Screened Out, Pt. 3: The Children’s Hour

I’ve had this review half-written for weeks now and forgot that I never posted it. It follows Screened Out, Pt. 2: Tea and Sympathy.

1961’s The Children’s Hour, based on Lillian Hellman’s 1934 play, is the perfect counterpoint to Tea and Sympathy with a similar plot surrounding rumors of sexual orientation. In this case, it concerns two young women, Karen (Audrey Hepburn) and Martha (Shirley MacLaine). They are old college chums who have opened a school for girls together. It’s an idyllic life, the two of them fulfilling their dreams, teaching and living in a big old house in the country.

It all comes tumbling down when one of their students, an evil little child called Mary Tilford, who resents Karen and Martha for disciplining her for her many misdeeds, makes up a story to tell her grandmother so that she’ll let her quit the school. The story is that Karen and Martha have an “unnatural” relationship. Grandma spreads the word and within a day all the students have been withdrawn from the school. Karen and Martha sue for slander, lose in a notorious case, and are ruined.

If the story ended there, it wouldn’t really be that interesting. But it doesn’t stop there. It goes on to answer the question I asked about Tea and Sympathy: what if the rumors were true?

Like Tea and Sympathy, there are two stories being told. One is of the harmful impact of malicious and false rumors. The audience is lured into seeing the story through the eyes of Karen, the Audrey Hepburn character. She responds to the accusations indignantly and self-righteously, knowing they are false. The audience knows they are false too. We know that Karen is in love with Dr. Joe (James Garner). We know that Karen and Martha are not having an affair. We know that Mary Tilford made up the story. We know that she got her fellow student Rosalie to corroborate the story by blackmailing her about a stolen bracelet. We know they are lies, horrible lies.

Except they aren’t.

Not completely. Yes, Mary Tilford did lie, but she unwittingly pieced together her lie from bits of truth. She got the idea from hearing Martha’s aunt call her “unnatural” for not being interested in men and being too attached to Karen. So it’s a lie, but not a lie, as Martha eventually confesses to Karen that she does indeed love her.

And that’s the second story woven throughout the movie. Watch it a second time and see it through Martha’s eyes instead of Karen’s.

That idyllic life in the beginning of the movie is not just the fulfillment of professional dreams for Martha. The movie does a great job of showing the comfortable domesticity of this couple’s life. The affection between the two women, their self-sufficiency. Even if Martha was unaware of the true nature of her love for Karen at this time, we can see that Martha needs no one else. And we can see her resistance to the intrusion of Dr. Joe, her resentment that she is not enough for Karen the way Karen is for her, and her loneliness when Karen goes out with Joe.

When Martha confesses her love to Karen at the end of the movie, she says she didn’t realize it until she hear Mary’s lie. What a way to come out to yourself. All the years Martha knew she was different, knew she loved Karen, but didn’t realize until a nasty child unknowingly hit upon the truth in a hateful way. Imagine her pain when she hears Karen, the woman she loves, repeating again and again what a sick and twisted thing it is that people are saying about them.

It’s not surprising that Martha is the one who pushes for the libel case, who argues most vehemently and indignantly against the rumors, almost as if she wishes she can make the truth untrue. But she can’t. In the end she confesses the truth to Karen, who is at first unbelieving and possibly repulsed.

Ironically, it ends with Martha getting what she had originally wanted: Karen sacrifices everything for Martha, breaks up with Joe and promises to stay with Martha, just the two of them, traveling and living together. But there is no going back to this idyllic vision of life. There is no going forward for Martha once she has realized the truth.

It ends as you’d expect a movie from this era to end: with Martha hanging herself. They have no other option. You can’t have her run off to live the rest of her life with Karen, either as friends or lovers. She must die.

So in one way it’s another depressing representation of LGBT people in the movies, which seems to be a theme in Richard Barrios’ book and this series of films. But I’m still struck by some of the positives.

For probably the first time in film we have a lesbian character who is beautiful, charming, and non-threatening. She’s completely sympathetic, a good person. Shirley McLaine is luminescent in this role–stunningly gorgeous and funny. We’re set up in the beginning to like Martha and Karen, so that even when we know the truth, by then we like Martha so much we can only feel her loss, not any anger at her. By blaming all the womens’ troubles on nasty little Mary Tilford, the movie makes the audience wish she had never started the rumors, which means we end up wishing that Karen and Martha could have continued to live on in peace in their happy little household. By having Martha wait until the denouement to confess, we’re left with the sense that, after all the brouhaha of the rumors, when the truth finally comes out, it feels like, in the end, there’s not anything wrong with that.

I feel that in some ways this movie is the flip side of Tea and Sympathy. In Tea and Sympathy, the only way to remove the power of the rumors is to show that Tom is in fact straight. In The Children’s Hour, the rumors carry more power when we think they are lies. When the truth comes out, we realize that the rumors are scarier than the truth and we regret that Martha couldn’t see that.

It’s too bad that more people today don’t realize that either.

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