The Children’s Hour: Review

The Children’s Hour: Review

The Children’s Hour: Review. By Joe Muldoon.

In the November of 1810, two teachers (Marianne Woods and Jane Pirie) of an Edinburgh all-girls’ boarding school were falsely accused of having been sexually intimate on school grounds. Jane Cumming, a student at the school, deliberately gave false testimony that her sleep had frequently been disturbed by the teachers’ alleged activity, and the school’s students were all promptly withdrawn from the school. This infuriating event was turned into a play by Lillian Hellman in 1934, which was then adapted into a film by William Wyler in 1961 – this was Wyler’s first film since the classic 1959 epic Ben-Hur.

A decidedly faithful adaptation of Hellman’s play by the same name, The Children’s Hour is a rather devastating affair, something which is not helped by the fact that it is largely based in reality. Captivatingly leading the film are Audrey Hepburn (playing Karen Wright) and Shirley MacLaine (playing Martha Dobie), whose chemistry and camaraderie adds a touching note to what is ultimately a work of awful tragedy. As far as child actresses go, Veronica Cartwright (playing Rosalie Wells) did a magnificent job, because every scene in which she appears instilled within me a deep feeling of abject resentment towards her malevolent character.

Interestingly, Hellman’s play had already been adapted by Wyler back in 1936 under the title These Three, but its plot is noticeably different. A product of the horrific Hays Code, Wyler was forbidden from so much as hinting towards homosexuality, and so the film instead had Hepburn and MacLaine’s respective characters (played here by Merle Oberon and Miriam Hopkins) facing accusations of being embroiled within a love triangle with Karen’s fiancée, Dr. Joe Cardin (played by Joel McCrea in 1936 and James Garner in 1961).

The bitter irony is not lost on me that a play based upon the venomous nature of homophobia was itself subject to the intensely homophobic stipulations of the Hays Code. Given the era in which it was released, I also cannot help but wonder whether the actions of the bigoted Amelia Tilford (played scarily well by Fay Bainter) were looked upon by members of cinema audiences not with denunciation, but with support. The Children’s Hour is a biting (though somewhat muted) condemnation of the corrosive natures of homophobia and hatred, and its all-too-inevitable conclusion seals it as a crushing –and necessary– piece of cinema.

By Joe Muldoon

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