Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Lillian Hellman's The Children's Hour was a bold play that helped make her reputation, but it
was also a story
the world wasn't ready for. In it, the lives of two female schoolteachers are destroyed by accusations
of lesbianism. A plea for understanding and tolerance (with a distrust of the prejudiced
masses thrown in), it was considered far too raw for the new Production Code, which would
barely allow movies to acknowledge the existence of things like divorce. It did result in two movie versions,
one compromised, and the other outdated. This 'daring' 1961 remake doesn't face its
central subject directly - even though it's an exceedingly well-made film.
The Wright-Dobie boarding school for well-to-do girls is just beginning to become
profitable, when disaster strikes. Incorrigible young Mary Tilford (Karen Balkin) spitefully tells
her dowager grandmother Amelia (Fay Bainter) a pack of lies and half-baked ideas from racy novels
she's smuggled into the dorm, that teachers Karen Wright (Audrey Hepburn) and Martha Dobie (Shirley
MacLaine) are having an 'unnatural affair'. Amelia misreads some bitter words from Martha's relative
Lily Mortar (Miriam Hopkins) and panics in revulsion and outrage. In one afternoon, all the students
have been withdrawn, and Karen and Martha have to go begging to find out why. Even Karen's fiancee,
Doctor Joe Cardin (James Garner) can't get to the bottom of the problem, and he's Amelia's nephew.
They sue Amelia Tilford for libel, but the key witness for their defense, Lily, predictably
refuses to testify.
The Children's Hour and its first version, These Three are key titles for any
discussion about homosexuality on the screen. William Wyler was attracted to the play for its
progressive stance. In the 1930s, he was on a roll of literary adaptations of very high quality,
including the honored
Dodsworth, made immediately afterward.
These Three skirted the lesbian angle by changing the scandal to a strictly straight scenario,
with both women
supposedly sharing the same male lover. It was an early example of a liberal film made to please
everyone - the bluenoses were happy to have the forbidden theme repressed, and the liberals could
claim a victory in that the play's attack on society's intolerance had survived. Their
intellectual friends familiar with the play could 'read through' to the truth.
Several waves of Hollywood 'liberalism' came and went without making a dent in the issue. 1945's
Crossfire ducked the story of the hate crime murder of a homosexual, by making the victim
Jewish instead. In general, for every successful Message picture, there were ten duds. Producers
like Stanley Kramer who succeeded with socially-conscious dramas, usually framed their hot-button
issues in the safest manner possible.
There was a thaw in the early 60s, with some superstar blacklisted writers reappearing under their
own names, and many a ho-hum liberal film proudly proclaiming their daring in Coming Right Out in
support of already generally approved causes, like civil rights. In 1961, gays were still largely
underground, and the overall ban on any direct depiction of them was still in force. William
Wyler remade These Three under the original title, The Children's Hour with the idea
that the time was finally right to set the record straight. He had no trouble attracting top
names, including Hepburn, his 'discovery' and one of the biggest stars in the business.
Miriam Hopkins, who played Martha in the first film, returned as the reprehensible Lily.
Although critics and audiences admired the dramatics of The Children's Hour, even when new it
was considered a disappointment. The lesbian angle was barely touched upon, as the only possible gay
character discovers the fact only at the end. She then does 'the right thing' - kills herself - the
familiar movie solution for social misfits, reserved for traitors, monsters, and perverts. Being gay
was still very firmly entrenched as unthinkable - the movie is about the cruelty of society's action,
not homosexuality, which is still something to commit suicide over. Audrey Hepburn and Shirley
MacLaine are incensed only at the accusation, and the unfairness of their condemnation based on
malicious rumors started by a wicked child. If the two teachers had been an item, there'd be no
William Wyler's direction is impeccable, showing a fine return to form from his previous epics.
And the acting is also sensitive and moving. But critics had a point when they pointed out that
the progressive 1934 play was by 1961 already dated, a truth aggravated by the exigencies of
Hollywood. Audrey Hepburn's image is carefully 'protected' by the presence of studly James
if not the picture of rapturous delight from her earlier hits - she barely gets a chance to smile
here - she's as feminine as ever. Her relationship with the slightly less glamorous MacLaine is,
from her side of the fence, totally straight. MacLaine's attachment to Hepburn
turns to jealousy, but the sexual component
is, rather unaccountably, invisible to both of them. Neither would tolerate a
deviant in their midst any more than the rest of the town.
In the movies, liberal heroes who pit themselves against established society for being slaves, or
black, or rebels against tyranny,
are usually depicted in a political arena where they become martyrs or crusaders for the truth,
sublimating their personal needs to the greater Cause. The Children's Hour doesn't get into
any of that because it isn't about Lesbianism, but only false accusations. To put Wright and
Dobie into that trap requires some clever authorial manipulation, mostly the interference of the
Hopkins character. If the haughty Amelia had had a nice sit-down with the two charming teachers,
there's a good chance this would all be avoided - the pair would have boldly asserted their status
as 'innocent' straights. 1
Surely, miscommunication and jumping to conclusions is a real cause of problems like this. But
as it is, the movie veers toward a depiction of Women as somehow being Evil.
Little Mary Tilford is one of the most rotten kids ever depicted in a film. She'd mop the room with
The Bad Seed's Rhoda Penmark. Her utter terror campaign against poor Rosalie Wells (the
beloved Veronica Cartwright) turns a girl with a guilty secret, kleptomania, into a criminal ally.
The ostensible villain, Amelia, is actually the least venemous of the bunch. She's isolated,
behind the times, and blind to the nastiness of her granddaughter. Her actions are certainly
understandable to any parent trying to protect their child from perceived sexual predators. The
real vixen is the horrid Lily, a spoiled, selfish and vain harpy, with a show-biz background, yet.
She's so self-obsessed that she won't lift a finger to help save Martha and Karen, yet she expects all
to be rosy when she returns. We're encouraged to believe that burning at the stake is too good for her.
The teachers' disciplinary style, untouched by the progressive ideas (good and bad) of the 50s,
doesn't help the Wright or Brodie characters either. Karen brands
Mary a Bad Child, and her attempts to be gentle are all situations where Mary is on
Trial, or on the spot. Karen punishes Mary for being wilfully BAD, instead of seeking out what problems make the kid
continually choose such negative behavior. One of them appears to be the repressed sex climate, where
a dirty book becomes a talisman of rebellion. Author Hellman preaches tolerance, but has no problem
demonizing her chosen villains as completely unredeemable.
In the end, there's still a message, but not one about tolerance. A liberal film would leave us with
the knowledge that Society needs reforming, and we have to fight for the rights of all, and overcome
prejudices. The Children's Hour eventually comes to a socially apolitical
High Noon conclusion: People Are No
Karen loses her best friend, her fianceé, and her livelihood, and strides out of town like
sheriff Will Kane, her chin up, snubbing her lessers. They stand contrite, hats in hand. The hell
with them. 2
An unanswered question: since James Garner's love for Karen has chickened out under the pressure,
are we to assume he's decided to stay in town, now that he's no longer burdened by negative
associations? He gives his boss at the hospital grief, when it's clear that the reason he's let go
is because the patients have abandoned him by name.
The Children's Hour is an excellent movie about being victimized by a town without pity (hey,
good title!) but a dated moral lesson. We learn that it's very important not
to consider, for even a minute, the possibility of deviating from what's considered normal. This place
could condemn an individual for reading the wrong book or sympathizing with the wrong political party.
Shirley MacLaine is on the record that while making The Children's Hour,
nobody ever considered the possibility that the characterization of Martha Dobie was anything
less than progressive. She's herself intrigued by the dated quality of the film. It is
as much a product of its time as any movie. Some of the biggest Liberal Statement pictures
have been the first to obsolesce.
MGM's DVD of The Children's Hour is a very good presentation of this carefully-made b&w
drama. Franz Planer's grey on grey photography is spotless, and Wyler's deep-focus use of opened
doors and staircases looks just as good here as it did in the 1930s. The bit rate of the image
is adequate, and only becomes less than optimum on a large-screen television. The soundtrack is
reasonably clear, although purists will hear a slight distortion in some scenes.
The only extra is a trailer that presents the film as a sensational forbidden mystery and shows
all the strong scenes, even implying the ending tragedy. It's plenty gripping, however, a very
good cut. A questionable part of the presentation is the cover art, which has fuzzy
silhouette in the background of the two women which under these conditions implies a false
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Children's Hour rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Very Good
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: November 28, 2002
1. And the scare might have brought Martha's 'tendencies' to the forefront
of her awareness, where, given a calm atmosphere, she might have dealt with them one way or the other.
2. The ultimate People Are No Damn Good movie, The Chase, is also
from Lillian Hellman, with Miriam Hopkins as a deranged senior citizen, too. The author's
contrivance-ridden story makes sure that every Evil character contributes to a growing apocalypse
of hatred, intolerance, jealousy and suspicion. They even re-crucify Christ in the person of
Robert Redford, in the approved Ruby-Oswald style, the shooting of a handcuffed prisoner. Sheriff Marlon Brando does his own Will Kane walk
in the bleak ending.
3. Savant had his own brush with a non-scandal at UCLA in 1972, when
a fellow student stopped to tell me that he thought I was very brave to speak out in The Daily
Bruin, the campus newspaper. I grabbed a copy, and found out that there was a Glenn Erickson
on campus sending frequent letters to the editor. All were about the Gay Student's Union - he was
their treasurer. What was to be done about this? Nothing, I finally decided. Even seeking out the
other Glenn to acknowledge the issue would have signalled my fear of people
confusing us. The other Glenn Erickson (he used a different middle initial in print)
was the one who had the courage. I learned my own lesson about intolerance - to respect
the integrity of those who buck the system, and not to worry too much about 'what people may think'.
Savant Reviews of other William Wyler Movies:
The Best Years of Our Lives
The Little Foxes
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson