Sunday, March 6, 2016

These Three

These Three
seen on TV @ TCM

So Paddy and I were talking about These Three the other day. The inevitable comparisons to The Children's Hour came up, of course. Paddy said that the former holds up as well as the latter, even if it is a censored version of the latter. I had said that in my mind, Three can't hold a candle to Hour, since Hour, after all, is the original version.

It's important to note that Lillian Hellman, creator of the original stage play that led to both film versions, wrote the screenplay for Three with the full knowledge that the original couldn't be presented on screen, at least not in 1936. William Wyler directed both versions, 25 years apart..

I saw Three first, back in my video store days. My old manager Bill, a gay man, had put it on. I learned a great deal about Old Hollywood from him. I don't recall what he said about Three as he put it on, though I'm sure he mentioned the fact that it was censored. It was a middle-of-the-day movie, when the in-store traffic was light, so I could follow the story better than I could if it were put on in the evening, though I couldn't give it my complete attention. 

I thought at the time it was okay. By that point, I was used to splitting my attention between serving customers and watching movies, and most of the time, it wasn't too difficult. Three has a relatively simple plot, so if I lost a plot thread while ringing up a customer or answering the phone, I could pick it up again. Not the most ideal way to watch a movie, but what can you do?

For those who've never seen either version: these two chicks open a private girls' school. One of them falls in love with this dude, a local doctor who helps them out. There's one girl who's a total brat. She resents the teachers and loves playing the innocent, all the while bullying the other girls. Now, in Hour, the original, Bratty Girl spreads a rumor that Martha (blonde teacher) is secretly in love with Karen (brunette teacher) based on circumstantial evidence. In Three, the rumor is that Martha is in love with Joe, the doctor who's already committed to Karen. Either way, the result is the same: the parents suspect there's some kind of hanky panky going on and bad things result.

I've talked about Hellman here before, and I've given her her due as an exceptional American playwright, ahead of her time in a number of ways. Looking at Three again, without any distractions, I have to say that she did the best job she possibly could in altering her material. The lesbian themes are completely excised, and if you never knew they were there to begin with you'd never notice the difference. I doubt anyone else could've done a better job with the material.

That said, knowing Hour exists, and having seen it multiple times (and owning it on VHS), I still can't help but be drawn to it as the better movie. The hubbub over what may or may not have been an affair between Martha and Joe seems lightweight. I can imagine a controversy brewing, I can imagine parents getting upset, but I couldn't quite buy the level of moral outrage, the paranoia, that would cause parents to pull their girls out of the school. Fear of gay teachers, on the other hand, has been a real thing for a long time. Plus, I honestly think Shirley MacLaine's Martha is better than Miriam Hopkins' Martha, though Hopkins is very good here (and of course, she appears in Hour as Martha's stage diva aunt).

One edge which I'll concede to Three is Bonita Granville as Mary, the Bratty Girl. Karen Balkin in Hour is very good in the role, but Granville is damn near frightening. She was Oscar nominated for her work, in fact. She gets a lot of screen time in the film, which surprised me a bit, but clearly Wyler and Hellman knew what they had in her.

So Three is better than I had remembered, but for me, it's difficult for it to escape the shadow of Hour, which is, after all, the original, uncensored version.


  1. I'm glad you gave the earlier movie another try. I would have given that Oscar to either Bonita or Beulah Bondi ("The Gorgeous Hussy"). I'm fond of Gale Sondergaard, but her work in "Anthony Adverse" is not her best.

    For me, the crux of the story is the lie, whether it be from the stage version or the first film. The one thing that always makes me shake my head about the Code is that subjects perfectly acceptable on the stage for some reason are deemed wrong for film. Did they think the audiences were comprised of people from different planets?

    Personally, I can well imagine the outrage of the parents in "Three". These would be the people with the money to send their girls to private school. Status and all that goes with it would be very important to them. Once one kid gets pulled, then they all have to join ranks to fit in.

  2. All very true, but I think Karen and Joe would have to be married for me to believe the parents would actually pull their kids from the school. That would make Martha a homewrecker. I don't even think Karen and Joe are engaged in this version?

    You're right, the lie is at the heart of both versions of the story, but I've read about Lillian Hellman. She was a strong liberal. Her plays reflected her politics, and HOUR was her first. It seems to me that writing about homosexuality was a conscious choice for her. It would've been real easy for her to have written the original play like it was in THREE, but she didn't, and it seems to me that that's significant.

    As for the stage-versus-screen problem, all I can think of is that a film adaptation means a bigger audience and greater financial risk, although the moral watchdogs of the day were certainly a factor too.


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