The Children’s Hour

Once more, little girls are the problem
William Wyler
Audrey Hepburn, Shirley MacLaine, James Garner, Miriam Hopkins
The Setup: 
Dirty gossip and good intentions ruin a respectable school!

I had first become slightly interested in this movie due to its inclusion on Homo Promo, the compilation of gay and lesbian-themed movie trailers, so when my friend brought it over for movie night I was interested in watching it. We open at the Wright-Dobie School for Girls, seemingly somewhere in New England, run by Audrey Hepburn as Karen and Shirley Maclaine as Martha. This whole thing is from a play by Lillian Hellman, by the way.

They started the school a few years ago, and are finally making money on it. Also helping out are Martha’s Aunt Millie, and frequently visiting are James Garner as Joe, the local doctor. Joe is the nephew of Amelia, grandmother and guardian of the school’s problem student, Mary.

It’s not hard to see what’s happening, for those having a clue where this story is headed, when we hear that Martha thought Karen was pretty when they met, that Martha has been “sharp” with Joe when he comes around, and especially when Martha freaks about being abandoned when Karen accepts Joe’s proposal. We then hear Aunt Millie say that Martha was always jealous of her female friends as a child, and that there’s something “unnatural” about her devotion to Karen. Well, that’s enough for Martha, and she sends Millie back to New York, where she will resume her place in the firmament of BROADWAY!

But Millie has been overheard by Rosalie, played by the delightfully odd Veronica Cartwright, of The Birds and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, who runs upstairs to tell Mary, the snot-filled, spite-fueled problem child. Mary has a grudge against Karen and Martha because they punish her for lying and her general unruliness, and she tells Amelia that Millie said there’s something “unnatural” about the headmistresses’ relationship, and then whispers a bunch of stuff in Amelia’s ear. By the time she’s done, Amelia has withdrawn Mary from the school.

Suddenly all the parents are withdrawing their children, and no one will tell the headmistresses’ why—until one guy does, and they can’t believe it. They go over to Amelia’s and we have an emotional confrontation as the two women threaten a libel suit. But then they bring Mary down and make her repeat what she supposedly saw. She is almost immediately discredited, but Rosalie backs her up—due to Mary holding the revelation of her hidden klepto tendencies over her. And—the two women are ruined!

Act two! We rejoin the women an unspecified amount of time later, after the school has apparently been closed a few months, and they have found their lives a claustrophobic nightmare. When they open the door to take a walk, they find guys driving by in a truck just to stare at them. The whole thing has put a strain on the women’s friendship, and on Karen’s relationship with Joe. I was becoming quite alienated by the movie at this point, feeling like it was stringing me along that all of this had happened due to no one checking into the veracity of these two obviously questionable young girls’ stories, before they finally let slip that there was indeed a libel trial and the two women lost. And the whole thing hinged largely on the fact that Aunt Millie would not show up to testify!

And why, who should walk in at that very moment, pretending that nothing in the world is wrong, but Aunt Millie? She says he couldn’t show up because she was on tour and “the stage is a moral obligation,” but Martha soon lets her know that she ain’t havin’ it, and kicks the old bitty out, to numerous cries of outrage. Oh by the way, Joe has also been fired because of his association with the two alleged lesbos. More strain, etc.

Finally Rosalie’s klepto habit is revealed, and she reneges on the story, and Amelia comes over to clear the women’s names, but they tell her it’s too late. Come now, let’s not be spiteful. But spiteful they are, to the point where Karen breaks it off with Joe, because there would always be that distrust between them. Upon hearing this news Martha realizes that she’s been a lesbian all along, and really WAS in love with Karen, which is no big surprise. Then Karen steps outside, and Martha hangs herself! Oh the humanity, the end.

This clearly hails from the time when being gay or lesbian was necessarily tragic and makes clear that if you’re lesbian, well, the choices are a life in the closet or suicide. It’s been a little bit of a theme, as the last movie my friend brought over was Rebel Without a Cause, where the clearly-gay Plato is also quite emotionally disturbed due to his being homo and well, things don’t end too well for him either. Choose homosexuality, choose death. That was the stark reality in the 50s, folks.

It actually wasn’t bad, considering how obvious it all is. It clearly exists to make A POINT, and it never lets you forget it, or lets there be any ambiguity about what that point might be. It can feel a little cloying, but for the most part plays it straight and, taken as a period piece, can be fine. Plus you get some appealing actors, and Shirley Maclaine in perhaps the least annoying phase of her career.

What else? The photography is nice. The little girl who plays Mary has two facial expressions, but one of them is a doozy. Don’t worry, you won’t be able to miss it. Everyone acts so obnoxiously or whiny-spiteful you’ll understand why I firmly came to believe that, at some time or another, and with differing levels of severity, everyone in this movie needs to be slapped.

Should you watch it: 

There’s no need to.