Back when Hollywood was younger, it seemed more relevant to be a star. Given how the sample size of credible actors was smaller, or perhaps the opportunities were less viable, earlier decades often had faces that would become household names. Aubrey Hepburn was one of those superstars of ye olden days, and viewing The Children’s Hour was partially inspired by seeing her in one of many leading roles throughout her career.
Hepburn had a sort of mythos around her, particularly due to her fast rise in the ’50s and ’60s, only to step away closer to her 40’s. And, of course, she was very, very beautiful. Talented and eye-catching, it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that many developed a passion for cinema because of her. If they were to be introduced to her through this film, I think it would be a deserving adoration.
“A private school for young girls is scandalized when one spiteful student, Mary Tilford, accuses the two young women who run the school of having a lesbian relationship.”
Before digging into the film, allow me to discuss more about some fascinating details concerning the parent work.
The Children’s Hour, the 1961 film, is actually a remake of These Three, the first film adaptation of The Children’s Hour, the 1934 play by Lillian Hellman. The person who played Lily Mortar in The Children’s Hour, the aunt of Martha—Miriam Hopkins—played Martha in These Three. The person who directed The Children’s Hour, William Wyler, had also directed These Three.
Back in 1936, when These Three was released, it was illegal to openly discuss homosexual relations, which likely led to the various changes included within the film (there was no accusation of homosexuality). The Children’s Hour was likely a chance to tell the story as it was properly intended with the play.
Anyway, it’s pretty good.
The film’s structure bodes well for its play origins, complete with few settings and very distinct characters. As a potential detriment, it puts more pressure on the story’s writing to carry the weight of the emotions that progress. Especially when involving a drama, the voice, motivation, and progression of a person with adequate screentime must be communicated in conjunction with the plot.
Little specks of intrigue are placed intermittently throughout the course of events. Hints of what is to come, as well as casual interactions that may mean more than they let on. Words spoken, actions taken, and the lingering tension between faces as consequences unfold really make this work. Hepburn is as charming as she always is, but Shirley MacLaine is almost equal to her, and James Garner actually made me laugh a few times with his wit.
Performances were great by most, though it was the slow-moving progression and attention to mood that really embraced me. Many scenes here are performed with a certain finesse, only heightening intensity at crucial moments. Musical accompaniment is rare, allowing the dramatic air full weight along with the silence. Patient it is by allowing the underlying animosity of a specific child to boil over until the anchor falls.
Many of the user reviews on Letterboxd I see of this film involve making jabs at how the gossiping student at the heart of the nightmare scenario is the worst thing imaginable. Though it is only a play, it was easy to think, “She is legitimately evil.” How she manipulates and lies to get out of every situation, blackmailing her peers and playing sweet to her grandmother, creates the image of an imp in human clothing. It’s almost too convincing, much like her performance.
If there is any weak link in acting, it is her. As a fun fact, the person who plays the horrid child, Karen Balkin, only appeared in one more film after this, over a decade later. She’s fine if the goal is to be cruel, yet the realism is rather shot. While I at no point laughed at her myriad of faces, I certainly wanted to. Her verbosity made it very apparent that her character was written as a means of pushing things forward.
As a final nitpick, there were some strange cuts involved in this. Editing probably needed some more fine-tuning. I recall Martha entering a home only to have it abruptly cut from her stepping inside to having the door halfway closed. Near the very end, Karen (Hepburn) is shown running more ferociously towards the house out of fear, yet the way it’s edited makes it seem like substantial amounts of time pass with each cut. Her face changes too promptly, as well.
Perhaps a little too expressive with the child actors, a little too snippy with editing, it nonetheless thrives on performances and mood. There is no question the tragedy this story contains, allowing viewers to sympathize with something that, in this day and age, isn’t that big of a deal (assuming you have a cool family). Absolutely deserving of the praise it receives, and would be something I would recommend for Hepburn, MacLaine, or well-produced dramas of a time that once was.
Final Score: 8/10
The rating for all other films can be found at Letterboxd.
For more, check out the March of the Movies Archive!
If reading this compelled you to give me a dollar, feel free to tip me on Ko-fi.
Thank you for your time. Have a great rest of your day.