When Hollywood Gave Us “The Children’s Hour”

Amazon Prime has categorized the William Wyler-Lillian Hellman film, The Children’s Hour (1962), adapted from Hellman’s play, as an “LGBTQ” picture, but this is silly and misleading. It is a film about the awful harm caused by ordinary adults inane enough to fall for the lies of children. A lie is told about something “unnatural” in the close friendship between two teachers, Karen and Martha, at a girls’ boarding school. Shirley MacLaine‘s Martha is indeed a lesbian—unbeknown to everyone, including Karen—but there is no amour (none at all for the troubled Martha).

The film is sharp and moving, but there is also phoniness in that two grown women are unable to prevail, even in a legal slander case, over a malicious child. Also in the fact of Dr. Joe Gardin’s failure to believe his fiancee Karen’s affirmation that no sexual relationship exists between the two women. A dark story is this, but a seriously flawed one—filmed nevertheless by a man, Wyler, with a striking oeuvre (The Best Years of Our Lives, The Letter, The Collector, The Liberation of L.B. Jones).

As for the acting, MacLaine is likable but not always genuine in her emoting, whereas Audrey Hepburn (Karen) is likable and quite true. Miriam Hopkins and Fay Bainter are gratifyingly effective. I’m glad I had a few words of praise for this opus dealing with troubled and troubling people, even if The Children’s Hour is not Wyler’s finest hour.

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