Problematic Film History: The Children’s Hour

Welcome to a new feature at IceCream4Freaks: Problematic Film History!  Each week, I’ll be discussing a well-regarded film of the past and the elements of that film which have aged the worst.  This week: The Children’s Hour

It’s important to view films through the lens of the time period they were made. In William Wyler’s The Children’s Hour, the film was made in 1961, based on a play from 1934. Through a modern view, the entire main conflict of the film is completely illogical. Even when viewed with a “this was a different time” mentality, the film’s lack of understanding or empathy for homosexuality is frank and borderline insulting.

Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine star as best friends Karen and Martha, who run a budding private school for girls. Martha is shaping up to be a spinster, while Karen maintains a long engagement with local doctor Joe (James Garner). One of the girls in the school, Mary (Karen Balkin) begins acting up and is constantly punished by both Karen and Martha.

After running away from the school to the safety of her grandmother Amelia (Fay Bainter), Mary concocts a story full of half-truths and innuendo in order to stop from going back. Mary claims Karen and Martha are carrying on a lesbian relationship, which causes Amelia to pull Mary out of the school and tell the other parents to do the same. After unsuccessfully suing for slander, Karen and Martha have nothing left except their own conflicted thoughts.

First off, let’s touch on the primary conflict. Two women are accused of being lesbians and are turned into lepers. Townsfolk peer into their lawn and gawk behind their backs. No parent would dare have their children around such women. Viewed through today’s lens…who cares? So what if teachers are lesbians? Their private lives have no bearing on their careers. Times being what they were and the general ignorance of the world in 1961, at least you can hope times have changed.

The real problems arise in the last 20 minutes. Joe has a creeping belief the rumors could be true and Karen’s lack of faith in his trust. The ensuing discussion between Karen and Martha eventually reveal Martha actually being in love with Karen. Her self-discovery of this love is not presented as a glorious revelation, but rather as a sickness she has been attempting to remedy.

The romantic love is one-sided and Karen tries to explain away Martha’s coming out as exhaustion or misunderstanding. Her reveal is self-described as sick and dirty. While Karen maintains her heterosexuality, she eventually attempts to leave without comforting her friend. Amelia shows up after discovering Mary’s lie, which only sends Martha into a further spiral. Karen eventually offers to leave and start anew with Martha, which she passes off until the next day.

Karen goes for a walk and returns to discover Martha has hung herself. Not only does Martha feel nothing but shame in herself for loving a woman, she reveals it to the one person in the world she wants to reveal it to and responds with suicide. Not only is this a short-sighted ideal of the relationship, it reduces her feelings to something worth killing herself over.

This should be a film of triumph, allowing yourself to be your true self instead of hiding your love. Instead, it is seen only as shame and the danger of rumors. The messages sent in The Children’s Hour are not bad messages, they just miss the larger point of what really matters.

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