Thursday, November 19, 2015


*Spoiler alert. This essay gives away key plot points

Much in the manner in which Warner Bros. cartoon character Elmer Fudd is compelled to use words teeming with the very Ls and Rs he's unable to pronounce (his Owivia DeHaviwand being a particular favorite); Hollywood during the Production Code era (1934-1968) just couldn’t keep away from “adult”-themed projects it had no reasonable hope of adequately interpreting.

Dramatist and screenwriter Lillian Hellman had her first major theatrical success in 1934 with the banned-in-Boston stage hit The Children’s Hour: a shocking-for-its-time play in which the two headmistresses of a tony girls’ boarding school have their careers and lives ruined by the spread of the malicious rumor that the pair are in fact illicit lovers in a lesbian relationship. 

When William Wyler first adapted Hellman's play for the screen in 1936, the show's scandalous reputation was such that not only was a title change mandated (The Children’s Hour became These Three), but "the lie with the ounce of truth" was changed from the whisper of lesbianism to the more socially palatable rumor of heteronormative adultery. Instead of an accusation of being in love with each other, the two women were now accused of (yawn) being in love with the same man. And lest one think this a Hollywood cop-out of the highest order, know that it was Lillian Hellman herself who approved and adapted the screenplay of the 1936 version for the screen.

Hellman's almost word-for-word-faithful adaptation of her play for Wyler confirmed her oft-repeated claim that The Children’s Hour was not really about lesbianism so much as the pernicious power of a lie. "The bigger the lie, the better," Hellman affirmed. A point of view she would gain a great deal of first-hand experience with when, in 1952 she was blacklisted in Hollywood for refusing to name names to the House Un-American Activities Committee; and later in 1979, charged with falsifying the details of her memoir, Pentimento. (Author Mary McCarthy [The Group] on Hellman: "Every word she writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the'!")

Mademoiselle de Maupin by Theophile Gautier
A salacious seed is planted when the schoolgirls read the scandalous 1834 French novel in
which a woman disguises herself as a man and has affairs with both sexes

In 1960, in an effort to rectify the compromises he felt imposed upon him by MGM and the Hays Code in 1936, William Wyler returned to The Children's Hour vowing to make a more faithful version of the play. Taking advantage of the permissive atmosphere of the times, Wyler even went so far as to say he’d be willing to release his film without the MPAA seal of approval if need be. (Many newspapers at the time refused to carry ads for films lacking the Production Code seal. Similarly, many theaters wouldn’t exhibit non-approved films.)

Whether it was Wyler’s pronouncement that his remake was to be “A clean film with a highly moral story!”, or the casting of ladylike Audrey Hepburn as the fem half of the whispered-about duo (Wyler:“We don’t want bosoms in this!”), but studio heads relented and The Children’s Hour was green-lit for production. Provided, of course, that the word “lesbian” never be uttered, and that there be no demonstrative sexual contact of any sort. Yep, certainly sounds like those 1936 compromises were put to rest by 1961. 
Audrey Hepburn as Karen Wright
Shirley MacLaine as Martha Dobie
James Garner as Joe Cardin
Fay Bainter as Amelia Tilford
Miriam Hopkins as Lily Mortar
Coy as it seems today, The Children’s Hour was written at a time when it was illegal to even make mention of homosexuality in a Broadway play. The show’s ultimate success somehow surmounted public moral outrage, allowing for it to become one of the first Broadway plays to feature a homosexual character. Similar honors went to Wyler’s 1961 film adaptation, with Shirley MacLaine being one of the first major stars to play a gay character in a motion picture; albeit just barely. Change was obviously in the air in the early '60s, as several other homosexual-themed films arrived in theaters within months of The Children’s Hour’s release: Dirk Bogarde’s Victim, Otto Preminger’s Advise & Consent, and Tony Richardson's A Taste of Honey with Brit fave Murray Melvin making his film debut as a gay teen.  
The Hateful, 12-year-old
Making her film debut, Karen Balkin as Mary Tilford
Karen Wright (Hepburn) and Martha Dobie (MacLaine) are two college chums now partnered in the ownership and operation of a girls’ boarding school. After years of struggle, the school, catering to the adolescent daughters of well-to-do families, appears at last to be up on its feet. So much so that Karen, engaged for the last two years to local doctor Joe Cardin (Garner), at last feels free to marry. A decision which doesn’t set well with Martha, who outwardly expresses her displeasure as simply the fear that marriage and motherhood will lead to Karen’s abandonment of the school.

The pair’s heated discussions and platonic entreaties of love and loyalty on the topic are overheard and misinterpreted by Mary Tilford (Bakin), a troublemaking student whose compulsive lying and disobedience has made her the frequent object of discipline. In spiteful retaliation for one such upbraiding, Mary tells her grandmother (Bainter) that Miss Wright and Miss Dobie are lovers, and that she has seen them kissing and engaging in all manner of nocturnal hanky panky.
Before long, the lie concocted merely to avoid the consequences of a rule infraction, mushrooms into a scandal which closes the school and makes a shamble of the lives of three innocent people.
These Three
Given the director, it comes as no surprise that The Children’s Hour is a handsome, well-crafted and finely-acted film of almost irresistible watchability (like All About Eve, The Children’s Hour is one of those movies impossible to channel surf past, no matter how far along into the story I catch it). I don't know if there is such a thing as a "William Wyler movie," as he has always struck me as one of those industry professionals devoid of an identifiable style, yet noted for consistently quality work.
All I know is William Wyler movies occupy a lot of space on my DVD shelves: Roman Holiday, The Heiress, The Little Foxes, Funny Girl, The Letter, and of course, The Children’s Hour; a film whose every frame supports his reputation for vivid storytelling and extracting superior performances from his cast. The Children's Hour was the no-win recipient of five Academy Award nominations (supporting actress, cinematography, costume, art direction, sound).
Children Will Listen
For all its technical distinction (the lighting, editing, and shot compositions are really something to be applauded) and the high-drama content of its plot (as stated, the film is compellingly watchable), it's still difficult for me not to feel as though The Children's Hour suffers a bit from Wyler's very obvious efforts to deliver a “clean” and “highly moral” film about a sensational subject. In his well-intentioned desire to grant the story the solemnity and respect I'm sure he felt was its due; Wyler falls prey to adopting a tone of such unyielding good taste and decorum that it feels at times almost airless. The result is that The Children’s Hour vacillates between stagy soap opera and melodrama precisely during the moments calling for the raw intimacy of a genuine display of emotion.
At these times The Children’s Hour reminds me of the character Mary Tyler Moore played in Ordinary People - it becomes a film determined not to draw attention to itself by making a scene.
Veronica Cartwright as Rosalie Wells
One of the best criers in the business

It is incredible that educated people living in an urban American community today would react as violently and cruelly to a questionable innuendo as they are made to do in this film.”  - Bosley Crowther's New York Times review of The Children’s Hour March, 1962

Obviously, movie critic Bosley Crowther needed to get out more. In the face of homophobia and bigotry, incredulity like Crowther’s is deceptive in that it has the surface appearance of giving people credit for being more civilized and intelligent than a film like this would suggest. But in reality, to ignore the fact that lives are ruined every day in America by the very same rootless bigotry and baseless homophobia The Children’s Hour dramatizes, is merely a privileged means of refuting and denying the suffering that is the day-to-day reality for many homosexuals even today.

One of the contributing factors to my not having even seen The Children’s Hour until recently is because most everything I’d read about the film in past years corroborated Mr. Crowther’s position. I avoided The Children’s Hour because I assumed it was going to be another dated Hollywood exercise in homosexual self-loathing masked as liberal discourse.
When I finally did see the film, I was happily surprised at how dated the surface trappings were, but how timeless the message. Remove the old-fashioned acting, starchy language, and that '60s censorship straitjacket (à la Cat on a Hot Tin Roof) necessitating characters verbally dance all around an issue without ever saying it plainly; and you’ve got a story that could happen today. Trade the boarding school for a Boy Scout troop – substitute Muslim for homosexuality…the particulars of theme (ignorance is deaf to truth) and what Lillian Hellman sought to convey remains (sadly) contemporary and unchanged.
Careless Whisper
In this her last film, Fay Bainter garnered The Children's Hour's sole acting Oscar nomination, and deservedly so. She's a forceful and dynamic presence in every scene. In the role that won Bonita Granville an Oscar nomination in 1936's These Three,  Karen Balkin (who sometimes bears an unfortunate resemblance to Charles Laughton) gives an outsized performance that wouldn't be out of place in a comedy like The Trouble With Angels. Still,  I wouldn't say she's exactly ineffective in the role, as by the third act you're apt to find the character she plays loathsome in the extreme. She makes The Bad Seed's Rhoda Penmark look like Shirley Temple

If The Children’s Hour has a credibility problem at all, it lies not in its depiction of the swiftness with which the community condemns the women on baseless innuendo (these days, inciting the public to overreact to unsubstantiated hate-mongering has practically become an official GOP political platform); but in anybody not being able to see through little Mary’s broad-as-a-barn-door lying and bullying tactics. Barring this, I think The Children’s Hour presents one of the screen’s more accurate and cutting indictments of hysterical bigotry.
The ever-likable James Garner is solid as always,
but isn't called upon to do much more than stand around looking all heterosexual and stuff

I have no idea how 1961 audiences responded to Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine appearing in this “daring” film, but these days when a straight actor takes on a gay role, the public practically awards them a medal of bravery. Everyone, gay and straight alike, carries on as though the actor had just crawled through the foxholes of war-torn Iwo Jima with an orphan on their back.
Nevertheless, back in 1961 it was no doubt a big deal for two such high-profile stars to appear in a film with a lesbian theme. But (not to diminish the risk-taking of either actress), Hepburn had just played a prostitute--or Hollywood’s idea of a prostitute--in Breakfast at Tiffany’s and was eager to shed her ingénue image, while MacLaine had a bohemian “kook” reputation (yes, even as far back as that) which lent itself to character roles (aka, women outside the mainstream). And politically speaking, it certainly didn’t hurt that both women were at the time married with children. One source I read speculated on the unlikely chance of an unmarried actress at the time taking on either role.
Audrey Hepburn, who got her start and an Academy Award in Wyler’s Roman Holiday (1953), is an enduring  favorite of mine and her performance here, while not particularly showy, is one of the strongest of her early career. Clearly cast (at least in part) for her lack of an overtly sexual screen persona and for having an image which adhered to traditional notions of femininity; one can only imagine how provocative The Children's Hour would have been (something Wyler wasn't interested in, it seems) had she been cast in MacLaine’s role.
Miriam Hopkins, who actually did play the MacLaine role in These Three opposite Merle Oberon and Joel McCrea, is a hammy delight as Martha's affected, self-dramatizing aunt.

Playing an overly-theatrical B-level stage actress, Miriam Hopkins is seen here clutching the mementos of her career. In this instance a glamour portrait which is actually a publicity pic of Hopkins from the 1936 film, Becky Sharp.   

As someone commented in an earlier post for the movie Hot Spell, Shirley MacLaine can come off a little shrill in scenes requiring displays of anxiety or excitability. But like many gifted comic actors, she can really deliver the dramatic goods when playing hostility and pique. In a film that codifies lesbianism as simply an absence of glamour, MacLaine is really very good (this is where the film in its own small way is rather progressive) and grants her sympathetic character a depth and humanity refreshingly devoid of caricature. She resorts to no gimmicks or tricks to signify Martha's latent homosexuality, playing the role honestly and without artifice. In recent interviews about The Children’s Hour, MacLaine likes to relate how Wyler got cold feet during the making of the film, resulting in several non-explicit scenes of Martha showing her affection for Karen (brushing Hepburn’s hair, ironing her clothes, and cooking) ending up on the cutting room floor.
I’m not altogether sure how the inclusion of those sequences would have helped a film whose big dramatic payoff is an 11th hour “self-realization” scene (which for my money MacLaine pulls off very well in spite of it being a tad overwritten). Besides, such demonstrativeness to me would appear redundant given how well she already successfully conveys her deep love for Hepburn’s character through a dozen subtle looks and gestures.

The Children’s Hour has always been controversial for the part it played in kickstarting the tired movie trope of the doomed/suicidal homosexual: a worn cliché born of warped morality and show business savvy. In most cases, the introduction of gay characters in films tended to be either for sensation or a glib, short-cut bid towards demonstrating sophistication. From the start, studios and censors gleaned that the death of a gay character in the final reel not only satisfied the movie mandate requiring “sinners” pay for their transgressions, but presented, at fadeout, a symbolic “return to normalcy” designed to reassure audiences and send them on their way, secure in their faith in the enduring indomitability of the status quo. 
Problematic as the ending of The Children’s Hour is for many (MacLaine’s character hangs herself), anecdotally I’ve always felt it presented a situation more complex than mere homophobic self-loathing. In the scene precipitating her suicide, Karen comes out to Karen at precisely the same moment she comes out to herself. She falls apart in a stream of consciousness monologue in which she tries to sort out her feelings about herself amidst paralyzing confusion and guilt over the role her lack of self-awareness may or may not have played in the destruction of so many lives. Including her own.

It's arguable and certainly up for debate whether Martha's self-disgust ("Oh I feel so damn sick and dirty I can't stand it anymore!") is wholly related to her discovery of her true sexual identity, and not, at least in part, also attributable to genuine guilt-based self-recrimination. Both her ill-temper towards Joe and her impatience with her silly Aunt are brought on by her repressed feelings for Karen. She must certainly feel considerable guilt in having her overheard outbursts with these two serving as the catalyst for the chain of events resulting in the severest harm coming to the one individual she most loves.
So, while there's no denying Martha's suicide is an extreme response to her suffering from a particularly acute case of "gaynst" (gay-angst); it can also be said (non-politically) to be a kind of final, selfless act of love her character intends it to be. Which is to say that within the confines of the narrative (the last we see of Martha alive, she's not brooding intently upon herself, she's looking lovingly at Karen from a window) Martha's love is such that she seeks to "liberate" Karen by letting her go.
Of course, she could have achieved the same thing by merely hopping on a train (which Martha actually does at the end of These Three), but as I said earlier, this is Hollywood, and it would be several more years before the movies would grant any gay character a happy ending...and if you found a pun in that sentence, shame on you!

A production still of the libel suit courtroom sequence that was deleted from the final film. 

The theatrical trailer for William Wyler's These Three (1936)

In this clip from the 1996 documentary, The Celluloid Closet, Shirley MacLaine talks about making The Children's Hour.

The Children's Hour had its title changed in the UK
Copyright © Ken Anderson


  1. That was so well written, Ken.

    Audrey Hepburn's "persona" (by which I mean that she, for instance, can portray a call girl in Breakfast At Tiffany's and still seem innocent) contributes to the film enormously.

    Despite the expected ending where a homosexual meets an unfortunate end (in this case, suicide) I somehow remember the film not exactly 'uplifting' but not as dire perhaps as it could have. In the scenes where Shirley MacLaine breaks down convinced she is worthless and sick, Hepburn displays compassion, or at the very least, a gentle tolerance (and perhaps empathy) for something that I thought might have been slightly daring for its time period. If a homosexual character was going to be portrayed under the production code, then the heterosexual characters would be written voicing their disgust at such an unnatural thing (which is what just about every other character in the film, bar Hepburn, does). I found her character's sole kindness to her friend perhaps just as risque as any other detail in the story. That there could be an expression of tolerance during a time when such expressions were often muted. And so despite its rather grisly ending, the scene of Hepburn walking in the last scene somehow seemed like a very, very tiny step forward: that there were people out there who didn't hate, who could be understanding. When I saw it (years ago) that was incredibly meaningful to know that there might be allies out there. There might be people who even, dare I say it, love.

    I wonder if this is perhaps because the characters were female. If the plot was written about male homosexuality, I am skeptical that the character subject to unrequited love would have been a character of tolerance and understanding. I'm reminded of the clip in 'The Celluloid Closet' where countless scenes of the word 'faggot' are compiled together.

    At times, a little too much wide-eyed reacting, but still a gutsy film.

    Thank you so, so much for sharing =D

    1. Hi Mitchell, It’s been a while!
      Thank you very much for the compliment and sharing your thoughts on this film. You’re so right about Hepburn’s screen persona, and I think Wyler was right on the money in securing an actress like Hepburn for this film. Her presence alone elevates it beyond the sensational (although I can’t say I’d mind if someone had thought to cast Jayne Mansfield and Mamie Van Doren as Karen & Martha).

      The film most definitely ends on a note of bittersweet uplift, what with all the townspeople standing shamefaced with bowed heads, and Hepburn’s character striding past them, with nary a glance left or right, head held high.

      As is often the case though, someone has to be sacrificed for the cost of giving audiences the pleasure of vicariously identifying with Hepburn, and that was the gay character.
      I think many straight people enjoy watching a film like this because they get to flatter themselves that, in similar circumstance, they would never be like the small-minded townspeople…it’s Hepburn whom they identify with. The whole purpose of casting a charismatic star like Hepburn and having her adopt the socially “unpopular” position of being empathetic and accepting of the gay character is that audiences undergo a kind of unconscious transformation. For that brief time in the dark – with absolutely nothing real or personal at risk – they get to feel morally heroic like the film’s star.

      In that way, movie theaters are a great deal like churches; for the time you’re in them, you can pretend you’re a moral, fair, and opened-minded individual. But as we know with people who attend church regularly and read the bible faithfully, when it comes to real life, they can be a full-tilt bigots and homophobes.

      And yes, had the characters been male, I suspect audiences would harbor doubts about the "masculinity" of a straight male expressing empathy for a gale male.

      So as you note, many of the attitudes in “The Children’s Hour” are indeed very progressive for the time, and in its way, very gutsy. But the fact that the film hasn’t become the antiquated time piece it should be by now (wouldn’t it be nice if we lived in a world where people could look at this movie and not understand what the fuss was all about?) makes me think perhaps Hellman’s lesson fell on too many deaf ears.
      Wonderful insights and observations, Mitchell! Much appreciated.

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    2. Hi Gregory

      Your mention of both Candice Bergen (played a lesbian who gets to live in "The Group") and Sandy Dennis (played a lesbian who gets sacrificed in "The Fox") made me smile.

      I haven't seen "These Three" in years, but your comments and even the trailer I posted whets my appetite to check it out again.

      I think my partner might agree with you about Audrey Hepburn. She just doesn't do it for him; while I usually tend to find her flawless (although don't get me started on "My Fair Lady"...a fingernails on a blackboard performance to me).
      I love your appreciation of Miriam Hopkins' unique quality. I really haven't seen her in many roles. When I think of her my mind goes to "Old Acquaintances" where aspects of her character are in evidence in her Lily Mortar.
      You mentioned Lizabeth there's someone I could see in this film!
      Thank you very much for your compliment, and a bigger thanks for your thoughtful and personal a take on this film and the comparative virtues of "These Three."

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    4. What you describe is a kind of common thing with movies that screen and rescreen in our memories. There's a point at which what we perceived (felt or intuited) and what was really there is a bit of a blur. What's good about it is that (until we see the movie again) that imagined reality is just as strong as the real thing. That's the part that matters.

      Can't tell you the number of arguments I've had with people with people who remember seeing the infant's eyes in "Rosemary's Baby"!

  3. One of the problems I have with the ending of this movie--aside from the obvious "person suffering from twisted, perverted feelings must die" trope--is that it essentially negates all that went before it: apparently the little girl's lie wasn't actually a "lie." I hope that makes sense. In a way, it reminds me of the movie "Tea and Sympathy" where a young man is constantly harassed for being perceived as homosexual. When he "proves" his heterosexual bona-fides by having an affair with an older woman, he has a long speech (at least that's how I remember it, it's been a few decades) about how he shouldn't have been harassed because, hey, he was straight all along. So, um, the harassment would have been ok had you actually been gay? Hmmmmm. Anyway, I find that on some level the same "ending seems to deny all that has gone before it" mechanism is in place here--or maybe I'm just like Gregory and I'm not sure how much of what I'm seeing was intended by the filmmakers and how much my mind is projecting.

    1. You make a very valid point. One that I've felt lies at the core of practically every mainstream film that purports to be about prejudice and bigotry. Movies “about” homosexuality are made principally for heterosexuals. They’re the ones hurt by false accusations, or wrongly thought to be bigots when they are good people. Many people I know who have seen “The Children’s Hour” feel the most sympathy for Hepburn and Fay Bainter. MacLaine’s character is practically one of Hitchcock’s “McGuffins”- a plot device to move the action forward. Once the straight characters go through their necessary dramatic arcs, a good case can be made for the film merely disposing of MacLaine’s character so audiences don’t have to “worry” over whether she’s going to get a job as a teacher elsewhere. I think that’s how these movies worked.
      It certainly does with African-American characters in films of this time. The white character learns “a lesson” and then the black character gets to die nobly. Racism solved!

      That’s why “The Children’s Hour” only really works for me anecdotally. Take away her actually being a lesbian, and Martha’s guilt and remorse (to me) remains the same. She feels bad because SHE’s the one who acted funny at the thought of Karen getting married; SHE’s the one who had the outburst to wake the child; SHE’s the one who brought attention to them. He guilt feels legitimate and character based. My feelings for “The Children’s Hour” from a political standpoint are far different.

      And by the way, I can’t stand “Tea & Sympathy” for exactly the reason you describe. What were they thinking?
      Thanks for an excellent comment, Deb!

    2. In that same vein, with the racial element, have you ever seen "Pinky"? Jean Crain (a bland white actress) plays a very light-skinned black woman who returns to her home in the south to help her grandmother (Ethel Walters). There's a scene in which Pinky is followed by a group of harassing white men who hoot and holler and threaten her; although the men eventually leave, the implication is that as a black woman Pinky is not entitled to be free from harassment. Another scene has Pinky being attacked by a much darker-skinned woman. A policeman called to the scene is initially sympathetic to Pinky (which makes sense as, regardless of skin color, Pinky is the victim of an attack), but as soon as he discovers Pinky's racial identity, he turns against her. The movie's message (hopefully an inadvertent one--but it was made in the late 1940s, so we can't be sure) is that treating a person deserves disrespectful treatment if they. "deceive" you into believing they're white. It's a very odd movie and I'm sure you could do more than I can to unpack all of its hysteria, racial panic, and condescension. But it's another of those movies where the text and subtext just absolutely refuse to gel.

      Thanks for providing a forum for my ramblings!

    3. Hi Deb
      Yes, I did see "Pinky", albeit many many years ago, and it's one of those films I wouldn't relish revising any time soon. I think these "passing" films, of which there were so many back in the day, always have their politics a little off (as you note).
      At the core of every scene were we see Pinky discriminated against and abused, there's the subliminal message that this shouldn't be happening to Crain because she REALLY white! The racial injustice is subverted. The movie never lets it sink in that this behavior is is wrong feels unfair because it's directed at the wrong person (a white actress).

      Much in the the way movies like "Tea & Sympathy" subtly seem to ignore the gay-baiting issue and focuses on the injustice of "You're teasing a guy who's really straight!!!"..."Pinky" felt like a "Keep in your place" polemic. It's message: Sure being white is where you can walk the street and expect to be treated like a human...but you'd better be white. If you try to "pass" you deserve the wrath of both races. Its a movie that treats racism as a cross black people are born to bear, not a shameful legacy of white culture.

      I love that you see the curious parallels in a film like "The Children's Hour". I've been reading reviews of "Carol" and comparing the screen depiction of lesbianism to "The Children's Hour" I guess I have to see it (I love Cate Blanchett, any way).
      Wonderful, point to bring up, Db. Thanks for providing ME with a venting forum!

    4. Dear Ken and DiscoDollyDeb: Hi!

      I think you both make excellent points in your posts above, and I agree with them. But I'm going to tread into dangerous waters here and try to make at least a partial defense of "Pinky" and "Tea and Sympathy." My husband and I own both films and admire them quite a lot.

      I'm not going to disagree with the fundamental problem of "Pinky": a movie about a black woman starring a white actress. That's a problem that is embedded in the film and will never go away. But there are still ways that I think "Pinky" manages to communicate a positive message. At the end, when Pinky's white fiancé asks her to move to Denver and continue "passing," she says she won't do that because she's proud to be black. And she ends the film running a school, right in the middle of a bigoted small town, to train black nurses and let black children get an education. (Of course, if this were real life, I would fear for the safety of Pinky and her staff and students.)

      I also want to say a word for Jeanne Crain. The director, Elia Kazan, did not want her in the film and denigrates her (without mentioning her by name) in his autobiography. Great a director as he was, though, Kazan was also quite misogynistic (after directing Vivien Leigh in "Streetcar Named Desire," he claimed she was really not a good actress!) I think Crain, without Kazan realizing it, gives the performance of her career in "Pinky." I sense Crain knew she was not wanted, and she communicates throughout the film the sense of barely suppressed rage that many of the black women I know have told me they feel, rage that's the result of the countless instances of racism, sexism, you-name-it they go through every day.

      As for "Tea and Sympathy," I haven't read the play for years, but someone once commented that the play is about a straight man who is falsely accused of being homosexual, while the movie is about a young man of ambiguous sexuality who is persecuted for that, and I think that's a valid observation. Director Vincente Minnelli (who knew a few things about ambiguous sexuality himself) includes many details of character that undercut conventional masculinity and point out how unfairly the young hero is treated. Even at the end of the film, when the main character is shown to have married after leaving school, to me it doesn't seem clear that he is heterosexual (after all, many gay men did marry women in the 1950s). I also have to say, the young man's experiences are virtually the story of my own life while in junior high school, so maybe I feel protective towards him.

      Neither of you has to agree with my opinions, and both of you are free to go on loathing these two films. :) But I just wanted to share how in small ways here and there, I see something different in them.

    5. Hi David

      I hope you know by now that sharing a conflicting opinion on this blog is not taken as an effort to change anyone's mind; merely the sharing of your personal experience of a film.

      All your points are points well taken, and ones I think exemplify why movies about race, homosexuality, and bigotry always remain so controversial in a country built upon racism, bigotry, and sexual intolerance.
      Your feelings about "Tea & Sympathy" are not too removed from how I see "The Children's Hour"...I "interpret" Martha's suicide as being one born more of friendship (love) guilt than homosexual self-loathing. I don't say I'm right, but it's one of the ways that enables me to enjoy the film. I have close friends who find the film rather hateful and hypocritical. That's real for them and I can actually see their point.

      I think it’s possible for gays to have conflicting responses to “Tea & Sympathy” ; some finding a positive message written between the lines, others offended by the need (mandated perhaps more by the times than a narrative authenticity) to have the character be straight. And if not straight, forced to capitulate to a heteronormative lifestyle in order to avoid persecution. Which is survival to some, very sad to others.

      As an African-American man watching "Pinky", I only see the ending as anti-integration propaganda. It's a subtle (and comforting to some) message that every racial group is essentially happier staying with their own kind. For me it "solves" the problem of racism by failing to place the cause and blame for it where it belongs. To me the film operates on a cloud of shoulder-shrugging and tsk-tsking, saying "It’s sad, but that's the way things are"...then leaving blacks to fix it through respectability politics (getting an education and bettering their neighborhoods and chances of being “accepted”). A nice idea, but we see today how much respect our black President gets because he's respectable and educated.

      I think it’s wonderful that the gay experience in America is such that we are not of so monolithic a mind as to see everything the same. I respect you and your husband’s take on both films and thank you for feeling you have a safe place to share those opinions.

    6. Thanks, Ken! I deeply appreciate your blog and your generosity of spirit.

  4. A great piece on this, Ken!

    I remember seeing this as a little gay kid when it aired on something like Sunday Night at the Movies in the 60s. My mother and sisters all cried at the end as if was just another love-story-gone-bad which, I was. For me, the movie was kind of mortifying having already gotten a little sick to stomach over seeing Tea and Sympathy on TV.

    I've never been wild for Hepburn or MacLaine (although I like her in Joel Delaney and Desperate Characters) so maybe that's why I was especially touched by Fay Bainter (who reminded me of my grandmother, which helps). When she begs their forgiveness in the end I wiped away a tear. I felt right about it then and maybe a little wrong about it now.

    However, The Children's Hour has so many great scenes, and at least one line I find myself blurting out at the oddest times: "There is no keyhole in my door!"

    As with all your reviews, they make me want to see the movie again. Like, right now.

    1. Hi CW
      Your first paragraph beautifully typifies the straight/gay experience of this film. Straight audiences often respond to the tragedy of a love torn apart by bigotry (Hepburn and Garner), gays sit fuming over yet another film that neatly erases the "problem" that started the whole magilla.
      At the time Hollywood felt it was being very forward-thinking by not pulling a "Tea & Sympathy" gambit (no fake lesbian here, MacLaine is the real thing!). But gays knew (or intuited), that something was off in not granting the only gay character in the film the triumph of her own battle.

      It's a similar response I have to and why i can't abide "To Kill a Mockingbird" ; the object of racism is in a position where he can be saved by the orchestrators of racism in the first place. Whit audiences feel noble, blacks are depicted as passive and helpless int their fate. Such has always been Hollywood's brand of progressiveness.
      Movie critic Pauline Kael had a notoriously homophobic response (surprise) to the film, feeling that the women were too hard on Bainter's character, and saying lesbians in particular needed pity because there "There isn't much they CAN do."
      The film works best for me as a very contemporary depiction of old-fashioned bigotry and very contemporary, well-meaning homophobia.

      But as you say, there are so many great scenes and great lines. I love the keyhole line (suitable for any situation) . I've always remembered the indignant "The dirt you have made for YOURSELVES!" or "Clean your house and consider yourself lucky."
      Excellent points, you made, CW, thanks!

  5. Dear Ken: I know I already commented above, but I haven't said anything about "The Children's Hour" yet. :)

    I saw the film 25 or more years ago, and my recollection is a bit hazy. But my own circumstances at the time I saw the film (as a repressed young gay man who had not yet come to terms with that fact) affected my reaction to it. I found the suicide of Martha's character so upsetting that I couldn't feel any sense of hope or uplift for Karen at the film's end. Maybe I would have a different reaction if I re-watched the movie today.

    In a way, despite all of the completely valid criticism of the movie that you and others make, it was somewhat bold for its time. (Here I go, being a contrary apologist again!). The year before "Hour" was released, that notorious prime-time network television documentary about homosexuality, hosted by Mike Wallace, was shown. In the documentary, homosexuals were characterized as dangerous predators who haunted the parks and alleys of cities looking for victims. Given the context of that opinion, maybe it's remarkable that "Hour" expresses any sympathy for Martha's character at all. (And perhaps that horrendous anti-gay context of the time is why the scenes showing Martha's affection for Karen were deleted. If audiences had seen Martha brushing Karen's hair or doing nice things for her, some might have seen Martha as an evil predator trying to seduce Karen.)

    And I agree with the point you make that the situation is not much better for many gay people today. I recently had occasion to view a few websites devoted to supporting people "afflicted with same sex attraction" (or SSA, as they helpfully abbreviate it) and helping them live the "chaste" life God demands. My heart breaks for gay people who still believe they must deny who they are just to please their churches and loved ones.

    Then of course there's the recent demonizing of transgender people in Houston as evil predators; apparently those poor, picked-on straight people can't even go to a public restroom in peace. Meanwhile, the local gay paper yesterday had a memorial article about 21 transgender people across the U.S. (all but one a person of color) who have been murdered this year. So who's the real victim here?

    Sorry if these comments are a little heavy for your blog. But this post really stirred up a lot of thoughts and feelings for me.

    1. Hey David

      What you say points to the somewhat non-linear aspects of the gay experience in America. When taken is the context of historical artifact, yes indeed "The Children's Hour" is groundbreaking and risk taking. For its time. Taken in a psychological context, it's arguable that the movie trend it helped spearhead (the only good gay is a dead gay) was perhaps more damaging than invisibility and lack of representation.

      That's why I sometimes think that "good intentions" are not enough. All the homophobic barbarism you described is exactly what's going on racially in the US today. We don't seem to learn anything from the false messages in these movies because they are essentially dishonest. They don't DEMAND that audiences look upon MacLaine's character as OK; it asks that you pity her. The same way they did in the old days with "sympathetic" black characters.

      All those years of treating homosxuality with so much gingerness and caution yielded what? The empty promise that "someday it'll get better". Sure, we've progressed in some ways, but from my own militant point of view I've pretty much had it with movies gently spoon-feeding homosexuality to straight audiences as though it were a poison to build up resistance to.
      That's why, even when I personally can like a film like "The Children's Hour", I understand when people don't admire it so much. I don't know if those on the outskirts of society can ever expect to be honestly portrayed by those active in our persecution.

      And no apologies needed for bringing up heavy topics. A movie like this is valueless if it doesn't spark conversation not wholly invested in the nostalgia of the time. It's 2015 and life isn't all that much better for the Martha's of the world. We need to recognize that.

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    1. Gotta say that in my experience, your observations on "Women in Love" are so true. The response i've received to my post have been almost exclusively about that sequence. And it resonates through generations.
      I can't think of another film that has had that kind of response. And like you say, everyone who has contacted me (mostly personally, not in comments section) have a deep understanding of the scene. Even when it speaks to them in different ways.
      Not sure just what that scene has, but its something I don't come across often.

      And yes, as much as i love "Brokeback Mountain" myself...I too was weary of the dying gay trope by then.
      I am absolutely loving all the points you guys are coming up with. I wish I were teaching a film class and I could enroll you all!

  7. Hi Ken,

    Wonderful overview as always. It’s been a while for me since I’ve seen this from beginning to end. It isn’t one that I’ll stop on if I happen upon it when channel surfing but for what it is I think it’s a decent film.

    It does come across as quite prosaic now though I’d list it under “Their hearts were in the right place” for the time period it was made. I think Hellman was being truthful when she stated that the main idea of the story is the damaging effect any whispered untruth can have and that she just selected the one that would be considered the biggest. That’s why the earlier “These Three” works so well even with the less startling secret that is the center of its story. The British title, which I love, that the remake played under sort of illustrates that point.

    Someone else mentioned Tea and Sympathy and how its recusal of its main theme is a bit sick making and I have to chime in and agree. I just saw it for the first time ever last month after searching for years, more to get me closer to seeing all Deborah Kerr’s films (only 3 left!!) than actual interest in the film and all I can say is GOD I HATED THAT MOVIE!! Children’s Hour isn’t perfect and its attitudes are dated but it doesn’t insult its characters as T&S does.

    I love Audrey Hepburn, and I think your reasoning for why she works in her role is solid, but I wasn’t too moved by her performance until the last quarter of the film. MacLaine on the other hand is quite vivid and raw throughout getting much more under Martha’s skin than Audrey manages with Karen.

    Did you know that the roles were originally offered to Doris Day and Katharine Hepburn? Both declined obviously but how fascinating to consider what the picture would have looked like if they hadn’t. I’m not surprised Doris said no, this was made just after she had completed Midnight Lace which she stated in her autobiography was so emotionally taxing because she was an instinctual performer and had no technique to fall back on that she had sworn off of heavy drama but Kate is the bigger question mark. She didn’t make any films that year and she certainly wasn’t afraid of controversial material but she was also notoriously choosy about projects after her studio years so maybe it just didn’t appeal to her. It might also have proven a stretch for them to be believable classmates since Kate had a decade plus on Dodo.

  8. As for the rest Garner is good, and at the peak of his attractiveness, he’s just a plot device though but he does his best to fill out Joe. Karen Balkin is properly hissable as Mary and you love to boo her and see her get her comeuppance. But as you mentioned she’s such an obvious little bitch that it strains credibility that all those sensible people would take her at her word. Then there’s Veronica Cartwright who though she simpers and twitches never overdoes it the way Balkin does so makes a much more believable victim/stooge.

    Being a Golden Age movie lover I of course have a particular fondness and pleasure in seeing those two superb classic actresses Fay Bainter and Miriam Hopkins in support. How nice it was that the estimable Fay was able to bow out on such a high note and not have her resume blemished by a Trog or Flesh Feast as poor Crawford and Veronica Lake did. She’s simply wonderful making every second of her screen time matter and not being eclipsed by the considerable star power of Hepburn and MacLaine.

    Then there’s the returning Miriam Hopkins who utilizes little of Fay’s restraint though to be fair her character wouldn’t benefit from it. She owed a great debt to Wyler since having effectively black balled herself from film with her upstaging shenanigans and general difficulty in working harmoniously with others Wyler was the only director who consistently hired her and for whom she would buckle down and deliver. After terrorizing the Old Acquaintance set and incurring Bette Davis’s vocal ire she only made six more films in the next 25 years, three of which were Wyler productions. She’s just right as the vain, petty and selfish Aunt Lily and that scene you have a picture of where she’s clutching her mementos with her glamour picture or yore is tinged with a bittersweet echo of her own past.

    Lastly your comment about the timelessness of the subject is well made and sadly so true.

    1. Hi Joel
      So many interesting points made! I too think that Hellman’s one-scandal-fits-all premise s authentic, and actually a very fine literary device to have the piece as relatable as possible. But what makes the lesbianism lie so effective is that the story takes on all these (perhaps unintended) layers that ultimately make the central conflict richer and less easy to resolve once the little girl confesses. In a way, I think that is why so many are of such different minds about the effectiveness of “These Three” vs “The Children’s Hour”: one is a tidier conflict neatly solved at the end, the other ends in a way sure to satisfy some-sure to frustrate, if not anger, others.
      Congrats on your seeing so many Deborah Kerr films! And well, yes, “Tea &Sympathy” is problematic for me as well (although I love your all-in-capitals response!). Good intentions aside, like a good many liberals who inadvertently say and do things far more racist than a unapologetic bigot, I think a great many authors and filmmakers dealing with homosexuality don’t have the perspective to gain the “big picture” view of what their narrative says. (For example: So many artists feel “sorry” for gays, so when they write or make films about them, it never occurs to them to make them anything but sad and pitiable. To their mind, they are being sympathetic, and never understand the public outcry when gays say that depiction is offensive).

      I had read that Kate Hepburn and Ms. Day were considered for the film. Day I can certainly see, but Hepburn…maybe as the grandmother.
      And poor little (victim/stooge) Veronica Cartwright! I’m a major fan of her work, but I don’t know that I ever saw her in a film where she played happy go lucky. I guess lightness just wasn’t her thing.

      And as you mentioned certain Golden Era screen stars going out with a whimper, have you ever seen Miriam Hopkins in “Savage Intruder”? It’s one of those 1970s films that apparently was part of a trend: elder actress set upon by parasitic hippies and drug-culture types (The Big Cube, Angel Angel Down We Go). It’s one of my Holy Grail titles, as I have only seen the YouTube trailer for it. Looks like a hoot.
      I like Hopkins a great deal in this, and though I’d read accounts of her being a difficult actress, hadn’t know all you related in regard to Wyler being something of her champion over the years.
      As always Joel, terrific personal observations combined with a great deal of classic film knowledge! Thanks for commenting!!

    2. Sadly I've never seen Savage Intruder, it seems even more obscure than other sad swan songs such as Dear Dead Delilah (Agnes Moorehead), The Nesting (Gloria Grahame), Wicked Stepmother (Bette Davis) and the aforementioned Trog and Flesh Feast all of which I've managed to catch one way or another. For the record Veronica wins the prize for the sorriest sendoff.

      I can't say I'm dying to see it since those films are always tinged with an underlying melancholy but it would be worth watching to see how far over the top Miriam went without a strong director to rein her in. Something that she was prone to do.

      She was notoriously hard to work with. Apparently she had a deep seated insecurity that manifested itself in a need to ALWAYS be the center of attention. She ceaselessly pulled upstaging tricks that irritated her co-stars when she was at the top and shredded her reputation once she slipped to the point where it was basically Wyler and a few other strong directors (she's magnificent in Mitchell Leisen's The Mating Season going toe to toe with Thelma Ritter-someone who would never allow anyone else to upstage her-as Gene Tierney's flibbertigibbet mother) who were the only ones who would take a chance on her.

      Have you ever heard that she so pissed off Edward G. Robinson when they were making Barbary Coast that in a scene that required him to hit her he smacked her full on knocking her across the room and the crew burst into spontaneous applause?

      From what I've read in private life she was bubbly, charming and quite a pleasure to know but once she stepped foot on a film set or the stage that killer instinct emerged and she became a horror show.

  9. Argyle here. What an incredible discussion! Guess I’ll pipe up late from the back row of Le Cinema 301. (No way is this a 100 level course!!) And I’m going to come at it a bit askance. William Wyler is a director (Howard Hawks another) that I’ve been trying to burrow into in the last couple of years to try to understand what he does, what he’s into, what’s going on in his movies. I still enjoy Hitchcock and Ford and, I guess, their formal control over everything but as I’ve gotten older I look for more buried nourishment. Anyway, what follows is a very scatter-brained impression. I wish I could organize my thoughts better, but didn’t want to miss out on the discussion.

    The relationship between Karen and Martha reminds me of my sisters and their friends over the years. I know it’s a generalization. I’ve always hung out with the women more than the men. I’m part of an extended family now with four sisters. The rivalry and affection can get dizzying. I’m not as sexist as this sounds.

    The way women can be jealous of their best friend’s “good fortune” is fascinating to me. I love the way Wyler renders that. And he doesn’t feel the need to solve it; it’s just part of the soup. I think there’s even some of that tension of rivals/siblings in something as different on the surface as “Ben Hur.” (Yikes, I know, but I feel a connection. Maybe it’s just the TCM effect.)

    Also, Miriam Hopkin’s character. She really sings in this. It also made me remember her Aunt character in Wyler’s “The Heiress” where she’s a lot of the problem. It’s almost like she was his go-to trouble maker and I don’t mean that in the light way it sounds. She’s great in both films.

    Which makes me think that Wyler was really into angst - as you also mentioned, Ken. For me, “The Best Years of Our Lives” is all about angst. And the way he finds it in sunny settings like Harold Russell’s family’s little suburban house. That reminds me of the house in “The Children’s Hour” and the way they’re always going out in the garden to try to deal with their troubles.

    I do think he served a script and a studio - told the story as given, featured the stars, on to the next one. (And I recognize that many people contributed to a studio picture like this.) But maybe he was drawn to stories of intimate conflict or even self-conflict. I think of how he introduces Fanny Brice in “Funny Girl” not with a big production number but with a long, solo, contemplative walk (What have I done? What am I about to do? I really need to sit here and think about all of this.)

    Thanks, Ken! Sometimes your posts open up so many avenues I can’t get it together to comment, but I always love the discussion.

    1. Hi Argyle
      I love that you’re exploring the work of a filmmaker you admire, and sharing some of the connecting threads you find in their work. As a man who comes from a household with four sisters, I cannot argue with you on the whole sisters/rivalry thing. None of my sisters really speak to each other today. I won’t say the behavior is exclusive to women (men compete with each other over the smallest things, everything symbolically or metaphorically coming down to the fear their penis isn’t big enough); but I will attest that women, from a very early age are socialized/encouraged to bond/compete on a level very different.

      What you noted about Hellman/Wyler being very adept at portraying a certain kind of female relationship is perhaps why both “These Three” and “The Children’s Hour” can have identical near identical scripts. Whether they are presented as gay or straight, the women’s friendship and closeness is authentically conveyed, and the dubiousness of such affection (is it just two women who are platonically in love, or romantically in love?) is what you can find in more women’s relationships than male (at least in my experience).
      I mean, do straight men who go to the movies together still need to have an empty seat between them (I saw that a lot growing up). On Twitter recently, I read that a lot of straight males were afraid to ”like” a tweet from another straight male, because the social media network changed stars to hearts. I’ve known straight men to avoid owning certain cars because they are associated with women.

      Just random observations confirming what you note…there is something about relationships between women that makes a narrative like “Children’s Hour” work. Masculinity is so fragile, whenever straight/gay male collide (as in Reflections in a Golden Eye, and The Sergeant) a fistfight always precludes a (very necessary for the male side of the genre) death or suicide. I

      Is anyone aware of the existence of a film in which a straight man is assumed to be gay because he has a close friendship with a gay male? (A serious one, not like Ryan O’Neal’s execrable and homophobic cop comedy “Partners”)

      William Wyler does seem to be drawn to narratives with a certain level of intimate personal drama. And that he could find such intimacy of expression in behemoth like Ben-Hur, suggests a certain world view or focus interest.
      I’m not familiar enough with Wyler to know how many films were assigned to him or which were chosen, but I think you are onto something in seeking something he consciously or subconsciously brings to his work.

      And, to bring back the film class analogy, you would get an A+ just for evoking the visual of Miriam Hopkins as being a director’s “go-to troublemaker”! I love Hopkins in “The Heiress”…she always seemed to play supporting roles they would cast as a flamboyantly gay male today.
      Thanks, Argyle, for joining in the very interesting conversation here. It really wouldn’t be complete without your deeply personal take on the films.

  10. Dear Ken: Hi!

    I know I've already commented twice, but Argyle's words, above, inspired me to share some other thoughts I had about your original post. (And if your blog is like a film class--which it is!--I guess you can call me that annoying, non-traditional student who's always raising his hand and doesn't know when to shut up!)

    I truly admire William Wyler. (And I admire him even more after reading "Five Came Back," that remarkable book from last year about the five major U.S. film directors who were involved in the government propaganda program during WW II.) What I like most about him is his ability to really dig into the story and characters, to find the telling details that make situations and conflicts real.

    I really do recommend seeing "These Three," because overall I find it a superior film to "The Children's Hour." And Wyler and Miriam Hopkins do some astonishing work in it, particularly in one heartbreaking scene that tells us just how much of an outsider Hopkins' character is, and that she has become accustomed to being left out and unwanted. The scene is brief, but I think you'll know which one I'm referring to when you see it.

    I agree with Argyle that Wyler was able to depict inner anguish and angst extremely effectively. Perhaps my favorite Wyler movie is "Carrie." The movie burrows so deeply into Laurence Olivier's shame and failure as his character falls lower and lower that it's painful to watch at times.

    I'm not a big fan of the auteur theory of film. I tend to gravitate toward directors like Wyler, George Cukor, John Cromwell, etc. who give us complex, well-told stories and fine performances. But because such directors tend not to have a distinctive visual style, something that makes their films easily identifiable, they tend to be ignored or even denigrated in film schools. But I will take their films any day over those of a director like Douglas Sirk. Sirk made fine films in the 1940s--good stories smoothly told. But his most famous 1950s movies--"Magnificent Obsession, "All That Heaven Allows," "Imitation of Life"--ye gods! What abominable pieces of junk! It really sets my teeth on edge when people rhapsodize about Sirk's penetrating critique of American culture, middle-class mores, etc. Now I agree those things can use plenty of critiquing. But Sirk's films feature some of the most ludicrous, over-written, absurd screenplays ever devised, with unintentional laughs by the carload. And his actors! Lana Turner, Rock Hudson, John Gavin--is there a less gifted set of thespians around? Of course, Sirk does have his distinctive visual style--the use of colored lighting to heighten mood, tilting the camera at moments of distress. But when I see those visual tricks, I find myself wondering: am I watching a romantic melodrama or an episode of "Batman"?

    1. Hi David
      Ha! I would wager everyone reading these comments is as entertained by the dialog as I am and find your enthusiasm and thoughtfulness a boon to the blog!
      I have seen “These Three” but waaaaay back. I don’t have too fond a memory of it, but I saw it before I ever saw “The Children’s Hour” and now would like to give it another look-see to observe some the things you and others have commented upon.

      I like what you say about directors who know how to tell a story and that appear (through their attention to actors rather than action) to understand that the emotional drama is the center of every narrative.

      I own a DVD of “Carrie” and I too find it to be a wonderful, albeit overlooked film. Certainly one of Oliver’s better screen performances.

      I like that you bring up the topic of the auteur theory and how certain directors gain notoriety for having a distinctive style while other, fade into the woodwork types, go unnoticed. Sirk is not a huge favorite of mine (principally for the reason you note- the actors he casts!), but I can appreciate how many would be bowled over by his visual style. It’s not mine (except when employed by Russ Meyer) but I get it that it speaks to people. John Ford leaves me cold, but I do enjoy reading about what others see in his films.

      Because so many movies-by-committee made today are such a shambles, I think there has been a reappraisal of the works of classic film directors once dismissed as mere guns-for-hire. I think we’re all coming to better appreciate that there’s room for both the show-boater directors as well as the ones whose artistry didn’t always call attention to itself.

      (By the way, until now I never considered what a debt “Batman” owed to Douglas Sirk!) Thanks, David!

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    1. Thanks, Gregory! I'm enjoying this too!
      I think there's something valuable in a discussion that serves to illuminate the fact that a single film can be perceived as uplifting / a cop out / insulting / and moving...depending on the perspective of the viewer and the point of view (political / personal) of the argument.

  12. Argyle here again. I’m relieved that you and David understood what I was struggling to say about Wyler’s seeming attraction to the theme of interpersonal conflict and its effects. Later I thought - well ANYTHING has that kind of conflict - “Rocky”, “Hunger Games”, hell even “Transformers” for all I know. But then I thought, yes it’s in most any story, but Wyler CHOSE to focus on it, to explore it and play with the ambiguities. I agree that Shirley M’s ending is harsh and melodramatic and discouraging, but in a weird way I can kind of ignore those things and really enjoy the interplay between her and Audrey. To me, one of the great things about movies is that even with all the control and scripting, you’re still photographing live people so there’s always an element that’s possibly out of control even with the most skilled actor. I guess part of my criteria of an actor I enjoy is that ability to NOT control. I think young Shirley could be that way. Of course there’s nothing wrong with skill, it’s what I enjoy in Hopkins and Fay Bainter in this. And Veronica Cartwright - amazing! I also remembered last night that for me there is also room to imagine (maybe project is more accurate) that Mary Tilford is at least intrigued by the idea of a physical relationship between Karen and Martha and that gives her a sort of trapped poignancy. I can’t really parse the politics of that, and hope I don’t get shouted down, but it’s a subtext for me.

    On other notes: “Carrie” sounds fantastic. Super depressing - right up my alley! And more Miriam Hopkins!! On the other hand, I love “Imitation of Life” (the funeral alone...) But I think I understand the other point of view. The Rock Hudson/Jane Wyman ones are really weird - the whole spirituality/secret philanthropy thing.

    Ken, your observations about films with male friendship and rivalry hits home with me. I’m always looking for those. “Midnight Cowboy” came to mind and it’s so good, but it’s about so many things. “My Own Private Idaho” didn’t really hit me at the time, always think I need to re-watch it; River Phoenix could be pretty extraordinary. “Y Tu Mama Tambien”? “The Dreamers” by Bertolucci? “Maurice”? I wish Merchant-Ivory were still around, they were getting close. I think there is a general lack of courage and insight in mainstream film. Oh, well! Food for thought. Thank you, again!

  13. Hi Argyle
    I agree that conflict and the emotional fallout is a part of every good narrative, but you're on target in noting that not every director chooses to focus on it. I would argue that Stanley Kubrick is a director who tends to sift the focus of his films AWAY from the emotional.
    What's interesting about all you've said, and what's reflected in the various comments here, is that there is a risk to a writer or director choosing to use a human being as one would a plot device (in this case, Hellman needed a "secret" and latched onto homosexuality).
    As we see in "the Children's Hour" MacLaine's character and the purpose she serves to the story brings with it perhaps a great deal more than Hellman intended.
    She wanted to make a play about how a lie can destroy lives. But lesbians and homosexuals are much more than the social problems/conflicts their existence suggests. Once the "lie" is unearthed, Hellman has made her point and the lie in question (lesnbianism-Karen) serve no more narratve purpose. It's disposed of.
    But I don't know that Hellman considered the broader ramifications of "disposing" of a flesh and blood woman who doesn't represent a plot device to all the gay and lesbian members of the audience; she represents THEM!

    Heterosexuals making films about homosexuals can't seem to think of presenting us as anything other than a "problem" or someone to be pitied, because that's how were seen. For me this leads to sympathetic portrayals, but inauthentic characters and motivations.

    I think a new crop of writers and filmmakers from marginalized segments of our culture are recognizing that it is up to them to be in charge of their own images ad voices. Anything less is merely well-intentioned perception. (I miss Merchant-Ivory, too!)
    Thanks, Argyle!

  14. Hi Ken - even though I don't love this film, I love the actors. Hepburn, Maclaine and Hopkins are a marvel to watch, and I am floored by the wonderful swan song of Fay Bainter...I believe this is her best film performance.

    I do believe Wyler was an actor's director all the way, and character and behavior are what he focuses on in every film, regardless of plot or genre. My favorite Wyler is The Heiress, where Wyler makes the mystery--whether Morris really loves Catherine or is merely a cold-hearted golddigger--secondary to the psychological effects on the characters. (And Miss Hopkins is marvelous in a supporting role here, once again.)

    The reason I recently watched The Children's Hour again when it was on TCM is that the 1978 film Julia (based on Lillian Hellman's Pentimento) is one of my all-time favorites, and I had recently shown it again to a friend. he remarked that it was hard to miss the lesbian undertones of the Jane Fonda/Vanessa Redgrave friendship, and Hellmann may indeed have been grappling with her own sexual identity when she wrote Children's Hour.

    In all, this film is unsatisfying for anyone who expects to see something that deals honestly with homosexuality. It merely uses it for the "shock value" that we all crave when seeing plays and films...but the actors make it definitely worthwhile.

    Hope you had an awesome Thanksgiving, Ken!

    1. Hi Chris!
      Hope you had a happy Thanksgiving as well!
      You're so right in saying that the pleasure derived from "The Children's Hour" come from the performances, and that anyone hoping to see homosexuality dealt with in any way but sensitive superficiality, will have to find it elsewhere.
      The tough-looking Hellman and her non-traditional life must have incited more than a few loud whispers in her time, so her work has at least that level of authenticity about it. The rest is most impressive when kept in the time capsule of 1961 (my mind goes to the lesbian character Claire Bloom played in "The Haunting" in 1963...there was a woman we knew wouldn't wind up dead in the last reel!).
      I'm writing this after having seen "Carol" over the holiday weekend. I have yet to check out any reviews of the film, but there's a serious Audrey Hepburn vibe going on there with the look they concocted for actress Rooney Mara. My mind kept going back to wondering how 60s audiences responded to even the "idea" of Hepburn & MacLaine as lovers played out (did it seem chic, scary, unimaginable?)

      By the way, I'm a big fan of "The Heiress" too, and the strengths you attribute to Wyler as director seems to run through all of the films of his I've seen. Very much a character-behavior director.
      Good to hear from you, Chris! Thanks for adding to the conversation!

  15. I must have been around 10 when a copy of Life magazine with an article on the film arrived in our home.
    I had never seen the word 'lesbian' before so I asked my mother what it meant.
    'Those are women who love each other the way I love your father,' was her response.
    That seemed like a reasonable answer to me. We both went about our business and I haven't really thought about how progressive my mother was way back then until I read your piece.
    Thanks for the memory, Ken!

    1. Hi Joe
      Wow, that has to be the sweetest story ever! I love your mom's incredibly wise yet matter-of-fact answer to your question. Way ahead of her time. Had she seen this film, I suspect it would have struck her as somewhat hysterical.
      Thanks, Joe!

  16. Hi Ken, this movie was near the top of my Netflix queue when your wrote this, and I just watched "The Children's Hour" tonight.

    Random Reactions:
    The girl playing Mary reminded me of a cross between "The Bad Seed" and "Serial Mom"--really! When she was looming over her quaking friend to back up her lie, I expected Mary to growl "Pussy Willows!" And as you pointed out, as entertaining as she was, Mary was so transparent that even Martha's silly aunt reiterating the rumor was a major weak point of the story...

    Shirley MacLaine, who is often over-the-top, really surprised me with a subtle, deeply-felt performance.

    You know what I really liked about "The Children's Hour's" ending? When Audrey walks away from the funeral, she walks away from all the people who shunned her, and even walks away from fiancee Garner. Amazing for an era of "bold" or "provocative" movies that often copped out with a happy ending. I was really expecting Hepburn to stop at Garner, and they'd walk off into the sunset.

    And hats off to Fay Bainter and Miriam Hopkins, one subtle, one not, both terrific!

    Looking forward to your thoughts on "Carol."

    "Now, Voyager" is next up in my queue!



    1. Hi Rick
      Nothing like having a film fresh in your memory! The "Serial Mom" reference is just too perfect! Mary is such a little gangster in that scene.
      I'm somewhat impressed at how Wyler was able to balance the tone of the film to accommodate the more burlesque styles of little Mary and Miriam Hopkins, the lighthearted interaction of the girls, and yet still present a dramatic story with a great deal of sensitivity.

      Like Shirley MacLaine in some of her later dramatic roles (Desperate Characters) a less-shrill MacLaine can be very affecting.

      And I agree with you about the ending.I've read that some people ave thought it was "hard" but I like that Audrey's character doesn't forgive the townspeople, and that, even if there is a suggestion that time will bring the Garner character back in her life, it's a bold statement not to end on a note of reconciliation.
      "Now, Voyager" I LOVE that movie!

      Thanks, Rick!

  17. Just saw the movie. Actually thought it would light hearted. But as usual, Audrey Hepburn is captivating. Mclain was also brilliant. I was surprised when I found out the lesbian issue in the film, giving the era.
    Of course it has its problems. Even though it is dated, (the court's allegation of "sinful sexual involvement", etc.) it stands true.
    I was ostracized by my church, and even from moving in with a Christian friend, because I was bi sexual and She said she "doesn't want that around her girls.
    I could go on about it, but I have let it go.
    My point is, it is pitiful this stuff still happens.
    I loved your review, and I am interested in reading more.

    1. Hi Kate
      Thank you very much for contributing an enlightening and personal take on this fascinating film. Sadly, it doesn't surprise me that in this day and age you have experienced a taste of the kind of small-mindedness hidden behind doctrine that Hellman dramatizes in this film. Ignorance has no expiration date.
      But it's gladdening to know that outside the narrow confines of certain originations and small minds, incredible inroads have been made, and young and old are daring to be themselves in spite of outside approval.
      I'm glad to hear this 56 year old movie still has enough human truth init (and wonderful performances from Hepburn & MacLaine) to make it a worthwhile viewing experience. Isn't it strange to ponder that you could show this film, as is, to some church groups today, and you'd STILL be telling them something they have yet to grasp: People need to leave each other be and just worry about themselves, not regulating others.
      Thank you for reading this post and I do hope you visit this blog again!

  18. This is a movie I don't know exactly how to feel about. It's as well crafted as they come, and I saw myself engaging much more than I imagined I would. But I kept thinking about all the places it could have gone but it never really went anywhere near its full potential.
    Still I don't think I should blame anyone: the script is beautiful - the dialogue is so fluid, mostly with the kids talking, there's so much emotion and confusion, you rarely see kids act like kids in movies nowadays and this movie was enlightening in so many ways. The directing is masterfully done, and it's nice to see Wyler playing and approaching a subject with a fresh eye (in all his movies he seems to be starting over and developing a brand new style for himself - and maybe that prevented him from being a recognizable and celebrated director, which he deserved). The acting is a beauty to behold, eve though I thought Shirley overdid some of the most dramatic moments, I can take that if that means her silent pain and subtle love are coming along. Audrey is a solid presence whenever she is on scene, and she brings a great deal of dignity to any project she is in. Watching her being compassionate reminds me why I'm almost 30 and still holding on to my whole model: I want to be that open and understanding person she conveys in some of her movies. Not many people can express empathy quite like her.

    But the movie centers too much on reputation, which is understandable given its time, but I'm SO past that, I couldn't help but feel annoyed by some of its conflicts. In this day and age where we know everything about everybody's lives it just doesn't click. The movie is strong when its about human motivation: Why would a kid (or any other person) steal a bracelet? Why would a kid (or any other person) act selfishly? Why would people feel enraged by love? Why would a person put on herself the guilt inflicted by other people? Why wouldn't Hepburn turn against her friend if what she does is so repulsive? These are the questions I found myself asking throughout the movie, but never felt close to an examination, let alone an answer. The movie distances itself from the core of its own drama.

    I also don't agree when people say it's outdated: It's old fashioned in the same way most 60s films are, but its core is still relevant. It's not because we live in an accepting city or have an accepting family or have enough money to buy acceptance that the self-loathing days are gone. For every liberated gay out there I'm sure there are many more trapped in prejudice, religion and shame. The days of "The Children's Hour" and "The Boys In The Band" are not gone yet for most gays out there.

    I like this movie, however, for what it tried to do. For just being there. Audrey's last scene, specifically, made me cry: standing tall and dignified for a cause is how we all should follow our journeys ;)

  19. Hello Joao Paulo
    Your well-considered take on this film feels very appropriate. The more the world changes (as you called attention to, the all the hand-wringing over the loss of one’s reputation feels very distant from today. On a daily basis we encounter the sobering fact that reputation – good or bad – stands for very little), and the more the world stays the same (LGBTQ visibility aside, homophobia is just as virulent and pervasive), the more likely it is to come to this movie with conflicting and changing feelings.

    You parse yours out beautifully. I especially like that you respond to the empathy of Hepburn’s character, and your observation kids rarely acting like kids in movies is spot on.
    My biggest takeaway from your comments is how completely you allow yourself to become immersed in a film, and how you seem to value the texture of story and character. At no time does it sound as though you sat passively and let the film unfold before you…you actively participated and drew things from it to think about and respond to. I love that!
    You write with real compassion and a true feel for the humanity of films and the stories they tell. I read over your comment twice…so thoughtful and keen in its perceptions. Your words called certain scenes and performances to my mind with a vividness. Thank you for contributing to this post in such a personal way.