The insidious lie of a malicious child and how it destroys the lives of three adult innocents remains at the crux of William Wyler’s The Children’s Hour (1961); a rather odd duck of a movie reporting to be about lesbianism; or rather, the implication of it, but winding up a loose character study, presented mostly in hushed whispers, snide insinuations and with some unintentionally laughable bad acting. Lillian Hellman’s play of the same name had created quite a stir in 1934; Hellman basing her treatise about small town hypocrisy on an actual incident occurring in 1809: two Scottish teachers whose lives were destroyed by allegations of a lesbian affair. The Scotts didn’t take things lying down. They were victorious in their liable suit; the victory, alas, never equating to a restoration of their ruined reputations. In Hellman’s play, the rumor, what was then considered a sexual abomination, is compounded by the loss of this lawsuit; the truth only revealed by a gracious whim of fate, exposing the two girls who have perpetuated the lie; one the habitual ‘bad seed’, the other an angst-ridden kleptomaniac.
Even the mention of the word ‘homosexuality’ was taboo in 1934 – actually, illegal under New York State law. However, Hellman’s keen exposure of its allegation as a lie proved so shocking – as entertainment – the play became an instant sensation with critics and audiences, the authorities willing to look the other way for the sake of ‘art’. If such stringencies seem cruelly hypocritical to downright silly today, they were only amplified when director, William Wyler undertook to transpose Hellman’s play to the movie screen in 1936; producer Samuel Goldwyn forced by the Hays Office to censor the premise; also to change the title of the movie – first rechristened ‘The Lie’, but later released as ‘These Three’. Instead of lesbianism, it was whispered that one of the teachers had been having a salacious sexual affair with the other’s fiancé. Egad! Made impotent by the Production Code, These Three was little more than a blip on the cinema radar; a movie of such stilted and melodramatic tedium it quickly vanished from the public’s consciousness.
However, in remaking the movie in 1961 under its original title – and with its original premise intact – William Wyler has still managed to miss much of Hellman’s potency; despite the fact he is less encumbered by such artistic stringencies and afforded ample freedom to explore Hellman’s loaded scenario. John Michael Hayes’ screenplay retains a lot of Hellman’s dialogue and adheres closely to the machinations of her stagecraft; altering the penultimate suicide from a fatal gunshot to a hanging (less messy and graphic, I presume, and artfully staged in the film from a low camera angle; a toppled chair in the foreground/the shadow of a pair of dangling legs cast across a nearby bed – how very Lillian Gish of Wyler). Alas, Wyler seems to have acquired cold feet in the eleventh hour of postproduction; co-star Shirley MacLaine later claiming some of her best work fell to the cutting room floor because of her director’s concerns over negative critical reaction.
Viewing The Children’s Hour from our present day acceptance of homosexuality as a part of human sexual relations is a bit like taking a quantum step back in time, when such narrow-minded rejection of even the notion of same-sex love – let along marriage – seemed disgustingly abhorrent. North America’s suppression of such undeniable, valid and ever-present human interaction has always fascinated me; particularly in the shadow of Europe’s laissez faire attitudes. What exactly are we afraid of; the notion then that homosexuality was a ‘curable disease’ best left undiscussed for fear its very mention would contaminate even those not predisposed to ‘dabble’ in its experimentation? Really?!? Under such unfriendly circumstances, Lillian Hellman’s play must have tempted not only providence in 1934 but also the general tenor of popular – and thoroughly misguided…uh… ‘wisdom’ on the subject back then. And Wyler, who clearly felt he had made compromises – and did – in his 1936 version, alas, has managed to remain somewhat aloof in committing wholeheartedly to the potency of the play in this 1961 remake.
There are several gaping holes in the narrative tapestry this time around; the most egregious, that we are left to speculate just what was whispered into Mrs. Amelia Tilford’s (Fay Bainter) ear by her revoltingly manipulative granddaughter, Mary (Karin Balkin); the insinuation never spelled out for the audience, but continuing to fester in some veiled remarks made by one of the accused’s relations; an aunt - Mrs. Lily Mortar (Miriam Hopkins), who deems her niece’s friendly devotion to her best friend as ‘unnatural’. The term ‘unnatural’ becomes a loaded inference in the movie, spreading like wildfire throughout the nimble-minded community. Despite the relaxed nature of the Production Code by 1961, Wyler cannot even bring himself to share the film’s dirty little secret with the audience in a scene where school teacher, Karen Wright (Audrey Hepburn) demands to know the reason why one of the parents, Mr. Burton (William Mims) has come to remove his child from their private institution. Instead, the scene is played in long shot, the other teacher in this equation, Martha Dobie (Shirley MacLaine) quietly observing from a distance and through a screen door as Karen’s demeanor changes from rank frustration to emasculated defeat at the discovery she is being denunciated for a lesbian relationship.
Worse for the overall tenor and strength of the movie, Wyler denies us even a few choice snippets of the liable lawsuit brought by Karen and Martha in their enfeebled attempt to clear their good names of these charges; their loss at trial revealed only in a brief toss away line after the fact; Martha and Karen left near catatonic and wondering how such slanderous allegations could endure without any legitimate basis in fact to support them. The wrinkle in the play – and the movie – is, of course, that one of the accused has, in fact, harbored homoerotic feelings toward the other, unrequited but nevertheless genuine; the discovery of these suppressed urges and feelings leading to a fatal rupture in the integrity of their friendship and, ultimately, death by suicide. Wyler’s lack of confidence to just come right out and state the premise of the story is really what submarines its focus in the end; the already fatigued second-tier romance between Karen and her fiancé, town doctor, Joe Cardin (James Garner) – who also happens to be Mrs. Tilford’s nephew – relegated to objectionable weak-kneed platitudes, self-doubts and pities.
Interestingly, William Wyler showed more defiance and courage in hiring James Garner to co-star in his movie; Garner coming off of a rather messy lawsuit and break from Warner Bros. over being released from his contract on the popular television series, Maverick (1957-62). The blackballing of Garner by the studio might have easily ruined his chances to procure other work. Instead, Wyler helped to re-launch Garner’s career as a movie star. If only Wyler had been more aggressively supportive of Lillian Hellman’s powerful stagecraft, The Children’s Hour might have truly been an outstanding piece of progressively-minded cinema art. As it stands, the film is little more than a moderately compelling melodrama, further impugned by some really clunky acting; the worst being Karin Balkin’s over-the-top devious and prepubescent hellcat who runs the gamut from dramatically faking a blackout to blackmailing impressionable fellow student, Rosalie Wells (Veronica Cartwright), the latter giving into fear her kleptomania will be exposed; particularly since Balkin’s Mary Tilford holds the evidence in the palm of her hand: the discovery of a charm bracelet in Rosalie’s possession, a stolen gift belonging to another student, Helen.
The Children’s Hour begins in the idyllic country house Karen and Martha have converted into a private all-girl’s school. It’s taken every investment of their time, energy and money to build the enrollment to its present sustainable standard. And by all indications, next year’s membership promises even more handsome returns. The school is not without its problems; chiefly, Martha’s rather slavish devotion to Karen and Karen’s strong desire to wed Joe at summer’s end, presumably, to leave the school in Martha’s competent care. Martha’s aunt, Lily proves something of the proverbial fly in this ointment; a silly and self-professed ex-star of the Broadway stage, who chronically laments her decision to remain at the school and help out by offering elocution classes to the young girls; also tips on social graces and etiquette that are as outdated as they prove ridiculous.
Lily points out to Martha that her own lack of procuring a husband, as well as her loyalties to Karen, and minor jealousies toward Joe, are ‘unnatural’ – a phrase overheard by two of Mary’s roommates without any context or understanding of what it actually means. Mary, who is a troublemaker and spoiled in the extreme, decides to use her interpretation of ‘unnatural’ as revenge against Karen, who has more recently taken to disciplining the girl for her belligerence. Whispering something in her grandmother, Amelia’s ear, Mary is pleased when the mummified dowager moves her back into her home and begins to doubt the integrity of the school, spreading the rumor throughout the community and thereby inciting the rest of the conservative parents to partake in a mass exodus of their children from Karen and Martha’s care.
Perplexed and wounded by this sudden and mysterious reversal of their good fortunes, Karen confronts one of the parents, Mr. Burton, demanding to know the reason. Burton’s reluctant confession sends Karen and Martha straight to Amelia’s house; Joe in full support of Karen as Amelia is forced to admit what she has done. In the meantime, Rosalie has been blackmailed by Mary to back her in the lie about Karen and Martha being lovers. Though Rosalie is obviously averse to keeping Mary’s secret, she cannot expose it without Mary disclosing to everyone she is a chronic thief with the threat of jail hanging over her head. Thus, when Karen, Martha and Joe confront Mary in Amelia’s presence, inquiring how she comes by her information, the child lies, first – that she herself observed the pair through the keyhole of Martha’s bedroom (a lie easily exposed by Martha, since there is no keyhole in her door), then by forcing Rosalie to lie for her about having spied Martha and Karen from a distance through an open doorway.
This corroboration of Mary’s lie forces Karen and Martha into an impossible situation: a public trial they fervently believe will exonerate their good names. Instead, they lose their case – the verdict sealing their fates as wanton sexual perverts unworthy of managing an all-girl’s school. Forced to live in exile inside the abandoned school, infrequently leered at by curious passersby, Karen suggests the two make plans to leave the area at once and seek other employment elsewhere and far away from all the unpleasantness. Joe returns to Karen’s side. He is contrite but angry for having his doubts; temporarily resigning his commission at the local hospital and making plans to wed Karen immediately, taking both her and Martha away until the latter can make for other arrangements.
Lily, who left the school at Martha’s behest earlier, before the rumor broke – but refused to testify on her niece’s behalf at trial – thus, helping promote the rumor by her absence and lack of support – now returns to the school; her fledgling comeback on the stage an absolute bust. Joe confesses to Karen he still has his doubts, his empathic need to inquire whether or not the rumor was ever true, forcing Karen to realize regardless of her reply he will always have his misgivings. It’s over between the two and for the first time in their relationship, each knows it; a very bitter pill to swallow.
Karen sends Joe away and Martha cruelly orders Lily to leave the school just as soon as she can pack and catch the next train. Karen encourages Martha to reconsider their options. They will leave the school together – forever under a cloud of suspicion – but nevertheless as friends devoted to see this unholy episode in their lives through to a brighter future somewhere else. Alas, Martha now confides in Karen she has indeed ‘loved’ her from afar as more than a friend; her own emotions constantly tortured and kept hidden deep in her heart, occasionally manifested as rank and unwarranted jealousy toward Joe. It doesn’t matter to Karen now, perhaps because she has never entertained any such notions herself. And Martha, despite her ‘flaw’ has been a devoted friend whom Karen’s personal integrity will not allow her to abandon even now when she knows the truth but needs her most. Karen decides to go for a walk to clear her mind; Martha quietly observing her from an upstairs window.
Alas, too late Karen comes to an ominous premonition; that Martha has remained behind to kill herself and thus put a period to her emotional suffrage. Hurrying back to the house, Karen finds Martha’s bedroom locked, using a heavy metal candlestick from the closet to break down the door, only to discover her friend having hanged herself from one of the support beams in the ceiling. Joe, Amelia and Lily attend the funeral, though only Karen remains behind with the casket to say a few words of prayer. Depositing Lily, who is overwrought with insincere emotions, into a waiting cab, Karen proudly marches out of the cemetery and past the sheepish gathering of onlookers, now more clearly able to see them for their own ugliness: hypocrites who contributed to the demise of her one true friend.
The Children’s Hour has its moments, and indeed the acting put forth by Shirley MacLaine in particular is of the highest quality; Audrey Hepburn and James Garner running her a very close second. In this triage of stellar talents, director William Wyler manages to generate some sparked exchanges and pronounced sexual friction that never appears rehearsed, forced or simply grappling to expose the melodrama for its own sake. Alas, the film is hampered by its ancillary performances; particularly Fay Bainter’s duped adjuvant, who spends the bulk of the film wringing her hands with a wounded teddy bear expression sketched across her weather-beaten wrinkly façade. When Bainter’s Amelia first learns of the alleged homosexual relationship from her granddaughter it is an awkward moment of revelation; one that should hardly have prompted such a rash decision to spread the unsubstantiated rumor all over town before at least confronting the accused to get the other side of the story.
Karen Balkin has the look of a pigtailed deceiver and bearded hypocrite, but not the temperament or stomach for it. Her scenes with Veronica Cartwright – an infinitely more talented and convincing actress – are weak and predicated on a highly stylized bit of manipulation. There’s no subtly to Balkin’s delivery; nothing to convince us she actually would do this wicked thing, be able to successfully pull it off, and, not expect it all to backfire in the end. And alas, the whole film seems to pivot on our ability to accept that everyone else would buy into Balkin’s lie when she so clearly doesn’t really believe it herself. Yes, Mary is using her own wicked imagination to get back at the two educators who have endeavored to enrich, evolve and force her to progress in her character. Alas, Mary has none; and Balkin lacks the ability to convince us of the child’s wholly unscrupulous nature.
The Children’s Hour is still a fairly entertaining artifact of its time and well worth the price of admission as a solid movie starring our beloved Audrey Hepburn. It is imperfect entertainment and a not terribly prepossessing melodrama – a pity that – because it’s rather obvious the stars involved and William Wyler have hoped for and aspired to a better piece of cinema more enlightening, progressive and startlingly in its revelations than it actually is. Nevertheless, The Children’s Hour isn’t a washout entirely, even if what’s present only gives us a faint whiff of Lillian Hellman’s trend-setting stage work.
Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray is a middling effort, culled from imperfectly archived film elements under MGM/Fox’s lock and key. There are several glaring cuts in the film. Shirley MacLaine has always maintained Wyler somewhat chickened out in the editing process, removing bits of dialogue to soften the homosexual context. And, indeed, we can see some rather clumsy edits at play; two shots suddenly jumping from medium to close-up with an optical zoom; the trains of actors’ thoughts unceremoniously interrupted with a jump cut or splice ruining the continuity of the scene. But there are some curiously absent frames scattered throughout that belie Wyler’s simply editing out bits of dialogue. A scene where Shirley MacLaine silently enters the room appears to be missing one or two frames as she opens the door, as example. There are also a few brief scenes obviously sourced from optically zoomed in and reframed film elements. Were these made at the time of the movie’s original shoot – in camera - or in Wyler’s editing room, or perhaps inaccurately reprinted somewhere after the fact and to what purpose? Hmmmm. The B&W image is mostly smooth, perhaps a little too smooth – the absence of discernable film grain suggesting undue DNR has been liberally applied. Although contrast is mostly solid, there are a few scenes where levels have been artificially boosted, particularly in a few of the daytime exteriors. These exhibit weaker than anticipated tonality overall. The DTS mono audio is adequate though unremarkable; mercifully absent of any noticeable hiss or pop. As with most other Kino Lorber classics recently released, The Children’s Hour comes with zero extras, save a truly atrocious trailer that all but gives away its shocking suicide ending. Bottom line: recommended with caveats.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)