Often considered a landmark film in its depiction, or allusion to, homosexuality, The Children’s Hour is far more than a cultural touchstone. This sensitive analysis of false accusations – a classroom Crucible – and societal deviancy boasts a bevy of stellar performances from the likes of Shirley MacLaine, Audrey Hepburn, and the recently deceased James Garner. Suffice it to say, this was KL Studio Classics best decision to release this on Blu-ray.
Karen Wright (Hepburn) and Martha Dobie (MacLaine) are the headmistresses of the Wright-Dobie School for Girls. When a disgruntled student takes revenge on them by accusing them of having “sinful knowledge” of each other, Karen and Martha are faced with complete destruction of their lives, both professional and personal.
William Wyler had tackled Lillian Hellman’s infamous play back in 1936 with the film, These Three, starring Merle Oberon in the Hepburn role and Miriam Hopkins – who returns in this version as Martha’s aunt – in the MacLaine role. Unfamiliar with the original, I can’t state which version pushes the boundaries of the Code and what individual changes were made in tone or story structure. This version certainly leans against the boundaries of an already crumbling Code in the rather frank allusions to what Martha and Karen are accused of.
Before the accusation is given, Karen and Martha are already at a threshold with Karen set to marry amiable doctor, Joe Cardin (James Garner). These two women can’t be anymore different; Martha calls herself a “skirt and blouse character” aware of Hepburn’s royal bearing and need for an equally elegant “accouterment” in Joe. The casting of MacLaine and Hepburn sets up their distinctions perfectly. MacLaine isn’t overly made up, almost tomboyish in her appearance, while Hepburn couldn’t be homely if she tried and, despite her ordinary wardrobe, she’s suitably elegant. They come together in their love of teaching, something Karen swears won’t change with her marriage. Removing the element of a romantic relationship between these women, there’s a state of fear created the minute Karen reveals her impending nuptials. Martha is terrified of change, of losing maybe her only friend. She acts cordial to Joe, but there’s an air of aloofness to their conversation. They’re rivals, and whether romantic or platonic is up to the viewer. Wyler was aware of the themes he dealt with, and one can interpret Martha in a multitude of ways, not always associated with what the movie speaks of overtly.
Speaking towards The Children’s Hour’s controversy, it is a dated depiction of repressed homosexuality. A key refrain is the word “unnatural,” a word so frightening head accuser, Mrs. Tilford (an excellent Fay Bainter) doesn’t even want to hear it. MacLaine famously said she never believed Martha would crumble under the accusations, but instead would fight. No offense, Shirl, but I cry foul on your assessment. Considering the time period, and Martha’s already precarious fears of being shunned by Karen, it’s understandable that Martha, more than any other character, would fear being revealed, whether true or not. The themes also tie into the unspoken fears of the unmarried woman. Both Karen and Martha are unmarried, only propagating rumors of them as “damaged goods” or oddballs.
Take away the subtext and The Children’s Hour is about the fear of the spoken word and social conformity. The hazards of rumors and innuendos have long-standing repercussions and once out there cannot be easily taken back. (It’s even worse now in our “internet is forever” age.) When Joe musters up the courage to ask Karen whether the rumors or true – he doesn’t believe them but feels compelled to authenticate – Karen fears her response because words have different meanings in this world.
The stage-like qualities of the film keep the pace jaunty. After little Mary, a sociopath in Mary Janes played by Karen Balkin, throws out her accusations there’s a lengthy interrogation sequence cluttered with tension. The frustration the audience feels is mimicked through the characters. Mary is caught in numerous lies, eventually blackmailing another student (Veronica Cartwright, in prime screech mode) to bolster her claims. Because Balkin’s face is so non-expressive, you can’t help but cheer for Joe who spanks her earlier on, or Hopkins’ Lily asking if Martha “finally hit her.” There’s only two key locations – the school and the Tilford residence – keeping the play qualities intact as well as lending an air of confinement, especially once Karen and Martha fear leaving their house.
Much of this film’s praise is given over to Hepburn and MacLaine, the latter in particular. Let’s not forget Miriam Hopkins and James Garner. Hopkins completed the cycle, playing Martha in These Three and the aging Aunt Lily. Hopkins’ Lily channels Margo Channing as an aging theater star who now spends her days teaching children. Her relationship with Martha is tempestuous, but at the same time Lily isn’t the most reliable, failing to come to her niece’s aid because she was “helping” the theater. Hopkins’ work, particularly in her later roles, saw her playing these characters trying to work their own self-interests against the best interests of the people involved (look at her role as Olivia De Havilland’s aunt in The Heiress).
James Garner is also a character trying to be charitable and unselfish and failing. His Joe is desperately in love with Karen, but his obligation to his own wants get in the way. Before that, though, Garner fires on all cylinders in the charm department, cheekily preparing his marriage proposal to Karen with “Let’s try something we’ve never done before….” Well-played, Mr. Garner! Joe is a good man, even willing to let Martha live with them after their marriage. He has no interest in tearing Karen away from the school, but at the same time he’s only human; he has to ask Karen if she is the person the rumors claim despite knowing her himself.
In the end, The Children’s Hour is all about human frailty. As much as we all believe we’ll stand up for friends if we hear horrible rumors about them, the niggling desire to confirm or deny will always be there. The Children’s Hour is a sharp film with a laser focus on things we’ll never fully eradicate because to do so would make us less than human.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.