Tuesday, September 26, 2006
On These Three and Dodsworth
Just watched These Three, William Wyler's first version of Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour, in preparation for this Sunday's Supporting Actress Smackdown. I won't comment on the nominee in question — Bonita Granville, who plays the diabolical Mary Tilford — as it's nice to leave some surprises. But I will say that I like this version marginally less than the remake, and not just for its (actually rather judicious and cunning) bowdlerisation of Hellman's themes. Merle Oberon was a serious problem for me, for starters. The first performance of hers I've seen, it's a stiff piece of semaphore, full of repetitive touches like that little moue of knowing amusement she puts on whenever Mary's throwing a fit. Worse is that it exposes a significant weakness of the play, which is that Karen is too often a mere spectator in the scandal brewing up around her, and her suspicions about the veracity of Mary's story aren't signposted nearly early enough. Audrey Hepburn, invariably on another planet, lets us look past this in the 1961 movie; Oberon just seems to be acting out a much more stilted, slow-witted drama than anyone else. I liked Joel McCrea goofing off on the sidelines, and Miriam Hopkins is subtly strong in the more generous role of Martha; Alma Kruger is an imposing presence, too, as Mary's grandmother, if never quite managing the shading and self-reproach that netted Fay Bainter a nomination for the remake. But I don't think Wyler quite gets to the heart of the play here; the scandal lacks truly public weight and so do the recriminations.
Few such qualms with Dodsworth, Wyler's other 1936 release and now my third favourite film of his, after The Little Foxes (another Hellman, magnificently realised) and The Best Years of Our Lives. Initially I was a bit off-put by Ruth Chatterton, but blame the character: if the movie has a flaw, it's that Fran Dodsworth is unhelpfully slathered in face cream when she's getting to make a case for herself, and required to put her most self-serving, ill-considered airs on at the exact point when contrition might save her. Still, Walter Huston's Sam (and the film) give her plenty of chances. Maria Ouspenskaya is up for discussion on Sunday for her one-scene appearance as an obstructive baroness, but, leaving her aside, you can expect me to be heartily lamenting the absence of Mary Astor from the same race. As Dodsworth's widowed ladyfriend Edith Cortwright, she comes in at all the right moments and achieves the perfect balance of hope, sadness and fragile dignity to channel this splendid picture where you want it to go. She's quite wonderful.