Director: William Wyler
Stars: Audrey Hepburn, Shirley MacLaine, James Garner
In 1961 William Wyler took a second swing at bringing Lillian Hellman’s play, The Children’s Hour, to the big screen. The play tells the story of two female teachers who are falsely ‘outed’ as lesbians by a naughty pupil, and follows the immediate disrepair the accusation causes in their lives. Wyler’s first attempt, 1936’s These Three, was nice enough, yet it was stifled by the conservatism of the Hays Code which comfortably obliterated the homosexual angle. With these strict parentheses on content fast eroding by 1961, Wyler decided that it was time to give it another shot and presented a more rounded and slyly confrontational film than the one previously mounted.
It’s damning of the tentativeness of Hollywood that this picture – still relatively coy and subdued – was greeted somewhat nervously on arrival (and yet more telling that gay cinema is still labelled ‘progressive’ today), but The Children’s Hour has been embraced in some quarters as a key film in the history of LGBT cinema, and not without good reason. On top of this, its one of Wyler’s best films; this from a director not short on best films.
Indeed, Wyler was one of the most well-regarded of all filmmakers, though he never subscribed to the newly en vogue ‘auteur theory’ banded about around the time of The Children’s Hour. Instead his work is chameleonic and without ego, yet strong themes recur in spite of this. Pacifism and thoughtfulness dominate, as well as a knack for firebrand roles for women. But Wyler could work just as comfortably on small intimate pictures (this one, The Heiress as examples) as when commanding tent-pole prestige epics.
The Children’s Hour followed Ben-Hur, and one might well see it as a palette cleanser (though it is so much more than that). Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine star as the school teachers Karen Wright and Martha Dobie respectively, playing against type, both being more often associated with comedic roles at this time. Karen is enamoured with Dr Joe Cardin (James Garner), yet her friendship with Martha is her greatest treasure. Acting in defiance and exploring the power of her voice, it is precocious young Mary (Karen Balkin) whose loose lips unfurl this tragic drama.
Watching the film again (newly re-released in dual DVD and bluray format by the BFI), I was struck by how well it resonates with the modern world, especially when placed in the context of casual hearsay on social media. No matter the platform you always find evidence of Mary’s anonymous kindred, and the proliferation of hate through Twitter threads, message boards or Facebook comments (as examples) often appears fueled by the misgiving that freedom of speech is also free of consequence, often coming from a place of cowardice and privilege.
I’m not an advocate for blind censorship, rather what I’m getting at is that The Children’s Hour broaches honestly one of the more vile – and durable – aspects of human nature; the willing and even flippant destruction of others without discernible motive. When she realises that her lies do have consequences, Mary becomes addicted to them, regardless of the destruction she causes. It’s a power trip.
The greater tragedy of The Children’s Hour is that Mary’s make belief isn’t too far removed from a kind of truth, for Martha is in love with Karen. The manner in which the accusations cut at her closeted sexual identity (which is wound up in shame) are presented by Wyler with utmost tenderness, rendered heartbreaking by MacLaine in one of her finest performances. The film’s ending – which diverges from Hellman’s play – also adds a pitch-perfect silent reflection from Karen that suggests reciprocation, albeit discovered far too late.
To the eagle-eyed, however, it is there all along. Karen’s immediate forgiveness of Martha in an early spat…held gazes… Karen may not admit it to herself until the picture’s end, but her love for Martha is frequently in evidence even if she herself remains genuinely oblivious.
Hepburn, for the record, is also great here (probably my favourite performance of hers), though far less showy than her counterpart. When Martha is outspoken and reactionary, Karen is harder to read, more insular. Such traits aren’t readily celebrated, but Hepburn brings beautiful nuance to her work here.
At the film’s dramatic apex our worst fears realised, which leads to a thorny question that dominates gay cinema; why do such stories so commonly have to end in heartache or worse? For the longest time, homosexual relationships on film have seemed destined to see couples suffer for their love, punished or tormented. The reality, one supposes, it that this truthfully reflects both society’s wider homophobia (a sweeping generalisation, I admit) while also providing a dramatic, even operatic staging for a variety of persecutions felt keenly by a percentage of the populus.
Happiness in gay relationships deserves representation. Promisingly, the tables seem to be turning, as the endings of films like Carol, Moonlight and The Handmaiden recently evidence. Heartache still persists, but a counterbalance is starting to make its self known.
Does this relegate The Children’s Hour to another sad defeat? Perhaps in one sense. But while Hellman’s initial tackling of the subject on stage in 1934 was daring, Wyler’s on-screen exploration in 1961 was practically unheard of, and therefore must be considered brave and groundbreaking for the medium. The film still largely talks around its subject which is carried on unheard whispers, reflecting lesbianism’s assumed mysteriousness and society’s tight-lipped ignorance (the vague categorisation “unnatural” is used repeatedly). Yet Wyler asks for gargantuan sympathy for those perceived as monsters, and shows us a society of beasts ready to condemn them.
I’ve mentioned before on these pages that Roger Ebert referred to cinema as an empathy machine, and its a term that’s become popular with many others. In The Children’s Hour that machine is on form rarely matched. The film aches for its leads, and you will, too. If you’ve not seen it – and it’s not a title what gets mentioned with great regularity – now’s the perfect opportunity. Cinephiles can also look out for Veronica Cartwright in an early role.
And for the record, while there’s tragedy here there’s also hope. It’s there in the final shot as Audrey Hepburn crosses the camera’s path, suggesting that a changed mind is always possible. Maybe there’s some salvaging those message board bullies after all…