The Children's Hour (Web Exclusive)
Reviewed by Matthew Hays
Produced and directed by William Wyler; screenplay by John Michael Hayes, based on the play by Lillian Hellman; cinematography by Franz Planer; edited by Robert Swink; music by Alex North; starring Audrey Hepburn, Shirley MacLaine, James Garner, Miriam Hopkins, Fay Bainter, and Veronica Cartwright. DVD, color, 107 min., 1961. A Kino Lorber release, www.kinolorber.com.
With The Children’s Hour, William Wyler joined that list of filmmakers who have remade their own films. His first stab, These Three (1936), based on Lillian Hellman’s hit play The Children’s Hour, told the story of two young women who lose their livelihood running a girls school when scandal breaks loose: the two women are both romantically involved with the same man. But despite its critical and commercial success, Wyler felt compelled to return to the source material. “This was not the picture I had intended,” he would later state in an interview. “It was emasculated.”
Wyler was referring to the play’s original scandal, which was not infidelity, but rather the suggestion that the two women who run the girls school are lesbians. The two films stand as remarkable bookends, showing us the effects of the Hays Code (enforced from 1930 to roughly 1968) and the fascinating ways repression manifested itself in studio films.
The Children’s Hour stands out immediately for its hugely impressive production values: beautifully shot, perfectly constructed, well acted, and punctuated by a powerful musical score. Its setting and establishing first act are decidedly conservative: the girls school run by Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine is strictly run and cold in appearance (in fact, everyone seems to be wearing a sweater). The children are taught discipline, though with hands that are as kind as they are firm. In a romantic moment, Hepburn and love interest James Garner make plans for marriage and procreation that reek of the button-down ’50s: they are perfectly set, sitting in car backgrounded by rear projection.
While The Children’s Hour is a five-alarm melodrama, the film never really feels terribly campy, given that this is about what one would expect for the managers of a children’s school who faced the hint of homosexuality in this period (and this was after the play was a quarter-century old). Wyler’s methods of revealing the charges against the women are extremely clever; the monstrous child who begins the rumor tells her doting grandmother, who asks, “Why must you whisper it?” The child responds, “I don’t know—I’ve just got to!” The dialogue speaks to the love that dare not speak its name while simultaneously pointing to a literal whisper campaign.
And that’s where The Children’s Hour becomes a brilliant meditation on Hollywood’s history of repression and an obvious goading of the censorious Hays Code. While correcting his first version of Hellman’s scathing play about empty charges against people incapable of defending themselves against the insidious power of innuendo, Wyler also made the film an indictment of McCarthyism. While the word “lesbian” is never actually uttered in the film (and that’s true to the source material, as it’s never uttered in Hellman’s play), neither is “communism,” but it’s all there.
Since These Three had been released, Hollywood had experienced the wrath of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC), and Hellman was not left unscathed. After lashing out at the anticommunist rhetoric of right-wing politicians, Hellman famously felt the sting, being blacklisted and losing work over her adamant stance against HUAC and McCarthy. When Wyler died in 1981, Hellman told The New York Times that when she was broke and unable to work in the early ’50s, Wyler opened an account for her and promised to replenish it with funds so long as she needed it.
Wyler’s obvious fury at the witch hunts gives The Children’s Hour a searing double entendre. When the rumor breaks out about Hepburn and MacLaine’s alleged relationship, the children begin rushing for the emergency exits on their parents’ command. Within one afternoon, the school is empty, leaving an exasperated Hepburn to beg, “There must be a reason.” MacLaine continues, “We’re standing here defending ourselves againstwhat?”
What’s fascinating is what Wyler chose to leave out. The subsequent libel trial, in which the girls’ school owners attempt to refute the charges against them and clear their names, fails, but we never see the trial. It’s as though Wyler is suggesting the trial would have simply been tantamount to a kangaroo court. We learn after it’s all over -- and the women have lost -- that the one key witness who could have saved their reputations and helped them to win declined to attend (she later claims she was on tour and uses the show-must-go-on line). When love interest Garner is let go from his job as a doctor, his boss tells him matter-of-factly that he could keep his job, if only he stopped associating with “those women.”
Some criticized Wyler’s casting of the central three leads in the film, noting that Hepburn, MacLaine, and Garner were mainly known (at least at that time) for their lighter roles in movies. But the opposite is true: the casting works perfectly against audience expectations, with the trio’s collective iconography suggesting that things must, somehow, work out in the end. The three are extremely effective in their roles. Hepburn, so often thought of as a romantic lead, proves her ability to convey a complex range of emotions as she endures the film’s agony. (It must also be noted that Veronica Cartwright begins her reign here as what must be the Greatest Film Hysteric Ever, followed by turns in The Birds, Alien, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers.)
Of course, they don’t. Just like the smear of communism, the taint of homosexuality caused more than a few suicides. The final moments of the film are stylistically noteworthy for a director noted for his adherence to conventional strains of realism. When Hepburn has her final epiphany, suspecting MacLaine has hurt herself, we see her race back to the house in a series of jump cuts (undoubtedly unusual for a studio film, and but one year after Godard’s Breathless), conveying her overwhelming, growing anxiety.
And, in the final funeral sequence, Wyler pushes the film into the surreal, as Hepburn walks past the townsfolk and her former fiance (Garner), head held up, refusing to acknowledge any of them. Wyler suggests there are some whisper campaigns from which no one can possibly recover.
Matthew Hays teaches film studies at Concordia University and Marianopolis College in Montreal. He is the author of The View from Here: Conversations with Gay and Lesbian Filmmakers (Arsenal Pulp, 2008) and is the co-editor (with Tom Waugh) of the Queer Film Classics book series.
To purchase Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray or DVD of The Children’s Hour, click here www.kinolorber.com.
Copyright © 2014 by Cineaste Magazine
Cineaste, Vol. XL, No. 1