The Children’s Hour – Free Film in Downtown DC (10 cents)

The National Theatre, downtown Washington, is hosting a free Monday evening Audrey Hepburn festival this summer.  Who can resist that?

This week, we saw “The Children’s Hour”, a 1961 film starring Hepburn, Shirley MacLaine and James Garner, directed by William Wyler, based on a play by Lillian Hellman (one of the few people in history, I would assume, with five l’s in her name – six, if you add her middle name, Florence), which ran on Broadway for two years.  The story was not a Hellman creation, but was based on an earlier Scottish book.

The setting is a private girls school in an upper class neighborhood in the 1940s.  The school is owned and run by two young women, former college classmates (MacLaine and Hepburn).  One of the twenty young girls at the school is a mischief maker named Mary, a sneak, an inveterate liar, and someone whose strategic thinking is much more mature than her age (she is probably about 11).  Tired of being punished every day, hating the school and everyone in it, Mary tells her grandmother that she believes (based on her interpretation of various small incidences) that there is something “unnatural” going on between the two women.  Exactly what she tells her grandmother, we don’t know, because it had to be whispered (in order to clear the film censors).

At any rate, this leads to all of the parents pulling their children from the school, leading to its collapse, as well as destroying the reputation of Hepburn and MacLaine.  Complicating matters a bit is Hepburn’s fiance, James Garner, who is also a cousin of the evil Mary and her grandmother, who sticks up for his fiance.

By the end of the film, all agree that the accusations were trumped up and misplaced, but it is too late to save the engagement, the school, or the psyches of the two women. The two women are thrown into an isolated existence where, perhaps unsurprisingly, the initial false claim turns out to be more true than you might have thought.  A nifty twist, I thought.

This apparently was the first movie with a homosexual theme, and could be produced only without any graphic visuals or descriptions.  Even so limited, it was only possible because of recent liberalizations of the censorship code.  Of course, today anything is possible, and the story certainly could not be set in the 21st century because insinuations of a relationship between the two women would not have led to the extreme consequences portrayed in the film.

Quality of the film?  Mixed, I thought.  Both Hepburn (age 31) and MacLaine (age 27) did a fine job, but the film itself was heavily stylized.  Everyone spoke with deliberate pacing and with accents redolent of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  The black and white cinematography could have been done by Eisenstein, the great Russian director.  No nuance there.  Some scenes dragged.  Some (such as the scene where the grandmother confronted the two women) were terrific.

James Garner (age 31)?  I would say “Here’s a tall guy with no career ahead of him.”  It was like he was told “Just stand there, say your lines, don’t look credible, and don’t show any realistic emotion.”  On the other hand, Miriam Hopkins and Fay Bainter, two older women playing the grandmother and Shirley MacLaine’s busybody aunt, were terrific in their roles.

An interesting film.





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