‘The Children’s Hour’: William Wyler’s heartbreakingly poignant LGBT drama

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The central premise of William Wyler’s  daring The Children’s Hour, his second film adaptation of Lillian Hellman’s revered 1930s play of the same name, is reminiscent of another film I saw and reviewed a while back – the 2012 Danish film The Hunt directed by Thomas Vinterberg and starring Mads Mikkelsen. Both films dealt with characters – who happen to be schoolteachers – whose lives are destroyed by a slanderous lie uttered by one of the children studying at their school. While the lying in The Hunt  is not deliberate, the one in The Children’s Hour  is.

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Two of Hollywood’s legendary actresses, Audrey Hepburn and Shirley Maclaine, play Karen Wright and Martha Dobie, two young women who run a private school for girls. They have been dear friends for very long and are quite successful in managing their institution. James Garner plays Joe Cardin, a doctor who is in love with Karen and has been engaged to her for two years. Things take a major setback when a sneaky and malicious child who is constantly admonished for lying by the two women, tells her grandmother that Karen and Martha are involved in a lesbian relationship in the hope that she won’t ever have to go back to that school again. This lie spreads like wildfire and brings forth a series of strongly devastating consequences and irreversible damages.  

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The two teachers are ostracized and their empty home becomes like a haunted house inhabited by two witches. These events put a serious dent in Karen and Joe’s relationship and everyone is tormented by shame, guilt and doubt and things only get more heavy from there on. The film is bolstered by strong performances from the principal leads, especially Karen Balkin who played the annoying and evil child so confidently and convincingly that I was wondering where Wyler found her. And so is Fay Bainter, the actress who plays her grandmother. Maclaine once said that the film could’ve been much stronger had Wyler not decided to tone down the film by being reluctant to film some more scenes. I had not seen the 1936 version – which was called  These Three – but apparently it had a different, happy ending.

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One comment

  1. Not sure if my previous comments went through, but I was always baffled that Hellman consented to her hit play being ‘tweaked’ – but in her view, the theme of the play was that a lie can destroy people’s lives, irrespective of sexuality. A practical woman, she realized lesbianism in 1936 would have been unthinkable. Thanks for your review. I did enjoy reading it and look forward to reading more of your work.

    Liked by 1 person

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