The story of queerness in American cinema isn’t complete without the unusual case of These Three (1936) and The Children’s Hour (1961). Both films are based on Lillian Hellman’s 1934 play The Children’s Hour, inspired by an incident in which the lives of two women schoolteachers in nineteenth-century Edinburgh were destroyed after a student accused them of engaging in a sexual affair. The adaptations share even more in common, including a director, William Wyler, and a principal actor, Miriam Hopkins, in two different roles. That they originate from the same play would be unremarkable on the face of it, as American film history is rife with remakes, reimaginations, and do-overs. Yet in their significant differences we can see the difficulties of looking at cinema’s past as a linear progression from conservatism to liberalism, or from suppression to permissiveness. The Children’s Hour may have been the more daring, self-consciously modern enterprise, yet These Three, hampered by stricter censorship, gestures at its intrinsic queerness in fascinating ways, and is a work of cinematic elegance and subtextual pleasure.
These films—now playing in the latest Queersighted series, Stage to Screen, on the Criterion Channel—respond distinctly to their respective moments, and they can be seen as bookends of what some call American movies’ golden age. At the time of These Three’s release, the strict enforcement of the draconian, industry-revising Motion Picture Production Code (frequently referred to as the Hays Code after Will Hays, the first chairman of the Motion Picture Association of America) was a recent phenomenon: it had been only two years since the influential, religious right-winger Joseph Breen took over the department, effectively forbidding the representation or implication of “sexual perversity” (i.e., homosexuality). As a result, when Samuel Goldwyn purchased the screen rights to the Broadway sensation The Children’s Hour for a hefty $40,000, Breen told the studio they would have to change practically everything about it, including the well-known title. Bearing the new name These Three, the film is an unnerving cautionary tale of false accusation, but instead of concerning the rippling devastation of a charge of sexual relations between Martha and Karen (Hopkins and Merle Oberon), it centers on a rumor of adultery among the safely heterosexual trio of Martha, Karen, and Joe, Karen’s fiancé, played by the reassuringly effervescent Joel McCrea.