Classic Film Review #1
Release Date: December 19, 1961
“A whisper, and then a silence:
Yet I know by their merry eyes
They are plotting and planning together
To take me by surprise.”
The Children’s Hour – Henry Wordsworth Longfellow
With films such as Moonlight and Call Me by Your Name, we have seen an increase in films involving homosexual relationships. But as so many of us know, the mentality of homosexual relationships wasn’t always as positive as we see now. The Children’s Hour, based on the 1934 play by Lillian Hellman, tells the story of Karen Wright and Martha Dobie, two young friends who co-run an all-girls school. When one of the mischievous students begins looking for a way to get back at these two teachers, she cooks up a rumor about Karen and Martha, and how these two woman were not just friends, but lovers. The rumor spreads like wildfire, and the public decides that these two woman had a “sinful, sexual knowledge of one another.” Thus, destroying Karen and Martha’s lives.
The story is an impactful one. It not only tells about a taboo subject, which no one ever really talked about, but discussed how far a rumor can instantaneously destroy someone’s life. Shirley MacLaine, who plays Martha, and Audrey Hepburn, who plays Karen, do so well in their performances. The film is centered on their emotions, that are so raw and splashed across the screen. Though some of the performances may come off as slightly melodramatic, I couldn’t help but thoroughly enjoy this movie. It’s fair to say that this is a big departure for what Hepburn and MacLaine starred in at the peak of their popularity. Nevertheless, this film does shed light on the topic of homosexuality, or rather how the public or “good people” never talked about such things. Director William Wyler does a great job at not only telling this story, but also including elements of horror in several of the scenes. His storytelling behind the lens is one that will make you feel uneasy, and genuinely haunted by this film. Wyler had previously made the movie These Three, based on Hellman’s play. But due to the Hays Code, the plot was changed to surround a husband who is having an affair with his wife’s best friend.
It’s hard to say, that even with the Hays Code in place, that this film is at the forefront of groundbreaking material. The people involved, from MacLaine to Hepburn, to Wyler to the studio, all held a piece of the puzzle in helping to revolutionize the topic of homosexuality. But for some, looking back now, they might see the movie as not very groundbreaking at all. For those of you who have not seen this film, it is a must-see. Whether the ending makes you angry and sad, or angry and sad for different reasons, The Children’s Hour is a film that will help shape your outlook, not only on film, but on how real men and women might have dealt with their sexual preference during that time.
The Children’s Hour
Starring: Shirley MacLaine, Audrey Hepburn, and James Garner
Now, my goal is to go into some details about The Children’s Hour. Should you continue reading, there are spoilers from here on out. I do recommend, that if you have not seen this film, do not read any further. Please check out Amazon, YouTube, or VUDU, for a place to rent the movie.
The Children’s Hour was released in 1961 with hopes of “pushing the envelope” in dealing with, what the Hays Code marked, “Sexual Perversion.” The story plays with the idea of homosexuality in a very lax way, and glosses over key moments of what these women may have gone through. These details surrounding the women’s relationship could not be fully portrayed on screen for fear that the Hays code would prevent it from being released. In a documentary called The Celluloid Closet (1995) MacLaine, who plays Martha in the film, states, “the profundity of this subject was not in the lexicon of our rehearsal period. Audrey and I never talked about this.” According to MacLaine, they didn’t “do the picture right.” However, I believe it’s easy for us to look back and have that, “we should have done this differently” mentality. We live in a different time now, as we can look at this subject with brand new eyes. In the scene when Martha comes out to Karen, and says how she has truly never loved anyone but Karen, she makes the remark that she is “guilty.” But Karen’s reaction is to say, “you are guilty of nothing.” Being the 21st century, we now look at this scene and may mark it controversial.
In that same interview with MacLaine, she states “these days there would be a tremendous outcry. Why would Martha breakdown and say, ‘what’s wrong with me? I’m so polluted.’” But as I said, it’s easy to look back and think differently. During the same time period, we had films such as Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) and Suddenly, Last Summer (1959). These two films, based on the plays of Tennessee Williams, danced around the topic of homosexuality by only hinting at the subject. So nevertheless, it wasn’t at all possible to be anymore forward thinking than the cast was at that time. They may have inched a tiny bit forward, but that tiny bit helped prepare for what was to come.
I find it interesting to look at films that focused on taboo subjects like this. Much like the way Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner (1967) focused on a relationship of a mixed race couple, The Children’s Hour focuses on the relationship between two women. Though one film is much lighter than the other, I believe that films such as this, are important to watch. These films acknowledge how far we have come as a society, with similar subject matters, but also how far we still have to go.