Monday, June 22, 2009

These Three (1936) & The Children's Hour (1961)

"The Children's Hour" is a remake of "These Three", but both films were directed by William Wyler. In both films, Karen Wright (Merle Oberon, Audrey Hepburn) and Martha Dobie (Miriam Hopkins, Shirley MacLaine) open a school for girls in a small town. Karen gets engaged to one of the local doctors, Dr. Joe Cardin (Joel McCrea, James Garner) and trouble seems to follow the engagement. One of the school girls stirs up trouble in the form of gossip. In "These Three" the gossip is that Martha is having an affair with Karen's fiance'. In "The Children's Hour" the gossip is that Karen and Martha are having an affair. In both cases, the gossip spreads like wild fire in the small town and all three reputations, as well as the school, is destroyed.

Shirley MacClaine and Audrey Hepburn in "The Children's Hour"

If you are here, then you are a classic movie fan and probably know the deal about the censorship that forced "These Three" to change what the gossip tidbit was about. I am shocked to say that after watching both, I prefer the censored version, the original. One of the main reasons is the girl that starts the trouble, Mary Tilford, is played brilliantly by Bonita Granville. What a scheming, mean, little wretched girl. However, in the second version, the little girl is a terrible actress and looks like a cross between a lost puppy and a brat. I can't even stand watching her after having watched Bonita rock the role. It is surprising how one weak link in a cast can really do such damage to a movie.

The second reason I prefer the original is the script. In the original, they spend a good bit of time setting up the story about the girls graduating from college, neither having anything to do, so they decide to go to Karen's house that she inherited and look for jobs. It shows them deciding to fix the house and start a school. It shows the awful aunt popping in and out for handouts, which makes more sense about why the aunt is there in the first place. Then it also shows Karen meeting Mary and her Grandmother, with her Grandmother offering to send Mary there and rally some other folks around the school. That helps the audience to understand why they put up with Mary so long and also why when Mary was pulled out of school, everyone else went too. A lot of the background work in the beginning of "These Three" make it a much more even and complete movie, in my mind.

The third and final reason I will mention here about why I prefer the original is the tidbit of gossip. I agree that the movie isn't really about WHAT the gossip is, just what gossip will do to reputations and livelihoods. However, despite "The Children's Hour" being one of the first to start to deal with lesbianism, I am still offended by how it is portrayed as unnatural and an illness. I would rather see the story changed to a heterosexual relationship than to hear the awful way it is handled in this. I understand, it was more than 40 years ago and this was the best they could do then. I really do, but it really is uncomfortable to watch. I am sure it is truthful to the time as to what most thought about homosexuality so it is hard to knock their attempt - I just ... ugh.

Of course, I will say that there are some great things about the 1961 version. For starters, Audrey Hepburn portrays a woman so sweet and so obviously in love. I felt that was an improvement over the 1936 version. No offense to Oberon, but Hepburn radiates love when she looks at Garner in a way that made Oberon look like she was indifferent to McCrea. Also, hands down, Shirley MacClaine blows Miriam Hopkins version off the screen too. I always forget what a great actress MacClaine is. Lastly, one of the best things about the latter version is that it is visually stunning. The cinematography and the shots are all brilliant - much better than the the 1936 version. "The Children's Hour" really worked in some clever angles and it really paid off.

In short, both movies are worth watching, but "These Three" was definitely my preferred version. Mainly because the story feels more complete and there isn't a performance that sticks out as bad. In "The Children's Hour", while I think Hepburn and MacClaine showed more depth and emotion than the previous actresses, the chopping of the script and the absolutely horrid performance by Mary made it a little confusing and somewhat painful to watch.