The Children’s Hour is a 1961 American drama film directed by William Wyler, based on the 1934 play of the same name by Lillian Hellman. The film stars Audrey Hepburn, Shirley MacLaine, James Garner and Fay Bainter.
In the early 1960s, former college classmates Martha Dobie and Karen Wright open a private boarding school for girls. After being egaged to doctor Joe Cardin for two years, Karen finally agrees to a wedding date. Joe is related to the well known Amelia Tilford, whose granddaughter Mary is a student at the school. Mary is a spoiled, manipulative child that bullies her classmates.
While Mary is being punished for telling a lie, one of her roommates overhears an argument between Martha and her Auny Lily. Lily accuses Martha of being jealous and having an unnatural relationship with Karen. When hearing this, Mary tells her grandmaother and Amelia spreads it around to the parents of the school.
Karen learns of this and aproaches Amelia about Mary accusing Martha and Karen of being lovers. Mary is hindered at convincing others that she personally saw the interactions between Martha and Karen. Knowing that her roommate Rosalie has stolen items from several people, Mary forces Rosalie to back up her story.
The two women file a suit of libel and slander against Mrs. Tilford. A few months later Martha and Karen are alone at the school, having lost all of the students and ruined their reputation after the lawsuit. Karen calls off her engagement to Joe when he asks if what was said Martha was true. When she finds out, Martha points out that other female couples have survived after being found out, because of the strength of their love, then admits that she has been in love with Karen for years. Karen says that Martha is just confused about her feelings, but Martha insists it really is love, breaking down in tears.
When this story first came out in 1934, it was on Broadway and was controversial for its lesbian content and when the play started touring the U.S., some theater owners refused to allow it to be performed. The same thing happened when the film version came out in 1961, some movie theaters refused to show it. Despite this, both the play and film versions were critically acclaimed.
The film deals with themes of sexuality, romance, theft, lying, spreading rumors and discipline. Lesbianism is the speculative “evil” that pervades the movie sailing between a lie and the heartbreaking truth deep within the lie. When the miserable and tortured teacher Martha Dobie (MacLaine) yells out, “I have loved you the way most people say I have!,” finally confessing her love to heterosexual Karen Wright (Hepburn), it is heartbreaking and painful to watch. She has to endure torture from the spreading of the gossip from Mary and Amelia Tilford.
The movie draws Martha Dobie as a mistake of nature. She is talked about as being unnatural and unhealthy and sinful. She has had to pretend to be heterosexual to save herself from misery, until one student eavesdrops one night and catches an earful of a private conversation between Martha and her Aunt Lily and the girl tells her friend and grandmother. Rather than be accepting of Matha as she really is, the parents of the students are so closed minded, religious and conservative that they believe same-sex relationships are a sin and withdraw their daughters from the school, prompting Martha and Karen to have to close down the school.
Martha never gets to be her true self until the end of the film, but the mystery leading up to that answer is extremely well done and when you finally find out, you are schocked. This film is very dark, despite not being scary. Karen is pretty good-natured, but stern at times, Martha is hardworking and almost too nice at times. Doctor Joe Cardin is romantic and can be sweet, but can also be tough. Mary Tilford is a spoiled brat, bully and liar. She makes you want to jump into the movie and lay her across your lap and spank, whether you believe in spanking or not. She is such a bad child. She ruins the reputations of Martha, Karen and the school. She also puts both teachers out of work.
There is nothing happy about this film, the entire picture is dark, depressing and very slow. I found myself quite bored many times throughout the movie. If I weren’t such a big fan of Shirley MacLaine and Audrey Hepburn, I would’ve turned it off. The film centers more on Martha’s secret and Mary and Amelia spreading the rumor, than Karen and her relationships with Doctor Cardin and Martha. This movie should’ve been called either Mary Spreads Gossip or Mary and Martha, as very little time is spent on the other characters.
The acting is outstanding from the lead cast, but that didon’t make the film that much more entertaining, in fact, I found this one to be quite uninteresting and being a big Shirley and Hepburn fan like I said, I was expecting more. This is the most boring movie of them I have ever seen. But I guess there’s only so mcuh you can do with a story like this.
The theme of same-sex love will turn religious conservatives off and may confuse younger children. Also the character Mary may freighten and/or teach children to lie, steal and bully. There’s really no violence other than a scene where Doctor Cardin spanks Mary, which was a common disciplining method back then and frequently seen in movies and on television, but it may make some people uncomfortable. There’s no foul language, drinking, smoking, or sex. There are a few kisses in the film, but they are brief. There is also a suicide scene and though it is not shown on screen, it is implied and will either confuse or distress kids. Movies don’t get much darker, duller or disheartening than this one. 11+ 2/5