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.

11 comments:

Emma said...

One of the things I liked most about The Children's Hour was it's atmospheric tension and the two lead performances. I don't know what I'll make of These Three, thought Wyler is yet to let me down.

Goran said...

It's interesting that you prefer The Children's Hour since I've been getting the impression that These Three is the better regarded version (I know Pauline Kael preferred it). I've actually long been trying to track down "These Three" without much luck, and I don't want to watch the 1962 version before I see the original, so I can't legitimately comment on either.

I can however proclaim my great and deep admiration of Dodsworth - of the Wylers I've seen this is my favourite. And much as I appreciate his supremely elegant handling of the material, as well as Huston's note-perfect lead performance, I strongly believe that the reason that my love for the movie is so urgent and profound has in fact mostly to do with Mary the Criminally Underappreciated Astor. Her grace, her sophistication, her subtly revealed vulnerability, her striking, warm naturalness. It feels like a performance from the best of Jean Renoir or Marcel Carné somehow managed to find its way into - and survive intact - a 1930s Hollywood prestige package. The fact that the same woman also created one of the two or three greatest femmes fatale and later embodied maternal warmth in Meet Me in St. Louis makes me very sad about the fact that she didn't get more roles in better films.

tim r said...

Hear, hear!

StinkyLulu said...

These Three's good, not great -- more and more I'm liking the 1960s version (after thinking I loathed it for years) a lot.

And, yes.
Mary Astor.

Her performance is one of the most extraordinary I've encountered in 1930s film: warm, human, mature, intelligent and radiantly beautiful besides. This movie made me a major fan. By the end of the film, I was getting all silly about it -- like a child who wanted to stay with the fun, loving babysitter instead of the boring, mean one... Some stuff I've encountered suggests that Astor herself was the focus of all kinds of divorce-related scandal during the filming of Dodsworth and I wonder if that impeded her being considered for a nomination.

Astor's performance now heads that list of "Oscar Nominated the Wrong Performance" movies... I didn't hook into the generalized admiration for Huston's performance, but Astor's is enough to emphatically recommend this film.

Looking forward to Sunday.

Nick Davis said...

Astor was indeed at the center of a major Hollywood sex scandal in 1936, and though it didn't seem to slow her work schedule all that much, it can't have helped with the Oscar crowd. Then again, it's also a more sizable performance than almost any of the nominees in this first year of Supporting Acting awards, and she had been making her bid as a leading lady for a few years, so they might have thought her inappropriate for the race.

Anyway - count me among the fans, though I was just as moved by Chatterton.

I don't know all that much of Astor's work, but beyond her best-known parts, I do like her in William Wellman's Other Men's Women.

(On the These Three/Children's Hour issue, I think both films are good but also disappointing; I don't know why a better version of this story eluded Wyler twice, since these two attempts have almost equal but opposite virtues and faults. Throw Granville into the '61 version, and you're already much closer to the best of possible worlds. And I agree on Oberon, Tim, though I admit I never care much for her.)

Vertigo's Psycho said...

I'll dare to dissent (to a degree); when comparing the 1936 and 1961 versions of The Children's Hour, I'm definitely roasting all my marshmallows in the These Three camp. I agree Hellman’s adaptation handles the censorship problems in a supremely skillful manner, and the author was able to retain the play's power (there's no suicide in Three, but the tragedy of lives becoming destroyed by a lie is still moving and convincing) and, overall, I think Three significantly outshines Wyler’s later version of (almost) the same material.

I know you'll discuss Bonita Granville's performance later, but the role of Mary is central to the play, and the '61 film has a huge, gapping hole due to the sub par work of Granville's successor in the part, which- to a great extent- adversely affects the overall tone of the film. Three, in contrast, contains two of the greatest child performances ever and, as I've mention too many times elsewhere (I briefly just did it again on my blog, so I obviously need help), in addition to Granville’s powerhouse playing, Marcia Mae Jones is beyond brilliant in magnificently delineating Rosalie's emotional turmoil (her confrontation scenes with Mary make the film a truly unforgettable experience).

As for the adult roles, I’m with you on Shirley MacLaine in the ’61 version occupying a seat at the head of the class, as the star’s definitive portrait of Martha vividly depicts the tragic consequences caused by Mary’s ominous betrayal of her teachers. However, I'm compelled to put in a good word for poor Merle Oberon- Audrey Hepburn is also fine, but I think Oberon’s very good in Three, giving a solid, admirable interpretation of Karen. She has good rapport with costars Miriam Hopkins and Joel McCrea, and shows considerable skill in crafting Karen's character arch. Perhaps Oberon's finest moment comes when she confronts Mrs. Tilford’s and firmly declares “These are my friends . . .” while standing by Martha and Joe: at this point Karen proves she's very much involved in the scandal, refusing to take a “free pass” as her friends’ reputations are demolished (and the subsequent outcome of the trial demonstrates both Karen and Martha’s big dreams of building a perfect school have been destroyed, although Karen is blessed with that ultra-happy- but not entirely unbelievable- ending). Unfortunately, if you don’t like Oberon in this then, oh my, there’s not much left to look at (in other words, you’re SOL when that Merle Oberon Film Festival comes to town).

I’ll take Joel McCrea onscreen over just about anyone, any day; in most of his major roles- Three included- McCrea makes it look easy, while proving himself one of the cinema’s finest and most natural leading men. As for the other major players, Alma Kruger and Catherine Doucet are (at the least) playing in the same ballpark Fay Bainter and Miriam Hopkins occupied in 1961 (I see Kruger and Doucet closing it out for the win in the bottom of the ninth). As for the films, IMO Three shuts out Hour, with Jones and MacLaine battling it out for the MVP award; in a squeaker, Jones- whom I am not related to, I swear- takes the prize by a quavering lip and a tremulous outburst.

tim r said...

Great arguments — but don't forget Veronica Cartwright! It's the shape of the later movie I really like better. The beginning and ending are far stronger, even if I agree that These Three handles some of the crucial mid-play developments a bit more skilfully. For me, it's a tough call, anyway, and neither version is anywhere near perfect.

Vertigo's Psycho said...

Fair enough- I was going to mention the very good Cartwright, but I really think Jones owns the role of Rosalie and that she goes deeper, dramatically speaking, than Cartwright does, or just about just about any child actor (in other roles) ever has, for that matter (here I go again with the Jones hurrahs).

A few months ago (over at Nick's blog), I mentioned Cartwright's greatness in Witches of Eastwick, and I think she was unfairly snubbed when the awards started rolling out in late 1987 (I guess some critics just couldn't see past the cherry pits and honor Cartwright's fantastic, on-target performance).

Looking forward to you and your cohorts smackdown comments regarding the 1936 race. I enjoy the smackdowns almost as much as watching Marcia Mae Jones in These Three, who gives one of the greatest- okay, I'll stop now.

tim r said...

Have you noticed that Veronica is all over the cover art for the new Scissor Sisters album?! Check it out on her website. She'd get personal SA noms for me for Hour, Alien, Eastwick AND, best of all, Invasion of the Body Snatchers. My love for her is Catherine O'Hara-esque, I tell you.

Vertigo's Psycho said...

I'm jealous- Dorothy Malone's my obession, but there's no website run by the lady herself for me to view her career from her perspective (I'd love to know how she felt about working with stars like Bogart, Hudson, Sinatra, Doris Day, Martin & Lewis, etc, but Malone's been fairly reclusive during the last 20 or 30 years, never even showing up on a DVD documentary or commentary). Thanks for the cool link- I wish more stars would take Cartwright's cue.

I was about twelve when Invasion came out, and I saw it soon after reading the book in one sitting. I remember enjoying the film, but the only images that resonate today are Brooke Adams' conversion into one of them, Kevin McCarthy's vivid cameo, and Cartwright's encounter with Sutherland, climaxing in that famous, shocking scream Veronica nailed so exquisitely.

tim r said...

It's my 90th favourite film of all time, apparently... Pauline Kael loved it too.