The 1961 film The Children’s Hour is a remake of the 1936 film entitled These Three. The films are based on Lillian Hellman’s stage play involving two women who become targets of malicious gossip surrounding their alleged lesbian relationship. Director William Wyler, who directed the original film in 1936, has a second crack at the material and manages to wring some amazing performances out of his actors. The story centers around two women- Martha (Shirley MacLaine) and Karen (Audrey Hepburn) who are headmistresses of an all-girls school. The two women are successful school leaders, but are having trouble with one of their mean-spirited students, Mary (Karen Balkin). After being punished for her latest misdeed, Mary rushes to her wealthy grandmother, Mrs. Tilford (Fay Bainter) and tells her that the two teachers are involved in an “unnatural relationship”- a term she doesn’t comprehend and undoubtedly picked up from one of the adult-themed books that she hides under her pillow. Soon Mary’s lies take hold and parents begin to pull their daughters from the school. Martha and Karen fight to clear their names and file suit against Mrs. Tilford for libel. Unfortunately they wind up losing the battle because Martha’s Aunt Lily (Miriam Hopkins), who also works at the school, refuses to be associated with the case and fails to testify as a character witness on her niece’s behalf. When Mary’s lie finally untangles and the truth comes out, Mrs. Tilford tries to make amends. But the damage has been done and tragedy ultimately settles on Martha and Karen.
The film, which by today’s standards would be considered mild, broke new ground in 1961 as it examined an alleged lesbian relationship between two women. The film scored 5 Oscar nominations including Best Costume Design, Best Cinematography, Best Sound, Best Art Direction and Best Supporting Actress. The film came away with no wins in an extremely competitive year.
Fay Bainter, nominee, (159) scored a nomination for her role as Mrs. Amelia Tilford, Mary’s uptight and controlling grandmother who blindly believes the lies she’s told by her scheming granddaughter. Bainter, who landed her second Best Supporting Actress nomination with this film, serves as an incredibly effective villian. However, Bainter refuses to play Mrs. Tilford as a a forgettable monster and instead infuses her with subtlety and transforms her into a sympathetic and gullible victim in Mary’s game. Bainter turns in stellar work for this, her final film. She lost the Oscar to Rita Moreno in West Side Story.