FILM REVIEW: The Power of a Lie in “These Three” (William Wyler, 1936)
by David Shasha
“These Three” will be screened on Turner Classic Movies, Late Thursday/Early Friday, August 21 at 2:45 AM
The Power of a Lie in “These Three” (William Wyler, 1936)
What is the true power of a lie left unchecked?
The great director William Wyler’s movie “These Three” answers that question in spades.
Wyler collaborated with the esteemed playwright Lillian Hellman to bring her notorious 1934 play “The Children’s Hour” to the screen, the first of their three cinematic collaborations; the others being “Dead End” (1937) and “The Little Foxes” (1941). The original title of the play was kept for Wyler’s less-successful 1962 remake, but changed for the 1936 version.
It is quite interesting to note that both Wyler and Hellman were Jewish, and even more fascinating to recall that in 1950 Hellman would seriously injure her career with a sensational appearance before Senator Joe McCarthy’s HUAC witch-hunt of the Hollywood system. The link between lies and integrity in her early work would prophetically become a significant factor in Hellman’s future tribulations.
In an illustrious career studded with many classic films, Wyler’s “These Three” is acknowledged today by many critics as one of his very best. In spite of the way the studio toned down some of Hellman’s more provocative themes and motifs in the play, the movie stands today as a monument to classic storytelling and the passion of human drama.
The plot of “These Three” is as simple as it is tragic. Two college graduates, fresh out of school, decide to open up an academy for young girls and go back to claim a piece of property belonging to one of their grandmothers. They must renovate the old, broken down house for use as a school. Upon their arrival at the old house, they find a young man, a local doctor, who has, unbeknownst to them, been working to repair the house.
The two women, expertly played by Merle Oberon and Miriam Hopkins, are both attracted to a young doctor played by Joel McCrea. The three transform the house into a warm and friendly school that successfully attracts a bevy of young girls. Hopkins soon invites her fussy, vain and meddling dowager aunt to teach elocution and manners in the school. We have already seen this annoying aunt sponging money off of Hopkins and her role in the unfolding drama will be significant.
The scenario in the early stages of the movie is rosy: The two women seem to be making a big success of the school and a burgeoning romance between Oberon and McCrea develops. But we soon see two things that will have a great impact on the placidity of the idyllic scene.
First, Hopkins begins to become somewhat agitated as she comes to learn of the romance between Oberon and McCrea. In a critically important conversation with her aunt, the aunt who seems to bring trouble wherever she goes, she starts to become nervous and agitated on learning that Oberon plans to marry McCrea.
At the moment she is raising her voice and becoming angry, two of the young girls are standing by the door of her room and hear the goings-on.
While all this is transpiring, Oberon has been having problems with one of the students; a girl named Mary whose grandmother befriended the headmistresses when they first came into town. This fact is crucial, as we will see the unfolding drama revolving around the power of the grandmother, played by Alma Kruger. Mary is a nasty, vindictive and brutish youngster whose loutish exploits in the school bring her into conflict with Oberon on a regular basis. She often intimidates the other girls, slacks off in her work and lies to protect herself when she gets into trouble.
We see Mary in a difficult situation with one of the other girls named Rosalie. Rosalie has stolen another student’s gold bracelet and Mary finds out about it and threatens to expose her if she tattles on any of Mary’s misdeeds. She literally twists Rosalie’s already-injured arm to let her know that she means business. Mary will subsequently terrorize Rosalie until she completely submits to her will.
In the midst of being punished by Oberon, Mary decides to feign a heart attack and forces Oberon to call for the doctor played by McCrea. Of course, McCrea sees through the young Mary’s faking and deems that she has had no heart attack and that there is nothing wrong with her. Mary then makes the critical decision of running away from the school back to her grandmother’s home.
Upon arrival at her grandmother’s, she is forced to concoct some explanation as to why she ran away from school.
She then begins to piece together various facts she has overheard and spin them into an outright lie. Having learned of the complicated love situation with McCrea from Rosalie, she tells her grandmother a lie that McCrea and Hopkins had illicit relations on school property with the knowledge of the students.
Of course, once she hears this, the grandmother is greatly distressed and immediately takes steps to verify the story. Rosalie is immediately summoned and subsequently intimidated and threatened by Mary. Mary tells Rosalie that unless she swears to do whatever Mary says, that she will expose her theft of the gold bracelet. Young Rosalie is struck by fear and panic and reluctantly makes the promise.
When the grandmother questions Rosalie she firmly verifies Mary’s lie.
This leads to a chain of events that destroys the lives of the three adult protagonists. The grandmother calls up all the school’s parents and insists that they take their girls out of the academy. The scandal soon reaches the townspeople and McCrea is fired from his job at the hospital.
The three decide to sue the grandmother for libel. But after the court proceedings end with an acquittal, the three are forced to accept the fact that the lie of a vindictive young girl has utterly destroyed their lives. Critically, Hopkins’ aunt – now in Europe – has refused to come back to testify in the libel trial, leaving them with no witnesses to confirm their story.
In “These Three” we are confronted with the complicated ways in which the personal becomes public and where a lie can become determinative in the lives of innocent people. In order to exonerate herself of wrongdoing, young Mary strings together a bunch of things she has heard and spins them out into a false tale of licentiousness and immorality that undermines the integrity of her teachers.
So what does a lie truly mean?
A lie is something that is for the teller a matter of expediency. The lie serves to cover up bad behavior. It is an extension of criminality that redoubles immoral actions. But beyond that, the lie serves as a wedge against the integrity and well-being of others. The lie is directed against the innocent and forces others to come to false conclusions about them.
Oberon, Hopkins and McCrea are innocently caught in the web of a complex situation that is wrongly characterized by the telling of a lie. In their relationship is the seed of a tragedy that is borne out when the facts are distorted by Mary’s fiendish manipulations.
“These Three” is a story of goodness and purity gone to hell. Two idealistic young women want to do good for themselves and for others by opening a school. They seek to make their mark on a quiet town by educating their girls the best way they know how. They are warmly encouraging of the girls and yet are sometimes forced to discipline them. By simply doing their job, the two women are confronted with the complexities of what is essentially a private situation that is made public and, because of the lie, has been completely misconstrued.
It is not that Hopkins is not jealous of Oberon’s engagement to McCrea – she certainly is. But her jealousy did not lead to any wrongdoing as the grandmother and the townspeople believe. The purported sexual misconduct is purely a figment of Mary’s hyperactive imagination; an imagination that is forced to work overtime at the service of a lie that Mary knows will exonerate her of her own sinful actions.
When people lie they only think of themselves and do not fully evaluate, or even care about, what their actions might do to others. Young Mary whispers the fatal lie to her grandmother thinking only of herself; she does not really give a toss what the consequences of the lie might be for anyone else.
The moral lesson of “These Three” is one that is deeply profound as we seek to make our way in a world that often prizes cruelty and manipulation. The lies that are spread can often target those very people whose honesty and moral courage we need most. The ways in which lies vindicate the immoral and depraved among us undermine the health of our society. With the triumph of the lie, the false are held to be true and the true are marked as false.
This inversion of values corrupts our society and leaves us with wicked people in control of things. The lie takes our human community and puts it under the power of those who would do their best to destroy our morality and emotional well-being. With this immorality in place, a chain of wrongdoing is created which extends into the furthest reaches of our families and our social environment.
William Wyler was one of the most brilliant of the great Hollywood masters. His best work, in films like “The Letter,” “Wuthering Heights,” “The Little Foxes,” “The Westerner,” “Jezebel,” “Roman Holiday,” and “Ben-Hur,” abounds with desperate protagonists who look to find truth, integrity, and stability in their lives. Many of the characters in Wyler’s films choose the wrong path and seek to assert their own interests at the expense of others.
We can think of “Wuthering Heights” and the vindictive Heathcliff brilliantly played by Lawrence Olivier, or of Bette Davis’ hyper-calculating shrews in “The Letter,” “The Little Foxes” and her extraordinary portrayal of a southern belle whose arrogance becomes her undoing in “Jezebel.” In “The Little Foxes,” one of the other Hellman-Wyler collaborations, we see Davis as a deeply disturbed woman who will literally do anything to get the money and success that she feels is hers. Charlton Heston’s Judah Ben-Hur is a yet another tragic example of a hopeless man whose life is marked by the lies and betrayal of others. In a somewhat different vein, in Wyler’s influential romantic comedy “Roman Holiday” (1953), Audrey Hepburn’s character, a cloistered European princess, chooses to hide her true identity in order to fully experience the outside world as an ordinary person.
These are desperate characters whose lives are affected by malignant narcissism and the human proclivity for manipulation and lying. Lies in these movies become decisive markers of how human beings serve to fatally harm one another as they try to selfishly achieve their own desires. Desire here is something that often conflicts with the noble acts of those who refuse prevarication and deceit as a way of living. What is hidden, what is secret, seriously confounds the protagonists’ ability to lead healthy and productive lives.
In spite of a final attempt at resolution at the end of “These Three,” the lives of the three protagonists will never really be repaired. They are forced to move on and deal with what has happened to them, but in spite of the Hollywood imperative for the fabled happy ending, the viewer is left at the end of “These Three” with the unsettling feeling that none of this should have happened. The genie, once let out of the bottle, brought the lie into the light where it took on a nefarious life of its own. The lie accrued a naked power that affected all those who were implicated in its web of deceit. Their lives were ruined in spite of their integrity; they were powerless to prevent the inevitable results of the wickedness that subsequently emerged.
“These Three” is a true Hollywood milestone, not much discussed today, that teaches us some very valuable lessons about who we are and how we should act with one another. Those who perpetuate the immorality of a lie rain down on our society the tragic blows of cruelty and malevolence and serve to undermine justice and truth.