The Children’s Hour – William Wyler
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.
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