Our Rating: ★★★★½
L Factor: Major lesbian content
Short Take: Karen (Audrey Hepburn) and Martha (Shirley MacLaine) run a boarding school for girls. They are accused of being lesbians, with tragic consequences.
Alternate Titles:
Year: 1961
Duration: 107 min
Language: USA/English
MPAA: Approved
Director: William Wyler
Writer: Lillian Hellman
Starring: Audrey Hepburn, Shirley MacLaine, James Garner, Miriam Hopkins, Fay Bainter, Karen Balkin

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Childrens Hour

The Children’s Hour was quite a daring film for its time and is based on Lillian Hellman’s play of the same name, the first show on Broadway to deal with the subject of lesbianism when it was a success in the 1930s. Hellman (Julia) was a leftist and anti-fascist activist whose work often dealt with taboo or political subjects.

Karen (Audrey Hepburn) and Martha (Shirley MacLaine) are good friends and run a boarding school for girls. Karen is dating Joe (James Garner) and agrees to marry him, upsetting Martha in the process. Martha’s aunt tells her that her jealousy is unnatural.

Enter super brat Mary (Karen Balkin), one of the students who has just been disciplined for not telling the truth. She lies and elaborates to her grandmother about the conversation between Martha and her aunt, telling her about late night visits and kisses between the two women and putting into motion accusations that Martha and Karen are lovers having ‘sinful sexual knowledge of one another.’

All of the parents remove their children from the school, and the women become pariahs. After Joe leaves Karen, Martha finally tells her that she does love Karen that way, but she didn’t know what to call it until all of this happened. MacLaine’s portrayal of a distraught Martha is amazing as she bares her soul, only for Karen to tell her that she doesn’t feel the same way. Martha feels responsible for the destruction of their lives, from the kernel of truth that was revealed from a child’s lies. Karen just seems to ignore the reality of Martha’s confessions, remaining seemingly emotionless and ladylike throughout.

The ending is predictable for a film about lesbians made in this era. Martha feels sick and dirty by a society that tells her she is so. The last five minutes of the film are tough to watch, since we know what’s coming. Tragically, Martha kills herself. It’s the kind of thing that makes me sick and angry to see, but I recommend watching this film for two reasons: understanding the realities and attitudes of the time and getting a good cry over those who still might have to deal with such feelings; and MacLaine’s performance.

*See Shirley MacLaine’s 1995 interview in The Celluloid Closet. ‘We might have been forerunners, but we weren’t really because we didn’t do the picture right. We were in the mindset of not understanding what we were basically doing. These days there would be a tremendous outcry, as well there should be.’ (AB)