I just saw the most absorbing and effective movie ever. Granted, it was a drama, and generally dramas should be as absorbing and emotionally effective as possible. However I’m one of those people for whom drama isn’t always that appealing.
The film is called The Children’s Hour and stars Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine as Miss Wright and Miss Dobie, two headmistresses of a school for girls. Though it’s been a bit of a struggle for the two, they are managing the best they can and are slowly starting to stand on their own two feet.
Throw a wrench in the works with a young trouble-making girl by the name of Mary. She lies, manipulates people, and seems to find joy in creating general havoc. After having been punished by one of the headmistresses she decides to take revenge. And take it, she does. In the most cruel and devastating way possible.
While Hepburn’s character, Wright, is engaged to be married, MacLaine’s, Dobie, is single, and has, in fact, never had a man or love in her life. Dobie’s aunt, who resides at the school and acts as assistant teacher, chides Dobie for, what she calls, Martha Dobie’s ‘unnatural’ affection for her fellow headmistress, Karen Wright. It is revealed that Martha has always been slightly jealous of any friendships that Karen has had with anyone else.
This is only too juicy a piece of gossip for Mary to sink her claws into, and sink them she does. Angry at always being punished, she manages to inflate this rumor, making her grandmother – her sole guardian – believe that very untoward things (untoward at the time, anyway) are going on in the school house. Soon, there’s a mass exodus, as the ugly rumor travels at alarming speeds and parents quickly come to send their children home.
The desperation that both Hepburn and McClaine portray is so realistic and just seemed to ooze out of the screen, that soon I found myself enveloped in it, as well. I, too, could feel how utterly helpless they felt in the face of such a rumor, quickly, and determinedly forcing itself into reality. Their names are dragged through the media and soon they are ostracized in their own community. Even Karen’s fiancé, Joe, begins to doubt the two women’s friendship, and by doing so affects his relationship with Karen.
The acting, I thought, was superb. That of Hepburn’s and McClaine’s anyway. Their anguish and sorrow, their desperation is all so evident in their body language and facial expressions. Even when Martha admits the ‘strange’ feelings she has had for Karen, the strength of their friendship is still evident in Karen’s treatment of Martha. Hepburn manages to display both tenderness and confusion, while McClaine’s anguish at her admission, as well her obvious hatred for herself is heart – wrenching to watch. I had tears in my eyes, and a lump in my throat as Martha cries out at Karen, “I can’t stand to have you touch me! I can’t stand to have you look at me!” These two lines were especially redolent of the sort of aversion there was at the time to homosexual relationships – or a homosexual ‘state’ – when people thought it was a disgusting phase, or a strange disease which must be put up with in order to reach the other side. I just can’t imagine what sort of outcry there must have been at the time this film was released.