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Secretly Scary: The Children’s Hour (1961)

“I have six fingers see? And two heads! I’m a freak!”

Martha Dobie (Shirley MacLaine)

 

Based on Lillian Hellman’s controversial play about a child’s lie destroying the lives of “decent people”, William Wyler’s The Children’s Hour (1961)  is quite frankly a witch-hunt movie dressed up as a social message melodrama hanging on the coattails of a distorted love triangle. However, in this secret horror movie, one of the genre’s most confrontational and disturbing off-shoots –  that of the evil child subgenre – is also interwoven, resulting in a clash between tangible and perceived evil and innocence manifested as imagined terror. This incredibly moving and dark tale of two school teachers accused of “having had sinful sexual knowledge of one another” is an electric character study and a haunting depiction of self-loathing and relentless anguish.

Lesbianism is the speculative “evil” that permeates the film, and it hangs over the picture like a pendulous cloud hovering between a lie and the heartbreaking truth buried deep within the lie. When the tortured and repressed school teacher Martha Dobie (Shirley MacLaine) hollers out “I have loved you the way people say I have!”, finally confessing her love for the terminally heterosexual Karen Wright (Audrey Hepburn), it is gut-wrenching and painful to watch. The true tragedy lies in the fact that the doomed Martha has been forced to acknowledge the projected monstrosity that has been concocted by a manipulative and methodically menacing little girl, Mary (Karen Balkin) – a disgruntled student and the legitimate “monster” of the piece.

From the initial whisper of something scandalous going on, the entire film paints Martha Dobie as one of nature’s mistakes. She is whispered about as abnormal, unhealthy and unnatural – characteristics that conflict with how she is initially presented. In the earliest moments of the film, Martha is a depicted as a sturdy, hard-working woman who is proud of her collaborative efforts with fellow school mistress Karen. These two incredibly bright and dedicated women have established themselves as success stories founding one of the most well-respected private girl’s schools on the East Coast. But before we are even introduced to these two protagonists, the title sequence also casts a condensed notion of looking deeper and from varied angles. From a graceful and playful curtain raiser that suggests a child-centric classic American coming-of-age tale with images of young girls riding their bikes through idyllic New England surroundings, we soon shift our perspective and something eerie and unsettling is made palpable.  The glorious rousing score from Alex North (The Bad Seed, Willard) suddenly simmers and comes to a sudden halt and director William Wyler chooses camera angles that disturb the carefree frivolity of children and young girls at play – he suggests the viewer see things from a different perspective. The camera creeps through the grounds of the school suggesting the act of spying and closes in on the establishment forcing it to be the locale of the horrors that will unfold.

The masterfully handled screenplay by John Michael Hayes (who worked with Alfred Hitchcock for many years) navigates the course of a horror movie with fine tuning. The mounting gradual menace from young Mary’s volatility and the forced outing of the depressed Martha which leads to her trauma, desperate plea to express her feelings for Karen and eventual suicide share similar narrative function, structure and subversive intention used in a psychological/physiological horror movie about a character tormented by the monstrosity that comes from within. During her own personal self-exorcism, Martha describes her homosexuality as something “inside her” that she “is scared of” – this is of course completely reflective of the horror film of the decade, with the early sixties being a period where the true monsters were just “regular” (or irregular) people such as Baby Jane Hudson in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) or Norman Bates in Psycho (1960). The violence in The Children’s Hour doesn’t come in the shape of graphic attacks such as a beating or a slaughter in the shower, instead it comes from the malevolence of a bitter little girl who uses strategy and manipulation as her preferred tools. Mary is not only one of cinema’s most undervalued les enfante terribles, but she is an unstoppable force of sociopathic proportions – one to rival the likes of the serial killer child Rhoda Penmark from The Bad Seed (1956). Mary uses fellow children to work for her, blackmailing them and turning them involuntarily into her personal foot soldiers. One of the youngsters that are used is Rosalie (played by horror genre regular Veronica Cartwright from The Birds, Invasion of the Body Snatchers and Alien) who gets some of the film’s most bloodcurdling sequences, screaming her lungs out and throwing herself into hysterical fits. It is a truly magnificent performance from Cartwright, and young Karen Balkin as Mary is deliciously demonic as the sinister troubled girl set to ruin her teachers.

Mary forces herself to whisper the talk of Martha’s “funny secret” because in New England this is a subject that “nice” people simply cannot discuss. Such horrific abhorrent behaviour is to be confidentially talked about in private spaces such as the back of a limousine driven by the help who are completely oblivious to such monstrosities. In films released prior to this one such as Young Man with a Horn (1950), lesbianism is the downfall of Lauren Bacall’s character who could have quite happily had a healthy, functional relationship with a charming jazz musician played by Kirk Douglas – and although her bisexual tendencies do her damage, Bacall’s character’s fluid sexuality is tolerated in the world of bohemia and smoke filled blues bars, however in The Children’s Hour, the very notion of homosexual activity occurring amidst  the refined upper-class trappings of a private school for girls is an absolute freak show. And that is how the film presents the perceived notion that these two school teachers are lesbians, as grotesque warts and all freak show. What makes it even more horrific is that fact that the film gradually becomes more of an intense monster show when the truth behind the lie emerges and the creature herself becomes a victim of her own anguish and shame. Martha Dobie would be one of the most visible queer-suicides to occur in film for years to come, and she would lead the way for more characters just like her to take their own lives because of the guilt, anger, disgust and self-hatred.

Shirley MacLaine punches through a powerhouse performance as the doomed and tortured Martha Dobie. From the slight and incredibly subtle – but all too honest – telling signs of her being jealous of Karen’s fiancé Joe (James Garner), right through to her exquisite take on hysterics, anger, frustration and emotionally ravaged outbursts, MacLaine manages to turn wrist wringing into a heightened art form. The sturdiness of her wailing and crying hysteria is altogether mesmerizing and elegant; something that these incredible actresses of her generation simply perfected with passion, vigour and raw talent. Audrey Hepburn gives Karen Wright all the measured nuance necessary, and her frailty and other-worldly etherealness is a tender counter to MacLaine’s robust mania. Rounding out the adult cast are James Garner as the aforementioned Joe who stands stoic and stern, offering a degree of centred sex appeal as well as boy-like masculinity and playful charm. However, much like his two female counterparts, Garner is allowed to transition from such a steady workhorse to a perplexed mess. Miriam Hopkins as Martha’s mooching Aunt Lily, an out of work actress and Fay Bainter as Amelia, Mary’s grandmother who starts the cycle of the townsfolk turning on the “outsider”.

When Martha confronts her auntie, it is a pure catharsis. The human ugliness and selfishness are sent on their way, while the victimised monster is allowed one moment of revenge. Aunt Lily returns to the school because she has run out of money much to the disgust of her niece who relied on her to appear in court to help in saving the school and restoring balance in the universe. “God will punish you” warns Lily, to which Martha quickly replies: “He’s doing alright”. This confronting statement is reflective of the culture during the production of the film and also reflective of the political stand on homosexuality through the eyes of the church. Martha is a mistake (God’s and nature’s) and therefore needs to be punished – and here, in this fleeting moment of Martha owning the situation and standing up for herself, she acknowledges the payment and the curse of being different. This concept of the outsider as victim and sideshow attraction is made apparent when the grocery boy comes in to drop off a couple of bags. The lanky nuisance lingers and watches Martha and Karen with a lascivious grin, wild-eyed and excitedly curious. He is the gawking audience at an exhibit of nature’s mistakes – much like the eager audiences being in the presence of the half-woman/half-duck in Todd Browning’s horror classic Freaks (1932). The delivery boy is a spectator looking upon what is different, outside the conventional and most importantly unnatural. Martha senses this and hollers at him: “I’m a freak!” screaming out her difference in a defensive response that shatters the illusion of “police society”. These women are turned into monsters because of a general consensus and a bigotry that is born from the wickedness of a little girl who feels perpetually persecuted.

The film moves steadily as a witch-hunt piece; strategically placing the two leads in situations that are oppressive and malicious all the while endlessly persecuting a “sin” that dare not speak its name. When Karen confesses to Joe that there is such a rumour being spread that she and Martha had been lovers, Audrey Hepburn’s wispy and frail voice cuts like an ice-cold knife; the monster has been outed, and the monster in question is the suggestion of lesbianism and the detrimental after-effects such a thing can have on two normally very well-respected women. In its staginess and reservation in depicting pure emotional turmoil in a more ostentatious manner, The Children’s Hour is even more creepy in that the shadow play onscreen mirrors the secrecy of the lie that ends up being a half-truth – in Wyler’s film, the lurking monster is the ugliness of innuendo, a cruel rumour and a tapping in on someone’s fragile and sketchy psyche which is fundamentally Martha’s depressive state, absolute fear of being “caught in love” and her unrequited passion for a woman who she has “loved the way people said” she has.

About Lee Gambin

Lee Gambin is a writer, author and film historian. He writes for Fangoria, Shock Till You Drop, Delirium, Warner Bros. and Scream Magazine. He has written the books Massacred By Mother Nature: Exploring the Natural Horror Film, We Can Be Who We Are: Movie Musicals of the 1970s and the soon to be released The Howling: Studies in the Horror Film. He runs Melbourne based film society Cinemaniacs and lectures on cinema studies, currently working on a lecture series called "Can You Dig It?: Tortured Young Men in Film from 1976-1986 while working on two new books - one on the Stephen King adaptation "Cujo" entitled Nope, Nothing Wrong Here: The Making of Cujo and another book with collaborator Cris Wilson called Tonight, On A Very Special Episode: A History of Sitcoms that Sometimes Got Serious.

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