Based on Lillian Hellman‘s 1934 Broadway hit, The Children’s Hour (1961) is about a real-life 1809 case of two women running a girls’ school whose lives were ruined after a young student accused them of being lesbians.
At the time, it was illegal for homosexuality to even be mentioned on stage; the play, however, was a commercial and critical success, so accepted that the law was not enforced on Broadway, but the play was banned in Boston and Chicago.
The Children’s Hour is set at an exclusive girl’s school run by best friends Karen, played by Audrey Hepburn, and Martha played by Shirley MacLaine. When a student, Mary (Karen Balkin), is punished for one of her many offences, the spoiled, mean-spirited girl rushes to her wealthy grandmother Amelia Tilford (Fay Bainter), and randomly chooses a phrase she has read in some magazine, accusing Hepburn and MacLaine of having an “unnatural relationship”.
Mary bullies her classmates, particularly Rosalie Wells (Veronica Cartwright), who she blackmails when she discovers her in possession of another student’s missing bracelet.
As Mary’s lies grow more vicious, the student’s parents withdraw their children from the school. Hepburn and MacLaine sue the grandmother for libel, only to lose their case when MacLaine’s aunt Lily (Miriam Hopkins), an aging actor who teaches elocution at the school, refuses to testify as a character witness. The trial (which smartly takes place off-camera) takes its toll on the relationship between Hepburn and her boyfriend Joe, played by young, hunky James Garner. When the grandmother discovers that Mary has been lying, she tries to make amends, but it is too late.
With The Children’s Hour, director William Wyler joined that list of filmmakers who have remade their own films. His first version, These Three (1936), was also based on Hellman’s play.
When These Three producer Samuel Goldwyn was told the Hays Code prohibited making a film out of the play because it was about lesbians, he replied: “That’s OK; we’ll turn them into Armenians”. What he turned them into instead were heterosexuals involved in a love triangle with a man.
By 1961, the Hays Code had been sufficiently relaxed that Wyler could direct a new version that was closer to the original play. He chose 32-year-old Hepburn, and MacLaine, 27, to star. Wyler:
“I haven’t done a remake. This time I actually filmed Lillian Hellman’s play.”
11-year-old Veronica Cartwright, cast as schoolgirl Rosalie, wrote:
“A lot of the kids were pulled when their parents found out what it was about.”
During production, Cartwright says MacLaine became her mentor even though “we were told not to hang around Shirley because she had a foul mouth“. Cartwright was allowed to attend the black-tie premiere at the Fox Wilshire Theater but was not permitted to see the film.
“Willie [Wyler] cut the scenes that indicated we were lovers, where I’m brushing Audrey’s hair, for example. There was no physical touching. I think he got afraid of it.”
The two films are sort of bookends, showing the effects of the Hays Code, enforced from 1930 to 1968, and the ways repression manifested itself in studio films.
The Children’s Hour has impressive production values. It’s beautifully shot, perfectly constructed, well-acted, and punctuated by a powerful musical score by Alex North.
While The Children’s Hour is an old fashioned melodrama, it’s also really campy, yet Wyler’s ways of revealing the charges against the women are extremely clever. The horrid girl who begins the rumor has a doting grandmother, who asks: ”Why must you whisper it?” The child responds: ”I don’t know! I’ve just got to!” The dialogue speaks to being gay while simultaneously pointing to a whisper campaign.
That is why The Children’s Hour is a brilliant meditation on Hollywood’s history of repression and a middle-finger to the Hays Code. While correcting his first version of Hellman’s scathing play about empty charges against people incapable of defending themselves against the insidious power of innuendo, Wyler also made the film an indictment of McCarthyism. While the word ”lesbian” is never uttered in the film, neither is ”Communism”,” but it’s all there.
Since These Three had been released in 1936, Hollywood had experienced the wrath of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), and Hellman was not left unscathed. After lashing out at the anticommunist rhetoric of right-wing politicians, Hellman famously was blacklisted and lost work over her adamant stance against HUAC and Joseph McCarthy. When Wyler died in 1981, Hellman told The New York Times that when she was broke and unable to work in the early 1950s, Wyler opened a bank account for her and added money as she needed it.
Wyler’s obvious ire over the Hollywood Blacklist gives The Children’s Hour a searing double edge. When the rumor breaks out about Hepburn and MacLaine’s alleged affair, the students literally rush to the emergency exits on their parents’ command. Within one afternoon, the school is empty, leaving an exasperated Hepburn asking: ”There must be a reason”. MacLaine answers: ”We’re standing here defending ourselves against what?”
At the time, Hepburn and MacLaine were known for their lighter film roles. But the casting works perfectly against audience expectations. It must also be noted that Cartwright starts her career as the Greatest Film Hysteric Ever, followed by her work in The Birds (1963), Invasion Of The Body Snatchers (1978) and Alien (1979).
Just like the smear of Communism, rumors of homosexuality caused more than a few suicides. In a heartbreaking scene, which MacLaine delivers in an astounding performance, Martha blames herself for destroying their reputations and ruining Karen’s relationship with Joe. But she also hates herself for her own gayness that she has tried to hide from everyone including herself. She expresses guilt as if she has done something, anything, wrong, when in fact she hasn’t at all.
When MacLaine realizes that she really is lesbian and in love with Hepburn, she hangs herself in her room. In the final funeral sequence of the film, Wyler has Hepburn walking past the townsfolk, head held high, refusing to acknowledge any of them. Wyler suggests there are some whisper campaigns from which no one can possibly recover.
Tid-bit: Miriam Hopkins originally played the MacLaine role in These Three.