In a time of what seems to be around one lesbian film release a month, (bless my little, queer heart) I wanted to draw people’s attention to The Children’s Hour (1961), an American drama based on a 1934 play of the same title by Lilian Hellman. I was first introduced to the film through The Celluloid Closet (1995), a documentary detailing the way LGBTQ+ characters have been represented across cinema, especially Hollywood, up to that point. The protagonists of the story, Martha and Karen, are played by Shirley MacLaine and Audrey Hepburn and personally, I couldn’t understand how a queer film starring both actresses had gone over my head. Opinion is divided over whether it counts as a queer film at all but either way, I immediately sought it out. Overall, I must agree with MacLaine’s comment that there would be a “outcry” if the film were released today. As The Celluloid Closet explains, The Children’s Hour comes from a time when the taboos of the Motion Picture Production Code, otherwise known as The Hays Code, were being “whittled away”. Although homosexuality was being talked about on screen, it was only as “something that nice people didn’t talk about”, which clearly positions it as something immoral. Yet I hope to shed some light on why I still have a fondness for the film and view it as an important staple in queer cinema.
Martha and Karen work together running a school for girls, a vocation which is severely jeopardised when a student named Mary accuses the two women of kissing and being lovers. This forces Martha and Karen to abandon their school as all the parents remove their children from their care, and they spend the majority of the film defending themselves against these rumours. Although Mary’s comment is a lie weaved to spite Martha and Karen who had previously scolded her for misbehaving, it causes Martha to come to a realisation about her sexuality, and to open up about her romantic attraction towards Karen. MacLaine’s portrayal of Martha is a large part of why I’m a fan of this film. From the first suggestion that Martha wishes to be more than friends with Karen, her performance is both beautiful and utterly heart-breaking. Before any “accusations” are made, Martha reminisces about the first time she saw Karen, and smiles to herself as her sentence wanders off in a way I’m sure we all have experienced when infatuated or indeed, in love.
I am unsure of exactly how Martha was intended to be viewed by a 1960s audience – although the film does ultimately punish her for her homosexuality, she is by no means painted as a villain or someone audiences should learn to hate. The antagonist of the film is the child who begins the rumours of an affair, Mary. Not only is she shown to be rude towards her teachers, but she actively bullies and manipulates other students, including Rosalie who she pressures into confirming that Martha and Karen are lovers. Martha is a victim of Mary’s lies and the audience is encouraged to feel sympathy towards her as the happy environment that she and Karen have built up together falls apart. Martha remains supportive of Karen as they endure the neighbourhood turning against them. While those who seek to bring Martha and Karen down are emphasised as flawed and self-centred, Martha is a kind-hearted individual. Her final scenes are all the more painful for it.
Martha does not recognise her feelings towards Karen as romantic until the film’s final act in which she exclaims, “I do love you.” Martha doesn’t look at Karen as she expresses this and the dialogue sounds more like a torturous confession than the proud coming out that contemporary audiences may expect. However, we must remember that this film was made during the 1960s, a time where discussions of homosexuality were not as open. Even though there are lines throughout the film which in which characters explicitly discuss women “kissing”, in her interview for The Celluloid Closet, Shirley MacLaine recalls that homosexuality was not something she and Audrey Hepburn considered as a possibility on set and ponders out loud: “Isn’t that amazing?” For two actors to perform a scene where one confesses love for the other and to not discuss what that could mean for their characters seems rather bizarre to me. MacLaine explains to them the film was just about a child’s secret, which at the time they believed could have been anything. Yet how the secret could have been interpreted as anything else when considering some of the dialogue has confused my poor brain cells every time I watch it. I wasn’t born until the 90s so can only guess, but the actresses lack of discussing the true feelings of their characters seems to say a lot about just how taboo discussions of homosexuality were at that time. MacLaine explains that they simply did not understand the subject enough or what they were doing when making the film, thus they did not get it right.
I am fortunate enough to have grown up in an accepting family and with a large circle of LGBTQ+ friends, yet even for me, the coming out process wasn’t smooth, which is why Martha’s experience remains upsetting. It’s almost sixty years since the release of The Children’s Hour, yet the shame that certain societies and individuals force onto queer identities can still be a struggle to recover from. Martha distinguishes herself and Karen as different because they do not love one another, but continues to contemplate her relationship with Karen, hunched over and fretting in a chair as she attempts to explain away the realisation she is coming to. Meanwhile Karen sits a distance away from her, deep in thought and not truly processing what her friend is trying to say, causing Martha to break. She exclaims to Karen that, “I do love you the way they said!” Karen attempts to stop Martha from talking, but the years of repressed emotions come pouring out. I doubt there will ever be a coming out scene that grips me more. I have seen enough LGBTQ+ films to be able predict what the final moments for Martha would be in my first viewing, and they do not include her and Karen running off into the sunset. Martha’s coming out ends with her taking her own life. It’s for this reason I often warn friends before they watch it. I have known people to leave cinema screens when emotional narratives cut too close to the bone.
When speaking in The Celluloid Closet, author and performer Susie Bright discusses how she often questions why Martha’s coming out scene still makes her cry, telling herself that this is “an old, silly movie and people don’t feel this way anymore.” She then explains that she doesn’t think that’s entirely true – that people do still feel that way and that despite all her signs of queer pride, there is still a part of her that asking, “How could I be this way?” That I do understand. This is the part of Martha that I believe unfortunately, many gay audiences, no matter how accepting their social circles are, will empathise with and why I still value this film. Even I have memories of looking in mirror as teenager and thinking “How could I be this way?” I still have family members who, despite being incredibly accepting, still comfortably voice that being gay is ultimately unnatural and something that, as Martha words it, is “wrong.” I don’t mind too much if people believe this, what worries me is that they still feel justified in stating it to people they know identify as LGBTQ+. I’m not even sure what “natural” is supposed to mean in 2019. We still live in a world where anything other than a heterosexual “norm” is ultimately looked down on and coming out remains a difficult process inclusive of fear as to how other may react. It is this unfortunately justified fear that drives Martha to suicide. Homophobia is not over and worryingly it’s showing no signs of disappearing among younger generations, as this BBC article explores.
There’s no denying that The Children’s Hour is a problematic film, especially when considered among more contemporary releases, which still have a way to go regarding diversity at the very least. However, it is reassuring to look back and see how we have progressed, and that even the most devastating parts of the narrative still have relevance within the modern world. As MacLaine says, they did not understand the subject they were addressing at the time, thus they did not get the film completely right. Yes, homosexuality is an accusation against which characters must defend themselves, and Martha is punished for coming out as gay, but Martha and that scene in particular are why I still value the film. Martha is a kind-hearted friend, her feelings when coming out are ones to which I can relate, and although Karen is initially shocked by Martha’s words and unsure of how to react, she does not reject Martha as her friend. A bond remains between the two women until the end – when outside walking, Karen senses what Martha has done, rushes back to the house and is visibly distraught to find her dead.
Although I understand why many modern viewers may dislike it and prefer not to watch it, The Children’s Hour will always come to my mind when discussing queer cinema and I don’t think it is right to completely dismiss problematic films from our history. We can learn from them and there is still value in productions that first brought such discussions to the screen. Although I would not welcome the narrative of The Children’s Hour today, there are still worse and more contemporary examples I can think of. (Chasing Amy, anyone?) So, I will continue to encourage others to give time to The Children’s Hour, and I will always hold Martha close to my heart.