William Wyler, director; Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine, actors

The Children’s Hour (USA; 1961)

Vintage still

 

Based on the play by Lillian Hellman, The Children’s Hour was the first major Hollywood film to deal with lesbianism.  Starring Audrey Hepburn and Shirley McLaine as two matrons of an all-girl boarding school, the film explores the devastating effect that gossip and intolerance can have.  In the film, the closeted Marthe (McLaine) is falsely accused of having an affair with a female student, which causes the entire community to direct their ire against her, as well as her boarding school colleague and friend, Karen (Hepburn).  Director William Wyler had attempted to adapt Hellman’s play once before, as These Three in 1936.  However, the strict Production Code of the time period prevented any suggestion of lesbianism from appearing on screen, which resulted in the film’s reinterpretation as a heterosexual love triangle.  The Hays office even refused to allow the picture to share its name with Hellman’s play.  With The Children’s Hour, Wyler finally restored the play’s original structure, although still without uttering the word “lesbian.”  Hellman’s play was based on a factual case that occurred in Scotland in 1810.

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