Thursday, May 29, 2014

"The Children's Hour," eight decades later

Credit: Johan Persson
 Elizabeth Moss and Keira Knightley in the 2011 London revival

Come November, Lillian Hellman's landmark play, "The Childlren's Hour," will be 80 years old.

The story of two teachers - Karen Wright and Martha Dobie - whose lives are ruined by a student named Mary Tilford, by a lie about their sexuality that turns out to be possibly half-true (or maybe not), "The Children's Hour" has been admired, acclaimed, dismissed, condemned, ostracized and rediscovered since it opened on Broadway at Maxine Elliott's Theater on November 20th, 1934, with Anne Revere and Katherine Emery in the lead roles.  It's been revived many times, although less frequently in recent decades, and filmed twice - by the same moviemaker.

Joel McCrea, Merle Oberon and Miriam Hopkins in the 1936 film

William Wyler first tried to get the material on screen in 1936, with Merle Oberon and Miriam Hopkins as Karen and Martha and Bonita Granville as Mary.  Retitled "These Three" and with all hints of homosexuality excised, the first film version revolved instead around infidelity (with Joel McCrea coming between the two friends) and, somehow, it worked. And quite beautifully. On its own terms, "These Three" is a solid film.

But it isn't "The Children's Hour."

Wyler's 1961 adaptation of Hellman's play, with the original title and lesbianism restored, is one of those extremely rare - and fortunate - films whose reputation has grown, belatedly, with age.  There are precious few of them.  I've no idea if this version was simply underrated in its day or if it has improved with advancing years.  Perhaps a little of both.
 Audrey Hepburn, James Garner and Shirley MacLaine in the 1961 film of "The Children's Hour"

It certainly boasts two stellar lead performances. Audrey Hepburn, as Karen, uses her face most expressively, subtly redefining it as the story progresses, and Shirley MacLaine is a revelation as Martha, flawlessly reciting a bravura monologue/confession, carefully written by Hellman, in a concluding sequence. It is nearly impossible to notice anything else about the film when these two are on screen, whether in tandem or alone.

But next time out, pay attention to other crucial contributions to the film, such as Franz Planer's evocative black-&-white cinematography (which makes sure that the material, which is essentially still stagebound, is never static) and the gorgeously spare music score by Alex North.
Balkin with director Wyler and MacLaine

 There is also remarkable ensemble work here by the film's younger actresses, particularly the always good Veronica Cartwright (also of Hitchcock's "The Birds" and, many years later, Philip Kaufman's remake of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers") and, in the difficult central role of Mary, the courageous Karen Balkin who, alas, would make only one more film - Peter Hyams' "Our Times" in 1974. Balkin may have been a little too convincing as the brat who destroys several lives in Hellman's drama.

A sad waste.

And then there's the terrific supporting work by two seasoned Grand Dames, the singular Miriam Hopkins (Martha in Wyler's original film; Martha's aunt here) and the commanding Fay Bainter, who was Oscar-nominated as Mary's monied grandmother and, from where I sit, should have won. The sublime Rita Moreno, essentially too old for "West Side Story" (she was 30 at the time) and only adequate in the role, took home one of the supporting awards that year. But it was a WSS sweep in 1962.

There are few scene more quietly scorching than when Bainter silences Balkin's hysterical excuses for her behavior with the demand, "Be still!" 

James Garner essayed the McCrea role.

Playbill for the 1952 Los Angeles revival 

Among the various revivals, the most notable - and controversial - was the one staged in New York in 1952 at the Coronet Theater, starring Kim Hunter and Patricia Neal as Karen and Martha, respectively, and  Iris Mann, a talented child actress who had just played a troublesome teen in the film "Room for One More" opposite Cary Grant and Betsy Drake, as the disruptive Mary.

This version, staged by Hellman herself, raised some dust as the playwright used her material as a commentary on the House Un-American Activities Committee.  Hellman always contended that "The Children's Hour" was less about homosexuality than about destructive gossip.

MacLaine's big scene

But, in recent years, there have been fewer revivals as the gay community has distanced itself from the material which has been construed as less well-meaning than misleading, particularly the shame and self-loathing voiced in the aforementioned monologue that's so passionately and indelibly read in the '61 film by MacLaine.

Such misgivings, however, didn't stop director Ian Rickson from mounting a London revival in 2011 and with a starry cast in tow -  Keira Knightley as Karen, Elizabeth Moss as Martha and Ellen Burstyn as Mrs. Tilford.  It opened to mixed reviews on February 9th at the intimate Comedy Theater.  At the time, there were talks for moving the production to New York, but three years later, that has yet to happen.

"The Children's Hour" was, and always will be, a period piece.  It is of its time and, as such, it works. 

Note in Passing:  When Wyler filmed his '61 remake, United Artists dickered with the idea of also changing the title a second time - to the nondescript "The Infamous."  The brass thought that "The Children's Hour" would mislead audiences into thinking it was a family film. Wyler balked.

The play's title stayed.

5 comments:

Alex said...

Loved this. Thanks. For the record, Shirley MacLaine claims that when "The Children's Hour" was in production, the word "lesbian" was never invoked and there was no discussion of homosexuality between Wyler and his cast. I find this extremely difficult to believe.

joe baltake said...

Me, too. Perhaps Shirl is rewriting history or has a selective memory. But, then again, you never know.

Iris Mann said...

The 1952 revival of "The Children's Hour" was produced at the
Coronet Theatre on Broadway, not in Los Angeles. During rehearsal,
Lillian Hellman told us that the theme had to do with the destructive
power of a lie - it was not essentially about homosexuality.

Iris Mann

joe baltake said...

Dear Iris- Many thanks for the heads-up about the city where the '52 revival was staged and also for sharing Hellman's insight. The correction has been made. Thanks again. -J

Bob said...

The Childrens Hour is the kind of film, that stays with you, it show us the power of a lie on people's lives. A great film by a skilled Director William Wyler, see The Collector, also. comment by my wife Marcy.