|The Children's Hour
1961 - unrated - 107 Mins.
|Director: William Wyler
|Producer: William Wyler
|Written By: Lillian Hellman and John Michael Hayes
|Starring: Audrey Hepburn, Shirley MacLaine, James Garner, Miriam Hopkins and Fay Bainter
|Review by: Bill King
By the time "The Children's Hour" came out in 1961, eight years after her first starring role in "Roman Holiday," Audrey Hepburn had matured into a versatile and respected leading lady. This is one of her strongest performances, shedding the persona of the charming young princess she once played for something with more depth. Alongside Hepburn is Shirley MacLaine, already an established actress, lending her talents to the movie, which was adapted from the stage play by Lillian Hellman.
Karen Wright (Hepburn) and Martha Dobie (MacLaine) have known each other since their teen years, and have become good friends. They run a private school for girls in their hometown, a venture that has only recently become profitable. (They're up $90 in the current month.) Karen is dating a talented physician, Joe Cardin (James Garner), and all seems well, except for the lone problem student who causes trouble and lies all the time. She is Mary Tilford (Karen Balkin), a bratty little girl in need of a good grounding.
After she receives one punishment too many, Mary starts a lie that runs like wildfire through the town. Mary put together bits and pieces of an argument that Martha had with housekeeper Lily Mortar (Miriam Hopkins), and that coupled with what she saw a few nights earlier (a friendly kiss from Karen to Martha) and she comes to the conclusion that the two teachers are lovers.
Mary is a nasty little girl, going so far as convincing fellow student Rosalie Wells (Veronica Cartwright, who would go on to star in "Alien" and "Invasion of the Body Snatchers") to go along with the lie. Soon, parents are pulling their daughters out of the school, leaving Karen and Martha with empty classrooms. Only Joe is on their side. The rest of the town stare suspiciously at the women, not sure if the rumor is true, but afraid to consider the possibility that it's a lie. It is a lie, of course, and the teachers are willing to go to court with a slander lawsuit.
There is one scene that demonstrates the desperateness of the characters involved, not just Karen and Martha but of Mary as well. Mary's mother Amelia (Fay Bainter) gives the two the benefit of the doubt for the moment, and allows Mary to explain her side. The Q&A session is expertly directed, and soon accusations fly, defenses get thrown in and additional lies complicate the matter. The dialogue during this scene hits hard; it feels like the walls are closing in on these two women who mean well and only wanted to give their students a proper education, only to have one of them commit an act of betrayal.
The director is William Wyler, who would direct Audrey Hepburn three times. His familiarity with Hepburn's talents allows him to bring forth added dimensions to her screen presence. Wyler uses all his actors to the fullest, with Shirley MacLaine and James Garner giving equally splendid performances. Even little Karen Balkin is effective. In fact, she's so cruel and heartless that she comes close to being evil, as if "The Omen" could have been written for her. What a brat she is!
"The Children's Hour" examines the lasting effects a lie can have on the victims. As the film progresses, the teachers' dilemma goes from peaceful to destructive. They lose everything because of a little girl's fib. The movie evens shows how far a child can go to cover up a lie. At the story's conclusion, the innocent lives portrayed in the movie may never again regain the respectability they once enjoyed.