The Children's Hour
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A Note Regarding Spoilers

The following FAQ entries may contain spoilers. Only the biggest ones (if any) will be covered with spoiler tags. Spoiler tags have been used sparingly in order to make the page more readable.

For detailed information about the amounts and types of (a) sex and nudity, (b) violence and gore, (c) profanity, (d) alcohol, drugs, and smoking, and (e) frightening and intense scenes in this movie, consult the IMDb Parents Guide for this movie. The Parents Guide for The Children's Hour can be found here.

Spiteful student Mary Tilford (Karen Balkin) accuses School for Girls teacher Karen Wright (Audrey Hepburn) and headmistress Martha Dobie (Shirley MacLaine) of an 'unnatural relationship' setting off malacious gossip that destroys not only the school but the lives of Karen and Martha.

The Children's Hour is a movie adaptation of the 1934 play The Children's Hour by American playwright Lillian Hellman [1905-1984]. Hellman and screenwriter John Michael Hayes adapted the play for the screen. The play was also adapted for the movie These Three (1936), however, the lesbian relationship was changed to one of a heterosexual nature because of the strict Production Codes being observed during that period.

Mary bases her accusation on fragments of a conversation that she overheard and then blackmails another student, Rosalie (Veronica Cartwright). into corroborating the made-up story. The big "L" to this movie is not about lesbianism but about the Lie that destroys the lives of the two teachers.

It is said that Hellman got the idea from her lover, Dashiell Hammett, who read about a similar case in William Roughead's book Bad Companions (1930), which details famous British court cases. In the chapter "Closed Doors, or The Great Drumsheugh Case," Roughead tells of an 1810 scandal at an Edinburgh (Scotland) boarding school where a pupil accused two teachers of having a lesbian affair. Just as in the play, the case involved the two headmistresses (Jane Pirie and Marianne Woods), the young pupil (Jane Cumming), the rich grandmother (Dame Helen Cumming Gordon), even the elderly aunt who was a former actress. The only character Hellman created for her play was the boyfriend. Pirie and Woods sued Dame Helen for libel (and eventually won), but their lives and careers were ruined. Dame Helen refused to pay the amount set by the court, and it's unknown whether or not Pirie and Woods were ever compensated.

The title comes from an 1860 poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow [1807-1882], also titled "The Children's Hour." It's a description of three daughters and their father romping together at the end of the day. The poem is in the public domain and can be read online here. In terms of how the play is structured, the first hour belongs to the children and the remainder to the adults.

"How could a young child concoct such a story if it weren't true?" is one of the arguments that was used against the teachers in the actual Drumsheugh case. Hellman addresses this issue in her play, as well as in the movie, by showing the girls passing around a book. Their wide eyes and comments ("Wow ! Double Wow !") suggest that the book was the source of their knowledge. The title of the book is not revealed in the movie. In the play, Hellman names the book as Mademoiselle de Maupin (1834) by French author Thophile Gautier [1811-1872]. The book was considered racy for its time, as the story features men and women falling in love with women who are disguised as men, only to find out in the end their true sexual identity. It also details the anguish of one of the characters (D'Albert) when he finds out that the "woman" he is in love with turns out to be a man. Reading such a novel would probably be sufficient to set the wheels spinning in the mind of a young girl, even if she didn't know the word for it.

No. Wright and Dobie met when they were 17-year old schoolgirls. They decided to run a boarding school for girls. Karen is in love with and engaged to Dr Joe Cardin (James Garner). As the events of the story unfurl, however, Martha does come to believe/realize that her feelings for Karen do go beyond friendship.

Where are Mary's parents?

No mention of Mary's parents is made in the film. In the play, it is stated that her father committed suicide, but her mother's whereabouts or demise is not mentioned. For the story, Mary Tilford is a ward of her rich grandmother, Amelia Tilford (Fay Bainter).

How does the movie end?

Rosalie's mother (Sally Brophy) finds the "stolen" bracelet, and Rosalie tells Mrs Tilford and her mother how Mary forced her to tell that malicious lie. Mrs Tilford apologizes profusely to Martha and Karen, offering them money and a public apology, but the teachers are not placated, do not accept her apology, and order her out of their house. Karen asks Martha to go away with her so that they can begin again somewhere else, but Martha just wants to sleep. Karen goes for a walk. When she returns, she finds the door to Martha's room is locked. She breaks down the door, and it swings open to reveal that Martha has hung herself. The final scene is at the cemetery. Joe is watching Karen from a distance, but Karen does not acknowledge him. She walks proudly through the crowd of mourners, her head held high as she leaves the cemetery.

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