Bright Lights Film Journal

The Lesbian Vanishes: These Three, Lillian Hellman’s Adaptation of The Children’s Hour (1936)

Joel McCrea, Merle Oberon, and Miriam Hopkins

“All right, which one of you took the lesbian?”

In 1935, the movie producer Samuel Goldwyn bought the rights to Lillian Hellman’s play The Children’s Hour, intending to turn the Broadway smash hit into a Hollywood success. The film critic Vito Russo reports that “Goldwyn once suggested filming Radclyffe Hall’s novel The Well of Loneliness, only to be informed by a producer that he could not because the leading character was a lesbian. ‘So what?’ Goldwyn retorted. ‘We’ll make her an American'” (62). Rather than go through this conversion process between The Children’s Hour and These Three, Hellman simply erased the lesbian from her play. An examination of the differences engendered by this erasure reveals the actual role played by the issue of sexuality and what happens to the story when the lesbian vanishes.

Whether or not the story about making the protagonist in The Well of Loneliness into an American is apocryphal, Goldwyn’s purchase of the rights to a property that had been banned in Boston “amused and puzzled Hollywood,” according to Hellman biographer Carl Rollyson, “for he had agreed to the following restriction set down by Joseph Breen of the Hays Office …: To not use the title of the play or make any reference, ‘directly or indirectly, in the advertising or exploitation of the picture,’ to the stage play; and to remove from the finished production ‘all possible suggestions of lesbianism and any other matter which is likely to prove objectionable’ ” (84). Hellman’s assignment in adapting her own play, then, was to dry-clean it, removing any and all “objectionable” material so that the Board of Review could bestow its approval. To appease the squeamish Board, Hellman changed the whispered rumor from lesbianism between Karen and Martha to a love affair between Martha and Joe, Karen’s fiancé. While the Hays Office objected strongly to alleged lesbianism, it was apparently willing to pass on alleged fornication.

With the lesbianism in, contemporary critics of the play seemed almost desperate to ignore it. With the lesbianism out in the movie, critics seemed almost as urgent about putting it back in. Both points of view miss entirely the importance of the original accusation. The point in the original play, in which a spoiled, rich child accuses one of her boarding school teachers of being a lesbian, is the ability of those in power to make a lie into the truth, to simply make it so because they have money and social standing. The truth that gets constructed in The Children’s Hour is deployed to enforce a sexual norm. Mrs. Tilford, the child’s grandmother and guardian, through her wealth and social standing, is perfectly able – and willing – to ruin the school and the teachers. The accused woman, Martha, finally realizes that she does have feelings for Karen, her friend and colleague. She kills herself (very often the fate of the sexually “deviant” in films and fiction). Because power relationships stand at the center of the play, however, the story doesn’t end with the suicide. Mrs. Tilford finds out how she has been manipulated and makes a belated apology. Her final scene with Karen reinforces the point about power, its fatal force, and – importantly – when and why it’s wielded. Sexuality is not accidental or immaterial. Reaction to “deviant” sexuality, as evidenced by the murders of Matthew Shepherd, Billy Jack Gaither, and others most recently, is extreme, vicious, horrific, and without thought. Little else unleashes society’s destructive wrath like being queer. Writing out the lesbian dilutes the significance of this point.

Contemporary critics of the play generally claimed that the lesbianism made no difference whatsoever, almost showing off their liberalism. Their stance was still awkwardly casual, with one critic referring to the “naughty word ‘L_____n’ ” (Hammond, 16). In interviews at the time, Hellman herself perpetuated this idea that any old lie would do, calling it a “side issue” (Bryer, 167). With the lesbianism out, the general critical consensus at the time was that These Three, released by United Artists in 1936, made a fine film, and was not a bowdlerization of the original play. Graham Greene claimed that he had “seldom been so moved by any fictional film as by These Three” (69). While critics and reviewers found the film intelligent and thoughtful, they insisted on examining the issue of lesbianism, this time claiming that its absence made no difference to the film, just as its presence, supposedly, made no difference to the play.

The willingness to dismiss lesbianism as an issue is as telling as the critical obsession with it in discussions of the play. Russo argues that the “substitution of a problem that Americans could understand and accept [a love triangle] did not violate Hellman’s basic theme, that a lie can have the power to destroy people’s lives” (63). Still, for Russo, “the Americanization of lesbianism meant simply an unwillingness to deal with it openly, an aping of the American cowardice about sex in general and the American hypocrisy about sexual deviation in particular” (63). In other words, if lesbianism does not matter, then there is no need to discuss it, a liberal position that enforces a sexual norm as much as the censors who forbid even the mention of the word “lesbian.” While The Children’s Hour may not be about lesbianism, Hellman’s choice for the lie could hardly have been accidental. The Americanization of the drama, making it palatable for Hollywood audiences, places even the thought of an alternate sexuality firmly back in the closet after it had sneaked out onto the Broadway stage.

Any lesbianism that does surface in connection with the film comes up entirely in the criticism. While the usually astute Bernard Dick does admit that “there is no reference at all to lesbianism in These Three,” he still claims that “it seems as if everyone associated with the production … knew the subject matter of the original and tried to suggest it” (39). Pressing the point, he argues that “Martha’s suppressed love for Karen exists within the subtext of the film; it is something one senses rather than perceives” (39). Another example is Parker Tyler, who, in Screening the Sexes, understands the character of Mary as central to the question of sexuality. Tyler argues that the film “offers us the prying sexual curiosity of a little girl,” and that “Hellman’s basic point is how much fatal harm can be done by the constriction of natural sexual curiosity through imposed school discipline” (250). Tyler makes this assertion, entirely recasting the character of Mary from schoolgirl into Lolita, without the caveats of Dick about subtexts. Both positions detract from the issue of power, its force, who has it, how, and why it is being used.

And both critics misread the film. Dick uses a pan shot of Martha watching Joe doze off for evidence of this subtext. In fact, the shot, moving from Joe, over to the window, and back to Martha, does not show her longing for Karen, as Dick claims, so much as her loneliness. The shot never even includes Karen. Joe fell asleep waiting for her. That lesbian longing Dick wants is so subtext that one of the characters isn’t in the text at all. The camera, in fact, reveals the isolation Martha begins to feel, the separation widening between her and the couple forming in the film, Joe and Karen.

While Dick interpolates Karen into scenes where she is not visible, Tyler wants to completely rewrite the character of Mary, thrusting her into the center of the plot, when she is actually only (in both play and film) the catalyst for events. The critical attention focused on sexuality – its dismissal and its insertion – reveals the cultural tendency to see sex where it is not present. Perhaps this obsession is understandable, especially when the Hays Office was so desperate to remove “all possible suggestions of lesbianism and any other matter which is likely to prove objectionable” (Rollyson, 84). While the Hays Office net did not always manage to strain out every insinuation, it was generally able to see that “all the sex in Hollywood ended up on the cutting-room floor” (Gardner, xix-xx).

Because lesbianism is not at the dramatic center of the original play, leaving it out does not render These Three a faithless adaptation of The Children’s Hour. With These Three, Hellman made other, much more significant concessions to Hollywood – changes that skew the central focus of the original material in a way that cannot be supported in the text. The altered ending and additional scenes of romance convert These Three into a somewhat complicated, though still very Hollywood-type love story. This conversion deflects the emphasis away from Mrs. Tilford and the excesses she engenders through her self-righteous exercise of power. Transforming the homosexuality into heterosexuality abets this process of making the film into the kind of love story to which Hollywood audiences were accustomed – one that does not challenge any of their assumptions. These Three surrenders the force of the original lie to the demand for a Hollywood happy ending. In a sense, the Production Code, with its insistence on chaste heterosexuality, performs the function of Mrs. Tilford, by enforcing a sexual norm on the play’s original content.

The confusion engendered by tying The Children’s Hour to the procrustean bed of the Production Code is evident in the title, These Three. Because of the Code-imposed silence about the film’s source, there were actually two working titles for the film, The Hour of Liberty and Women Can Be Wrong (Dick, 35-36). The changing titles, however, also indicate an uncertain focus. Bernard Dick sees “the reduction of a trio to a couple” in These Three and “the atomization of a trio into a solitary person” (42) in The Children’s Hour. While the play does end with Karen all alone, Dick is mistaken to see the earlier configuration of characters in the film as a trio, despite the title. There is never a threesome of any kind, never any sense of Martha, Joe and Karen as a unit. The film is concerned with two couples – first Karen and Martha, finally Karen and Joe – which at no point merge into a triangle. In the college scenes that open the film and later at the farm, the women are clearly allied. They arrive at the Lancet depot, exchange glances about the “TAXY” driver, played by Walter Brennan, and look equally disconsolate about the dilapidated state of the farmhouse. Karen feels badly about bringing Martha to the farm, while Martha tries to console Karen. The women stay physically close to each other, framed by a medium shot, when Dr. Cardin makes his first appearance, throwing bits of wood and small items, among them a straw boater, out of a hole in the farmhouse roof, trying to smoke out bees, and looking like a man from outer space in a beekeeper’s helmet. These opening scenes emphasize the women’s relationship with each other even more than their scenes together in the play. Dick does make a strong case for the idea that the movie is concerned with the three characters together, particularly in the confrontation scene in which director William Wyler groups Karen, Joe, and Martha in a series of three-shots. However, the film begins and ends with a couple. And, what is more, the film is impelled forward toward the inevitable coupling that Hollywood demands; that coupling becomes the whole point.

Karen and Martha remain the film’s couple until the farmhouse is well on its way to being converted into a schoolhouse. Only then is one of the women seen without the other. While she is scraping paint off a wall, Martha sees Joe come inside before he sees her. Hastily, she takes off her glasses and smoothes her hair. Joe listens to her talk about the newspaper stuck on the wall until Karen calls to him from offscreen. Joe hurries off to answer the summons, to Martha’s disappointment. At this point, though, Joe has not displaced Martha entirely. In the next scene, Joe and Karen – without Martha – bring a load of lumber back to the house. They encounter Mrs. Tilford and Mary; Mrs. Tilford’s “good-looking, not new, well kept up Lincoln” (Hellman) blocks the road. Some pleasantries establish that Mrs. Tilford knew Karen’s grandmother, and therefore she will speak to the other ladies in Lancet about their daughters attending the new school, along with Mary. Karen’s first thought, after the happy news that the school may finally have some pupils, is of her friend. “Wait’ll Martha hears,” she exclaims to Joe. She turns her back on Joe to watch the receding Lincoln. Joe – with Martha’s name on Karen’s lips – can only plant a surreptitious kiss on the back of her head. For Karen and Joe to be a Hollywood couple, Karen’s first thoughts must always be of him, but the original couple of Karen and Martha is still intact.

The kiss, however, signals a growing intimacy between Karen and Joe, though the romance moves somewhat slowly by Hollywood standards, while the connection between Martha and Karen diminishes. The kiss also marks the point of divergence between the play and the film, as the focus shifts from an examination of power relations to a story of love relations. After accompanying Karen into town on a shopping trip for the school, Joe carries her off for an afternoon’s break. He spends the time trying to declare his love for her, while she wants only to ride the carousel. He stalks off in a pout and finally shouts at her that he loves her. More quietly, she tells him she loves him, too. Karen and Joe are now a bona fide Hollywood couple.

Citing the early Hellman biographer Richard Moody, the more recent biographer Carl Rollyson notes that Hellman was known for her inability to write love scenes (Rollyson, 30). The love scene in These Three takes place at a carnival, with Joe’s tender ministrations overpowered by the racket from a carousel. When he finally barks out his affection, Karen seems stunned and drops a large piece of cake, hardly a romantic gesture. The scene reveals Hellman’s uneasiness with “mushy” avowals of love, but also comedy when the mood could have properly become tender; this points up the awkward imposition of a romantic entanglement onto the story of The Children’s Hour. After the mutual admissions of love, the film begins to focus on that relationship. Not only has the lesbianism been erased, but the entire question of power relationships vanishes with it.

Through similar conventions, Martha tells the audience that she also loves Joe. The first clue comes in the scene where she takes off her glasses before Joe can see her with them on. Every moviegoer knows how to read that gesture. She wants Joe to find her attractive. In movie parlance, glasses disfigure a woman’s face as much as they disguise Clark Kent’s. (The Marilyn Monroe character in How to Marry a Millionaire even takes off her glasses to answer the phone.) In addition, after Joe sprints off when Karen calls from offscreen, a close-up of Martha’s disappointed face confirms her desire for Joe’s attention – which Karen can command without even being in the room. This early scene establishes how much Martha wants Joe to like her, while the later declaration scene lets audiences know that Martha has been replaced by Joe. The coupling of Joe and Karen, Martha’s reaction, the anticipation of a rupture and its resolution become the plot of the film. While the play locates the source of the rupture in the power which Mrs. Tilford can wield and in society’s determination to enforce a sexual norm, the film evades entirely the issues that propelled the original drama.

With the lesbianism left out, director William Wyler could cast an actual child as Mary. In New York City where the play premiered, civil law required that 18-year-olds portray Mary and all of the 10-12 year old girls, to avoid contributing to the delinquency of minors. Bonita Granville manages, according to Graham Greene, to portray the “more than human evil of the lying sadistic child” with “quite shocking mastery” (70). Hellman’s film characterization of the child retains its malevolent intensity; the major differences between the play and film have to do with the reason for the child’s action and her narrative function for the story. In the play, Mary seems Iago-like, wreaking havoc without having any investment in the results. Mary’s first appearance, one that Hellman wrote for the film, offers that motive, and keeps it simple: she does not want to go to school, any school. When Karen and Joe encounter Mrs. Tilford, and she mentions sending Mary to the new school, Mary protests immediately, trying to remind her grandmother of her promise that she would be able to stay home. This scene colors the rest of Mary’s lines, fixing the motive for her actions, which can thus be seen as her attempts to avoid school.

Assigning Mary a motive simplifies the story because the problems generated by her lies become more explicable, more subject to a cause-and-effect type of rationalization that relieves the audience of having to make its own meaning out of the turmoil. In the play, Mary sets in motion a string of events and then is absent from the stage – a lacuna as far as most critics were concerned. In the film, on the other hand, her absence after achieving her goal of getting out of school, does not provoke the same response because she has served her purpose for the Hollywood love story: separating the lovers. The audience is concerned not about how all the turmoil came about, who is at fault, but rather how (not if) Merle Oberon and Joel McCrea will get together.

Because of the Hollywood need to assign motives, Hellman enlarged the role of Mrs. Mortar, making her more central to the forward movement of the linear plot. Hellman wrote several scenes for her – greeting the two women at their graduation, arriving at Lancet by taxi, speaking (pretentiously) to the pupils upon the school’s opening – establishing her as intrusive and insensitive. In the play, Mrs. Mortar unconsciously provides Mary with ammunition for her accusation. In the film, she helps to unify discreet plot points, lending the film a simplistic cohesion that the play does not have. As in the play, it is Mrs. Mortar who says the words that eventually make their way to Mary, who is then able to manipulate them into the dark secret. In the play, Mary repeats the overheard word “unnatural,” which Hellman changed to the phrase “goings on.” Mrs. Mortar is also involved in the episode with the bracelet, discovering Mary and Rosalie early in the film and later mentioning the incident to Martha. Making the plot development with the bracelet into a sort of mystery, which Martha eventually solves, further relieves the audience of having to sort out the events for themselves. The changes Hellman made in the narrative function of both Mrs. Mortar and Mary provide answers to the confusion that do not implicate society’s ability to enforce cultural norms. Without this implication, then, the audience’s own assumptions are not challenged.

Hellman made the most significant change in the ending of the film. The play ends with Martha’s suicide and Mrs. Tilford’s agonized admission to Karen that she knows now that her granddaughter’s story is a lie. Most critics argue that Hellman should have ended the play with the suicide: Mrs. Tilford’s confession and attempt to make reparations dissolve the play into melodrama. However, continuing the play past the point of Martha’s suicide forces the audience to refocus on the issue of power – instead of leaving the theater with an easily acquired sympathy for the two teachers.

The Production Code had quite a bit to say about suicide, but in any case Hellman could not have Martha commit suicide over Joe. Instead, Martha and her aunt simply leave Lancet on the train. A child passes down the aisle, and Martha pats his head. The gesture sparks Lily’s prattle about the school, how all children are not like Mary, and so on. In this stream of talk, she lets fall enough information about Mary’s shenanigans, the bracelet, and Rosalie’s arm to catapult Martha off the train at the next stop and over to Rosalie’s house. By gentle persuasion, Martha induces Rosalie to tell her the truth and to repeat it in front of Mrs. Tilford. Amelia Tilford tells her granddaughter: “All my life, my mistakes have been honorable ones. You have made me make my first dishonorable mistake.” Agatha (Margaret Hamilton), the housekeeper, is instructed to take Mary to her room and lock the door. On the stairs, as Mary struggles, Agatha slaps her hard, the way members of the audience probably wanted to slap her. Mary submits because the relations of power are clearly reversed.

Many of the lines between Karen and Mrs. Tilford from the last act of the play are reassigned to Martha and Mrs. Tilford. However, the movie does not end where the play does. Martha makes Mrs. Tilford her messenger, sending her to Karen to tell her to go to Joe wherever he is. The last scene in the movie takes place in Vienna where Karen finds Joe at a coffeeshop he mentions earlier. They kiss in the doorway while amused patrons look on – fadeout to the credits and happy love music. Narratively, Martha’s departure from Lancet serves the same purpose as the suicide, since she is removed from the story. All tension in the film is resolved when the couple of Joe and Karen is solidified.

Erasing the lesbianism moves the film away from the main point of relations of power, which has the same effect as if Hellman had ended the play with the suicide. The ending becomes palatable, much less complex, allowing instead a standard, simple love story to stand at the dramatic center of the film. Instead of sacrificing herself to her own belief in sexual norms as in the play, Martha single-handedly rights a wrong, sacrificing her own love for Joe so that the two lovers can be together. While she makes a noble gesture, her actions do not call into question the relations of power that effect the separations in the first place. In the film, once the right information is made known (i.e. the bracelet and all it signifies), the two “right” people are reunited and the story is over. With the play, a young woman finds in herself that which the world cannot tolerate. She is pushed to this point by a solitary person, wielding enormous, obscene power with self-righteous high-handedness that the audience cannot ignore. Karen then murders herself rather than live with the intolerable. The final scene in the play forces audiences to examine the forces that would drive a vital, intelligent young woman to such an extreme. These Three is a faithless adaptation of the play, not simply because the lesbianism was taken out (which is what most critics seem to focus on), but because the strength of this point is diluted, transformed into a typical Hollywood love story that leaves audiences with their assumptions about these three people and the world pleasantly intact.

Works Cited

Jackson Bryer. Conversations with Lillian Hellman. Jackson, MS, and London: University of Mississippi Press, 1986.

Bernard Dick. Hellman in Hollywood. Rutherford, Madison, and Teaneck, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1982.

Gerald Gardner. The Censorship Papers: Movie Censorship Letters from the Hays Office, 1934-1968. New York: Dodd, Mead and Company, 1987.

Graham Greene. The Pleasure Dome. Ed. John Russel Taylor. London: Secker and Warburg, 1972.

Percy Hammond. “The Theatres – ‘The Children’s Hour,’ A Good Play About a Verboten Subject.” New York Herald-Tribune, 21 Nov. 1934: 16.

Lillian Hellman. These Three. Unpublished screenplay, 1936. Gregg Toland Collection, University of California, Los Angeles, UCLA Theatre Arts Library.

Carl Rollyson. Lillian Hellman: Her Legend and Her Legacy. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988.

Vito Russo. The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies. New York: Harper & Row, 1981.

Parker Tyler. Screening the Sexes: Homosexuality in the Movies. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1972.