At the time, any mention of homosexuality on stage was illegal in New York State. The play was such a success and so widely praised by critics that the authorities overlooked its subject matter (the law would rarely be enforced until it was repealed in the '60s).
But the Production Code Administration's ban on homosexuality as a film topic was much stronger than any mere law. So strong, in fact, that independent producer Sam Goldwyn was the only filmmaker to bid for the rights. According to legend, when he was warned that he couldn't film the play because it was about lesbians, he replied, "That's okay; we'll turn them into Armenians." In truth, he was convinced to purchase the screen rights when Hellman argued that the play was really about the power of a lie. She even accepted his offer to write the screenplay, changing the lie about the two school teachers being secret lovers into a rumor that one had spent the night with the other's fiancΘ. Even so, the Production Code Administration forbade Goldman to use the original title or even publicize his purchase of the film rights. Hellman titled her screenplay The Lie, and it wasn't until after shooting was completed that the story department came up with the title These Three.
Goldwyn knew that he needed a director with a subtle touch to make the film work. He was studying Frances Dee's work in The Gay Deception (1935) when he realized he was more interested in the film's direction than her performance. So he contacted director William Wyler and offered him the film and a long-term contract. Wyler had started his career directing low-budget westerns at his second cousin Carl Laemmle's studio, Universal, but left in search of bigger projects. That was just what Goldwyn was offering him, though Wyler cautiously asked for a three-year contract rather than the five-year deal the producer had offered, just in case things didn't work out.
At first, Wyler had cause for concern. Goldwyn had already cast the leads in These Three with Oberon, Hopkins and McCrea. Of the three, Hopkins was 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 great actress. And McCrea was a lightweight leading man. Wyler tried to convince Goldwyn to cast Leslie Howard in the male lead, but the producer was determined to build up his stable of contract stars. Unfortunately, Goldwyn later told the leading man that Wyler didn't want him, which caused problems on the set.
With his leads already cast for him, Wyler put most of his energies into finding the perfect child actress to play Mary, the student whose lies trigger the film's crises. He wanted the opposite of Shirley Temple, the most popular child star of the time, and found it in Bonita Granville, whose intense, complex performance brought her an Oscar® nomination for Best Supporting Actress. During filming, Oberon feared that Wyler was throwing the film to her and even convinced McCrea to complain to the producer, but Goldwyn simply shouted, "I'm having more trouble with you stars than Mussolini is with Utopia!"
This didn't mean that Goldwyn was giving Wyler a free hand. They fought on the set constantly, though the director usually got his way. Wyler shot Hopkins' big confession scene, in which she admits to being in love with McCrea, from behind the actress, showing Oberon's reaction to her speech. Goldwyn objected. After screening the film with Wyler and Goldwyn's nine-year-old son, Sam, Goldwyn shrieked at the director for an hour, claiming that the audience wouldn't understand the scene if they couldn't see Hopkins' face. Finally, Wyler asked Sam if he understood what the scene was about. The child explained it perfectly, to which Goldwyn replied, "Since when are we making pictures for nine-year-olds?" But the scene stayed as Wyler had shot it, and the critics loved it.
These Three brought Goldwyn the best reviews of his career. Though he had had hits before, he had never enjoyed such a critical success. Novelist Graham Greene, who reviewed films for England's the Spectator, wrote "I have seldom been so moved by any fictional film....After ten minutes or so of the usual screen sentiment, quaintness and exaggeration, one began to watch the incredulous pleasure of nothing less than life." With this film, critics began talking about "The Goldwyn Touch," which his PR department described as "something that manifests itself gradually in a picture; the characters are consistent; the workmanship is honest; there are no tricks and short cuts; the intelligence of the audience is never insulted." (in A. Scott Berg, Goldwyn: A Biography). But though the producer tried to take credit for this quality himself, most historians now feel "The Goldwyn Touch" was largely a result of Wyler's perfectionism and taste.
Ironically, when Wyler directed a faithful screen version of The Children's Hour in 1961, after the Production Code had been amended to allow homosexuality as a screen subject, the film fell flat. One problem was Hellman's limited participation in the film. Although she and Wyler had maintained a close friendship since working on These Three, scheduling conflicts had prevented her from doing more than a few quick re-writes. More important, however, was the director's failure to adjust to changing times. By the '60s, the child's accusations that her female teachers were secret lovers just didn't seem as scandalous as they had in the '30s. The lie had lost its power over time, and, despite the censors' blue pencil, remained much more convincing in the original These Three.
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), Joel McCrea (Dr. Joseph Cardin), Catherine Doucet (Mrs. Lily Mortar), Alma Kruger (Mrs. Tilford), Bonita Granville, (Mary Tilford), Marcia Mae Jones (Rosalie Wells), Margaret Hamilton (Agatha), Walter Brennan (Taxi Driver).
by Frank Miller