School rumors out and ostracize teachers in this timely classic with Audrey Hepburn & Shirley MacLaine

School rumors out and ostracize teachers in this timely classic with Audrey Hepburn & Shirley MacLaine

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Image Credit: ‘The Children’s Hour,’ The Criterion Channel

Welcome back to our queer film retrospective, “A Gay Old Time.” 

Happy Pride Month! To celebrate the all-encompassing experiences, identities, and stories that make up our community, this column will be highlighting a different letter under the LGBTQ+ acronym every week throughout June.

To start us off, this week we focus on the “L” as we take a look back at one of the most daring and controversial depictions of lesbianism with 1961’s film adaptation of The Children’s Hour.

It’s such a cliché to say (and eyes are certainly rolling at this very instant!), but words can be the most powerful weapon. They have the ability to change minds and transform points of view, for better and for worse. So much of the acceptance and rights we’ve gained throughout the years as a community come directly from how we are publicly perceived and talked about. But, just as its helped us break out of the closet over the decades, that public perception has also had the power to completely upend and destroy our lives.

The Set-Up

In 1934, playwright Lillian Hellman wrote a play about two young women at the head of an all-girls school whose lives are turned upside down when a vindictive young student accuses them of being lovers. The word spreads among the community and turns them both into outcasts, regardless if the accusations were true or not.

The play was highly regarded but highly controversial at its time, missing out on a Pulitzer prize nomination because of its subject manner. Director William Wyler adapted it into a movie in 1936 that had to remove any hints of homosexual desire (thus stripping it of its central thematic core) because of the Hays production code, and was released as These Three.

Three decades later, with the production code now gone, Wyler decided to give the adaptation another try, this time keeping the text of the play intact, and casting two of the biggest names in Hollywood as protagonists Karen and Martha. The result is one of the most poignant, heartbreaking, and illuminating movies around gay repression, longing, and gossip’s ability to destroy the reputation of otherwise upstanding people.

Gossip Folks

Image Credit: ‘The Children’s Hour,’ The Criterion Channel

In this film adaptation, Audrey Hepburn plays Karen and Shirley MacLaine plays Martha, two lifelong friends that run an all-girls school together. When Mary—a particularly problematic and malicious student—makes up that she saw them kissing and sleeping together, the lie quickly spreads among the other girls and their parents, and soon every student is withdrawn from the school.

After a libel trial which they lose miserably, Karen and Martha become social pariahs, with only Karen’s fiancé Dr. Joseph Cardin (James Garner) standing by their side. But doubt eventually creeps into him as well, and they break up. 

Without anyone left to turn to, Martha eventually confesses that although she never acted on them, she has always harbored those feelings for Karen (“I have loved you the way they said!,” she cries) and guilt has been eating her alive thinking she brought this misery on both of them. Even the confession from Mary’s grandmother that everything was made up is not enough to assuage them, and Martha ends up committing suicide, to the shock and shame of the community around them. 

Secrets, Secrets Are No Fun

Image Credit: ‘The Children’s Hour,’ The Criterion Channel

The film is perhaps one of the oldest and boldest embodiments of the “gay tragedy” in film, in which queer characters either die in shame of their own identity, or in order for straight characters to learn a lesson about themselves. In this case, it’s both.

It’s not a film that celebrates queerness, or even paints it as something conceivable or minimally acceptable to be, at least not while existing under the eyes of this incredibly close-minded and judgmental society. But it still makes for an important testament of what makes up a queer narrative.

Repression, secrecy, and hearsay are foundational blocks of queer history. They are some of the pillars upon which we’re forced to build our identities. It’s something that we either strive to break away from all our lives, or we succumb and crumble under. And, back then—in the’ 60s when the movie was made, and even more so in the ’30s when the play was written—it was more common than not to crumble. 

The central theme of the movie is secrets: the ones we keep from the world (sometimes even from ourselves), the ones children make up for attention, the ones everyone around you knows but refuses to confront you about it. It’s about things that are said openly as much as things that are left unsaid.

After all, the film very cleverly never tells us exactly what Mary claims to have seen Martha and Karen do. It’s all implied in whispers, judgmental glances, or inaudible dialogue. And while it’s lies and rumors that propagate that destroy Karen and Martha’s lives, it’s what has been unsaid by Martha—that she hasn’t even had the courage to face herself— that eventually brings her down. 

The Ladies Of The Hour

The film is made with remarkable humanity and depth, particularly through the two performances at its center. Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine are resplendent as the two women caught in the middle of a social hurricane they never asked for.

MacLaine is tasked with the heavier lifting, with the weight of the world squeezing the air out of her, and embodies the too-familiar fear that arises with truly knowing yourself with tremendous pathos. But Audrey embeds Karen with just as much empathy—maybe not with understanding, though always with love.

A Timeless Message

Image Credit: ‘The Children’s Hour,’ The Criterion Channel

The Children’s Hour is not the most joyful entry in the queer canon. It deals with a dark side of our history, both in the way society treated our mere existence as a threat, and also how our stories had to be portrayed as a hopeless series of adversities to be taken seriously (the movie did get five Academy Award nominations, after all).

But it’s a good starting point for the column’s Pride series, serving as a reminder that, not so long ago, a little girl’s whisper was louder than our own voices. But we slowly and surely learned to scream back.

The Children’s Hour is streaming via Amazon Prime Video, The Criterion Channel, Hoopla, PlutoTV, and Tubi.

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