Saturday, March 10, 2007

The Children's Hour

Okay, I feel like I must be the last person on this planet to see (or to even know about) the movie "The Children's Hour" which was adapted from Lillian Hellman's play of the same title. Wow- this was a good movie! Starring Audrey Hepburn, Shirley MacLaine, and James Garner (three wonderful roles for three wonderful actors), the movie is set among an all-girls school. The two headmistresses, Karen (Hepburn) and Martha (MacLaine) are caught up in the middle of one student's awful lies. When the entire community is alerted of the "scandalous" behavior ocurring in the private school, the children are suddenly removed from the care of Karen and Martha.

So, the little brat whispered into her grandmother's ear a horrible, awful secret! What was that secret, you ask? Why, Karen and Martha are LESBIANS! (gasp!!!) So of course, everyone in the community rallies together and marks the home of Karen and Martha with the scarlet letter and move on with their feeble little lives while Karen and Martha are forever condemmed to lives of solitude and shame. Why, they can't even be in their own home without someone else coming in to balk at them. As the delivery boy helps himsef into their home through the backdoor with his weekly grocery delivery, he even stares at them as they hang their heads down and yell at him to stop being so cruel.

Meanwhile, James Garner's character, Dr. Joe Cardin, is madly in love with Karen. He plays a lover who is desperate to marry and will wait for Karen, but gets a little impatient along the way since she has put the school and her life at the school ahead of their marriage plans. At least temporarily. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately?), Dr. Cardin is related to the little tattle-tale and the grandmother who have bulldozed the lives that Karen and Martha were leading before the rumors had started. He portrays a noble, respected man who believes strongly in the woman who he loves and wants to tell his nosey aunt that she can go to h-e-doublehockeysticks, dang it! He vows to run away with not just Karen, but Martha as well. He promises them lives of solitude and bliss when they move off to a farm somewhere else. However, Karen points out that there is no way to lead "normal" lives again. Not only will other people start talking again, but they will always doubt each other as well. They will never be able to run away completely from this haunting rumor. Dr. Cardin tentatively leaves, promising that he will be back for her after she has had a little time to "get over" her concerns about their future. As he disappears, Karen whispers, "No you won't" in response.

Now, Martha shares with Karen that she may be in love with her, after all. In "that" way, in fact. She also shares with Karen that when the little girl told the lie, she felt like she was somehow sure of who she was for the first time and that it all finally made sense to her. Martha is quite upset and inconsolable as Karen tries to "reason" with her and to comfort her by putting her hand on her shoulder and looking her in the face. Martha states that she can't bear to look at her or to feel her touch any more because she feels so dirty and disgusted with herself.

As Dr. Lankford so kindly pointed out to our class recently, there was the promised tragedy at the end of the story. This version of the movie has kept up the tradition that when a woman has "sinned" and proven herself "unworthy," she must kill herself. Great. Thanks for that positive ending! The camera work in this ending is really advanced and very artistic for it's time. Though we never see Martha hanging from the ceiling, we do see the shadow of the rope as Karen first enters the room, then the camera goes to the toppled chair with a dancing shadow of Martha's swaying feet right behind the chair. This was quite striking.

What a time to live in! What's really amazing however, is that though the film was made in 1961, the play itself was written in 1934! What a brilliant writer to be able to bring such an emotional subject to the theater during a time when nothing like this was so openly talked about. In the movie, I was very pleased with how honest and sincere Hepburn, MacLaine and Garner all were in their difficult roles. I was constantly impressed with Garner's stick-to-it-iveness and conviction. I wonder how difficult it might have been to be a man addressing such strong feminine issues during that time. Probably no more or no less than today.

In the 1936 film "These Three," the story takes on a different meaning. The roles are instead played by two woman and a man who are involved in a "heterosexual love-triangle." The Production Code's standards of the time prevented the actual subject-matter to be a part of the big screen. While the film had it's original subject-matter removed, Lillian Hellman worked on the screenplay and kept all of the play's original dialogue intact. I am very glad to see that just by 1961, which was still a very repressed time indeed, the true story came back to life in it's proud glory. I was of course very concsious of just how repressed these characters are in today's standards. However, looking at the time that they were living in in 1961, this was a brave taking-on of the conservative standards of morals and ethics. You have to love the shadows of the two women in the movie poster, too! Bravo!

If you are interested in learning more about the original play, the movie "These Three," or the movie "Children's Hour," please click here.


Scott said...

There's a great interview with Shirley MacLaine on the film "The Celluiod Closet: A History of Gays in Hollywood Film" in the Library Media Center.