The Children’s Hour – US, 1961
When Lillian Hellman’s controversial play The Children’s Hour first opened, the world was a very different place. Homosexuality was still considered a mental disease, sodomy laws existed all over the United States, and comedians frequently referenced homosexuality for cheap laughs. In addition, eugenics was still considered a possible solution for many of the world’s problems. Given this context, it would be easy to dismiss The Children’s Hour as a product of its time, as a reflection of society’s fears, a visual representation of the notion that homosexuality was something to be terrified of and hated. This is the context under which the 1961 film version of Hellman’s play is referenced in the 1995 documentary The Celluloid Closet. The documentary even includes a comment by Shirley MacLaine in which she seems to express regret over the film.
However, I believe the play and its 1961 screen adaptation are often misread. Consider, for a moment, the behavior of Martha Dobie (Shirley MacLaine) towards the beginning of the film. She comes across as overly praising of her business partner and fellow teacher, Karen Wright (Audrey Hepburn). She recollects the first time she saw her and remembers thinking “what a pretty girl” Karen was. Later, when Karen’s fiancé, Joe, arrives, Martha is cross with him and recoils when he innocently puts his hand on her arm. And when Martha learns of Karen’s plans to finally get married, her reaction can hardly be described as positive. In fact, she seems to be trying to talk Karen out of it. Is it possible to interpret all of Martha’s behaviors as signs of her love for Karen? Sure, it is.
However, look at each of them from a different angle. Acknowledging that someone of the same sex is “pretty” is not the same as being attracted to that person, and the way Martha says it could easily be interpreted as her saying, “Look at how far we’ve come.” After all, her remark follows a conversation in which Martha reveals that their school is in the black for the first time. Martha’s behavior toward Joe is also understandable in this context, for it was not uncommon at that time for a married woman, especially one in the teaching profession, to quit her job after getting married. Thus, isn’t it understandable that Martha would not be on her best behavior with her best friend’s fiancé? Her anxious feelings would likely only increase upon hearing of their impending marriage.
All of this is laid out very quietly and discretely in William Wyler’s film, and in truth, the film is fairly ambiguous as to Martha‘s true feelings towards Karen. Perhaps this is because in the long scheme of things, they are rather irrelevant. I say this because to me The Children’s Hour is not about homosexuality, real or imagined. It is about the damage that can be caused by powerful innuendos or rumors suggesting behavior that society deemed unacceptable. Think of the trouble that early factory workers could get into if their names were even associated with unions, or the frenzy that a mob could be whipped into at just the suggestion of an interracial relationship. Or consider the damage that could be inflicted on someone’s livelihood at the mere mention of the word communism in the 1950’s. It mattered little whether any of these charges were based on fact. This is the world in which The Children’s Hour takes place, one in which all that is needed for all to be at risk is a whisper, even the whisper of someone as unreliable and untrustworthy as Mary Tilford (Karen Balkin).
Particularly memorable throughout the film is Fay Bainter as Mrs. Amelia Tilford. In a particularly memorable scene, we watch as she dismisses Rosalie’s repeated attempts to disparage the reputations of Karen and Martha, and her physical mannerisms reveal that she has grown weary of Rosalie’s stories and has no more patience for them. However, even a character as decent and sensible as she is susceptible to lies relating to behavior that nothing has taught her to accept. The scene is a reminder that some notions are so powerful that they push people to act irrationally.
William Wyler excelled at making character-driven films, including Miss Miniver, The Best Years of our Lives, Carrie, and Roman Holiday, and with The Children’s Hour, he crafts a story about two decent people undone by circumstances beyond their control. His filming of the film’s climactic moment is masterfully done, for it is every bit as ambiguous as the film’s earlier scenes. Are we to take Martha’s “confession” as the truth? If we do, we must accept that, to her, acknowledging it is akin to admitting that she is crazy. Would someone act any differently under such a condition? And if her words are not the truth, we must see them as an attempt to makes sense of the sudden loss of everything she has worked so long to build - in essence, to make sense out of utter chaos. Is this explanation any less plausible? The result is the same regardless of your interpretation. The Children’s Hour remains a powerful film, and it deserves to be reassessed. (on DVD)