The collaboration of producer Samuel Goldwyn with director William Wyler created films during this period that, unlike the mainstream themed picture, were independent in spirit, exceptional in technical expertise. The first of the Goldwyn/Wyler successes was a very sophisticated adult drama called These Three (1936). Both powerful and compelling, the film was based on Lillian Hellman's debut play, The Children's Hour, a gripping look at the consequences surrounding a child's lie that her two schoolmistresses are lesbian lovers. Goldwyn bought the film rights to the play aware that the Hays board of Hollywood censors would never allow him to use either its title or its sapphic storyline. However, he hedged his bets by also hiring Hellman to write the screenplay. The lesbian angle was changed from sexual relations between the two female teachers to a heterosexual love triangle with one teacher allegedly committing an indescretion with the other's intended, a local doctor.
Hellman's play was partially based on a court case in 19th century Scotland and on Broadway it ran for 691 performances. It was a real heavy hitter and even with a somewhat "sanitized" version set for movie audiences, it packed a wallop as Hellman successfully tried to illustrate that the power of the story came from the damage a lie can create rather than the nature of the lie. The cast was headed by screen stars who would become Goldwyn regulars. Karen Wright and Martha Dobie, the slandered teaching duo were played by Merle Oberon and Miriam Hopkins respectively, while Joel McCrea was cast as the third leg of the titular triangle. All three gave fine performances, Hopkins and Oberon arguably the best of their careers. The physical and personality differances between "these two" complemented the picture. If Oberon had been paired with Kay Francis or Hopkins with Carole Lombard, there might have been an imbalance of sorts. Saying this however, it seems less likely that Oberon's elegant, soft spoken Karen and Hopkins earthy and somber Martha would become bosom chums as undergrads.
The supporting cast is outstanding. Catherine Doucet as Martha's worthless leech of an aunt. Marcia Mae Jones as a timid pupil, terrorized into complicity of the lie. Margaret Hamilton, whose small but notable role as a maid won't be forgotten. Alma Kruger as wealthy matron, Mrs. Tilford, whose influence in the community causes the downfall of the reputation of those involved and juvenille actress Bonita Granville. As the prepubescent monster Mary Tilford, Granville was as evil a villain as 30's audiences had experienced, giving Basil Rathbone, Lionel Atwill or Conrad Veidt a run for their sinister money. Her natural blond hair was darkened to convey a more threatening persona, but her strong performance required no such physical pretense and she was nominated at age 13 for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, the first year the Academy offered the award (Gale Sondergaard won the prize that year).