Film: “The Children’s Hour”

The retrospect on Mr de Givenchy, with its photos and film-trailers inspired a longing to watch Audrey Hepburn in a few films – on DVD. Many of her popular films like “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”, “Funny Face”, or “Roman Holiday” can still be regularly watched on television. The more serious films less so and this is a pity.

Browsing the DVD section of a library, I came across “The Children’s Hour”. The film was unknown to me. From the blurb on the DVD box, it seemed not just a serious film. It seemed Audrey Hepburn had been cast in an unlikely role.

childrens-hour-1This black-and-white film is based on a play by Lillian Hellman. I had become familiar with her “Pentimento” through the film “Julia”. For her play “These Three”, Lillian Hellman used a true story and was asked to write the script for the first version of “The Children’s Hour”. It is the second film version I watched.

It not only stars Audrey Hepburn, but also Shirley MacLaine and James Garner. The theme is quite modern. In fact, while reading the blurb on the box, I was surprised a black-and-white film with such a theme actually existed. For this film deals with two women accused of being lesbians.

The film opens with the two young women running a girls’ school. The aunt of one of them is supposed to assist, but from the start it is clear this lady is hopeless. The school ensures an income, independence, a roof over the head of all three, but relations are sometimes strained.

Audrey Hepburn plays Karen who is not only a teacher but also engaged to local doctor Cardin, played by James Garner. The doctor is related to a rich and influential lady. The latter has recently placed her spoilt grand-daughter at the school. The combination of stupid aunt and spiteful girl sets a series of unstoppable events into motion.

As in real life – and in the real 18th century true story – false accusations wreck lives. The film is unbeatable as a portrait of the destructiveness of society, its narrow-mindedness, its eagerness to believe the worst, its willingness and speed to judge.

Shirley MacLaine is wonderful as the sterner of the two teachers. Her role is the more difficult one. Her character has to come to terms with her aunt not just wrecking her life, but of two other people she cares about. She also has to face some shattering truths about herself.

James Garner is convincing as the faithful and successful, no-nonsense doctor. He supports both women against his own family, his friends, his employers. Towards the end of the film, he has lost his job, has sold his house and hopes to convince his two female friends to start life again elsewhere..

Audrey Hepburn is his fiancée, who ultimately loses all. It was quite surprising to see her act in such a serious role, in a film which might well have damaged her career. Nevertheless, there are close-ups which focus on her beautiful face. There are one or two scenes in the second part of the film, which make one wonder if an outstanding character actress would not have acted even better.

The film is a balanced piece of acting with neither of its three stars steeling the limelight. There are a few other actresses, including the two young girls, who impress in small roles.

“The Children’s Hour” certainly shows Audrey Hepburn should not only be remembered for the sugary-sweet, romantic films with which most of us are familiar. This film is neither superficial, nor funny. It is a pity it is nearly forgotten and Lillian Hellman’s play cannot be seen in theatres more often.

“The Children’s Hour”, directed by William Wyler, script based on the earlier play and script by Lillian Hellman, 1961 version with Audrey Hepburn, Shirley MacLaine and James Garner. The DVD is available through Amazon.

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