The Children’s Hour (1961)
Written by Lillian Hellman and John Michael Hayes
Directed by William Wyler
The Bad Seed is an iconic film that established the trope of the evil child with actress Patty McCormack delivering a stunning performance. I have to believe this movie was the inspiration to bring The Children’s Hour to the big screen. Originally a stage play first performed in the late 1930s, The Children’s Hour is a melodrama with witch-hunt elements. But the catalyst for all the conflict is an evil little girl, a truly despicable young lady who I’m sure you will grow to hate as much as I did.
Martha Dobie (Shirley Maclaine) and Karen Wright (Audrey Hepburn) are getting close to the end of their first year running their own private girls’ school. Things are going wonderfully after a parents’ day where the young ladies get to show off their musical and recitation skills. There’s a slight pallor over the days as Karen is set to leave so that she can marry Dr. Joe (James Garner). Joe’s young cousin Mary attends the school and is an absolute terror and a bully. Mary physical strikes the other girls and immediately jumps to lies to cover her tail. Mary’s roommates overhear an argument between Martha and her aunt about Martha’s bad mood over Karen’s departure. The conversation hints at Martha being a lesbian and having romantic feelings for Karen. The girls share what they heard with Mary. Later, Mary gets fed up with the punishments being meted out for her behavior and feeds her grandmother half-truths implying that she’s seen her teachers engaged in sexual activity. Thus, the problems begin.
There is a trope in media that was often the only way to present people in the LGBTQ community in a sympathetic way. This is the angsty gay suicide trope, where a protagonist would be so conflicted and confused about their orientation they would kill themselves. The result would be that the audience would feel bad for the character yet still not have to accept their sexual orientation as usual and healthy. They could instead pass it off as a weak, mentally ill person. When Lillian Hellman’s play debuted in New York in 1934, it was illegal to portray homosexuality on the stage, but the play was such a massive success that the authorities did nothing.
The Children’s Hour was the second attempt by William Wyler to adapt the play. His first version, 1936’s These Three, was forced to altogether remove the lesbian aspect and make it about a love triangle between a woman and two men with an affair as the big scandal. This was because of the Hays Code, a list of film commandments overseen by the U.S. government to ensure “clean” movies. By the time 1961 rolled around, this production code had been relaxed, and Wyler adapted the play again, this time staying faithful to the source material. He was still forced to heighten the “unnatural” nature of homosexuality to appease censors and did so with some cleverly subversive nods to the opposite.
This is a sleeper horror film in that it is about the claustrophobia of the mob, of the shame LGBTQ people were forced to feel at the time when trying to exist in hetero communities. Martha doesn’t have the convenience of a big city with a gay underground scene. Many women in Martha’s position at the time found one way to avoid getting married was to become a schoolteacher. This occupation was accepted as something “old maids” would adopt. But these same teacher’s lived in terror that their inner lives would be revealed and they would lose their jobs. Still today, in America, there are no civil rights protections for people based on sexual orientation. You can see in the All in the Family episode “Cousin Liz” another example of a gay woman working as a teacher panicked over the public reveal of her orientation.
There are two conflicts in The Children’s Hour, the one the film spends the most time on is the avalanche of lies told my Mary and how it sends the school into a spiral. The second conflict is that Martha does have feelings for Karen, with the latter not being aware until the film’s third act. Martha denies the accusations vehemently and tries to mask her emotions. She relents eventually and reveals her feelings to Karen, who doesn’t shy away in disgust. Karen is stunned and tries to assuage Martha, but we can see in the latter woman’s eyes that she’s crossed a line. The final shot of the film seeks to shake off the strictures of the production code, Karen walking past her fiancee and the community that betrayed her, she stares up as she walks alone down the road from the cemetery, towards an unknown but brighter and more open future.