Karen Wright (Audrey Hepburn) and Martha Dobie (Shirley MacLaine) have been friends since they were teenagers. They both decided to become teachers, and after they graduated from college, the two of them opened a private boarding school for girls. After years of hard work, their school finally starts to turn a profit and Karen finally agrees to marry her fiance Dr. Joe Cardin (James Garner). However, Karen’s decision is bittersweet to Martha. She wants Karen to be happy, but is afraid of losing her best friend and that she will leave the school once she gets married. Martha’s jealousy leads to her getting in an argument with her aunt and fellow teacher Lily Mortar (Miriam Hopkins), who tells Martha that her devotion to her friend is unnatural.
But every school has its problem children. In this case, it’s Mary Tilford (Karen Balkin). Mary is constantly getting into trouble and when Karen punishes her by not letting her go to some boat races that weekend, Mary gets back at her by telling her wealthy grandmother Amelia Tilford (Fay Bainter) that Karen and Martha are lovers. She invented this story based on what her friends overheard of Martha and Lily’s argument and threw in some bits from a scandalous book she and her friends have been secretly reading. Amelia is absolutely horrified, pulls Mary from the school, and calls all the other parents and gets them to do the same.
Karen and Martha don’t understand why all the students are leaving, and when they’re clued in, Karen, Martha, and Joe try to confront Amelia and Mary. Joe questions Mary and even though he clearly catches her lying, Mary drags her friend Rosalie into the lie and Amelia sides with them. Karen and Martha sue her for slander, but the case ends up being dragged into the media, they lose their case, and they become outcasts in town. Joe proudly stands by Karen and Martha through the whole ordeal, but eventually, all the rumors make him question the truth. Even Martha begins to wonder if the rumors were true. Eventually, the truth does come out, but no amount of money from Mrs. Tilford can fix the damage that has been done.
I absolutely adored The Children’s Hour. Exceptionally well written and beautifully acted all around, Shirley MacLaine particularly hit it right out of the park. Her performance was truly compelling, heartfelt, and tragic. This was a movie way ahead of its time and is still hugely relevant today. Movies that deal with the ramifications of gossip were definitely nothing new in 1961, but I was impressed to see a movie deal with homophobia so frankly while the production codes were still in force. Actually, this isn’t the first film adaptation of The Children’s Hour. In 1936, it had been made into the movie These Three starring Miriam Hopkins, Merle Oberon, and Joel McCrea. But since the production codes were enforced much more strictly in 1936, they had to change the story to be about a love triangle between Martha, Karen, and Joe. They couldn’t even use the original name because it was so tied to the original Lillian Hellman play. I’ve never seen These Three, although now I’d like to, but The Children’s Hour is a very worthwhile movie.