Mary is an aggressive troublemaker at the Wright-Dobie School For Girls, run by Karen Wright and Martha Dobie, women who graduated from college together. The school's actually a large two-story house where the children sleep upstairs and have classes downstairs. Mary lies, steals, blackmails, and even overracts just to get out of trouble. Karen, who has been patient with her, finally decides to punish her, and that's when Mary decides to act. She uses gossip she hears from other girls, blackmails a girl with a penchant for stealing, but the second worst thing she does is manipulate her caring but strict grandmother, Ms. Amelia Tilford, into being the agent for the destruction of innocent lives. It is Tilford's spreading the lie of the schoolteachers being lovers that causes the school to collapse.
For the two women, assisted by Martha's meddlesome aunt Lily Mortar, running a school's not easy, but things are looking up. They've finally made a profit, expecting some more students, and Joe Cardon, the local doctor and cousin of Mary's, has finally agreed on a date to marry Karen. All this though has been surrounded by tensions. Joe has been snappish, Martha is a bit sharp with Joe, and everybody's tired from running this school. And tensions boil when Lily berates Martha for being possessive and jealous of Karen to the point that Martha dismisses her own aunt from the school. But the scandal brings with it the mind-twisting madness of how certain words spoken have a different connotation. "Everything I say is meant to mean something else," Joe says in frustration. To which Karen says, "Every word has a new meaning. Child, love, friend, woman...not many safe words anymore."
The darkly lit interior scenes in the empty schoolhouse, once bustling with activity, mirrors the somber atmosphere after the scandal breaks. Based on Lillian Hellman's play on an actual incident in early 19th century Scotland, and initially filmed in 1936 under the title These Three, and also directed by William Wyler, it was a perfect opportunity to test the waters of the newly liberated Production Code, but the word "lesbian" was never used, mainly because Hepburn was nervous about content. There were some scenes that played up on a potential relationship that were cut, and Shirley MacLaine regretted that Wyler didn't keep the ball rolling in that regard. As a result, it's not the film it could have been.
The stars are all good, with even James Garner showing some emotional depth when things between Joe and Karen finally become strained as a result of the scandal. Miriam Hopkins, who played Martha Dobie in These Three, plays the role originally done by Catherine Doucet. Audrey is laudable enough here, but for her, saying no to Wyler, who directed her to fame in Roman Holiday, was tantamount to saying no to God, otherwise, she probably wouldn't have come out in this. But Fay Bainter (Ms. Tilford) turns in a role for which she was given a Best Supporting Actress nomination, as someone concerned, and too trusting to be blinded from the truth. When it does hit her, there is a scene when she collapses. She shrugs off any assistance, rises, and stares imperiously while her granddaughter stares in fear at being finally revealed.
While not one of Hepburn's most memorable movies, it's certainly one of the most depressing, and thus seems longer than it's 1:47 running time.
Now, the Hellman play had enough dated, corny moments to make any decent director tear her hair out (especially if the said director was slaving away directing for a two-bit, small-town, scuzzy, exploitative, unappreciative, social-climbing, pitiful, political, snotty, piddly community theatre in Alliance, OH which shall remain nameless, but that you can identity by following the rank, desperate, consumed-by-envy smell of the backstabbing, wannabe artist Board of Directors "Director").
So, you would think that the film, being funded and Holywood and all, would streamline the story and cut out all cheesy bits.
However, instead, the film adds bizarre moments that never existed in the film, kicks up the camp, and changes the ending so that the basic narrative is unrecognizable.
I would say, skip this film and read the play yourself. That way you'll be able to see what Hellman was truly trying to convey.