The 1960s brought back Hellman’s lesbian who vanished three decades earlier. But why does she die?
“She found the lie with the ounce of truth.” – The Children’s Hour, film
Because of the major changes forced on William Wyler when he made Lillian Hellman’s smash Broadway play The Children’s Hour into the film These Three (1936), the director commented, “Miss Hellman’s play has not yet been filmed” (Gardner, 191). The Hays Office would not allow Wyler or United Artists to make reference to the original play in any advertising of the film, and they forced a title change. No screen credit was given to Hellman along the lines of “based on the play by Lillian Hellman.” Hellman wrote the screenplay herself, changing the whispered rumor of a lesbian relationship between the two teachers to an illicit, though heterosexual, love affair between one of the teachers and her colleague’s fiancé. Hellman’s having to wrestle her own material into some kind of shape amenable to the Hays Office is indicated in the struggles she had with a new title, contemplating “The Hour of Liberty” and “Angel Child” for a script completed in October 1935. She settled on These Three for the final draft a month later.
Twenty-five years later, Wyler got a second chance to film the play, again for United Artists, producing it himself. Miriam Hopkins, Martha in the first version, returned to play Mrs. Mortar, providing an interesting continuity between the two casts. Title questions persisted, however. Under consideration were “Infamous,” “The Infamous,” and “The Loudest Whisper.” The title from the original play, though, won out, and The Children’s Hour, with Lillian Hellman’s name blazoned across the “based on” screen credit, was released in 1961.
While Hellman had adapted her own play the first time around, this time the task fell to John Michael Hayes. Hellman gets screen credit for “adapting” Hayes’s script, though she claimed later that she “didn’t have anything to do with it. It was done by somebody else” (Bryer, 170). According to Bernard Dick, “Hammett’s death in 1961 caused her to lose interest in the project” (43). The Hayes screenplay actually followed the action of the drama more closely than Hellman did herself 25 years earlier. Despite the apparent fidelity, however, this second film version of The Children’s Hour is no more faithful an adaptation than These Three. Both films avoid the issues of power that are central to the original play.
As Wyler began the project of finally filming the play, homosexuality and lesbianism were still considered reasons to prohibit a movie’s release. In 1961, the fact that the play did not contain the actual word “lesbian” did not make it any easier to film than it was 25 years earlier. Ultimately, however, The Children’s Hour enjoyed more success against the censors than did These Three, which capitulated entirely to Hays Office demands. The remake became one of a handful of landmark films contributing to the revamping of the Production Code, which was eventually replaced with the somewhat more liberal ratings system. The changes came about largely because of market pressures, however, not because the Motion Picture Association of America had suddenly become a kinder, gentler censoring body. According to Vito Russo:[In] addition to The Children’s Hour and Advise and Consent, Gore Vidal’s The Best Man and Morris West’s The Devil’s Advocate, both with homosexual subplots, were under consideration by major studios. It seemed that the film industry, waiting to deal with this subject, had successfully put the squeeze on an already weakened Code. For producers knew that their films, like Preminger’s The Moon Is Blue and The Man with the Golden Arm, would do well at the box office even if they were released without a seal. (122)
At the time that Wyler made These Three, moviehouses would not run films without the MPAA seal of approval, which allowed the censors to maintain de facto control over production through their actual control over distribution. By 1961, however, Arthur Krim, the president of United Artists, indicated that he would be willing to release The Children’s Hour without such a seal. He suggested to the censors that they “initiate steps for an amendment to the code that would permit such a release,” and “on October 3, 1961 … the Production Code was amended to permit the prudent treatment of homosexuality – which called it “‘sexual aberration'” (Gardner, 193). While such a change may seem the harbinger of greater tolerance, Russo sees the change as the MPAA’s desperate efforts to “maintain some illusion of control” (122) over film production. Homosexuality, though now mentionable, was “still a subject to be whispered about but not to be explored in a meaningful way” (122). The film that was ultimately made by Wyler seems to bear out this analysis.
Taking advantage of a nominal tolerance produced by the demands of the marketplace, Wyler’s second adaptation may seem at first to be more faithful to the original play than his first attempt, and there are significant differences between These Three and The Children’s Hour. To conform to censors’ demands in 1936, Hellman completely re-wrote the crux of the drama, having one of the children in the boarding school accuse one teacher of sleeping with the other teacher’s fiancé. In the remake, the most obvious restoration is the nature of the whispered secret: Karen and Martha’s “sinful sexual knowledge” of each other. This restoration frees Wyler from the contrived triangle that devolved Hellman’s play about power relationships into a typical Hollywood love story. Screenwriter Hayes retains the cinematically necessary opening as Hellman had for These Three, setting up the school and the characters with a recital at the school, but he has Karen and Joe already affianced before the time of the movie, as Hellman has them already engaged when the curtain goes up. The timing of this plot point returns the Joe and Karen love story to the background where it belongs. Also, Martha commits suicide this time around, instead of merely exiting the narrative. She does, however, hang herself rather than use a gun. The moment of discovery is highly cinematic and effective: while Karen breaks open the lock of Martha’s door, a cut to the inside of the room shows a noose in silhouette. Once inside, Karen sees an overturned chair with a single shoe beside it.
The changes Hayes did make, however, once again significantly refocus the film. Most notably, he rearranged the sequence of events – the two confessions and the suicide – in such a way as to avoid directly addressing the relations of power that stand at the dramatic center of the play. First, in a beautifully filmed, though somewhat overacted, sequence, Martha admits her feelings for Karen, declaring herself “guilty” of ruining both their lives. “I do love you,” she says softly with her face turned away from the camera, “I couldn’t call it by name before.” Next, after Martha makes her confession, Mrs. Tilford arrives to make hers.1 She knocks timidly at the door of the school and enters, her slumped posture a marked contrast to her regal bearing during the confrontation scene earlier in her home. She describes Mary’s perjured testimony and agrees to a public apology and the damage suit paid in full. Only after both admissions does Martha commit suicide.
In both the play and the 1936 film, Mrs. Tilford receives some comfort. In the former, Karen agrees to let Mrs. Tilford give her money in order to help the older woman “feel better” about her complicity in Martha’s death. In the latter, Martha makes Mrs. Tilford her messenger, a duty she gratefully accepts as the least she can do. Karen in the play and Martha in These Three are the ones who suffer the most when Mrs. Tilford exercises the power she has unchecked; sympathy from the victimized for the perpetrator isn’t merely a sentimental ploy. Particularly in the play, this sympathy reveals that power is constructed, not inherent in a righteous moral position. The sequence of events actually throws the plot backwards, toward a reexamination of the entire set of circumstances leading up to a death. The ending is not tidy, in a well-made play sort of way, opening up instead the possibility that such power and morality are harmful, even fatal.
In the 1961 version, however, Karen is at first cold toward Mary’s grandmother, then angry. “Go away, Mrs. Tilford,” she snaps at her, “there’s nothing that we want from you.” After Mrs. Tilford desperately cries out, “Help me!” Karen shouts at her: “Please leave, Mrs. Tilford. We don’t want you here.” Hayes cut all the lines from the play that indicate Mrs. Tilford’s concern for Karen – “You’ll be all right? (68). More importantly, he cut the entire exchange that dramatizes Karen’s refusal to triumph over Mary’s grandmother:
KAREN: I’m tired, Mrs. Tilford. You will have a hard time ahead, won’t you?
MRS. TILFORD: Yes.
MRS. TILFORD: I don’t know.
KAREN: You can send her away.
MRS. TILFORD: No. I could never do that. Whatever she does, it must be to me and no one else. She’s – she’s –
KAREN: Yes. Yours to live with the rest of your life. (For a moment, she watches Mrs. Tilford’s face) It’s over for me now, but it will never end for you. She’s harmed us both, but she’s harmed you more, I guess. (Sits down beside Mrs. Tilford) I’m sorry. (The Children’s Hour, 67-68)
In the play, Karen does not wield the power that comes to her through Mary’s confession. She does not extract money or apologies or Mrs. Tilford’s public humiliation. Instead, she sees how difficult Mrs. Tilford’s remaining years will be for her, that whatever she does for Karen “won’t bring [her] peace” (67).
Karen’s refusal to show any compassion, any quality of mercy, in Wyler’s remake reduces the importance of Mrs. Tilford’s confession to a mere plot development, the twist in the last reel. The momentum of the story continues inexorably forward with such questions as what will Karen do now, will she and Joe ever reconcile, how will the townspeople who had been so brutal treat her now? There is no looking back over the sequence of events that could drive a young woman to suicide.
Contributing to this reduction of the confession to plot point is its timing. In the play, Martha has already killed herself when Mrs. Tilford arrives to make her disclosures. In the remake, however, Martha hears Mrs. Tilford’s admission. Karen rebuffs Mrs. Tilford’s attempts to atone mostly because she is concentrating on Martha, on her reaction, thinking about what this means in the wake of Martha’s own revelations. After Mrs. Tilford’s plea for help, Martha begins to laugh almost hysterically. “Help you?” she cries before running upstairs. Karen runs up the stairs after her, as a defeated and dejected Mrs. Tilford slouches out the door. Continuing the film beyond the point of Mrs. Tilford’s revelation has the same effect as ending the play with Martha’s suicide. The center of the drama shifts each time away from the problem of Mrs. Tilford and how she exercises power. In Wyler’s remake, he refocuses the drama on the relationship between Karen and Martha. While a strong female friendship would be a welcome event in Hollywood films, that’s still not what the original play is about. The first version turned the play into a typical Hollywood love story; this version, 25 years later, explores neither relationships of power nor female devotion. Instead, the question remaining is simply what will everyone do next?
What does this version do? Cinematically, it is not as suspenseful as the first version. Perhaps Wyler was trying to be sedate and tasteful with the newfound permission to make the film. For whatever reason, the movie lacks the plot-driven cohesion and tension of Hellman’s plays and films. Even so, the representation of two women, devoted to each other and the enterprise (the school) that ensures their independence, is well done. And yet … the movie fosters, however tastefully, a lesbian stereotyping that the critics latched onto hard and fast. Clearly, the Audrey Hepburn character is more “feminine” than the Shirley MacLaine character. That Audrey could be a dyke is simply not a possibility. And John Michael Hayes had Martha go by her last name, Dobie, an affectation that does not appear in the original play or the first film version. In These Three, the lesbian vanished. In The Children’s Hour, she’s still gone. In her place is a cliché.
Critical reaction to The Children’s Hour seems an eager display of a hip liberalism; however, the stereotyping in which these critics engage reveals a position that obviates the “meaningful” discussion Russo would have. While Percy Hammond in his review of the 1934 stage production of the play choked on “the naughty word ‘L_____n,'” modern critics are quick to pronounce the word “lesbian.” Bernard Dick wonders if Mary, “who reads Mademoiselle de Maupin and prefers to play the knight rather than the lady,” is actually “the repressed lesbian of the drama” (44). Further, he suggests that perhaps “Karen may also be a lesbian,” but claims this possibility never quite materializes in Wyler’s remake because “Hepburn’s Karen was so completely feminine” (48).
Joan Mellen, in Women and Their Sexuality in the New Film, claims that Martha’s “mannish manner clearly marks her as a lesbian” (97). While “Karen is feminine,” apparently a marker of heterosexuality, “that she has refused to set a date for her marriage, preferring to remain with ‘Dobie’ on the grounds that she must wait until the school begins to prosper, suggests that she too has homosexual leanings” (97). Agreeing with Bernard Dick, Mellen sees Mary as “already the prototype of the potential lesbian” (97). In general, Mellen laments that there are so few “cinematic portrayals of the female homosexual which show her as thoughtful, considerate, and willing at times to sacrifice her own desires for those of the other – in short, capable of real love” (99). Parker Tyler, in Screening the Sexes: Homosexuality in the Movies, simply assumes both Karen and Martha are practicing lesbians, and describes them as “those finagling schoolteachers” who “had mutely agreed … to have things out in a safe place where nobody could snoop on them” (274).
According to the critics, then, women must be prototypical lesbians when they do not conform to the social expectations of “feminine” behavior, as in the case of Mary, or full-blown lesbians, as in the case of Martha. Mellen’s insistence that Karen’s postponement of her marriage signifies homoerotic feelings denies the possibility that two women can simply be friends with a nonsexual commitment to each other. “Real love,” as defined by Mellen, requires a woman “to sacrifice her own desires for those of the other.” Mellen wants homosexual women to conform to a heterosexual norm of self-sacrificing love that has crippled women in Western culture, trapping them in the home, to bear the entire responsibility for rearing the children and maintaining the domestic space. If Mellen would only read Hellman’s play Toys in the Attic, she could see just how violent and destructive such sacrificial love can be.
Although more willing, even eager to pronounce the word “lesbian” than the critics and reviewers in the ’30s who discussed “rumors of abnormality” or the “less than natural cause” of Martha’s anxieties, critics such as Mellen and Tyler perpetuate a stereotype of lesbians that binds them to the margins of our culture, while shoring up heterosexual norms of “real love” as self-sacrifice. The critical focus on whether or not the two women are “really” lesbians once again distracts from the main point. In this way, Martha’s suicide is reduced to the act of a hysterical woman instead of being the fatal representation of her having internalized the culture’s heterosexual norm. Her love for Karen is self-sacrificing – literally. Yet somehow, it doesn’t count.
The final scene of the film, which takes place at the funeral, marks Karen’s contempt for the citizens of Lancet, but does not call into question relations of power in the way that the final scene in the play does. Only Karen and Mrs. Mortar stand beside the grave, with Karen reading from the 21st Psalm. After escorting Mrs. Mortar to a waiting car, Karen slowly walks down the lane out of the cemetery. She moves with a slow gait and a dignified, proud bearing – past Joe, past a small crowd of parents and former pupils, past the people who are complicit in Martha’s death. The film ends on this quietly defiant note. In January 1962, the Hollywood Reporter, a trade magazine, reported that the filmmakers were “tacking a new upbeat ending onto The Children’s Hour. Instead of leaving her sobbing in the cemetery, as of the present print, Jim Garner [Joe Cardin] will follow Audrey Hepburn home.” Leaving Karen sobbing in the cemetery would have made Martha’s death utterly futile. Both women would have been ruined, unable to cope. The new ending would have been essentially the same as in These Three: the two proper lovers come together at the end. The only difference would have been that in 1936, Martha’s sacrifice did not necessitate her death. The ending that eventually wound up on the movie screen leaves Karen alone, as at the end of the play, but more defiant, less conciliatory. Wyler himself was not in a particularly conciliatory mood in 1962; he was willing to defy the censors and release the movie without their seal of approval, so the ending seems quite apt for the time. However, as in These Three, the focus does shift away from the relations of power that precipitate Martha’s death. Apparently, even in the nominally more tolerant ’60s, power is ultimately a more tabooed topic than sex.
Bryer, Jackson. Conversations with Lillian Hellman. Jackson, MS, and London: University of Mississippi Press, 1986.
Dick, Bernard. Hellman in Hollywood. Rutherford, Madison, and Teaneck, NJ: Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1982.
Gardner, Gerald. The Censorship Papers: Movie Censorship Letters from the Hays Office, 1934-1968. New York: Dodd, Mead, and Company, 1987.
Hammond, Percy. “The Theatres – ‘The Children’s Hour,’ A Good Play About a Verboten Subject.” New York Herald-Tribune, 21 Nov. 1934: 16.
Hellman, Lillian. The Collected Plays. Boston, Toronto: Little, Brown, and Company, 1971.
Mellen, Joan. Women and Their Sexuality in the New Film. New York: Horizon Press, 1973.
Tyler, Parker. Screening the Sexes: Homosexuality in the Movies. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1972.
- In between the sequences in which Karen sends Joe away and Martha admits her feelings for Karen, Wyler inserted a sequence that shows Roaslie Wells preparing to leave for a new school. Mrs. Wells finds a handkerchief full of trinkets stolen by Rosalie. A series of dissolves connects this scene with Rosalie and her mother at Mrs. Tilford’s house to Mrs. Tilford’s arrival at the school. [↩]