The Children’s Hour: that Lie with the Ounce of Truth
Film version of a theatrical piece written by Lilian Hellman, a challenging, ground-breaking “fighter” of the restrictive moral conventions, especially Hollywood standardized ones.
A cause célèbre, as it was considered during the 50s when McCarthyism used to ban leftists and communists’ freedom of expression, director William Wyler’s The Children’s Hour (1961) film version of the 1934 theatrical piece, written by Lilian Hellman, is a challenging, ground-breaking “fighter” of the restrictive moral conventions, especially Hollywood standardized ones.
Starring Audrey Hepburn, who had already become famous for the movie Sabrina in 1954, and Shirley MacLaine, who at that time had received two Oscar nominations for Some Came Running (1959) and The Apartment (1960), The Children’s Hour is the tragic story of two, very close teachers accused of being lesbians by one of their pupils in the private school they had been running together in Massachusetts. Ostracized by the community, who immediately withdraw their children from school, forcing it to close, Karen Wright (A. Hepburn) and Martha Dobie (S. McLaine) discover that the little girl’s lie had an “ounce of truth” in it. This ultimately leads Martha to commit suicide, as she feels guilty for ruining her loved one’s life – a traditional marriage with doctor Joe Gardin (James Garner) – as well as her career.
Interestingly, what could appear to be a melodrama for a contemporary, uninhibited movie goer – who might also feel displaced watching the 2011 stage-adaptation, starring Keira Knightley and Elizabeth Moss at Comedy Theatre in London, despite both the actresses’ highly rated performances – The Children’s Hour deserves to be remembered as of one of the most successfully politicized Broadway plays at that time, especially because it addressed lesbianism by deliberately showing the dangerous outcomes, not of a forbidden behavior, but of the foolish intolerance towards it.
Hence, it is relevant to consider that, before the 1961 Wyler’s film version, a great deal of censorship was engaged to hide Hellman’s story. Indeed, Hollywood Industry banned it as leftist and removed it from most of the U.S. libraries. Consequently, blacklisted by the Industry, writer Hellman tried to readapt the theatrical play for a different screenplay in 1936, changing its title to These Three. It was still directed by Wyler but the plot was altered so that it involved a heterosexual triangle instead of lesbianism.
Predictably enough, the “adjusted” heterosexual triangle was more morally acceptable than the previous implied homosexual relationship and it was even worthy a Best Supporting Actress Oscar Nomination for the internationally known Merle Oberon.
In conclusion, it is possible to say that in parallel with the standard gaze on homosexuality during the 50s and the 60s, which included LGBT’s sense of guilt for their sexual orientation and ultimate expiation through suicide, The Children’s Hour (1961) was a challenging effort to face the McCarthy witch-hunt-like perspective on minorities. This was an effort that was desperately needed in the film industry, even if a general understanding had to come from the pitiful eyes of a diva such as Hepburn, who sweetly denies any sexual encounter with her closest friend and colleague.
Director: William Wyler
Writer: John Michael Hayes (screenplay), Lillian Hellman (play and adaptation)
Cast: Audrey Hepburn, Shirley MacLaine, James Garner, Miriam Hopkins, Fay Bainter, Karen Balkin, Veronica Cartwright