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RELEASED: 1961, Cert.12
RUNNING TIME: Approx. 110 mins
DIRECTOR/PRODUCER: William Wyler
SCREENPLAY: John Michael Hayes
MUSIC: Alex North
Audrey Hepburn as Karen Wright
Shirley McLaine as Martha Dobie
Karen Balkin as Mary Tilford
James Garner as Dr. Joe Cardin
Miriam Hopkins as Aunt Lily
Fay Bainter as Amelia Tilford
Veronica Cartwright as Rosalie Wells
FILM ONLY REVIEW
Based on Lillian Hellman's controversial play which was written during the 1930s, The Children's Hour tells the story of Karen White and Martha Dobie, who together run a small, select girls' boarding school, assisted by Martha's live-in Aunt Lily.
Karen is engaged to the local doctor, Joe Cardin, whose Aunt Amelia is a very wealthy and influential lady. Although Karen and Martha are extremely close and the very best of friends, Martha does appear to be a little uncomfortable when Joe is around, and this comes across as mild jealousy of his closeness to Karen. Joe continually puts pressure on Karen to 'name the day', but she holds back. She does want to marry him, but isn't quite ready, despite the pair being engaged to one another.
Aunt Amelia has an interest in the school, because her spoiled brat granddaughter Mary is one of Karen's and Martha's pupils.
Mary is an obnoxious little girl who dominates and bullies the other pupils, particularly the timid, fearful Rosalie Wells.
One day when Karen has to reprimand Mary, the little girl hatches an idea on how she can exact revenge. Mary reveals to her grandmother that she has heard and seen Karen and Martha indulging in activities which would strongly suggest they are having a lesbian relationship. She also, when put under pressure by her grandmother Aunt Amelia, draws Rosalie Wells into the proceedings. Mary knows something about Rosalie, and threatens to spill the beans if she (Rosalie) does not cooperate.
That sets the scene....watch this powerful and intriguing drama to find out what happens.
Firstly, I have not seen or read Lillian Hellman's play, so am unable to make comparisons, but many years ago I was reliably informed that the film sticks pretty close to the original story.
The Children's Hour was made in black and white, and I personally feel this adds to the very tense and grim atmosphere which pervades throughout most of the film. Everything begins on a good footing - e.g. the sun is shining, Martha and Karen are overjoyed at the success of the school which they are running, even though Martha is slightly reserved in the company of Joe, Karen's fiancé. It is from the point where nasty little Mary decides to exact revenge on Karen over being disciplined, that the film turns dark and brooding.
Lillian Hellman's play must have surely broken all the barriers of controversy when it was written in 1934, but even as late as 1961 when the film of The Children's Hour was released, attitudes towards same sex relationships were still universally hostile. Also, the concept of lesbianism rarely, if ever, reared its head, as whenever same sex relationship issues peeped out from under the hush-hush blanket of conventionality, the topic more often than not concentrated on male homosexuality. Therefore, I guess that in 1961, the film of The Children's Hour raised more than a few eyebrows and ruffled more than a few feathers.
The acting style in The Children's Hour is quite old-fashioned, very much in the vogue which was quickly dying out as we slid into the swinging 60s; that style being more from the 1940s and 1950s. Although 100% clear and distinct, the dialogue is spoken by the actors in sort of clipped voices, which those of us who are used to a more current style may find a little odd or even difficult to lie comfortably with. However, that's just how it was during those times, and there have been some incredibly brilliant films from the era prior to the arrival of method-acting. I personally don't mind this nowadays odd style of acting speech, because I suppose I'm old enough to remember it from when it was the norm.
As far as the acting is concerned from the point of view of facial expression and body-language, it is first class in The Children's Hour. Both Audrey Hepburn and Shirley McLaine give tremendous performances, working brilliantly together. I also loved Fay Bainter as Aunt/Grandmother Amelia Tilford, who slid with ease from being an indulgent guardian of her obnoxious granddaughter, into a force to be reckoned with once Mary spitefully throws a huge amount of sh*t into a rapidly rotating fan (that statement being analogous, of course!).
I'm not always overly fond of child actors, but in The Children's Hour, Karen Balkin played evil little brat Mary Tilford superbly. Her sulky demeanour came across as spot-on, together with all the facial expressions that accompanied her bouts of emotional blackmail, manipulation and downright nasty spitefulness. I'm not sure of Karen Balkin's age at the time, but I guess she may have been a little older than what the character of Mary in the film is supposed to be. Her performance is so convincing, that on the couple of occasions I've seen this film - first about 40-ish years ago and more recently, within the last few days - I've just wanted to reach into the screen and throttle her in cold blood. What a horrid, horrid child, but she is a case whereby the adults responsible for raising her (fictionally of course), created an utter monster through their lack of discipline and spoiling her rotten. Early on in the film, Mary misbehaves and is given a sharp spanking by her Uncle Joe, Karen's fiancé. I am anti-spanking, but I wouldn't think badly of anybody who felt like severely tanning this odious little girl's bottom!
I felt very sorry for the character of Mary's fellow pupil, Rosalie Wells. Veronica Cartwright played the part of this shy, frightened, inadequate child so sadly and so beautifully, torn to pieces through being bullied into complete submission by the evil Mary. The fear and wide-eyed terror Veronica Cartwright managed to project into her character Rosalie's face when Mary was applying pressure to the emotional thumbscrews, is utter, albeit harrowing, perfection.
The musical score to The Children's Hour is a bit over the top, but like the style of acting, was typical of films from that era. It is largely orchestral and very heavy on the violins, but although it is at times intrusive, the mood of the music as it changes to match what is happening on the screen, is perfectly presented.
I could be totally scratching the wrong piece of tree bark here as my memory may not be serving me as well as it should, but I am almost certain that when I first saw The Children's Hour at some time during the early 1970s, there was a court case included. If I am correct, then that piece has been lopped out of the DVD, and such is a shame as I seem to recall it being an incredibly well-acted scene....full of fingernail-chewing tension. I stand corrected if I have made a mistake, as there is a chance I may be mixing up my initial viewing of The Children's Hour - possibly as long as 40 years ago - with something else.
I am a little astonished at this film being given a 12 certificate, when The Naked Civil Servant which deals with the same topic but in a completely different storyline and setting, is certified as 15. It is true that the latter is slightly more risqué, but surely if it is the topic of homosexuality which earned it a 15 rating, The Children's Hour should be classified similarly? The subject matter in The Children's Hour is presented in a very adult way, and I doubt very much if it would be of any interest to people marginally under 18, let alone aged 12. However, there is nothing in The Children's Hour which most would deem as unsuitable for 12-year-olds, that's unless any parent finds the topic of alleged lesbianism distasteful in some strange way.
What for me is the most important part of The Children's Hour has nothing to do with the issue of two teachers being accused of lesbianism at a time when such was seriously frowned upon. I see more importance in the storyline directed towards how one badly raised child who is no more than a manipulative, spiteful, brattish, spoiled bully, can create so very much havoc simply by fluttering her eyelashes whilst telling a monstrously damaging lie to her grandmother. However, looking at the evil child syndrome from the other side, she had no idea at all of the repercussions which would result from her lying act of revenge.....but, if she had have known, would she have cared? Even when all hell has broken loose with Mary being scrutinised under an interrogative hammer, she still tries to swing the ratchet towards showing herself in a favourable light. Therefore, I think that perhaps the message contained in The Children's Hour may be more valuable to over-indulgent parents, rather than their obnoxious offspring.
If you enjoy a good drama which has high levels of tension and is very well directed/produced and acted, I feel certain you'd love The Children's Hour, as it is one of those gems from another cinematic era, which I also feel hasn't been given anywhere near the credit it deserves over the decades. The film contains no sex, no swearing and no violence (other than Mary getting a brief but good spanking). The characters are strong, and as the film progresses, are developed much further than what we see right at the beginning.
My recommendation can be nothing other than......watch it !!!
At the time of writing, The Children's Hour can be purchased on Amazon as follows:-
New: from £2.78 to £39.99
Used: from £2.68 to £9.99
A delivery charge of £1.26 should be added to the above figures.
Thanks for reading!
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