Sunday, 29 November 2009


“A truth that's told with bad intent beats all the lies you can invent.” - William Blake

At the weekend we watched an old film about which I had heard nothing until I saw it at our video shop. Quite intrigued, I picked it out to watch and we were surprised by the subject matter and the way the topic was handled, considering when it was made. The William Wyler film is his 1961, “The Children’s Hour”. It is based on a play by Lillian Hellman, who also collaborated on the screenplay. To a certain extent, the movie’s stage origins can be discerned in the film, as is the case with many such screen adaptations of stage plays. However, the story is powerful enough to survive the transit from stage to screen.

There are two main themes explored in the film with a number of tangential topics that are touched upon. The major theme is the vitriolic nature of a lie and what tragic consequences it can have. The second theme relates to prejudice and the way that society ostracises its “black sheep”, mindless of what may befall upon them. A third topic that is laid before the viewer is the “innocence” of childhood and how mistaken we can be if we presume this as a given in our interactions with children. Several other matters that are examined are the constancy of friendship, the doubt that may sow itself as a noxious weed in the garden of love and the price we have to pay for justice. Heavy? Yes it was…

The plot concerns itself with Karen (Audrey Hepburn) and Martha (Shirley MacLaine), who are the headmistresses of an exclusive school for girls. They have been friends since their College days and the school they have started together represents all that they possess as they have poured into it their savings and all of their dreams and hopes. Dr Joe Cardin (James Garner) is Karen’s “chronic” boyfriend, who has been needling her to marry him for a long time, but the school has always taken priority. When Karen and Martha discipline a malicious little girl, the vindictive child twists an overheard comment into slander and accuses her teachers of questionable and “unnatural” behaviour. The scandalous gossip immediately engulfs the school community with repercussions that are swift, crushing and tragic.

The movie is quite harrowing and even though it is a little dated, its basic premises are still relevant and quite topical even today, when we would like to think that we are a little more tolerant and view homosexuality as slightly less scandalous – or do we? I am sure that there still many parts of the world where such behaviour is punishable by death and even in the “enlightened” West, in many parts where Christian fundamentalism is still strong, this “crime against nature” will still raise the wrath of the community and the church.

Because of the supposed innocence of childhood, the inherent maliciousness and cruelty of children is something that will often be ignored in cases where “unnatural” acts are suspected. Better safe than sorry. How many of us would take action to remove a homosexual teacher from the school where our children go – just in case, to be on the safe side? If they are homosexual, surely they could be paedophiles as well? In the case of the supposedly lesbian headmistresses of the film, the community judged and delivered its verdict. An overwhelming “guilty” based on a single lie told by a spoilt little girl ruined the lives of three people.

Another subplot and theme concerns itself with Martha’s freeloading ex-actress aunt, Mrs Lily Mortar. She is responsible to a certain extent for the rumour that starts and the lie that is told by little Mary, but even more than that she is responsible for the consequences of that lie. She shirks her responsibilities and when summoned to testify in the defence of her niece, she chooses not to attend because “she was touring” and because she did not want her “good name besmirched”. Loyalty, family affections, selfishness, irresponsibility, and sheer callousness are played out to their limits and they counterpoise the main themes.

This film, I believe is a forgotten classic and is well worth hunting out to have a look at. It also makes us squirm a little as we question what our reactions would have been. A tragic figure, I found to be Mary’s elderly grandmother who is hasty to draw conclusions based on what her precious little granddaughter ahs told her, but once she recognises the vile slander for what it is, her crushing regret and remorse is quite pathetic. The way that she is brushed off by Karen when she comes to apologise and offer reparation is quite a blow that one feels will have consequences of its own. We found ourselves challenged by this movie and we discussed it at length afterwards. It raises so many very difficult issues and there are no easy solutions…


  1. I was a junior in high school when this was made, I don't remember ever seeing it, I will try my best to find it. I like watching older movies with the mind I have that is very open, tolerant and accepting!

  2. This sounds like a very interesting movie Nic. I'll try and find it to watch it.

  3. This was an amazing movie! i watched it several years ago but still remember it vividly.
    Great review, Nicholas.