Blu-Ray Review – The Children’s Hour

William Wyler is a director who is probably held in much higher esteem than he deserves. He was a workmanlike director who made some of the biggest hits of the ’40s and ’50s including Ben-Hur, Roman Holiday, The Best Year of Our Lives to just name just a few. However he would return to one of his earlier films These Three and remake it properly because the destruction of the Hays Code made it possible for him to depict the film’s subject matter for the first time- lesbianism.

It’s about a duo of school teachers who run a private boarding school for girls. The two women Karen Wright (Audrey Hepburn) and Martha Dobie (Shirley Maclaine) have been best friends since college. Karen is about to get married to the local doctor Joe Cardin (James Garner) but his aunt’s granddaughter who is a troublemaker at the school ccuses the two of them being lesbians after getting punished by Karen. The gossip spreads and destroys their school and quite possibly their lives and maybe there is a shred of truth in the accusation.

The film is based on a play of the same name by the playwright Lillian Hellman who is probably best remembered today for being pulp writer Dashiell Hammett’s long-term girlfriend. Both of them were committed lefties with Hammett being a far more cynical and pessimistic man than Hellman but both were true mavericks who left the communist party eventually. However both were some of the first writers to get the full blunt of the McCarthy witch trials in the ’50s and were almost instantly blacklisted.

It’s very hard to watch The Children’s Hour with this knowledge and not see it as much much of a film against homophobia as it is Wyler’s take on McCarthyism. The play saw a revival in 1953 which at the time was very much seen as a response to the McCarthy witch trials. Wyler was a heavy player at the time in Hollywood so wasn’t outspoken about his disgust about McCarthyism but did start “The Committee for the First Amendment” along with John Huston and others. He famously hired blacklisted writer Dalton Trumbo to write the script for Roman Holiday but is credited to another writer who was later blacklisted as well. The play has continued to revived with the most recent revival being a starry one with Keira Knightley and Elisabeth Moss as the leads in 2011.

The film version 1961 is a bit of stunner for various factors including the factor it’s shockingly explicit for its time. The performances from Audrey Hepburn and Shirley Maclaine are excellent with Maclaine’s being the vastly more interesting role. It’s surprising to see arguably the two of it not the biggest actresses of their time to take on a project which is clearly risky in what was still very conservative times, Maclaine was at the peak of her powers this was her first film after The Apartment.

Maclaine was interviewed right around the time of the release of Todd Haynes’ lesbian noir-tinged romance Carol about The Children’s Hour and was pretty damning about Wyler who she claims cut out the explicit hints of a relationship between the two women. However despite that Martha’s final scene is about as explicit as a scene you can get with her declaring her love to Karen so it’s interesting how much survived despite Maclaine’s claims. She also claims neither her or Hepburn ever discussed the subject matter when they were making the film. The film as you may imagine for a love story between two women in 1961 ends in tragedy of course.

The disc includes a commentary by Neil Sinyard, a stills gallery and the trailer. The booklet included with the release includes new writing by Sarah Wood, So Mayer, Philip Kemp and Neil Sinyard.

★★★★½

Ian Schultz

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