Karen Wright (Audrey Hepburn) and Martha Dobie (Shirley MacLaine) run an exclusive school for little girls in this rural community, not many pupils, just around twenty, but it is a boarding establishment and they are all tended to with the proper care. One little girl, however, resents being told what to do: she is Mary (Karen Balkin), and is keen to squirm out of any orders the two women may give her, to the extent that she is not above lying and pretending to get her way. Her grandmother, Mrs Tilford (Fay Bainter), knows what she is like, not really a problem child but perhaps not too far off, and the doctor, Joe Cardin (James Garner) is very aware too. Aren't they?
The Children's Hour had been filmed before, by the same director, William Wyler, as These Three, back in 1936 when the topic of lesbianism had been suppressed by the censorious Production Code so playwright Lillian Hellman's work was bowdlerised to make it an affair between a man and a woman that was being ruinously gossiped about. Although the Code was still in place come the early sixties, a rash of social issue pictures was testing its boundaries to the extent that by the end of the decade, the Code had been ripped up and a new freedom was available to filmmakers in Hollywood. Naturally, that resulted in films packed with two things: sex and violence.
But talents like Wyler had hoped for something more considered when he chose to refilm The Children's Hour with the lesbian plot intact, a cinema where serious issues would be discussed rather than brushed under the carpet, and an indication of what he and others had in mind can be seen here. Hellman had drawn her story from a true tale in Scotland many decades before where two lives had been destroyed by false rumours of a lesbian relationship between two teachers: by the time the truth was revealed, it was too late for both of them and their careers were over. The equivalent today would be if an innocent man were falsely accused of being a paedophile, that level of outrage.
The trouble here, and probably with the source too, was that homosexuality was not the aberration that paedophilia is, and there was a danger of a misguided (to say the least!) equivalency here; the teachers certainly find their school essentially evacuated once Mary's lies are believed, and even the thought of going out is too much for them both, leaving them to stew as Joe, who has supported them as Karen's fiancé, finds himself questioning their relationship. Mary was patterned here after the title character in then-recent hit The Bad Seed, yet while that has become a camp classic, the material in this film is simply too raw in its direction and performance to be laughed at, and that was especially noticeable in the acting of MacLaine. Both she and Hepburn were excellent, but Shirley had more to her character.
This is where MacLaine herself had found the role problematic in retrospect, as the accusations begin to have Martha questioning her own sexuality, and whether she has any right to or not, it leads to a breakdown. One wonders if the play would be updated if made in the twenty-first century, as while Martha is devastated, Karen decides to own her injustice once she realises it was never worthy of her in the first place, and a more positive ending would have them both walking into the sunset arm in arm. Yet the conclusion it actually reaches was probably more realistic, certainly for the nineteen-thirties and sadly all those years later in the early sixties - even today there are societies that punish the slightest hint of homosexuality, so it could be this film was more current than we would prefer to think. Where it scored was its furious indignation regarding this kind of malicious and scandalmongering hearsay as in no way acceptable, and the force of Hepburn and MacLaine's acting was deeply underrated at the time, and even now. Music by Alex North.
[The BFI have released this on Blu-ray in a clear print that shows a little wear, but not much. Don't let that put you off giving it a try. The extras are an audio commentary by critic Neil Sinyard and the trailer (which gives away the ending!).]