A faithful reader asked me to watch The Children’s Hour, a film from 1961 that she remembered watching at an early age with her mother. I found it on Netflix and was intrigued by the movie and the history that goes along with it.
Martha (Shirley MacLaine) and Karen (Audrey Hepburn) are owners and teachers at an exclusive girls’ boarding school. They have struggled to make this school work, their dream since college days. Dr. Joe Cardin (James Garner) is courting Karen and is a frequent visitor after the school day ends. Martha’s eccentric Aunt Lily (Miriam Hopkins) also teaches at the school. They are the four main adult characters.
The girls are a handful to say the least, especially Mary Tilford (Karen Balkin) who has a touch of evil in her. She manipulates the other girls in the school, especially Rosalie (Veronica Cartwright), and tells tall tales to her grandmother, no doubt hoping she will not have to return to boarding school. Because of Mary’s actions, Martha, Karen and Joe lose their credibility and reputations.
Esteemed author Lillian Hellman, someone who was blacklisted in the same era that Dalton Trumbo suffered the same fate, wrote this story. The play was based on a true story of two Scottish schoolteachers accused of being lesbians. I wondered at the title of The Children’s Hour, and still don’t know why Hellman chose it for her story.
I found it interesting that a film dealing with this subject would be made so early in the 1960’s. The film doesn’t ever come right out and say the word lesbian. It’s on the Netflix description and on IMDb, but back in 1961, the dialogue and situations had to be made very subtle. Without them saying it explicitly, the viewer has no trouble realizing that the allegation Mary makes about Martha and Karen to her grandmother is that they are lesbians.
The film is in black and white and has a theatrical quality to it; not surprising as Hellman wrote for the stage. William Wyler was the director, and John Michael Hayes wrote the screenplay based on Lillian Hellman’s play. He had a prolific career, penning screenplays for Alfred Hitchcock and others. Shirley MacLaine, Audrey Hepburn and James Garner are well cast, and they all do a good job of portraying their complex characters.
It is disturbing to think that even now, some people fear that their children associating with lesbians or homosexuals will somehow rub off on them. The ignorance shown in The Children’s Hour unfortunately still exists today. The other aspect still alive is the children’s lying, their incomplete understanding of the world contributing to the accusations that had such tragic consequences. Children today commit suicide after being ostracized and bullied because of their sexual orientation. I recommend this film, both because of its cinematic excellence, and because it deals with current issues in our culture. I hope this film and others like it can bring light to those who have their eyes and hearts closed.