Director William Wyler’s “The Children’s Hour” (1961) featured June & July (2022) on MGM HD, is a sensitive portrayal of LGBTQ+ issues made at a time when such subject matter was unusual for mainstream movies. Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine star as two women who run a boarding school for girls who are falsely outed as lesbian lovers by a conniving and selfish student (played to maximum effect by young actress Karen Balkin). However, as the plot unfolds, we see that this accusation contains, as one character says, at least “an ounce of truth,” and that’s where the enduring power of the film lies 60 years later.
When “The Children’s Hour” was released, homosexuality was still illegal in all 50 states. Additionally, the Hayes Code, which regulated the content of Hollywood movies, was still in effect, meaning frank and honest portrayals of same-sex relationships in films were nearly impossible. As a result, filmmakers had to rely on the more subtle skills of their craft to tell much of their story. Fortunately, “The Children’s Hour” was in the hands of a team of masters.
From the beginning of the movie, the relationship between Hepburn’s Karen Dobie and MacLaine’s Martha Wright is close and ambiguous. MacLaine has said in interviews that the two actresses never discussed the sexuality of their characters. We learn that the two characters have been best friends since college and have shared the common dream of opening their school. Also evident is Martha’s resentment of Karen’s fiancé, a local doctor (played by the always reliable James Garner) as her mood darkens from the moment he enters the room. However, Martha’s feelings for Karen are left unspoken for most of the film and conveyed only through Shirley MacLaine’s exceptional skills as an actress inhabiting her role. The same is true for Audrey Hepburn’s performance. Often called upon to play girlish parts, Karen Wright is a mature and complicated role for the actress. Whether Karen’s feelings for Martha are reciprocal is one of the lasting mysteries of the movie.
Director William Wyler’s formidable skills as a director are on full display. Having begun his career in the silent era, Wyler lets several scenes play out with minimal dialog. Look for the scene in which little girl Mary whispers the devastating inuendo to her grandmother (veteran actress Fay Bainter in her last film role) seen through the glass separating their chauffer from their compartment in the back of their limousine or one in which we witness Hepburn’s character receiving the news from a father removing his daughter from the school.
Based on a 1934 play by Lilian Hellman, “The Children’s Hour” is a tale of the influence bullies have over the repressed and how one petty person with power can push others around. Especially those who have private feelings to hide. For members of the LGBTQ+ community and beyond, its message remains as timely as ever.
Look for “The Children’s Hour” June & July (2022) on MGM HD.