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The Children's Hour

The Children's Hour
MGM Home Entertainment
1961 / b&w / 1:66 letterbox flat / 107 min. / The Loudest Whisper / Street Date December 3, 2002 / $19.98
Starring Audrey Hepburn, Shirley MacLaine, James Garner, Miriam Hopkins, Fay Bainter, Karen Balkin, Veronica Cartwright, Mimi Gibson
Cinematography Franz F. Planer
Production Designer
Art Direction Fernando Carrere
Film Editor Robert Swink
Original Music Alex North
Written by John Michael Hayes, Lillian Hellman from her play
Produced and Directed by William Wyler

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 It did result in two movie versions, one compromised, and the other outdated.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 In one afternoon, all the students have been withdrawn, and Karen and Martha have to go begging to find out why.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 story here.

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 Garner. Even 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 Miriam 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 Damn Good. 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 relationship.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Children's Hour rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Very Good
Sound: Good
Supplements: Trailer
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:

Friendly Persuasion
The Best Years of Our Lives
The Little Foxes
Roman Holiday

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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