In 1933-1934, Lillian Hellman's prizewinning play about slander and lesbianism, The Children's Hour, was a sensational shocker. When Sam Goldwyn's film adaptation of the drama, entitled These Three, was released in 1936, it was considerably altered from the stage production. Directed by William Wyler and starring Miriam Hopkins, Merle Oberon, and Joel McCrea, the milder and "safe" screen version had a child accuse a woman of having an affair with a man rather than with a woman.
In 1961, William Wyler again directed an adaptation of Hellman's powerful play, but this time the version was faithful to the original story. Although the theme of slander and lesbianism was still controversial, it was no longer a forbidden subject; but if The Children's Hour did not shock audiences of 1961, it was nevertheless a candid and effective drama.
Ironically set in New England, the supposed cradle of liberty and free thought, and entitled The Children's Hour (the title of one of Longfellow's best-known poems), this psychological drama deals with two women, Karen Wright (Audrey Hepburn) and Martha Dobie (Shirley MacLaine), who have invested their life savings in an exclusive private all-girls school. As the headmistresses of the Wright-Dobie School, the two find themselves subjected to the lies of one of their students. When twelve-year-old Mary Tilford (Karen Balkin) receives a well-deserved punishment, the evil girl spitefully and irresponsibly accuses the teachers of "unnatural affection" for each other. In spreading the rumor, Mary tells her dowager grandmother, Mrs. Amelia Tilford (Fay Bainter), one of the town's most influential citizens. The misinformed woman believes the malicious child, and at Mrs. Tilford's urging, the pupils' parents withdraw their children from the school. Soon Martha and Karen are in financial ruin and are forced to close their school.
At the same time, Karen's fiancé, Joe Cardin (James Garner), a promising doctor, begins to doubt his betrothed's word. As their tangled lives and emotions turn into a nightmare, the two women are forced to take drastic action. They bring a slander lawsuit against Mrs. Tilford; but they are unable to prove their innocence in court, and the judge finds them guilty of "a certain kind of repressive moral transgression."
The most tragic ramification of the shattering ordeal is Martha's self-doubt and tortured recognition that she subconsciously did have "those feelings" toward her friend. Feeling guilty in mind, if not in deed, Martha is severely shocked. Though the lie is ultimatedly exposed and the error acknowledged with pleas for forgiveness, it is too late; the devastated Martha commits suicide by hanging herself. In the funeral scene of the film's bitter conclusion, Karen walks silently past Joe, Mrs. Tilford, and all of the other townspeople.
A provocative study sensitively directed by William Wyler, The Children's Hour is well acted by its leading players, Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine, whose personalities and screen presences strongly complement each other. As Karen, Audrey Hepburn is strong and assertive beneath her deceptive softness and frailty. As she walks past the townspeople in the final scene, we know she will survive.
With depth and substance, Shirley MacLaine gains our pity and understanding. Though perhaps Martha's homosexual feelings are exaggerated as a result of the scandal, there are moments in the film where her latent lesbianism is indicated, as in her response to the news that Karen is to be married. Later, Martha says "I never loved a man," and admits that she does love Karen "in the way they said," and "that's what's the matter with me." (Actually, the word "lesbian" is never mentioned during the film; instead, such expressions as "sinful sexual knowledge" are used.)
Young Karen Balkin is fine in her performance as Mary, the child responsible for defamation of character who only dimly understands what she has done; and Veronica Cartwright is well cast as Mary's puppet Rosalie. Fay Bainter is equally' good as the well-meaning, if ignorant, grandmother who sets the destruction in motion. Miriam Hopkins (who played the role of Martha in These Three) is appropriately despicable as Mrs. Lily Mortar, Martha's simple-minded aunt, the chief court witness who deserts the teachers by refusing to testify in their behalf.
The film, however,. does have problems. Written originally as a play, the dialogue-oriented drama is often too wordy for the film medium; and occasionally, its dramatics are too heavy-handed. At times the story strains the viewer's credulity: just what is it, for example, that the twelve-year-old child whispers to her startled, indignant grandmother that causes her to rush to the telephone? Why does no one suspect that the child is lying? Why would parents pull their children out of the school so fast? Why does the court not protect the innocent women? Why does it accept as sole evidence the word of one little girl and the failure of a key witness to appear?.
Although The Children's Hour is really about malicious gossip and false accusations more than it is. about lesbianism, William Wyler did not submit the script to the Johnston Office. Because of the Production Code taboo against any discussion of sexual deviation, the office would not have given its seal of approval. Ironically, however, just after the picture was finished, the Johnston Office reversed itself on the sexual deviation clause. The Children's Hour was therefore one of the first films to be released under the relaxed provision of the Production Code Administration.