The Motion Picture Production Code, also known as the Hays Code after censor/stick-in-the-mud Will Hays, regulated film content for nearly 40 years, restricting, among other things, depictions of homosexuality. Filmmakers still managed to get around the Code, but gay characters were cloaked in innuendo, leading to some necessary decoding.
The overarching theme of 1961’s The Children’s Hour is that kids are the fucking worst. Oh, and that being a lesbian is a fate worse than, or at least akin to, death. Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine star as two schoolteachers whose lives are ruined when they are unjustly accused of “sinful, sexual knowledge of each other” by a mean-spirited, beady-eyed little troublemaker.
Despite its self-proclaimed reputation for being progressive, Hollywood is always a decade, or three, behind the rest of society. Lillian Hellman’s play, The Children’s Hour, debuted amidst controversy in 1934. The play dealt explicitly with homosexuality, which up to that point, was illegal on the New York stage. But it was such a big, fat, stinkin’ hit, the powers-that-be let it slide. With dreams of box office receipts dancing in its head, Hollywood decided to adapt The Children’s Hour into a movie, but with the newly enacted Hays Code in place, the issue of homosexuality was completely scrubbed from the resulting film, 1936’s These Three, directed by William Wyler. Instead of a rumored lesbian relationship, one of the women was accused of having an affair with the other’s fiancé.
Wyler decided to give it another go in 1961, by which point, the Production Code had relaxed some. To depict homosexuality, or “sexual perversion”, however, one had to cast it in the most unsympathetic and unflattering light possible. And The Children’s Hour is a prime example of that.
Auds plays Karen, a wisp of a thing engaged to a young, and incredibly handsome James Garner. Shirls plays her best friend and perpetual third wheel, Martha. Friends since college, Karen and Martha started a small school for girls. They’re just two sisters doing it for themselves! Martha, however, is wary of Karen’s upcoming marriage to her fiancé, Joe.
Little Mary Tilford, who makes the girl from The Bad Seed look like fucking Anne Frank, overhears Karen and Martha arguing one night and goes to spy on them.
Then, Mary’s roommates “accidentally” overhear Martha’s aunt, a fellow teacher there, refer to Martha’s jealous possession over Karen as “unnatural.”
Fun fact, Miriam Hopkins, who plays Martha;s aunt, played Martha in These Three. Merle Oberon, who played Karen, turned down the role of Mary’s grandmother, Mrs. Tilford (a damn fine Fay Bainter).
Anyway, these two incidents give Mary all the fuel she needs. After getting in trouble yet again, Mary tells her grandmother the damaging lie and forces her weak-willed schoolmate to corroborate her story.
Mrs. Tilford, out of a sense of moral indignation and moral rectitude, spreads the little girl’s lie and within no time, Karen and Martha’s school is forced to shutter and the two women are made pariahs.
They refuse to take this lying down and they tell Mrs. T to lawyer up ‘cause they’re taking her to court. Somehow they lose the libel suit — it’s never shown or explained in the film, one of its several glaring plot holes — and their lives are ruined. Joe sticks by Karen’s side, but she turns him away for reasons that are never really clear. Something about him doubting her, her doubting herself…more on that later.
The whole ordeal has really shaken poor Martha, though. She realizes that the lie is true, that she’s been in love with Karen this whole time…that she’s a lesbian.
It’s a great scene for a number of reasons. First, you have someone actually coming out on screen; admitting that she is a lesbian, that she deeply feels the love that dare not speak its name. Of course, no one ever says “gay” or “lesbian” or “homosexual”, but we all know what it is. Or do we?
Shirls Mac, in the 1995 documentary, The Celluloid Closet, claims that neither she nor Audrey knew what was actually going on:
“We might have been forerunners, but we weren’t really because we didn’t do the picture right. We were in the mindset of not understanding what we were basically doing…And when you look at it, to have Martha play that scene — and no one questioned it — what that meant, or what the alternatives could have been underneath the dialog, it’s mind boggling. The profundity of this subject was not in the lexicon of our rehearsal period. Audrey and I never talked about this. Isn’t that amazing? Truly amazing.”
I’m sorry, Shirls, but that dyke won’t hunt. How is it possible to not know what Martha is truly saying? How does one miss that closet door creaking open and that page boy haircut peeking out? For 1961, she’s practically screaming it on top of a parade float with a couple of X’s duct taped onto her breasts:
The scene is also remarkable in that, for a short while at least, it treats the romantic relationship between two women with uncharacteristic sympathy. Martha has been in love with her best friend and she’s only now beginning to realize it.
It’s a tale of unrequited love that humanizes Martha. And because she — a lesbian — has now garnered the audience’s sympathy, well…
Even after Mrs. Tilford comes to apologize. Even after Karen doesn’t shun her for admitting her feelings. Even after Karen asks her to come away with her. Martha hangs herself. She simply can’t live with the truth so her body is added to the pile of other queer characters killed just within their film’s final frames.
Shirley Mac added, “these days there would be a tremendous outcry, as well there should be. Why would Martha break down and say, ‘Oh my god, what’s wrong with me, I’m so polluted, I’ve ruined you’? She would fight! She would fight for her budding preference.”
But what of Karen? Karen, who not only broke off her engagement, but stood by her friend till the very end? Who’s to say that had she and Martha gone away together, they wouldn’t have become a dynamic and impossibly chic power lesbian couple in the downtown art scene in New York? Hell, Karen’s European, she seems pretty open:
Those positive depictions of the “homosexual lifestyle”, however, were still miles and decades and numerous dead queer characters away.