Lillian Hellman’s 1934 Broadway play, “The Children’s Hour,” her first smash hit, was so controversial in theme that producer Samuel Goldwyn was denied the Production Code permission to use the play’s original title.
Reportedly, as one of the first works to deal explicitly with the issue of lesbianism, “The Children’s Hour” also suffered when it was considered for the prestigious Pulitzer Prize.
(There’s a funny story circulating in the industry, that when Goldwyn was first told that the women in the play are lesbians, he quickly resolved, “So what? We’ll make them good Americans!”)
The play centers on two intimate friends Martha Dobie and Karen Wright (Miriam Hopkins and Merle Oberon), who manage and teach in a girl’s boarding school. One of their rich, spoiled pupils Mary Tilford (Bonita Granville in an Oscar nominated performance), who resents any form of discipline, fabricates a story about the women’s “special kind” of friendship.
Trying to defend themselves against the accusations of the little girl’s wealthy and powerful aunt, Martha and Karen lose everything in court. By the time the girl has admitted her lie and the aunt has come to regret her way and apologize, it is too late. After confessing that she has harbored “unnatural” feelings towards Martha, Karen commits suicide.
In adapting her play to the screen, Lillian Hellman eliminated the hints of lesbianism and excised the suicide, which was forbidden by the Production Code. Hellman has said that, for her, the play (and movie) were always more about spreading vicious lies and their powerful, devastating consequences than about lesbianism per se.
The movie emphasized more the rumor that Martha (Hopkins) has been carrying on an illicit affair with doctor Joseph Cardin (Joel McCrea), the boyfriend of Karen (Oberon).
But the conclusion, with all its negative effects, is almost the same. The school is destroyed, and the reputation of both Martha and Karen severely damaged, though Karen survives.
“These Three” was remake in 1961 by William Wyler, under its initial original title “The Children’s Hour,” which was more faithful of the original text, with Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine in the leads.
Even so, many viewers and critics (myself included) favor the 1936 version, which had also been directed by Wyler, which despite its limitations, is more emotionally touching and disturbing.
Oscar Nominations: 1
Supporting Actress: Bonita Granville
Oscar Awards: None
Bonita Granville is still best known fro playing the girl detective in the popular film series, “Nancy Drew.”
The winner of the Supporting Actress Oscar in the first year of this category was Gale Sondergaard for “Anthony Adverse.”
The other nominees were: Beulah Bondi in “The Gorgeous Hussy,” Alice Brady in “My Man Godfrey,” and Maria Ouspenskaya in “Dodsworth.”