The Children's Hour (A Review with Spoilers)

Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine star in this intense 1961 B&W drama of two friends that run a private school for girls. The movie starts by introducing most of the principal characters. Audrey is Karen Wright and Shirley is Martha Dobie. They have been best friends since they were 17 and are now 28. About 2 years ago they opened the Wright Dobie School, a private school for upper class girls. The school has just gone into the black and hopes are high. They are supporting Martha’s eccentric aunt Lily Mortar a past her prime thespian played by Miriam Hopkins. The two friends have clearly been putting in very long hours. Teaching and caring for their students. They seem to do all the cleaning and cooking too.

Karen (Audrey) is engaged to young Doctor Joe Cardin played well by James Garner who works at the local hospital. He is impatient to marry her and seems a bit sexually frustrated. One of the students is his young cousin Mary played by Karen Balkin. Her Grandmother Amelia Tilford is her caregiver but it is never explained why. She has enrolled young Mary in the school. Amelia is played by Fay Bainter. There appears to be only about 20 students in the school.

It turns out Mary is a habitual liar and troublemaker. This includes playing sick whenever it suits her or to try to avoid punishment. She is by far the best child actress in the bunch. When she is playing a child acting sick, she is convincingly overly dramatic, but when she is really worried and out of sight of adults, the young actress was superb and very believable. The rest of the girls including Rosalie played by Veronica Cartwright* were not very good but only Veronica had a fairly major role. In the room Mary and Rosalie share with two other girls, Mary and another are reading a book that includes something too adult for their young eyes. The final setup for everything is a girl has lost her brand new pendant.

Well Mary has been caught in lie after lie. It is decided that Mary should be punished and loses many of her privileges. The spoiled brat will have none of this fakes a heart attack of all things for sympathy. Karen (Audrey) calls in Dr Joe (Gardner) to see to her. While this is happening Martha (Shirley) and her Aunt Lily fight and Martha has finally had enough of her demanding and somewhat freeloading aunt. After harsh words are exchanged, Martha asks Lily to leave. It is time to go back on the road. The fight is overheard by two of the other girls including Rosalie. The girls are caught and held to the side. It is decided Mary is a very bad influence on these girls and she will be moved to another room.

While the girls are packing for the room changes, Mary is demanding $2 from Rosalie. They fight, well Mary the demon spawn that grew up to be Leona Helmsley from what I can tell, attacks Rosalie, but in the scuffle, Rosalie drops a golden pendant, the lost pendant, it seems Rosalie is a thief. Mary quickly switches to blackmail thanks to the timely arrival of Aunt Lily. She gets the $2 and takes a cab to her Grandmother’s. The Grandmother is not buying Mary’s stories of being singled out for no reason and is having them driven back to the school. Mary gets more desperate and concocts a story of “un-natural” acts between Karen & Martha. She peppers it with enough truth thanks to Aunt Lily’s careless and overheard phrases in the earlier fight that her Grandmother is shaken. Mary has suggested acts from the books and the accusation is the pair of teachers love each other as more than friends.

The Grandmother has Mary wait in the car on arrival and goes in to talk to Miss Wright or Miss Dobie. She encounters the frazzled Aunt Lilly instead who is on her way out of the school. In a quick conversation, The Grandmother hears from Lily seeming confirmation of the illicit love. Keep in mind Joe, Karen’s fiancé is her nephew (or grandson, not quite sure). She takes Mary from the school and stops at another parent’s house on the way back and within a very short time all the parents withdraw all the girls from the school. No one will tell the friends why the girls are being with withdrawn. Finally one of the fathers tells them what he has heard. Karen and Martha head over to confront Mrs. Tilford just as Joe has been summoned by her so she can give him the “horrible” news about his Fiancé.

One weakness of the movie is the series of coincidences required to lead to the culmination, in a heavy handed bit, Rosalie is staying with them and Mary has threatened to get Rosalie arrested for stealing the bracelet if she does not swear to support Mary’s lies.

Joe refuses to believe the story; he knows Mary is a habitual liar. He questions her and she is caught in another lie about seeing an act of perversion through Martha’s keyhole, but Martha has no keyhole on the door. It appears Mary is cooked but the consummate liar is quicker than Damien and says that she was just protecting Rosalie who really saw it happen through an open door and told the other girls about it. They summon Rosalie and she is not saying anything happened (as nothing ever had) but Mary somewhat subtly hints at telling her grandmother of the theft and Rosalie says that everything Mary said about Martha & Karen was true and bursts into tears.

We cut to weeks or months later. The pair has lost a libel suit. Their school and dreams are destroyed. Their reputations wrecked and dragged through the news and apparently even the national news. The only bright spot left is that Joe and Karen still plan to get married. Now the rest happens in short order with again the sadly heavy-handed timely occurrences for maximum drama. Joe is called in by the Hospital Chief and dismissed unless he leaves off his association with Karen. Aunt Lily suddenly returns broke of course and we learn the main reason the pair lost the libel suit was Aunt Lily failed to appear and ignored the summons to explain her own words. This left Karen and Martha condemned. Martha orders her to be on the next train in a confrontation. Lily appears to be almost completely self-absorbed and clueless to the great harm she has caused. She is too self-centered to see her affect on others.

She heads upstairs after Joe arrives. Joe wants the three of them to pack and leave the town as he has a crappy job lined up where they can try to start over. He is kind enough to offer to help Martha out despite the fact that the change in employment means he and Karen need to delay their plans for a family. Martha will have none of this but wants to see them happy. Martha decides to cook a leaving town dinner and Karen and Joe have a confrontation where Karen gets Joe to ask the unasked question that stands between them; “Did you and Martha ever” to paraphrase. Karen and Joe decide they need a short time apart but Karen knows it is over.

Now we reach the point where Rosalie is packing for her new school. Her mother is helping and knocks over a box with a bunch of shiny items. A missing compact and much else including that missing pendant. At last the truth comes out and the Mom is off to the Tilford’s with the sordid details. The Grandmother summons Mary, Mary comes partway down the stairs, hears her Grandmother’s tone and sees Rosalie and knows the game is up, her lies revealed. She tries to claim it was all Rosalie but her Grandmother collapses as she realizes that it was Mary and by believing the girls she has destroyed to two innocent young women, one that was to marry her nephew Joe.

The grandmother is busy. Before the day passes she has contacted the Judge from the libel suit and the parents. She heads over to the house, but of course minutes too late. Martha has comes to realize that what Mary said had a kernel of truth to it. She never did like men. She did love Karen as more than a friend and she admits all this to Karen. It is right after this revelation that the Grandmother arrives. She is devastated; she seeks some way to repair the damage she has done. She offers them the full settlement of the libel suit and as much more as they will take. Karen will have none of this as Martha has nothing left to say. Karen will not let Mrs. Tilford slake her conscious so easily. Mrs. Tilford leaves.

A bit later Karen checks on Martha to see if she would like to take a walk and talk. But Martha is tired. And pulls a blanket over her and says tomorrow. Karen goes for a walk but for some reason turns back, Aunt Lily is calling for Martha. Martha’s door is locked, (a dead bolt) and Karen finds a heavy candlestick to break the door open. We see a chair and the shadow of feet swaying from the ceiling.

The final scene is Karen and Lily at the graveyard, at the grave. In the background are all the fancy cars and all the parents of the girls and Mrs. Tilford and her chauffeur of course. Joe is also there. Karen escorts Lily to a cab and she walks out of the graveyard and away from these petty people forever.

The directing by William Wyler was excellent in terms of acting and the writing by Lillian Hellman was superb. She adapted her own play for the movie. Wyler of course was famous for a range of great movies light Roman Holiday and How to Steal a Million with Audrey and The Best Years of Our Lives, Wuthering Heights, Jezebel, Funny Girl and Ben-Hur among others. My one knock on the film’s directing would be the many bad cuts within scenes. There were enough of them to be a bit jarring. However these were more common in the past anyway. I was just watching a “Night at the Opera” and the cuts were just as bad.

If you cannot tell, this movie was extremely moving to me and really done it a way that made a strong impression. This was a really excellent and compelling movie. It is quite sad and a sad commentary of the times when a woman would feel so ashamed of her orientation that she would choose suicide over starting over. She had a love that could never be reciprocated and had admitted to something that she felt would destroy her friendship to that love and her one anchor in life. There was no taint of lesbians are perverts and should not live, it was a condemnation of the views of society of the times that would make one confused and devastated women feel she had no hopes left in such a heartless society.

* I suspect Veronica is best known for her role in Alien as Lambert or as the sister of Angela Cartwright