(director: William Wyler; screenwriters: John Michael Hayes/based on a play by Lillian Hellman; cinematographer: Franz F. Planer; editor: Robert Swink; music: Alex North; cast: Audrey Hepburn (Karen Wright), Shirley MacLaine (Martha Dobie), James Garner (Dr. Joe Cardin), Miriam Hopkins (Mrs. Lily Mortar), Fay Bainter (Mrs. Amelia Tilford), Karen Balkin (Mary Tilford); Runtime: 107; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: William Wyler; MGM Home Entertainment; 1961)

“Heavy-handed and can’t shake its languor.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

It’s based on the 1934 play by Lillian Hellman about a spoiled girl spreading the rumor that her teachers are lesbians, even if she doesn’t actually know what that means. The bowdlerized version directed in a 1960’s frank manner by William Wyler(“Funny Girl”/”Ben-Hur”/”Roman Holiday”) is both heavy-handed and can’t shake its languor. John Michael Hayes writes the screenplay, but the dated once famous play remains inert.

The melodrama is set in a small private school for girls that’s owned by the head-mistresses Karen Wright (Audrey Hepburn) and Martha Dobie (Shirley MacLaine). They are troubled by the poor behavior of the 12-year-old Mary Tilford (Karen Balkin), the granddaughter of the town’s most prominent and wealthiest citizen. The kid is a born liar, who gets even with the head-mistresses for disciplining her for her poor behavior by telling the lie that the school heads are in an “unnatural relationship.” Mary’s granny, Amelia Tilford (Fay Bainter), believes her and as a result removes her from the school and spreads the lie to other school parents, who also remove their children. As a result the administrators have little choice but to file a slander suit against Mrs. Tilford. The chief character witness, Martha’s irresponsible Aunt Lily (Miriam Hopkins), is pressured by the influential community leaders and refuses to testify on behalf of Martha. The lie has tarnished the reputation of the school. Even Karen’s nice guy school doctor fiancé, Dr. Joe Cardin (James Garner), begins to have his doubts about her. The lie has also triggered a suppressed desire in Martha for Karen, but she is further beat down when she tells her of this love. The truth eventually comes to the attention of Amelia, and she tries to make amends. But it’s too late, as the distraught Martha hangs herself and Karen’s life is destroyed by the aftereffects of the cruel lie and how the community turned their back on her.

The stars give compelling performances, but the film, the second and lesser version made of the play. Wyler also made the first one, entitled These Three (1936). The older version never referred to the lie as a question of lesbianism due to the restrictions of the times. But the latest version despite being explicit, was too overwrought to move me. But it did get across how backward and mean-spirited society can be.