That Lesbian Thing: The Childrens’ Hour

Jordan Bosch
Queer themes in cinema have existed a lot longer than most people believe. Take Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Michael, a 1924 film about a gay couple, or Hitchock’s 1948 Rope, about a gay couple who committed a murder. In both these cases of course, they were still censored: the relationship in Michael is never explicitly identified (though it’s clearly romantic), and in Rope it’s all in subtext and allusion. In Hollywood, the attitude towards non-heterosexuality for decades was mostly to pretend it didn’t exist. The Hays Code restricted any references to homosexuality, used transsexuality and transvestitism only as a joke, and ensured that adaptations of works with LGBTQ themes or characters were sufficiently sanitized for films. This impacted the film noir genre especially, with movies like The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep changing their gay characters (though in the case of the former, there’s still plenty of innuendo, including the use of the term ‘boyfriend’).

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It also impacted director William Wyler, when he adapted Lillian Hellman’s play The Children’s Hour into the 1936 film These Three. The play, loosely based on a real-life incident in Scotland over a century before, concerned two female teachers accused of homosexuality by a spiteful student, and how the subsequent public ostracising ruins their lives. Wyler and Hellman (who wrote the screenplay) were forced to drastically change the story so that the accusation was merely one of adultery -also a taboo in film at the time, but okay in this instance because in the story it’s a lie. Whether Wyler was really so dissatisfied with having to compromise the story or just by mere coincidence, he returned to Hellman’s play post-Code with a new film adaptation in 1961. This version of The Children’s Hour is much better, retaining the original plays’ subject matter, and in so doing becoming one of the earliest Hollywood movies to explicitly address homosexuality as a central part of its narrative -even if social stigma meant it had to tiptoe around certain things. But attitudes were still very different back then, and the story does revolve around homosexuality being something one is accused of rather than is open with. Is The Children’s Hour at all a positive, progressive film in addressing this topic?

Let’s just recap the plot first. Shirley MacLaine and Audrey Hepburn play Martha Dobie and Karen Wright, close friends since college who’ve now opened a girls school together. When Karen gets engaged to her boyfriend Joe, played by James Garner, it causes Martha to worry about losing her at the school. Privy to this information is a vindictive bitch of a ten year old girl called Mary Tilford (Karen Balkin), who extrapolates a lie to her grandmother (Fay Bainter) inferring that Martha and Karen are lovers. She blackmails a classmate (a young Veronica Cartwright) into backing her up. The rumour spreads, parents hastily pull their children out of school, and the womens’ reputation in the community is irrevocably damaged. Going into spoilers (so watch this movie!), they lose their defamation suit against Mrs. Tilford; Joe offers to help as much as he can but it nonetheless results in the break-up of his relationship with Karen. And just as Mrs. Tilford discovers her granddaughter had lied, Martha realizes she does harbour romantic feelings towards Karen. Not knowing how to deal with them, feeling horrible about it, and the public ostracising leads to Martha committing suicide. After the funeral, a depressed Karen leaves the school alone.

The villain of The Childrens’ Hour is society. While Mary and her grandmother are the physical representations of it, the world is the force that punishes Martha and Karen, whether or not they really are gay. The first and perhaps most important thing Wyler does is frame the teachers as victims, and the judgement of society as wrong. You’re clearly meant to sympathize with Martha and Karen, and the hateful ostracizing of them by the public is portrayed as the heinous act it is. The shaming and shunning takes an emotional and psychological toll on the women, their careers are effectively ruined, Martha responds to a gawking delivery man by hysterically likening herself to a circus freak, and even Joe, supportive as he tries to be, can’t quite hide his doubt from Karen. Their plight is tragic. This attitude flew in the face of a lot of common conjecture in America at the time, coming out the same year the popular propaganda short Boys Beware promoted homophobia and equated homosexuality with paedophilia. This falsehood is in fact alluded to in The Childrens’ Hour, but from an antagonist, when Mrs. Tilford says, “what they are is possibly their own business, but it becomes a great deal more than that when children are concerned.” In presenting his subject matter this way and in making Martha and Karen three-dimensional non-predatory characters, Wyler was certainly pushing the envelope and making daringly progressive choices. It wasn’t the first time; his last movie, Ben-Hur included deliberate homosexual undertones (and he even directed a 1935 movie called The Gay Deception –it wasn’t about gay people, but still). The Childrens’ Hour though, was his most overt, even if still sanitized by Mary only whispering the rumour, and the use of “lovers” over the likes of “lesbians” or “homosexuals”. There’s nevertheless some boldness to the films’ language though. When Mary’s concocting her lie for instance, she says she and her fellow girls would “stay awake and listen and we’d hear strange, funny noises.” Wyler likely got away with the movie because the lead characters (or at least one of them) weren’t actually lesbian. It’s a narrative that if one wanted, they could construe as being about not jumping to conclusions based off a rumour, rather than an indictment on homophobia. This reading is probably the only reason United Artists agreed to produce it. But it can’t be denied ignorance and bigotry is what prompted the public reaction to Mary’s rumour in the movie. And because of how vile this is made out to be, it can be asserted the movie was indeed enlightened in recognizing and representing homophobia. But what about homosexuality itself?

or most of the film the lesbian relationship between Martha and Karen is strictly a baseless accusation made scandalous by social taboo. However, their platonic relationship and the movies’ meaning itself are changed by the reveal in the last act that Martha actually is sexually attracted to Karen (of course -Karen is played by Audrey Hepburn after all). It’s not a completely surprising twist, the signs were there. A number of characters point out how attached Martha is to Karen. Her Aunt Lily (Miriam Hopkins) says of her “There are men who like her, yes, but not for long, because she has no interest in them -only the school and Karen Wright”; and accidentally characterizes her feelings towards Karen as “insane devotion”. Shirley MacLaine also imbues her performance with subtle body language that hints at this revelation. On a thematic level, Martha’s jealousy of Karen and Joe’s marriage is referred to with “unnatural” terminology both casually by Aunt Lily and with denunciation by Mary.


artha’s coming out is the best scene in the movie. It’s between her and Karen in the abandoned schoolhouse and is terribly emotional as Martha, confused and distraught, meanders to her confession:
“We don’t love each other. We’ve been close to each other, of course. I’ve loved you like a friend -the way thousands of women feel about other women. You were a dear friend who was loved, that’s all; certainly there can be nothing wrong with that. It’s perfectly natural I should be fond of you. Why, we’ve known each other since we were seventeen … but maybe I love you the way they said I love you, I don’t know. Listen to me! I have loved you the way they said! It’s always been something wrong, always as long as I can remember. But I never knew what it was until all this.”

he pronounces herself “guilty” and is pretty terrified: “I lie in bed night after night praying that it isn’t true, but I know now. It’s there. I don’t know how, I don’t know why.” Through Karen's shock and discomfort, Martha also admits that it’s always just been Karen she’s loved. She finishes her exclamation by blaming herself for all that has happened to them before breaking down sobbing.

t can’t be understated how great MacLaine is through all this. Incidentally, this was the same year she lost an incredibly well-deserved Oscar for The Apartment to Elizabeth Taylor’s half-assed Butterfield 8, which still has me seething –but I’m getting off topic…

Martha’s reaction to coming out is really the worst kind: full of self-loathing, fear and pain. Many may read her intense shame and confusion about her sexuality as a critique of social stigmatization conditioning her to believe what she feels as unnatural. But others unfortunately may read it as a criticism of her orientation itself. She characterizes it as though it’s some foreign entity in her body: “It’s all mixed up. There’s something in you and you don’t know anything about it because you don’t know it’s there.” Worst of all is when she finally says “Oh I feel so damn sick and dirty I can’t stand it anymore!” This kind of language fits perfectly with the false rhetoric of homosexuality as an immoral ailment or mental illness. And as such it’s very troubling to hear. It’s a stark reminder of the prevalent attitude of bygone times. What determines the movies’ significance is whether or not it agrees with Martha’s point of view. Does The Childrens’ Hour believe the toxicity of Martha’s and other characters’ comments? Is her death a tragedy or a relief? I think William Wyler intends the former.

is views on sexuality were most likely nescient, like everyone’s were in the 1960s. Earlier in their conversation, Martha alludes to others who “choose for themselves” to feel the way they do, showing that there are definitely inaccurate notions of homosexuality to this movie. But what is certain is Wyler didn’t feel gay or lesbian people deserved to be persecuted. He treated them as vulnerable, feeling people. Which for 1961, was a great step forward. Yeah, for being one of the first movies to openly address homosexuality, it’s also one of the earliest to use the Bury-the-Gays trope, but the death of Martha is legitimately heartbreaking. It’s not some contrived excuse to eliminate a problem like she were a mere nuisance and give the straight character a happy ending. There is no happy ending for Karen. Audrey Hepburn plays the funeral scene very solemnly, and though Joe sees her from a distance, there’s no indication they’ll reconcile their relationship. Karen’s lost her best friend, her reputation is still damaged –even with Mrs. Tilford’s self-serving apology, her whole world’s been upset. How and if she can move on from this is left inconclusive.

I think The Childrens’ Hour did as best as it possibly could in the era it came out. Now there are plenty of better films both tackling LGBTQ issues and about non-heterosexual characters. They don’t have to work in or around homophobic ideology, and they don’t have to end with a tragedy. And I believe The Children’s Hour contributed to that. By highlighting the devastating effects of homophobia and including a deeply sympathetic lesbian character, it helped open the door to greater respect and recognition of homosexuality in culture, even if its box office receipts limited that impact at the time. The film wasn’t received well by audiences, and it was eclipsed successively by Irma La Douce in MacLaine’s career, and especially by Breakfast at Tiffany’s that very year in Hepburns’; making it one of the least remembered films for either actress. But it deserves greater appreciation now for its boldness, and for attempting to show some long overdue humanity towards an ignored and maligned community.