These Three

(William Wyler, USA, 1936)


Anyone interested in studying the vagaries of screen adaptations of novels or plays should make a beeline for this version of Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour, directed by William Wyler in 1936.

Hellman herself tinkered with her play so that its central intrigue – the possibility of a lesbian relationship between two schoolteachers – could be recast in heterosexual terms, thus bypassing censorship problems.

Since this is a classic Hollywood melodrama, however, the eternal triangle at its centre still smoulders with at least a trace of the original premise. And the emotional energy which explodes from the characters at key dramatic moments bespeaks a rather intense form of hysteria – a sure sign that there is more going on in this movie than first meets the eye.

Wyler was a fine, intricate filmmaker whose influence is evident in Scorsese's The Age of Innocence (1993). He draws excellent ensemble performances from Merle Oberon, Miriam Hopkins and Joel McCrea, while his mise en scène – his way of placing actors in the frame in order to draw a shifting diagram of their dramatic relations – and his editing seem crisper, more fluid and dynamic than in many American films of the period.

Wyler returned to the same source material in a more faithful screen adaptation of The Children's Hour in 1962, with Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine. But this earlier version is better and more exciting.

© Adrian Martin June 1994

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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