Thursday, January 31, 2019

"The Children's Hour," eight decades later

Timelessness knows no bounds. In a few months, Lillian Hellman's landmark play, "The Childlren's Hour," will be 85 years old - eighty-five.

The story of two teachers whose lives are ruined by a student - 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 Katherine Emery and Anne Revere in the lead roles as Karen Wright and Martha Dobie, respectively - best friends who run a boarding school for girls from entitled families.

The lie, of course, is about the heroines' presumed lesbian relationship.

"The Children's House" has been revived many times (although less frequently in recent times) and filmed twice by the same director - none other than William Wyler, who first attempted to film the material in 1936, with Merle Oberon and Miriam Hopkins as Karen and Martha and, as the disruptive child Mary Tilford, a riveting Bonita Granville who received a much-deserved Oscar nomination for her remarkable performance.

Hellman herself wrote the adaptation of her play, retooling the material to meet the demands of Hollywood censors. Retitled "These Three" and with all hints of homosexuality excised, this version revolved instead around infidelity, with Joel McCrea as the man who comes between the two friends. And, somehow, it worked - quite effectively, in fact: The scandal now was about two women having sex with the same man at a place inhabited by young girls. On its own terms, "These Three" is a solid film.

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

In 1961, Wyler elected to remake the film, with both the play's original title and the hint of lesbianism restored. This time, John Michael Hayes wrote the adaptation, not Hellman, but his script hews closely to her play.

Actually, it is the play.

This version 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.

Still, one is keenly aware of 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. And there are the other actors, notably James Garner in his first serious screen role after fulfilling his TV/B-movie contract that he had with Warner Bros during the 1950s.

Wyler extracts wonderful work from film's younger cast, with each girl emerging as a distinct individual, despite limited screen time. Particularly memorable are Mimi Gibson as the school gossip and the always terrific Veronica Cartwright (also of Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds" and, many years later, Philip Kaufman's remake of "Invasion of the Body Snatchers").

No one can summon tears as easily as the young Veronica Cartwright.

And in the difficult central role of Mary, there's the excellent (and courageous) Karen Balkin who would make only one more film - Peter Hyams' "Our Times" in 1974. A sad waste.

Balkin simply may have been too good as Mary - a little too convincing in the role of the brat who destroys several lives in Hellman's drama.

Finally, there's the terrific supporting work by two seasoned Grand Dames, the singular Miriam Hopkins (Martha in Wyler's original film; Martha's Aunt Lily here) and the commanding Fay Bainter as Mary's monied grandmother.

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

Bainter was Oscar-nominated for her performance and, in a less competitive year, would have won, but she was up against Judy Garland, so electric in Stanley Kramer's "Judgment at Nuremberg," and Rita Moreno who won for Robert Wise and Jerome Robbins' "West Side Story."

Not appreciated upon its '61 release, "The Children's Hour" is one of those extremely rare - and fortunate - films whose reputation has grown, belatedly, with age. 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.

It's a great movie.

Incidentally, 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.

Among the various stage revivals, the most notable - and controversial - was the one directed in 1952 by Hellman herself at New York's Coronet Theater, starring Kim Hunter and Patricia Neal as Karen and Martha, respectively, and as Mary, Iris Mann, a talented child actress who had just played a troubled teen on screen in the charming comedy, "Room for One More," opposite husband-wife Cary Grant and Betsy Drake.

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

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, Ellen Burstyn as Mrs. Tilford and Carol Kane as Aunt Lily.  It opened to mixed reviews on February 9th at the intimate Comedy Theater.  At the time, there were talks about moving the production to New York, but eight years later, that has yet to happen. And probably won't.

Too bad. We could use another incarnation of the material, given that lying has become a national pastime - made normal - in the last two years.

"The Children's Hour" may be of its time, still very much a period piece. And, as such, it works. Beautifully. But it's more than that. Much more.

Eight decades later, its message remains urgent.

Note in Passing:  Turner Classic Movies will be screening both of William Wyler's takes on Hellman's play - but not back-to-back. "These Three" will air on Monday, February 4 at 5:30 a.m. (est), while "The Childen's Hour" will screen later that day at 11:15 a.m. (est.). Compare and contrast. 

Regarding Comments: All comments are enthusiastically appreciated but are moderated before publication. Replies signed "unknown" or "anonymous" are not encouraged. Please sign any response with a name (real or fabricated) or initials.  Be advised that a "name" will be assigned to any accepted post signed "unknown" or "anonymous." Thank you.

(from top) 

~Elizabeth Moss and Keira Knightly in the 2011 London revival of "The Children's Hour"
~photography: Johann Peresson 2011©

~Robert Keith (from left), Anne Revere, Florence McGee, Katherine Emery and Katherine Emmet in the original 1934 stage production 
~photography: Friedman-Abeles 1934©

~Joel McCrea, Merle Oberon and Miriam Hopkins in the 1936 film
~photography: The Samuel Goldwyn Company/United Artists 1936©

 ~Audrey Hepburn, James Garner and Shirley MacLaine in the 1961 film of "The Children's Hour"
~MacLaine's big scene
~Karen Balkin with director Wyler and MacLaine 
~photography: United Artists 1961©

~Playbill for the 1952 New York revival
(Pictured from left: Patricia Neal, Iris Mann and Kim Hunter)
~photography: Friedman-Abeles 1952© 

~Poster art for the 2011 London revival
(pictured: Knightly and Moss)

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

nineteen sixty two

The greatest movie year of all time is 1939 1962. That's right. I boldly scratched out the year that is invariably invoked as "the greatest" by critics, cinéastes, cinéphiles, film historians and movie buffs, no questions asked. For as long as I can remember, it's been a foregone conclusion - and not without good reason - that 1939 is the unchallenged champ.

Eighty years of accumulated praise have taken their toll, diminishing and overshadowing any potential rival. Look, I love the films of 1939, but never a team player, I disagreed with its starry status as long ago as 1992 when I wrote a 30th anniversary piece celebrating the headiness of 1962.

For years - nay, decades - I remained the lone voice promoting '62. Along the way, other critics - all great thinkers, naturally - have come to endorse the importance of that year. But more about them later. (See below.)

If neglected films are my forté - not to mention, the thrust of this site - then 1962 defines everything that is important to me in terms of movies. And so, I felt compelled to renew my spin after I read a series of short essays in The Washington Post titled "What Was the Best Year in Movie History?," written by seven staff writers. The years championed in the piece are 1946, 1955, 1974, 1982, 1999, 2007 and, of course, 1939.

Everyone has an opinion - and is entitled to it - but the best that the authors of these assorted squibs (all well-reasoned and -written, by the way) could do is come up with 20 or fewer titles for each year.

I can top that.

The movie year 1962 brims with dozens of noteworthy films. Both domestic and foreign. Some very good, some only okay, a lot of them great. Movies of breadth and variety. Made by an eclectic mix of filmmakers, both veterans and newcomers. Yes, the filmmakers.

And so, listed in no particular order and without commentary, here are the many directors of 1962 and their films that made the year so significant. (And please note that all the foreign-language films distributed in the U.S. in 1962 were most likely released in their native countries in prior years.)

David Lean: "Lawrence of Arabia"

Jacques Demy: "Lola"

Alain Resnais: "Last Year at Marienbad"

Three by John Frankenheimer: "The Manchurian Candidate," "Birdman of Alcatraz" and "All Fall Down"

Three by Delbert Mann: "The Outsider," "Lover Come Back" and "That Touch of Mink"

John Cassavetes: "Too Late Blues"

Sidney Gilliat: "Only Two Can Play"

John Ford: "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance"

Two by Frank Tashlin:"Bachelor Flat" and "It's Only Money"

Guy Green: "Light in the Piazza"

Pietro Germi: "Divorce - Italian Style"/"Divorzio all'italiana"

Two by Sidney Lumet: "A View from the Bridge" and "Long Day's Journey into Night"

Two by Vincente Minnelli: "Two Weeks in Another Town" and "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse"

Two by Edward Dmytryk: "Walk on the Wild Side" and "The Reluctant Saint"

Otto Preminger: "Advise and Consent"

Jacques Rivette: "Paris Belongs to Us"/"Paris nous appartient"

Roger Corman: "Tales of Terror"

Stanley Kubrick: "Lolita"

John Guillermin: "Waltz of the Toreadors"

Delmer Daves: "Rome Adventure"

Leo McCarey: "Satan Never Sleeps"

Two by Sidney J. Furie: "Night of Passion" and "Wonderful to Be Young"

Andrei Tarkovsky: "The Violin and the Roller"/"Katok i skripka"

Richard Brooks: "Sweet Bird of Youth"

Orson Welles: "Mr. Arkadin"

Two by Henri Verneuil: "Maxime" and "The Most Wanted Man in the World"/"L'ennemi public n° 1"

Two by Tony Richardson: "A Taste of Honey" and "The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner"

Jack Clayton: "The Innocents"

Michael Cacoyannis: "Electra"/"Ilektra"

Peter Ustinov: "Billy Budd"

Agnes Varda: "Cleo from 5 to 7"/"Cléo de 5 à 7"

Two by Blake Edwards: "Experiment in Terror" and "Days of Wine and Roses"

Freddie Francis: "Two and Two Make Six"

Bryan Forbes: "Whistle Down the Wind"

Serge Bourguignon: "Sundays and Cybele"/"Les dimanches de Ville d'Avray"

Mervyn LeRoy: "Gypsy"

Morton DaCosta: "The Music Man"

Luis Buñuel: "Viridiana" 

Michael Powell: "Peeping Tom"

Andre Cayette: "Tomorrow Is My Turn"/"Le passage du Rhin"

Two by Philip Leacock: "13 West Street" and "The War Lover"

Two by Michelangelo Antonioni: "Eclipse"/"L'Eclisse" and "Il Grido"

Sam Peckinpah: "Ride the High Country"

Inoshiro Honda: "Mothra"/"Mosura"

José Ferrer: "State Fair"

Two by J. Lee Thompson: "Cape Fear" and "Taras Bulba"

Arthur Penn: "The Miracle Worker"

Lewis Gilbert: "Damn the Defiant!" 

Martin Ritt: "Hemingway's Adventures of a Young Man"

Michael Gordon: "Boys' Night Out"

David Miller: "Lonely Are the Brave"

Don Siegel: "Hell Is for Heroes"

William Castle: "Zotz"

Two by Daniel Mann: "Five Finger Exercise" and "Who's Got The Action?"

Samuel Fuller:
"Merrill's Marauders" 

Richard Quine: "The Notorious Landlady"

Howard Hawks: "Hatari!"

George Seaton: "The Counterfeit Traitor"

Jules Dassin: "Phaedra"

Two by Jack Cardiff: "My Geisha" and "The Lion"

Henry Koster: "Mr. Hobbs Takes a Vacation"

Frank Perry: "David and Lisa"

Two by Robert Mulligan: "To Kill a Mockingbird" and "The Spiral Road"

David Swift: "The Interns"

Phil Karlson: "Kid Galahad"

Basil Dearden: "Victim"

Richard Fleischer: "Barabbas"

George Roy Hill: "Period of Adjustment"

Lewis Milestone: "Mutiny on the Bounty"

Robert Wise: "Two for the Seesaw"

Guy Hamilton: "The Best of Enemies"

Three by Ingmar Bergman: "Through a Glass Darkly"/"Såsom i en spegel" - "Night Is My Future"/"Musik i mörker" - "The Devil's Wanton"/"Fängelse"

Louis Malle: "A Very Private Affair"/"Vie privée"

Peter Sellers: "I Like Money"

Three by François Truffaut: "Jules and Jim"/"Jules et Jim" - "Love at Twenty"/"L'amour à vingt ans" - "Shoot the Piano Player"/"Tirez sur le pianiste"

Charles Walters: "Billy Rose's Jumbo"

John Huston: "Freud"

George Pollock: "Murder She Said"

Irvin Kershner: "A Face in the Rain"

Jack Garfein: "something wild"

Gordon Douglas: "Follow That Dream"

Pierre-Dominique Gaisseau: "The Sky Above - The Mud Below"/"Le ciel et la boue"

Shirley Clarke: "The Connection"

Albert Lamorisse: "Stowaway in the Sky"/"Le voyage en ballon"

Robert Aldrich: "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?"

Gene Kelly: "Gigot"

Ralph Nelson: "Requiem for a Heavyweight"

Hark Harvey: "Carnival of Souls"

Two by Mauro Bolognini: "Bell'Antonio"/"Il bell'Antonio" and "LaViaccia"

Daniel Petrie: "The Main Attraction"

Akira Kurosawa: "Yojimbo"/"Yôjinbô"

George Marshall: "The Happy Thieves"

Federico Fellini: "The Swindle"/"Il Bidone"

Henry Hawthaway, Ford and Marshall: "How the West Was Won"

Ken Annakin, Andrew Morton and Barnhard Wicki: "The Longest Day"

Luchino Visconti, Mario Monicelli, Vittorio DeSica and Fellini: "Boccaccio '70"

And George Cukor: "The Chapman Report"
Notes in Passing: The movie year 1962 has been celebrated by several notable critics. Stephen Farber wrote a wonderful essay, "1962: When the Silver Screen Never Looked So Golden," for The New York Times on Sunday, September 15, 2002.

Meanwhile, the Times' A.O. Scott's wrote a report on October 16, 2009, covering a 12-title event at  Brooklyn's Academy of Music (BAM), titled "BAMcinématek 1962: New York Film Critics Circle." This event was an attempt to correct a decades-old situation: A city-wide strike towards the end of 1962 halted newspaper production, which meant no newspaper Ten Best lists and no coverage of the New York Film Critics Awards.

And in his letters column on August 16, 2012, San Francisco Chronicle movie critic Mick LaSalle noted that "the top ten of 1962 has six classics - 'Lawrence of Arabia,' 'Dr. No,' 'The Longest Day,' 'The Music Man,' 'To Kill a Mockingbird' and 'Gypsy.'" One of Mick's picks, "Dr. No," a 1962 release in Great Britain, opened in America in May of the following year, 1963.

Finally, Turner Classic Movies set aside its  programming on September 21, 2012 for a mini-tribute to '62 that kicked off with "Sweet Bird of Youth," followed by "Gypsy," "The Manchurian Candidate," "Days of Wine and Roses," "Jules et Jim" and "Lolita." 
Regarding Comments: All comments are enthusiastically appreciated but are moderated before publication. Replies signed "unknown" or "anonymous" are not encouraged. Please sign any response with a name (real or fabricated) or initials.  Be advised that a "name" will be assigned to any accepted post signed "unknown" or "anonymous." Thank you.

(from top) 

~Image from Columbia's crown jewel, "Lawrence of Arabia"
~photography: Columbia Pictures 1962©

~John Frankenheimer (right) conferring with Laurence Harvey and Angela Lansbury on the set of "The Manchurian Candidate"
~photography: United Artists 1962© 

 ~Otto Preminger (left) on the set of "Advise and Consent" with Don Murray, Charles Laughton and Walter Pidgeon
~photography: Columbia Pictures 1962©

 ~Tony Richardson (right) directing Rita Tushingham and Paul Danquah in "A Taste of Honey"
~photography: Woodfall/Continental 1962©

~Stanely Kubrick (center) on the set of "Lolita" with James Mason and Sue Lyon
~photography: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer 1962©

~Morton DaCosta (center) with Meredith Willson (left) and Robert Preston on the set of "The Music Man"
~photography: Warner Bros. 1962© 

~David Lean (left) directing Peter O'Toole in "Lawrence of Arabia" 
~photography: Columbia Pictures 1962©

~Richard Quine (center) observing Jack Lemmon and Kim Novak in a scene for "The Notorious Landlady"
~photography: Columbia Pictures 1962©

 ~François Truffaut and Jeanne Moreau on the set of "Jules et Jim"
~photography: Janus Films 1962©

 ~Robert Aldrich directing Joan Crawford (center) and Bette Davis in "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?"
~photography:Warner Bros. 1962©

~George Cukor (right) directing Jane Fonda and Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. in "The Chapman Report"
~photography: Warner Bros. 1962©

~Mervyn LeRoy with Natalie Wood on the set of "Gypsy"
~photography: Warner Bros. 1962©

~Image of Paul Newman and Geraldine Page in "Sweet Bird of Youth"
~photography: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer 1962©