Little Rosaline’s composure decreases visibly as a high close-up of her blackmailer’s face reminds her not-so-subtly of the threat to be carried out should she not back up her malicious lie. Her teacher Martha (Shirley MacLaine), one of the two objects of said lie, puts her hands on her shoulders and urges her to tell the truth. Fellow teacher and lie victim Karen (Audrey Hepburn), in a perfectly centralized medium-close-up, looks uneasily as the child reaches boiling point. Seeing the girl’s discomfort, blackmailer Mary (Karen Balkin) rises from the sofa to address her puritan grandmother (Fay Bainter), in two medium shots connected by Mary’s movement. At that moment, Rosaline jumps up from the sofa in a sudden-close up and hysterically screams that everything Mary said was true. The two female teachers of the all-girl school they both attend are indeed having a homosexual affair.
This narratively crucial moment serves as a representative of the film’s overall tone, its strengths and its weaknesses. William Wyler’s adaptation of Lillian Hellman’s play “The Children’s Hour” came out in 1961 – coincidentally the same year in which Basil Dearden’s equally groundbreaking yet vastly inferior “Victim” became the first mainstream film to use the word “homosexual” – and it shows in both its endeavor to tackle a previously unmentionable subject and its stylistic appearance. The film’s modern French New Wave-inspired look seems to be made as a conscious parallel to the attempt at breaking the taboo of homosexuality in a Hollywood film yet, much like the treatment of the subject itself, it is often clumsy but undeniably sincere.
Unlike Dearden’s tedious, academic Hitchcock thriller counterfeit, “The Children’s Hour” feels alive and alert. The close shots, sudden cuts and at times uncertain continuity echo Wyler’s mixture of courage and fear in his address of the subject matter. The film may be uneven and occasionally stumble but it avoids the aesthetic mistake “Victim” made by not falling back on old ways to show something new, opting instead to blaze a trail into the future using new tools, even if it means burning itself in the process.
The film indeed suffers mainly from its lack of subtlety. It’s the kind of Tennessee Williams-inspired play-based melodrama in which characters can go into hysterical monologues and speeches rather than let the camera speak for them by capturing unspoken feelings on their faces. This, thankfully, is achieved and lead actresses Audrey Hepburn and Shirley Maclaine are to be commended for their performances, even if the latter – much like her dialogue – can find herself prone to unnecessary hysterics. They are both at their best in conveying their feelings through their eyes.
So good, in particular, is Audrey Hepburn’s performance that it raises a question that the screenplay never dares to voice: What if the lie affected her so much that she might have started to turn it into truth? Having lost a libel case and their jobs, the two women have been made outcasts by all but Karen’s devoted fiancée Joe (James Garner) yet the experience has overwhelmed her. In one of the film’s harshest scenes, she demands that he ask her the question he has suppressed all this time: Is it true? The answer is no, but the very fact that the question occurred to him is enough for her to break off the engagement. Just after that, Martha tearfully admits that she has indeed been repressing romantic and sexual feelings for her friend.
On their own, these two scenes need not have gone any further than what is shown, but Audrey Hepburn’s conflicted performance, intentionally or not, leads one to wonder the extent of the changes brought upon by the lie. If a rumour were to be spread that you were gay, particularly in a time when homosexuality was still considered wrong and sinful by a vast majority of Americans, and everybody but two or three people close to you believed it, would you not start wondering if it were true after a while? The power of public consensus is an insidious thing, particularly if it involves questioning your own reality. That the film does not delve any further into that possibility is understandable given the ground already covered, but one cannot help but feel there may be an even better film struggling to get out through that avenue.
The film’s major weakness in the character of Mary and the bad hamminess of her actress Karen Balkin. She is simply too one-dimensional to be taken seriously as a human being. She is established as a cruel bullying selfish liar from the beginning and never wavers. Thomas Vinterberg’s excellent “The Hunt” was more subtle and nuanced. The film was also about a lie told by a child about a teacher’s sexuality; a lie that also ruins his life, except the charges are far more serious since he is accused of child molestation. In that film, the little girl’s lie was the product of a series of specific events and circumstances, and was told with neither real malice nor true realization of its implications and consequences.
Still, “The Children’s Hour” should be accepted for the good and flawed work of art that it is, not merely for being one of the first Hollywood films to attempt to portray homosexuality both openly and with something approaching sympathy. As is the case with human beings, its weaknesses make it all the more beautiful by their honesty.