The Children’s Hour – William Wyler
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.
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