“The Children’s Hour”
A Classic that Was Ahead of its Time
What a surprise to see Lillian Hellman’s “The Children’s Hour” released in a fabulous blu ray disk. It was originally staged in the 1930s but took another 30 years until it became a prize winning classic film. I just find it amazing that Hollywood dared to make a film with such an adult theme as early as 1962. It is still considered to be on of the best-developed dramas ever made and it brought in five Academy Award nominations.
Karen Wright (Audrey Hepburn) and Martha Dobie (Shirley MacLaine) are the headmistresses of an exclusive school for girls. When they discipline a malicious little girl, the vindictive child twists an overheard comment into slander and accuses her teachers of questionable behavior. Soon the scandalous gossip engulfs the school’s community, with repercussions that are swift, crushing… and tragic. The lesbian plot is there in all of its boldness but the real theme is about the power of a lie. The entire plot is based upon a lie from one of the students and it brings about emotional revelations between the leading characters and finally in a portrait of society that attacks any one perceived as different in any way. We indeed see that the ultimate result of that lie was death. Of course at that time, most movies and books that dealt with gay characters.
Little Mary Tilford is a troublemaker as we see from her very first appearance in the film. When one lie get her into trouble she adds another that is devastating for all concerned. It is absolutely fascinating that the film is never predictable and the relationship between Karen and Martha remains a question throughout (and in my mind that is because of the brilliant performances of the two leads). Because we are really not sure of how the women feel about each other, little Mary’s lie makes us wonder about the validity of what she had to say.
Audrey Hepburn is stunning as a character that is so unlike the darlings she usually played. Karen is deeply bothered by her predicament, and her emotional distress is brought to life by a wonderful and masterful performance. The character of Martha is definitely the more interesting, especially in the final act, and Shirley MacLaine’s performance is a thing of beauty. She created a character that was so likable and so infectious who never losing her dark secrets and guilt ridden conscience. We felt the revelations before they were revealed, yet she never gave them away too early.
The supporting performances are also excellent all around. James Garner is impressive as Joe, Karen’s fiancé, but this movie uses him more as a prop than anything else. Fay Bainter received an Oscar nomination for her performance, and rightfully so, for her devilish mix of inhumanity and uncompromising maternal love is outstanding. Young Karen Balkin is perfect as Mary, the young child you love to hate.
William Wyler directed with grace and style and this is a film that will stay with you for a very long time. More than just a film, this is a character study that leaves us breathless and that has well earned its place as a masterpiece.