The Children’s Hour was originally a theatrical play written by Lillian Hellman and produced in the 1930s. Director William Wyler first turned the play into a movie in 1936, renamed These Three. Because of the strict moral codes in film at the time, the film was more insinuation and innuendo, leaving most of the message up to the viewer. But in 1961 the Motion Picture Association changed the moral code, as long as “homosexuality and other sexual aberrations [were] treated with care, discretion, and restraint.” Wyler felt it was time to do an updated, more direct version of his film, and Audrey agreed to star in it because she felt she owed Wyler so much after he catapulted her to stardom (and an Oscar) in Roman Holiday.
In the film, Audrey plays Karen Wright, a modest woman who runs a boarding school for girls with her best friend, Martha Dobie (Shirley MacLaine). The two women went through college together and worked hard to make their dream come true with this school, and at the beginning of the film, it looks like the dream is finally coming true. This is good news to Karen’s boyfriend, Joe (James Garner), because he has been wanting to marry Karen for a long time. Karen hadn’t wanted to get married with such an unstable future, and she felt guilty at leaving Martha before the school was established. After much hemming and hawing, Karen agrees to get married, and wants to have a baby within a year.
Unfortunately, an overly spoiled girl by the name of Mary Tilford throws a wrench in everything. She is the bad seed in this school, who bullies other girls, fakes fainting spells, and makes up ailments and other drama to draw attention away from an impending (and well-deserved) punishment. After a series of obvious lies and other unforgivable offenses, Mary is separated from her friends and has had enough. She runs away from school and flees to her rich grandmother, Amelia. Even grandma is sick of Mary, but the quick-thinking brat starts telling about “strange things” that happen at the school. Possibly borrowing from a dirty novel hidden under her mattress, Mary finally whispers something so awful to her grandmother that she will finally listen. Mary is promptly pulled from school, and word spreads like lightning to parents of all the other children in the school. By the end of the day the school is empty, and Karen and Martha are in hysterics.
Karen and Martha, accompanied by Joe, confront Mary’s grandmother, who also happens to be Joe’s aunt. She initially refuses to reveal why the two women are suddenly pariahs, but is finally bullied into saying it out loud: Martha and Karen are lovers. The women deny it, of course, and Joe sides with them, but the damage has been done. A slander suit against Mary’s grandmother is filed, but due to Martha’s melodramatic and thoroughly selfish Aunt Lily (played by Miriam Hopkins, who portrayed Martha Dobie in These Three) skipping the trial, the defense lost their key witness and Karen and Martha lose the case. Their lives are effectively over. They rattle around the empty school, utterly lost, and can’t even leave the house for fear of gawkers — or worse.
Finally Aunt Lily returns, broke and looking for free room and board, and is forced to realize just how much damage she has done. It was her words to Martha, overheard by innocent and clueless friends of Mary’s, that started this mess in the first place. Summoning up the small bit of courage they have left, they face Mary and her overbearing grandmother one final time, and the truth is finally revealed. Mary is caught in her web of lies and her grandmother promises a public retraction and apology, plus some of her vast wealth to pave over her problems. Martha rightly throws the woman out on her ear, reminding her that all the money in the world won’t repair their lives.
In the last scene of the film, we see Karen coming face to face with the people who so casually and carelessly ruined her life and the lives of those she loved, perhaps seeing them for the first time since the unseen slander trial. She is the only person able to walk with their head held high, and it makes for a very poignant closing to a film that is, sadly, all too relevant today.
While most people think The Children’s Hour tame now, especially because it never once mentioned the word “lesbian” and referred to homosexuality in the obtuse “unnatural,” I still feel it’s a very powerful movie. The story isn’t about what is said and laid before you anyway: it’s about the subtle nuances, what can be felt rather than seen. Perhaps modern viewers are just too used to entertainment that spells everything out for them in 10-foot tall letters and a bat to the head, but if you watch for it, the message is there. It’s also effective because it shows the all too real and too frequently seen ugly side of people, especially hysterical crowds. We haven’t changed much, if at all, in our treatment of people. Even 50 years later people are still scorned for their sexual orientation, and lives are ruined over baseless rumors. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Wyler’s excellent direction also drive the more subtle points home. Though tragically most small, telling signs were cut out at the last minute by a fearful Wyler, the staging of the shots themselves and the moodiness of the black and white photography show the increasing tension and distance between three people who used to be inseparable.
You can watch the entire film for free on YouTube. Part one (of 11) is below: