‘You’ve been playing with a lot of children’s lives! That’s why I had to stop you.’
Many of you may not have heard of this 1961 curiosity. But there’s an easy way to get people’s attention if you want to start talking about it.
“It’s that movie where Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine play lesbian schoolteachers.”
That’ll stop them dead in their tracks.
To be fair, it’s not an entirely accurate description: based on Lillian Hellman’s 1934 stage play, The Children’s Hour stars Hepburn and MacLaine as Karen Wright and Martha Dobie, upstanding teachers at a girl’s school who are accused of secret lesbian trysts by a spiteful pupil in an act of revenge. The lie takes on a life of its own as parents hurriedly take their kids out of the school and the teachers are shunned by the community. The twist being, of course, that Martha has secretly been in love with Karen for years. Upon confession of this deep, dark secret, Martha is driven to an act of desperation far greater than the loudest whisper merited: she hangs herself.
It’s tempting to think of The Children’s Hour as one massive expression of gay panic, but according to author Lillian Hellman, the central subject of the play was gossip as opposed to lesbianism. So when director William Wyler first wanted to film the play in the 30s but couldn’t due to the Hays Code forbidding films depicting homosexuality, the script was re-written to omit any mention of lesbianism and it was filmed as the perfectly serviceable These Three. Though this version, which featured a heterosexual love triangle, was a great success, Wyler felt that the original material deserved a proper airing and wanted to make the movie with the original plot intact.
Wyler does a great job on The Children’s Hour, creating a moody, claustrophobic and shadowy atmosphere, and the acting from the entire cast is exceptional. But of course, it’s 1961 so the sexual politics aren’t exactly progressive: Hepburn’s Karen is the ultra-feminine bride-to-be, engaged to dishy James Garner, while MacLaine’s eternally single, aggressive and gruff Martha may as well have ‘MASSIVE LESBO’ tattooed across her forehead.
Martha’s eventual confession to Karen about her latent lesbianism is indicative of views of homosexuality at the time and perfectly encapsulates the self-loathing that homosexuals have or are expected to exhibit to this day: ‘I can’t stand to have you touch me! I can’t stand to have you look at me! Oh, it’s all my fault. I have ruined your life and I have ruined my own. I swear I didn’t know it! I didn’t mean it! Oh, I feel so damn sick and dirty I can’t stand it anymore!’ Martha shrieks, as well as gems such as ‘There’s always been something wrong!’ and ‘I’m guilty!’
Tellingly, Shirley MacLaine says that her character’s homosexuality was never discussed during production, and scenes that more clearly indicated Martha’s love for Karen were cut from the final print. Her character’s suicide at the end is the only outcome for homosexual characters at the time; it would take another nine years for The Boys In The Band to be released and audiences could finally see gay characters survive all the way to the end credits.
The promotional materials at the time positioned The Children’s Hour as something salacious, only to be viewed with extreme caution:
What made these women different?
Can an ugly rumor destroy what’s beautiful?
Can a careless whisper tear a love apart?
The child’s accusation was too evil to be false…too shocking to be true!
The movie, it seems, takes the stand that so many of our 21st century right-wing pundits seem to: I have no problem with gays, but will somebody please think of the children?
The film, of course, is hideously dated. Or is it?
I’ve often wondered whether the film could be re-made today (with Winslet and Blanchett? Awesome) and my initial thought was that it would have to be set way back in the 50s for the plot to make any sense. But the sad truth is that you could set this movie today and it wouldn’t come off as implausible. With teenagers killing themselves over these deep, dark secrets, as well as public servants such as teachers being outed, ousted and ostracized, The Children’s Hour’s plot contrivances suddenly don’t seem so unreal to a 2013 audience.
The Children’s Hour isn’t perfect, but the acting and direction make it a riveting watch, and it’s tempting to theorize that the reason the film may make some of us uncomfortable is that it’s actually much less of a relic than we’d like to think.
Watch the whole movie on YouTube!