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"Child, love, friend, woman- every word has a new meaning" muses Karen Wright (Audrey Hepburn) in The Children's Hour (1961), after a cruel rumor ignited by a malevolent little girl destroys her life and livelihood, as well as that of her friend Martha Dobie (Shirley MacLaine). Hepburn and MacLaine deliver deft, gripping performances as teachers who may or may not be "unnaturally" in love. Flinty eyed Karen Balkin plays rotten little Mary Tilford, a manipulative, hysterical, extortionist schoolgirl. Eavesdropping on allusions made behind closed doors, Mary manufactures a lie to convince her grandmother to take her out of The Wright-Dobie School for Girls, where she is disliked. Mary is flesh-crawlingly mean, and the repercussions caused by her fib move the plot of The Children's Hour to a somber, thought provoking conclusion.
Directed by William Wyler (Ben-Hur, 1959) and released on December 19, 1961, the film is a faithful adaptation of Lillian Hellman's stage play. In 1936, Wyler directed These Three, an earlier film version of Hellman's play, in which the scandal was portrayed as a heterosexual love triangle, presumably more palatable to audiences of the time. Hellman adapted her text for The Children's Hour for screenwriter John Michael Hayes (Rear Window, 1954). Delicate Hepburn plays Wright as an ethical woman whose need for emotional truth ultimately ends her engagement to the convivial school doctor, Joe Cardin (James Garner). MacLaine gives a fiery portrayal of Martha Dobie, maintaining her dignity as she is ostracized by her community and her school is shuttered.
Veronica Cartwright (Alien, 1979) who appears as Rosalie, a classmate tortured by Mary's lies, has a history of playing disturbing children; she had a recurring role as smarmy Violet Rutherford in Leave it to Beaver. Miriam Hopkins (Trouble in Paradise, 1932), who played Martha Dobie in the 1936 film alongside Merle Oberon and Joel McCrea, appears as Martha's selfish aunt Lily. Fay Bainter's performance as Mary's high-society grandmother is a pleasure to watch, registering annoyance, indignation, and finally, remorse as Mary's destructive lie is finally exposed.
Awarded an Oscar for Costume Design, Black & White, The Children's Hour is a must-see in the pantheon of Evil Children classic movies.
Director: William Wyler
Producer: Robert Wyler, William Wyler
Screenplay: John Michael Hayes, Lillian Hellman
Cinematography: Franz Planer
Editor: Robert Swink
Art Direction: Fernando Carrere
Music: Alex North
Cast: Audrey Hepburn (Karen Wright), Shirley MacLaine (Martha Dobie), James Garner (Dr. Joe Cardin), Miriam Hopkins (Mrs. Lily Mortar), Fay Bainter (Mrs. Amelia Tilford), Karen Balkin (Mary Tilford).
by Jessica Handler