The Children's Hour (1963) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

The Children’s Hour (1963)

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Danny LIKEA recital for Parent's Day at the beginning of the film gives us a good, brief rundown of the characters without any dialogue. Ms. Wright (Hepburn) and Ms. Dobie (Shirley MacLaine) are the matrons of a boarding school for twenty girls. Most are prim, sweet, and well behaved, save for Mary.

Mary throws tantrums. Mary fakes pains. Mary picks flowers from the garden. Mary doesn't like the teachers. Mary will bring them down.

On the surface, it's difficult to buy such a character could be so malicious and wantonly destructive, buy young Karen Balkin sells the role with a hyperactive glee. She's not an innocuous child, but a barely contained storm of hate waiting to be unleashed. Seeing how much she aches for her grandmother's affection is enough to convince any doubter of the girl's willingness to manipulate and destroy those around her.

And what a nasty tale she weaves. This film is made past the era of the Production Code but still firmly in the demure 1960's, leaving The Children's Hour to take great pains not to mention the word 'lesbian', but its absence is hardly noticeable. Everything but the word is said and explored to the fullest that could be allowed for the time.

Just because you have a male fiance doesn't mean you don't like munching the rug. Right?

It's not that Ms. Wright and Ms. Dobie are lesbians, far from it. Wright even has a handsome doctor fiance, though she's been pushing off the wedding date until the school turned a corner on profitability. He understands-- or tries to make it look like he does-- and Dr. Cardin (James Garner) still loves her tenderly.

But when Mary escapes school and begins to string together various things she's heard and seen around the school in a desperate attempt to not return, she stumbles upon her matron's fears of homosexuals and exploits it to her advantage. The grandmother soon has told the rest of the children's parents and the school is abandoned, Wright and Dobie's lives destroyed.

It's stunning to see a serious treatment of homosexuality that's barely five decades old and can't even bring itself to use the word much less describe an act. The scandalous nature of a behind the doors relationship is almost completely foreign to the age we currently live in. That might make the film more difficult to understand to anyone watching today, but it's still and important and interesting step in anyone's historical understanding of the changing perceptions and freedoms that have evolved.

Director William Wyler (who'd previously directed Hepburn in the completely different Roman Holiday) has a great eye and by the sixties was certainly one of the most accomplished directors working. His compositions are usually layered, and many do well in keeping all of the players in the same shot, allowing us to wallow in their shared feelings of exasperation and fear.

This walk of Maclaine's at the beginning of the film is mirrored at the end by Hepburn, showing both characters at a low point gaining some sort of reckoned understanding.

The acting is uniformly terrific, and Wyler expertly manages MacLaine's propensity to ham it up and Garner's usual coyness into manageable and believable characters. Hepburn has bags under eyes most of the film, and while she plays one of the leads, her character takes the back seat to the other characters for most of the film: she is reacting until the final reel, when the truth of how the rumors started seemed to truly hit home for Maclaine's Dobie, and what that means for herself and their relationship.

The last few minutes of the film are tightly composed and especially notable, as Hepburn's final walk in the film is from right to left (the 'wrong' direction in conventional Western directing) indicates that is eschewing both representations of her former life. The final shot of her looking to the sky give us an unmistakable message that she sees for herself clear and brighter understanding of who she was all along.

After her deafeningly serious turn in The Nun's Story and her accession to glamor icon via Breakfast at Tiffany's, she seems to have a decided on a formula for the rest of her career: serious, hard hitting roles alternated with fuzzy technicolor extravaganzas. It's a good methodology, and a lot of actresses saw fit to copy it over the years. It's a good way to maintain your visibility but keep yourself interested. I can't imagine how much of a slog life would be if every picture was a Holly Golightly or a Ms. Wright.

The Children's Hour is nothing if not a painful, intense experience. As an historical document on the cusp of a revolution in homosexual rights it's a sobering lesson, and as yet another showcase for an older, experienced Audrey Hepburn, it's brilliant.

Audrey Hepburn Sundays

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Posted by Danny

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