Friday Night Classic: The Children’s Hour (1961)

The Children’s Hour is one of those movies I never got around to seeing until recently, even though I have had every intention of watching it over the years.

Directed by William Wyler, the movie is an adaptation of Lillian Hellman’s 1934 play. It stars Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine as Karen and Martha, college classmates who run a private school for girls in New England. Martha’s Aunt Lily (Miriam Hopkins) lives with the women and Karen is engaged to Joe (James Garner), a respected OB/GYN in the community.

Trouble begins for Martha and Karen when their student Mary, the brattiest kid in any movie period, is caught lying and is punished by the teachers. Furious, she tells her wealthy grandmother Amelia (Fay Bainter) that Martha and Karen are lovers and she blackmails another student into going along with her. Mary’s lie destroys Martha and Karen’s reputation and ultimately has a detrimental effect.

The Children’s Hour is notable for a number of reasons. When Hellman’s play was produced in 1934, the mention of homosexulaity on stage was illegal in New York state. In 1936, Wyler directed an adaptation of The Children’s Hour called These Three. In this film, Mary’s lie is that Martha is having an affair with Joe, Karen’s fiancé, eradicating homosexuality from the film.

By 1961, the Hays Code had become less strict. This allowed lesbianism to be hinted at in what is a more faithful adaptation of The Children’s Hour.

Never hearing the characters say aloud (at least, initially) why Martha and Karen are being ostracized only adds to the dramatic impact of The Children’s Hour. Though the audience knows what Mary has told her grandmother is shocking, they are left confused as to what the secret is. Just like Martha and Karen.

What could possibly be so shocking to nearly give Fay Bainter a stroke in the back of her town car? Mary’s false accusation does come out. By today’s standards, homosexuality in film is nothing to marvel at but how homosexuality is looked at in The Children’s Hour makes it shocking today.

This has everything to do with the strength of the performances by Fay Bainter, Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine. Bainter is frighteningly powerful as the wealthy grandmother who is tricked by her granddaughter into destroying others. (Bainter was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance.) Hepburn and MacLaine turn out wonderfully complimentary performances as the scorned schoolteachers. But MacLaine outshines Hepburn. Martha is the far more tragic character, often carrying the emotional weight of the film.

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