11 July 2018



'The Children’s Hour, an acclaimed drama from 1961, is a forceful examination of the power of malice and rumour in an intolerant society, with Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine giving superb performances in the lead roles. Directed by William Wyler (Ben Hur, Roman Holiday) and also starring James Garner (The Rockford Files), it was nominated for five Oscars.

 Based on Lillian Hellman’s ground-breaking 1934 play (inspired by a true story of two Scottish teachers in 1809), The Children's Hour stars Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine as best friends who run an exclusive girls’ school. When a disruptive pupil starts a rumour that the pair are in a lesbian relationship, there are serious repercussions for everyone.

The Children’s Hour was nominated for five Oscars: Actress in a Supporting Role (Fay Bainter)Cinematography (Black & White), Art Direction (Black & White), Set Decoration, Costume Design (Black & White) and Sound. Leading actor Shirley MacLaine was also nominated for a Golden Globe.

Released by the BFI in a Dual Format Edition in June 2018, this is the first time that The Children’s Hour has been available on Blu-ray in the UK.'

This is a stunning black-and-white film co-starring Fashion Queen of Hollywood Audrey Hepburn and Warren Beatty's actress sister, Shirley Maclaine. It concerns a subject I simply didn't think existed on the silver screen back then, that of lesbianism. Of course, today we have LGBT rights and books and films about those rights coming out of our ears but back then, it wouldn't have been as prevalent.

This film got a stinking review from some chap from THE NEW YORK TIMES but, frankly, I think he's nuts, a grumpy old curmudgeon. This film is fabulous, if tragically sad. I love it, but then I'm known for enjoying a good miserable time in the films I watch and the books I read, lol.

Based on a true story and also on William Wyler's 1936 film THESE THREE, it's the story of two young school-teachers whose lives and livelihoods are destroyed utterly by a vicious rumour with almost no basis in fact.

Hepburn and Maclaine excel as best-friends-since-college Karen Wright and Martha Dobie respectively, the two young school-marms in question. They run a charming little boarding school in a small village back in black-and-white times. 

These were the days when women found it difficult, if not outright impossible, to get their arms into their cardigan sleeves and so they frequently draped the cardies over their shoulders instead, sometimes even fastening them at the neck with one button. 

Do you know, I don't believe that Audrey Hepburn manages to properly wear a single cardigan in this film, despite the fact that cardigan-fastening classes were widely available in schools and colleges at the time and you could send away for free instructional pamphlets on the subject if you didn't have the time to attend a class. 

A woman who obtained her Cardigan-Fastening Diploma was equipped to work practically anywhere in Hollywood. She could more or less write her own ticket. Without this proof of cardigan-fastening proficiency however, well, let's just say that, unfortunately, sad ends all round were the order of the day. 

Women not equipped with the all-important Diploma frequently found that the resulting public scorn and ridicule, unemployment, prostitution and homelessness were cruel bedfellows indeed. The well-known authoress of the day, the aptly-named Miss Cashmere Buttons, studies several of these touching cases in her best-selling book, I WAS A PARAMOUNT SEAMSTRESS, which I believe has now sadly been out of print for several years. A shame. It was a masterpiece, this little volume, in its own way.

They're finally getting the school to pay off anyway, these two hard-working chums Karen and Martha, and, as they've each put a phenomenal amount of work in to making it a success, they couldn't be happier when they realise that they're actually out of debt for the first time ever. 

That must be a nice feeling! However, it's one I wouldn't recognise if I accidentally sat on it and had to have it surgically removed from my traumatised colon by a team of student doctors, lol. Being in debt these days is as natural as taking a bathroom selfie with an unflushed toilet in the background. Happens all the time, in other words.

Things turn to ashes when a fat little vicious liar of a pupil, Mary Tilford, tells a blatant fib about her two teachers to her rich Dowager grandmother, Mrs. Amelia Tilford. Mary's reason for so doing is obvious for all to see. She's got a grudge against the two women because they won't put up with her lies and her nonsense and her bullying of the other pupils.

Her words have an effect, however, that none of them could possibly have foreseen. Amelia Tilford, my favourite character after the two school-mistresses, is so horrified by what she's heard from her little Miss Piggy of a niece (sorry, but stick a snout on her and she's Miss Piggy to the life, only not as endearing!) that she immediately withdraws her niece from the school.

Other scandalised parents and guardians follow suit as the malicious rumour quickly gathers legs and begins to snowball, as these things tend to do. Soon the school is completely without pupils and Karen and Martha are left devastated, standing around forlornly in the wreckage of their lives and livelihoods.

I'm not telling you what the rumour is but you can guess, can't you? Of course you can, lol. It's a film about lesbianism, after all. Martha's silly flibbertigibbet of an Aunt Lily, a former theatre actress who teaches elocution at the school and who is inadvertently responsible for the rumour taking root in Mary Tilford's nasty little mind, abandons the sinking ship forthwith.

Local men come out to the school just to snigger and leer at the two terrified women, who look to be in serious danger of being raped, all alone in their empty school as they are, and figures of sexual curiosity to the local yokels to boot.

Straight guys always seem to view lesbians as a personal challenge, lol, the fools. And how come men are always secretly- or not so secretly- titillated by the thought of their wives or girlfriends engaging in same-sex shenanigans, but the reverse seems to be almost never true?

In a million years I couldn't get excited by the thought of a boyfriend of mine being with another man, but the number of times guys have asked me to indulge them by engaging in a little girl-on-girl action with another woman...!

However, I was never into what guys rather crudely call muff-diving (I'd be prepared to bet that all the unflattering descriptions come from pervy guys) and all that jazz. I've never worshipped at the altar of Sappho, as it were. I just like guys, lol, and that's the beginning, middle and end of it.

Karen's fiancé, a Dr. Joe Cardin, played by James MAVERICK Garner, stands by the two women throughout the disastrous court-case for libel they take against Mrs. Tilford, but Karen tells him to go away for good when she realises that he's standing by her despite thinking that there was some truth in the ugly, vicious rumours.

Then, the tormented Martha, the plainer of the two school-teachers and a woman who's never married or even come close, makes a heart-breaking confession to Karen that turns Karen's world upside-down. Can you guess what it is? And will either of the put-upon young women be able to live with the consequences of Martha's having finally spoken what's really in her heart...?

There's a scene in the film where Martha wistfully describes the first time she ever set eyes on Karen. It was in their college. Martha looks up from whatever she's doing- reading a book under a tree, maybe- and she sees a beautiful girl, her long hair flying out behind her, hurrying across the quadrangle. 

College starts in the fall, so the leaves would already be turning red and brown and falling from the trees and the air would be fresh and crisp. Students would be bustling to and fro, carrying their books in their arms and calling to each other in greeting. What a gorgeous image.

This is such a sad and beautiful film. Certainly, it fully illustrates the dangers of telling lies or spreading nasty rumours about people. I don't know if this is from the Bible or what, or if it's Jesus who once said this in one of his thought-provoking parables, but taking back a lie you've told about someone or trying to retract a rumour you've started is a bit like the following.

Namely, going up to the top of a mountain, scattering a bag of feathers to the four winds and then trying to get back all those feathers. It's utterly impossible, isn't it? The genie's out of the bottle. The cat's out of the bag. The sperm is on its way to the egg, as it were. And the irreversible damage is done...

THE CHILDREN'S HOUR is available to buy now in a Dual Format Edition from the British Film Institute or BFI. This is the first time that The Children’s Hour has been available on Blu-ray in the UK.

Special features
  • Presented in both High Definition and Standard Definition
  • Audio commentary by Neil Sinyard
  • Original theatrical trailer (2 mins)
  • Stills gallery
  • Illustrated booklet featuring new writing by Sarah Wood, So Mayer, Philip Kemp and Neil Sinyard, plus full film credits
 BFI releases are available from all good home entertainment retailers or by mail order from the BFI Shop. Tel: 020 7815 1350 or online at www.bfi.org.uk/shop


Sandra Harris is a Dublin-based novelist, film blogger, poet and book-and-movie reviewer. She has studied Creative Writing and Film-Making. She has published a number of e-books on the following topics: horror film reviews, multi-genre film reviews, womens' fiction, erotic fiction, erotic horror fiction and erotic poetry. Several new books are currently in the pipeline. You can browse or buy any of Sandra's books by following the link below straight to her Amazon Author Page:


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