"Wicked very young, wicked very old," as noted wartime songstress Bette Davis would have it. Diplomas in hand, the heroines (Merle Oberon, Miriam Hopkins) are "two well-educated young women, neat and clean" and ready to turn the dilapidated farmhouse into a boarding school. (Joel McCrea, the middle term of the equation, enters by poking through the rooftop in a beekeeper's suit, just a foretaste of the swarms still to come.) The turning point for the unconsolidated triangle is a night innocently spent together, a shattered glass of milk rouses the malefic student (Bonita Granville) next seen garbed like Melville's Dargelos (Les Enfants Terribles) and twisting with "secrets, funny secrets." A whisper in the ear is all it takes, the local dowager (Alma Kruger) triggers a wave of outrage and William Wyler works out the consequences in his preferred battlefield—drawing rooms arranged like Grimshaw interiors, figures trapped at 45° angles from a neutral camera that cuts sharply. Lillian Hellman herself dilutes her play's lesbian transgression into an illicit straight crush, yet there's no mistaking an air of Mädchen in Uniform amidst the rumors and accusations, sublimated tensions subtly cracking the smoothness of Gregg Toland's superfices. "The test of a great actress," decrees the histrionic aunt (Catherine Doucet), so it goes with Wyler on his leading ladies: He feeds Oberon sandwiches and milkshakes, then suddenly engineers a quiet declaration of love while she's still dizzy from a carousel ride. (Later, while embracing McCrea, all she needs is a gaze slack from doubt.) Elsewhere, Hopkins orchestrates a symphony of unvented longing around the scrapping of a wall poster, practically an extension of her work with Lubitsch. A schoolgirl's campaign of terror is a patrician overlord's "first dishonorable mistake"; Wyler's later remake registers Tennyson's "lie that is half-truth," here the happy ending in Austria is but a reminder of another brand of ominous groupthink going on next door. With Marcia Mae Jones, Margaret Hamilton, and Walter Brennan. In black and white.
--- Fernando F. Croce