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  • Writer's pictureEllen Cheshire

Time for The Children's Hour - #LGBTHistoryMonth

Updated: May 5, 2023

February is #LGBTHistoryMonth and I am focusing my film watching on LGBTQ films. Check out my diary at letterboxd.

After the epic Ben Hur (1959) director William Wyler was keen to develop a smaller more intimate feature and dug out These Three, his 1936 version of Lillian Hellman’s controversial stage play, The Children’s Hour. Believing that the play’s frank subject matter (lesbianism) would be more readily accepted in the 1960s than it was thirty years before, he thought he’d have another crack at it. Despite a more liberal decade of movie-making there was still the issue of getting the script passed by the Production Code. This would only be considered if the word ‘lesbian’ was never uttered, only implied...

The Wright-Dobie School for Girls is run by Karen Wright (Audrey Hepburn) and her friend Martha Dobie (Shirley Maclaine), also living there is Martha’s Aunt Lily (Miriam Hopkins).

They have a nice set up. A small private school, where the majority of the girls are polite and helpful. But there is always a rotten apple and here it is the thoroughly horrid Mary (Karen Balkin) who is always stirring up trouble, bullying the other pupils and spying.

When the school finally breaks even and they make their first profit ($90) Martha wants to use it to buy clothes for Karen and it soon becomes clear that Martha is in love with Karen. But Karen is oblivious to her friend’s infatuation as she is busy being wooed by the handsome Doctor Joe Cardin (James Garner). He sees this $90 breakthrough as all he needs to persuade her to marry him and she finally agrees to this at the end of the school’s term.

Although Aunt Lily is exasperating, she is perceptive and senses Martha’s hostility towards Karen’s and Joe’s romance and confronts Martha announcing that she is jealous. Two girls overhear and report back to the nasty Mary about this “unnatural” friendship. It’s only matter of time before she passes on the gossip to her Grandma, Mrs Tilford (Fay Bainter) - who goes to the school to try and unearth the truth. There she bumps into Aunt Lily who has just been banished from the school. In her clumsy way spills the beans about her argument with Martha and her view of the “friendship” between the two school mistresses. Mrs Tilford adds two and two and makes five. Quickly pulling Mary out of school but not before stopping off to tell the news to as many mothers as possible. Gossip spreads with the wind and within twenty-four hours the school is empty and Karen and Martha are left wondering what has happened as no explanations were given by any of the parents. Finally they discover the reason for the sudden evacuation and confront Mrs Tilford, who confirms that she's heard that they are "lovers". That's the mid-way point, the second half focusing on the sorrowful repercussions.

Despite Wyler’s attempts to modernise the play’s themes, he wasn’t brave enough. The result therefore is the heart and soul of the film has been cut leaving a gaping hole where the play’s genuine issues of lesbianism and morality have been hacked. What remains is a somewhat inbetween film: Wyler was one of the Golden Age’s great directors who had nurtured Audrey through her first Hollywood film to Oscar glory a decade earlier with Roman Holiday, but not of the generation of directors emerging at the end of the 1950s and early 60s who would break through the tired Production Code and usher in a significant body of films with frank subject matters.

Shirley Maclaine has the showier and trickier of the two roles as the closet lesbian, but Audrey retains a dignity and naiveté as the love interest for both Martha and Joe. Her androgynous figure adds to this.

Cast: Audrey Hepburn (Karen Wright), Shirley MacLaine (Martha Dobie), James Garner (Doctor Joe Cardin), Miriam Hopkins (Mrs. Lily Mortar), Fay Bainter (Mrs. Amelia Tilford), Karen Balkin (Mary Tilford).

Director: William Wyler. Written by John Michael Hayes, based in Lilian Hellman's 1934 play of the same name.


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