The Children’s Hour is an intense film, depicting women who are at conflict with the surrounding community and at conflict with themselves. Adapted from the 1934 play by Lillian Hellman, it deals with two women who are ostracized and socially ruined based on schoolgirl gossip. The film is successful at translating the play to the screen, and ends up being a powerful drama.
The action of The Children’s Hour is set in The Wright and Dobie School for Girls and the surrounding community. Two college friends run the school, Karen Wright (Audrey Hepburn) and Martha Dobie (Shirley MacLaine). The school is finally on its feet financially and Karen decides the time is finally right to set a wedding date with her fiance of two years, Dr. Joe Cardin (James Garner). Joe’s young cousin, Mary (Karen Balkin), who attends the school, is quite the problem child. Making herself faint when she doesn’t get her way and seemingly a compulsive liar, she starts a rumor that Karen and Martha are lovers and blackmails another girl, Rosalie (Veronica Cartwright), into confirming her story. Mary’s influential grandmother spreads it all over town, and the school is shut down within a matter of hours. Karen and Martha try to get through their lives being ruined, and Joe stands by them. However, things are considerably complicated when Martha realizes she is in love with Karen after all.
The trickiest bit of this film in terms of political correctness is the shame that Martha feels at realizing she is a lesbian. She feels “sick and dirty” and doesn’t believe she can live with herself now that she has been forced to confront the truth. It’s very heartbreaking to watch, as previously in the film Martha wouldn’t take shit from anybody, and now is a broken person. It’s not the lies that the girl told that break her, it’s that they are true, if not in fact, than in spirit. It’s terrible to see someone that disgusted with herself for no reason, but I suppose it’s understandable given the lack of open-mindedness exhibited by the community. That does not make Martha’s perceptions about herself valid of course, but the climate of intolerance in the film makes it understandable.
The Children’s Hour seems like it would have been a risky and daring film to make back in 1961, but something interesting turned up when I was looking for other reviews of the film. Bosley Crowther for The New York Times seems to think the opposite, and at least in terms of violence onscreen, he generally seems pretty conservative in his viewpoints. He doesn’t believe that the community would ostracize the two women on such flimsy evidence for a “crime” that is not really a crime at all. Not having been alive at the time, I wonder if he’s a bit optimistic in his thinking, or if I’m just optimistic in terms of the progress this country has made in tolerating the LGBT community. Here I am, sitting at home, thinking that the film is doing something incredibly brave by the standards of the time, and then I read someone from the actual time who wishes it had went further. I suppose I would agree with him for reasons stated above, but with my modern viewpoint I wouldn’t expect that out of 1961, and maybe that’s wrong.
Much of the film is shot in deep focus. Besides the fact that deep focus is really cool in general, it’s used to great effect here. It gives a lot of depth to the images, and it extremely effective at certain points. One such point is when the vicious Mary is shown in the foreground, making her angry and insolent face loom large over the scene, while everyone in the background looks normal. It’s very unsettling to have a such a big close up in the foreground and then a full body shot in the background; it’s an irreconcilable contrast that is quite unnerving. There also is a nice use of shadows at the very end (I can’t reveal exactly how they are used for fear of spoiling).
The Children’s Hour may not be as socially groundbreaking as I originally thought, but that’s not the only measure of a film’s greatness. Even if it’s not progressive (and I’m sure it shocked some people at the time, even if Crowther wasn’t one of them), it is a sincere and heartfelt film. It shows how lives can be tragically ruined by unfounded accusations, and the terrible cost of societal prejudice.
“God will punish you.”
“He’s doing alright.”
Long story short: 3.5/4 stars
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