The measure of any film is always relative to the times in which it was made. Films made in the early part of the century – chiefly after 1934 and up until the late 60s, fell under a strict code of conduct, a watchdog group known as The Hays Code, named after its author Will Hayes who had served in the cabinet of Warren G. Harding as the Postmaster General.
The result was a system of self-censorship; Will Hayes and his office were charged with removing from any and all screenplays plots, characters and storylines that were deemed offensive to public taste – everything from sex and violence to something as shocking as a baby’s bare backside.
In that climate, homosexuality was completely out of the question. Any and all mention of gays and their lives were re-written and/or removed all together. This came most harshly to the adaptation of Lillian Hellman’s stage play “The Children’s Hour,” a melodrama about the sad tragedy that befalls Massachusetts boarding school teachers – Karen Wright and Martha Dobie – who find their lives destroyed by a student who makes an ugly accusation about her teachers to avoid telling her grandmother that she skipped school. The accusation that the women are lovers is not true but it none-the-less destroys them professionally and destroys one woman personally. It turns out however, that her accusation was half-true – Martha is a closeted lesbian. The story is a melodrama down to the bone, and even ends in tragedy.
The long-lasting importance of Hellman’s play is probably more important now then when first produced. We can see the story in hindsight especially with the recent strides forward for gays and lesbians in their fight for equal rights. Today, the themes of Hellman’s play seem to be dated, but for modern gays, it can serve as a reminder of how far they’ve come.
The play was adapted most famously in 1961 as The Children’s Hour, starring Audrey Hepburn as Karen and Shirley MacLaine as Martha. That film was a faithful adaptation and is a powerful allegory of a time when gay women were forced to remain in the shadows in spite of MacLaine’s later claim that “We might have been the forerunners, but we weren’t really, because we didn’t do the picture right.”
I would disagree wholeheartedly. Yes, the performances are overly-melodramatic, but within the context of the situation, I think that’s appropriate. I do, however, wish that the movie had been bolder and more open in coming out and saying the words. The dialogue is all hidden agenda and unspoken accusation. I’d like to see another adaptation that is more open about the subject.
Hellman’s play has actually been adapted for the screen twice; in 1961 and a generation earlier, in 1936 when producer Samuel Goldwyn wanted to turn Hellman’s stage success into the next big hit for Hollywood. Yet it had to go through some changes. Hellman agreed, based on the demands of the Hays Code, to erase from the picture all mentions of lesbianism and replace the accusation with a heterosexual love triangle.
Production Code Chief Joseph Breen oversaw the changes to see that the lesbian angle of the story was completely washed away. To further distance the film from its homosexual angle, the title was changed to the far-more gossipy These Three but the character names and most of the dialogue remained intact. The film stars Merle Oberon as Karen and Miriam Hopkins as Martha who, as the film opens, are graduating from college and anticipating their future careers.
Karen suggests that they move to Lancet, Massachusetts to make a girls’ boarding school out of a dilapidated old farmhouse that she has inherited. Their help in remodeling the place is Joe Cardin, a local doctor who quickly begins a love affair with Karen and later they become engaged. The financial end of the business is helped along by a wealthy dowager, Amelia Tilford who wants to fund the school to which she can send her granddaughter Mary. As time goes on, the school is doing well, but Mary becomes a problem. Feeling resentment over her teachers, she begins making trouble and, in a pinch, makes a false accusation about Martha and Karen to her grandmother in order to keep from admitting that she skipped school. To keep her lies in check, Mary bullies her classmates and twists and bends truth to keep herself out of trouble. But the lies get bigger and much more problematic especially when it breeds a scandal about the two women that Joe cheated on Karen by sleeping with Martha. It’s false, of course, but the windfall from the accusation ruins what these three have built.
Here the accusation is a torrid love triangle while in Hellman’s play it was suggested that the women were lovers. Plus, this version also engineers a happier ending, wherein The Children’s Hour it ends with a suicide.
My knee-jerk reaction seeing These Three was to dismiss it on the principal that it was a marring of Hellman’s work based on puritanical wrong-headedness despite the fact that Hellman had a hand in the screenplay. I was leaning in the direction of the fact that The Children’s Hour was a much more honest version of the play since it stays true to the original intent. But, does it? I don’t know. The play is much more about the accusations than any kind of unearthing of sexual outing. It’s more about the windfall from a false accusation made by a third party and the decimation that it has on three otherwise innocent people. These Three, in removing the lesbian angle, is much more about the false accusation while The Children’s Hour is much more about the personal secrets that keep one woman in the closet, and what it means when she is dragged out of the closet.
So how does it play out in both cases? Without the lesbian angle These Three focuses more on how a specific lie breeds a community willing to believe it and not be confused with the facts (during the McCarthy era, the play would be seen as criticism of The House Un-American Activities Committee). With the lesbian angle intact, the story becomes more of a personal drama since the accusation is a half-truth. The child falsely accuses the women of being together; having no knowledge that Martha is, in fact, a closeted homosexual. That leads to Martha’s self-loathing over the fact that she is secretly in love with Karen. Since Martha kills herself at the end of the story, it is also a portrait of the decimation of one’s life in the shadow of false accusation.
Watching These Three, I naturally tried to look between the lines. Had this been a pre-code film – that being, a film made before The Hayes Code in 1934 – the original intent would have been part of the finished product, slightly diminished, but still a part of it. As it is, I kept my eye on the character of Martha played by Miriam Hopkins. Of course, MacLaine’s version in the ’61 film is much more overt about how she feels, but Hopkins’ version is nearly devoid of sexual feeling for Karen – it’s much more perceived than actualized. The only scene that I can find in These Three that might suggest sexual orientation is an early scene in which the girls are packing up their dorm and Martha suggest that they find some place together in order to build their careers.
Yet, as the film went on I began to look more closely at the character of Mary, the student who is the author of the accusation played in These Three in an Oscar-nominated performance by Bonita Granville; and in a less impactful performance by Karen Balkin in The Children’s Hour. She’s an angry child, always cruel to her classmates and always screaming when she is backed into a corner. Mary is a child somewhere around 12 or 13 years old and I began to wonder if all the hostility coming from her direction wasn’t a case of sexual frustration. She’s budding into a young woman who is mean to other girls as well as to the adults around her. She fights and squirms to get out of trouble that she has no problem causing. What’s going on in her mind? What’s causing all of her frustration and misbehavior? It is hatred with herself? In The Children’s Hour, the character is downplayed a bit.
After the accusation, she takes a backseat to the drama. In These Three, Mary’s role becomes more prominent. In The Children’s Hour she makes an accusation that leads adults to believe that the women are lovers, but we never hear what she says (she’s sitting in the back seat of her grandmother’s limo with the patrician up). Does she know about lesbianism? Does she know what the word means? What did she overhear from her teachers? It’s all left to speculation, but it is left to wonder about her motivations. She is punished at the end of the film but it arrives, more or less, with a thud. After her deception is revealed, Mrs. Tilford order Mary locked in her room then regrets that the ultimate punishment. Mary informs Mrs. Tilford that Mary is “Yours, your very own, to live with for the rest of your life. There won’t be a word she says or a move she makes that won’t frighten you.” Mrs. Tilford regrets that this is her punishment. What becomes of Mary is left to us to wonder. For Mrs. Tilford, she’s left to deal with her own private Hell.
What happens to Martha and Karen is much happier. This is the boldest change made in the transition. In The Children’s Hour, Martha hangs herself in her room. In These Three, Martha scoffs as Mrs. Tilford’s apology and instructs her to mend the relationship between Karen and Joe. It’s all neat and tidy, but I prefer a less jolly ending for such tense subject matter. I prefer something that asks me to consider the choices that have been made. These Three ends with a happy ending, and The Children’s Hour ends with a tragic one. I guess I might have preferred something a bit more ‘life goes on’. I don’t want them to die, nor do I want them to tie everything up in a happy little bow either.