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Audrey Hepburn-led queer classic 'The Children's Hour's sustained relevancy highlights America's refusal to let go of bigotry and finally grow up.
Editor's note: The following contains references to suicide.
The 1961 movie The Children’s Hour, an Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine vehicle from director William Wyler, explicitly tackles queerness and societal intolerance of it. In a happy twist, the film actually manages to handle this material not just non-embarrassingly, but even better than certain modern films attempting to make a big statement on bigotry against queer people.
Cinema’s past is a complicated one in terms of queer representation. The Hays Code, an even more restrictive precursor to the MPAA rating system, forbade any explicit depiction of same-sex relationships in cinema while most mainstream movies only implicitly referenced this community through mocking stereotypes. However, that doesn’t mean everything pre-2000 was a wasteland for queer representation in American cinema. Some undercurrents of classic movies have been reappraised today as having incredibly potent resonance with the queer community while many pre-Code era features feature explicit depictions of queerness, including Marlene Dietrich smooching a lady in Morocco. Even so, The Children's Hour manages to navigate these complexities much better than you'd think.
What Is 'The Children's Hour' About?
Audrey Hepburn as Karen Wright comfortd Shirley MacLaine as Martha Doble in The Children's Hour
In The Children's Hour, Karen Wright (Hepburn) and Martha Dobie (MacLaine) are longtime best friends who run a boarding school for girls. The duo loves their job and are now comfortable enough in this occupation for Wright to finally pursue her marriage engagement with Dr. Joseph "Joe" Cardin (James Garner). Everything seems to be going smoothly, but one of their students is Mary Tilford (Karen Balkin), an evil girl who torments her classmates and is mad at Wright and Dobie for always calling her out on her behavior. As revenge, Mary spreads a lie to her grandmother, Amelia Tilford (Fay Bainter), that Wright and Dobie are in a romantic relationship.
From here, the duo’s lives deteriorate as the rumors about their sexual orientations spread like wildfire across the community. Parents withdraw their kids from school while any attempts to pry the truth out of Mary and other kids proves futile.
Screenwriter John Michael Hayes, adapting Lillian Hellman's book of the same name, is a devastatingly dark work, particularly in depicting how unforgiving then-modern American society is of queer people. The once bustling boarding school is depicted as a haunting ghost town in the second half of The Children’s Hour, its empty halls serving as a reminder of the avalanche of hatred outside Wright and Dobie’s door. Though the rumors of the pair being a romantic couple are false, Hayes isn’t depicting the tragedy here that anyone would mistake them for being gay. The tragedy here is how cruel people can be. The eventual vacantness of this location renders the consequences of prejudice in an evocative physical form.
'The Children's Hour's Take on Queerness Remains Relevant Today
2022 has been the worst year for anti-LGBTQIA+ bills in state governments.The Children’s Hour may take place 61 years ago (and the original play was written all the way back in 1934), but its unflinching depiction of people, namely white members of opulent classes, being stirred up into a destructive panic at the very existence of queer people is tragically relevant to the real world today. This relevance is accentuated by how kids are used as a justification for this bigotry, that parents like Amelia Tilford must protect their youngsters from the “immoral” gays. It’s hard not to be reminded of the countless waves of panic since 1961 revolving around homophobes justifying their hatred with “concern” for the youth, including the recent bruhaha over the prospect of any gays sneaking into children’s books available at an elementary school library.
The Children’s Hour still being relevant so many decades later is a tragic reflection of how much American society refuses to grow up from its past. Much like how systemically racist institutions from a hundred years ago still horrifying impact Americans of color, deeply entrenched homophobia has never gone away in America, it just takes on new forms. The Children’s Hour’s compelling screenplay is a deft reminder of this while telling the stories through the eyes of two women who must navigate all this prejudice (rather than through the point-of-view of a homophobe who realizes that the queers are A-OK) only enhances the emotional intensity of this piece. Ditto subtle plot details like the American court system refusing to help Karen and Martha in the hour of need, a reminder that powerful forces meant to “uphold justice” in this country are often used to suppress the voices of the marginalized.
The whole movie only gets even more fascinating in its final 10 minutes, when Martha reveals that she actually is a lesbian. In a state of tears to her best friend Karen, Martha discloses a fascinating detail that will strike home as deeply relevant to many viewers: she didn’t even realize this was her orientation until Amelia spread those rumors around town. The very concept of queerness had been so absent in her everyday life that it was only under these extreme circumstances that she could come to terms with herself.
For many people in the LGBTQIA+ community, including in the modern world, you don’t get to grow up around other vibrant queer people. You just get to hear teachers say things like “I don’t mind gay people…so long as they’re not in my face about it” or homophobic jokes from your classmates. The idea of queerness being a valid identity, that’s not something that enters your mind. It's a punchline, not an identity. The concept of queerness is so often dismissed or mocked that any instance of it getting talked about at length, even if it’s just in a negative and intolerant way, might be the only time you get to contemplate “is this me? Are these experiences relevant to me?” When you’re in a desert, you’ll drink any water that comes your way. For so many people across the world and in America, there aren’t many options for having an “awakening” about your identity. Like Martha in The Children’s Hour, you might only start to realize who you are under the most nightmarish of circumstances.
'The Children’s Hour' Isn’t Perfect, and It Doesn't Have to Be
There are countless fascinating ways The Children’s Hour is unexpectedly relevant and insightful about queer experiences. However, there’s no way everything about the movie can subvert all queer cinema tropes. Most notably, the story ends with Martha committing suicide while the heterosexual Karen gets to walk off alike. It’s an early example of the “bury your gays” rule that future queer productions would subvert and there’s really no getting around the fact that it’s a predictable way to end Martha’s storyline.
Still, this being 1961, the norms for queer cinema or even just mainstream movies dealing with LGBTQIA+ characters weren’t established yet, so The Children’s Hour wasn’t following the endings of hundreds of other motion pictures. Plus, at least the bleakness surrounding her demise is reflected in the outcomes for other characters, including Martha not getting reunited with Dr. Cardin and there being no easy path to forgiveness for the now-remorseful Amelia Tilford. These don’t erase the disappointment that The Children’s Hour is another movie about gay anguish ending in suicide, but it’s at least important to know both the historical and narrative context that this conclusion inhabits.
Before this grim ending, though, The Children’s Hour was a shockingly forward-thinking movie that shows empathy for societal outcasts and an insightful eye to the destructive power of intolerance. As America still grapples in 2022 with the hysteria surrounding queer people (which is especially aimed at the most marginalized pockets of that community, such as individuals of color), movies like The Children’s Hour tragically show how enduring all that bigotry is while offering an artistic means to cope with the brutalities of reality. It also offers a pristine example of how classic cinema could offer more queer-focused and welcoming narratives than you might expect.