Sanitizing The Children’s Hour


By some accounts a champion of female independence, playwright Lillian Hellman (1905-1984), crafted some of the most searingly honest plays ever produced by an American writer, beginning with her debut, the heart-wrenching 1934 drama The Children’s Hour (which was inspired by a true story). The play tells the story of two women who work hard to make their dream of creating a successful school for girls a reality. Their dreams are dashed as Mary, a malicious child, creates a lie claiming that the women are lovers. As the rumor spreads and society turns against them, the school is abandoned and the two women’s lives destroyed. Hellman’s play is a moving story of the devastating effects of a lie and the consequences of bigotry. An innocent woman takes her own life, and a prejudiced society thereafter has her blood on its hands.

Lillian Hellman

The Children’s Hour was a very controversial play when it was originally performed, being banned in Boston, London, and Chicago on account of the subject matter of homosexuality. Producers did not believe that American audiences were ready for the supposed lesbian relationship found in this play. Instead, in 1936, they released These Three, an altered version of Hellman’s play. Although Hellman herself wrote the screenplay, and although many of the scenes are nearly identical to those in The Children’s Hour, much of the story’s strength is lost because of the changes that were required due to the rules of the Production Code. Unlike the original play (and the film version of The Children’s Hour later produced in 1961), These Three is centered around a rumor of a heterosexual love triangle. Karen and Joe are in love, but in this version, Martha is secretly in love with Joe as well.


These Three lacks the passion evoked in The Children’s Hour. The 1936 version begins with the college graduation ceremony of Karen (Merle Oberon) and Martha (Miriam Hopkins, who would later appear in the 1961 film as Martha’s Aunt Lily). We see a hasty, seemingly spontaneous idea between the two to start a school for girls:

Karen: “What are you going to do?”

Martha: “I don’t know; teach somewhere I guess, if I can get a job.”

Karen: “Do you think I could teach?”

Martha: “Maybe we could find someplace together. Two well-educated young women, also neat and clean, wish position.”

Karen: “Martha, that farm of mine. I haven’t seen it in years, but it’s a lovely old place. I used to spend my summers there when I was a little girl. We could go there. Why not? Why shouldn’t we? We could work there … Martha, we might start a school, something of our own. We’d be good at it, too.”

In the next scene, the two women travel to the house that Karen has inherited from her grandmother. They find it in a dilapidated state, full of rats and bees. It is in this scene that we first meet Dr. Joe (Joel McCrea). He is in the process of tearing down the roof and ridding the house of bees. He explains that, on his days off from the hospital, he comes to the old house to make repairs, simply because he likes the house. He is not the owner, nor does he have any ties to the family or house. Nonetheless, somehow he (a complete stranger to the women) is able to convince Martha and Karen to restore the old house in order to start their school:

Joe: “You know, my place was just as bad as this, but it didn’t cost much to fix it. Much less than you’d think. Borrow a little money from the bank, and it’s fun doing it. So much fun I’d like to start all over again … You know, I used to do an operation at the hospital and then run home to paint the left side of the house.”

Martha: “We wouldn’t starve anyway, Karen, we’d always have free honey.”

Joe: “And free help. I’m a good carpenter, a good house painter, and good plumber.”

Both women fall in love with Joe as they work together restoring the house, but it is Karen who wins his heart. Martha does not let either party know of her affections for Joe until the very end.

In this version, malicious little Mary (Bonita Granville) creates a rumor that Martha and Dr. Joe have had “relations,” although he is engaged to Karen. Instead of Joe defending the two women, as in the original play, we instead find Karen defending Joe and Martha. Mrs. Tillford (Alma Kruger), the women’s benefactor and Mary’s grandmother, directs a speech to Karen, advising her to “clean her house.” In the scene where Karen and Joe part ways, it is Karen who asks Joe whether the lie is true or not. Although they still break up as in the play, the couple ends up happily together in the end, after the truth comes out.

The 1961 version of The Children’s Hour, on the other hand, is a much darker, intensely passionate film, and much closer to the original intent of Hellman’s play. While These Three has a lighter mood and happy ending, The Children’s Hour is nothing short of utter tragedy.

The film begins with a happy, serene setting. There are schoolgirls riding their bikes in a single file line, running along a serene pond in the sunshine, a sweet piano recital. From the very beginning, however, it is Malicious Mary (Karen Balkin) who ruins the otherwise heavenly scene by frightening one of her classmates.


In The Children’s Hour, there is a sense of the hard work that Martha (Shirley MacLaine) and Karen (Audrey Hepburn) have put into making the school a success. Near the beginning of the film, Karen and Martha are found drying dishes together as they discuss their progress with the school. Martha announces that for the first time ever, they have had a profitable month. It is clear to the viewer that these two women have invested their lives into making this school successful. Karen notes at one point, “I may be hasty, but I think it’s here to stay … it’s almost too good to believe.” Unfortunately, this is a dream that will be destroyed as a result of a child’s selfish lie.

Although many parts of these two films are nearly identical, and both were directed by the legendary William Wyler, the effect of each on the viewer is drastically different. Is it a result of the changes in the storyline? Is it the acting quality? To become fully invested in a film, the viewer needs to feel a connection to the characters–something that is admittedly easier with the latter version. The warmth and love associated with friendship is evident between Hepburn and MacLaine. The feelings that Martha has for Karen are also hinted at multiple times throughout the film. When they earn money, Karen suggests that they save it. Martha insists that Karen use the money to buy new clothes: “You’re a Fifth Avenue, Rue de la Paix. You need to be kept up.” Martha reminisces about meeting Karen: “I remember how you used to dress in college. The first time I ever saw you, running across the quadrangle, your hair flying … I remember thinking, ‘What a pretty girl.’” The love between the two women, romantic or otherwise, is much more evident in this film version.

The Children’s Hour ends with the death of an innocent woman, driven to suicide as the consequence of a child’s wicked and hateful nature. It’s a brutal, and brutally honest, ending. It is the colossal sense of grief demonstrated in the film–and in the original play–that leaves such a drastic and ultimately more profound impact on the viewer than does These Three.

This post is the first of several contributions True Classics will be making to the Queer Blogathon this week. Co-hosted by Garbo Laughs and Pussy Goes Grrr, the blogathon will feature posts about LGBT issues, images, and themes in films both classic and modern. Make sure to check out the wonderful entries that will be posted on each site!

22 thoughts on “Sanitizing The Children’s Hour

  1. Pingback: 2012 QUEER FILM BLOGATHON « Garbo Laughs

  2. Thanks for this in-depth review. I have never seen any of the film versions although I do own the one from the 60s and I will be watching it soon. Thanks for the recommendations. I will keep my eyes open for the older one as well.

  3. I haven’t seen these, although it reminds me a bit of The Crucible gone a new direction. Putting Audrey and Shirley in a film together is just genius, though. Makes it more depressing that it’s a tragedy.

  4. Brandie, A very incisive and intelligent look into the two versions of Lillian Hellman’s play. I’ve seen both and I don’t mind “These Three” at all, though it hasn’t power of “The Children’s Hour.” Shirley MacLaine is excellent as Martha in the later version, but I’ve always thought Audrey Hepburn and James Garner were slightly miscast.

  5. Sarah, a thoughtful comparison of the two versions of “The Children’s Hour.” I prefer the first version slightly over the remake (for other reasons than the treatment of the theme–with or without lesbianism, the story seems to me more of the 30s than of the 60s), but you pinpointed the essential differences between the two. What I found particularly interesting was how much Shirley MacLaine and Audrey Hepburn reminded me of Miriam Hopkins and Merle Oberon–not their manner so much as their appearance. For MacLaine especially this was a pretty drastic departure from the kind of part she typically played at that point in her career.

    • Thank you!

      I am definitely a MacLaine fan; what an extremely talented woman to be able to play so many different characters and roles. I simply cannot wait to see her in season three of PBS’s Downton Abbey! I know that she will be fantastic!

  6. Pingback: Queer Film Blogathon: Day 1 | Pussy Goes Grrr

  7. Lovely to meet you, Sarah, and thanks so much for contributing this excellent post to the blogathon! I’m ashamed to admit I haven’t seen either of these film adaptations of The Children’s Hour, although I did see a very stirring production of the play while in college. They both sound like they have something to offer, if only in demonstrating the difference between the two eras in which they were created. It’s also interesting to me that they were both directed by Wyler. Again, thanks very much for your insightful post!

    • Thank you! I am jealous; I would love to see a live performance. Apparently, Keira Knightly played the role of Karen in a performance in London last year. I wish I could have been there!

  8. This comparative review has been one of my favorite Queer Blogathon entries so far! Did you ever learn why William Wyler returned to this story and remade it more in line with the play?

    For me, These Three loses its impact not because it presents a straight storyline but because it omits the suicide. During the past few years, the media has raised awareness about the relationship between bullying/gossip and suicide (of straight and gay teens), and I think the 1961 adaptation would resonate deeply with youths because it doesn’t shy away from those issues.

    • First, thank you for the compliment! As I’m new to the world of blogging, I’ve been quite nervous about posting my writing online. It means a great deal to me that you’ve enjoyed this piece!

      I wholeheartedly agree about the loss of impact in “These Three.” From what I have read, Wyler wanted to recreate the play in its original form, but was prohibited from doing so by Hays Code. It seems as though when he got the chance in the 60s to create a version more in line with the play, he jumped on the opportunity. According to one article I read, (,) Wyler was encouraged by Hellman herself to make the changes so that “These Three” could be produced.

  9. Sarah, I am a big fan of THE CHILDREN’S HOUR (1961), which features my second favorite Shirley MacLaine performance (topped only by THE APARTMENT). She is incredible…and James Garner and Audrey offer solid support. The ending does indeed leave a “profound impact.”

  10. The Children’s Hour is SUCH a gut punch. I remember wandering out of the theater when I saw it in college just shaking. I hadn’t seen These Three at the time, and having seen The Children’s Hour first really sucked any enjoyment I might have taken from These Three right out of the equation. Such a pale shadow.

    • It’s definitely a tear jerker. Even though I’ve seen The Children’s Hour many times, I still can’t get through it without being heartbroken all over again each time I watch it.

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