Thursday, December 31, 2015
SAVAGE CINEMA DEBUTS: "THE CHILDREN'S HOUR" (1961)
Based upon the play by Lillian Hellman
Screenplay Written by John Michael Hayes
Directed by William Wyler
***1/2 (three and a half stars)
You know, this one took me by surprise.
Dear readers, I typically do not find myself in the habit of watching old movies. Not for any sense of prejudice I may or may not hold towards films older than myself, although I will admit to feeling that "old movies" do tend to read as "corny," a reaction that is nothing more than knee jerk and has often been proven wrong to me once I do actually sit down to watch. Director William Wyler's' "The Children's Hour" from 1961 is just such a film. While it was one that was undeniably hemmed in by the restrictions of the time period, it undoubtedly packed a hard, emotional punch, conveying ugly truths about our humanity that sadly still ring truthfully and loudly within the 21st century.
William Wyler's "The Children's Hour," based upon the original 1934 play of the same name by Lillian Hellman, and also a cinematic remake of his own "These Three" (1936), tells the sad, dark and infuriating tale of Karen Wright (played by Audrey Hepburn) and Martha Dobie (played by Shirley MacLaine), lifelong friends who have embarked upon their dream to open and run a private school for girls.
Martha's eccentric Aunt Lilly (played by Miriam Hopkins), also an aging actress, teaches elocution at the school, while additionally keeping somewhat dowdy Martha under her constant derision. The more elegant Karen, meanwhile, has been involved in a lengthy engagement to respected obstetrician Joe Cardin (a sharp James Garner), an engagement to which she has at long last accepted, and unfortunately,becomes another seismic element that only adds Martha's sadness as she fears Karen's marriage will take her away from their school, potentially leaving Martha alone.
Yet none of those day-to-day stresses compare a whit to the trauma caused by the relentlessly conniving, bratty and malicious Mary (played by Karen Balkin), a student prone to lying, stealing and even blackmailing her classmates. When Mary undergoes one transgression too many, leading her to be punished by Karen, she enacts her revenge by spreading a spiteful, vindictive, and wholly untrue rumor about Karen and Martha to her classmates and finally, to her wealthy, deeply influential Grandmother Amelia Tilford (played by Fay Banter). The rumor rapidly sends shock-waves throughout the school, threatening to inflict irreparable damage to both Karen and Martha.
Just by that description, I am certain that you are already able to guess what precisely the rumor Mary spreads in "The Children's Hour" happens to be. In fact, just as the movie was beginning (and even before the end of the opening credits) my wife happened to guess 100% correctly. To that end, knowing the contents of the rumor ahead of time will do nothing to spoil the actual viewing of the film. In fact, I think having the knowledge beforehand actually enhances the drama, making the film feel like that proverbial and unavoidable car crash that you are unable to do anything to stop from happening.
As I started watching, I do have to admit, that I was initially distracted by the old fashioned tenor of the piece, a certain chasteness of the times, I guess. But, very soon, jointly due to the often pointed nature of the dialogue as well as the performances overall, I found myself settling into the story. By the film's final sections, where the sense of melodrama increases greatly, the level of histrionics that would normally cause me to turn away rather revealed a powerful truth about human nature, the pain of love, an individual's existential crisis and the honest sense of tragedy that can so easily occur through just one person's unrepentant cruelty. Here is where William Wyler's "The Children's Hour" ceased to be just some "old movie" and transformed itself into something transcendent. And truthfully, I haven't been able to shake this one since having seen a few nights ago.
Both Audrey Hepburn and especially Shirley MacLaine were wonderful in the leading roles. While Hepburn's coquettish charms are initially upon display copiously, as the film continues and the lives of Karen and Martha begin to unravel, I was certainly impressed by Hepburn's subtle resolve and hard stoicism (especially during the film's emotionally brutal final moments). But mostly, I found myself very impressed with the various levels Hepburn approached her character of Karen, ultimately displaying a complex portrayal that really forces the audience to think about what exactly a "woman's role" in society could actually be.
To begin, let's take her reluctance to marry Joe, a quality that contains growing tension between the two and even makes their very first scene together crackle with a bit of frustration fueled nastiness on Joe's part. On the one hand, Karen is deeply focused upon her career with the school she has created alongside Martha and that is completely understandable that she would not wish to leave it all behind, essentially being forced to choose between her chosen career and marriage that she may not even fully desire in the first place. Even when she does accept Joe's proposal, throughout the remainder of the film, I always had the feeling that she wished that she hadn't succumbed to Joe's (rightful) pressure. (In Joe's full defense, he wished for nothing but to marry her and if she did not feel the same, then she owed it to him to reveal her intentions rather than keep him on deck, but I digress...)
Now, my feelings concerning whatever Karen's truest motives happened to have been do not strictly lie with her allegiance to her career and business relationship with Martha, I think we are meant to wonder if there are some other undertones to her feelings towards Martha. Just watch Hepburn from scene to scene, especially during the later sections of the film when life has fallen apart for both Karen and Martha. Watch how Hepburn wordlessly moves through sequences featuring just herself and MacLaine and I believe that you will find yourself questioning to what degree does Karen actually love Martha.
With regards to Martha, as played by Shirley MacLaine, the motives are crystal clear and provide "The Children's Hour" with its greatest sense of pathos. Yes, some of MacLaine's scenes are more on the melodramatic side, but I'm telling you, she floored me. Where Hepburn obviously carried the more glamorous appearance in the film, MacLaine was obviously geared to be more of the young, introverted, lonely spinster type. For me, she possessed a fragile beauty, as she carried a quietly devastating power that unearthed itself in sharp bursts in some of the film's early scenes and then exploded into a wrenching, painful, existential fury by film's end as she is forced to confront not only her deepest feelings for Karen but her entire concept of herself.
And herein lies the tragedy of "The Children's Hour," the paradox that occurs when a lie eventually is found to contain a level of truth, but a truth people are forced to confront completely not on their own terms or within their own specific time table. The character of the vitriolic Mary is despicable. Believe me, you will wish to reach inside of your screens and throttle the little beast because she is portrayed somewhere between exaggeration and reality. Honestly, there are some children this side of Damien skulking around in the world wishing for nothing but to make everyone share their misery.
What made me feel an increasing amount of anger as I watched "The Children's Hour" was not necessarily the bratty Mary herself but the ease in which she found herself able to lie for nothing else than her sense of childish self-preservation at the expense of anyone and everyone else around her. In fact, as I watched her, I found myself looking to events from my own life as a preschool teacher as well as events within the current political landscape where words are hurled around without thought of any sense of consequence whatsoever, especially when it comes to pervading prejudice and living through one's own fear of others different than oneself.
That fear based mentality combined with a wholly reckless behavior serves to cut wide and unforgiving swaths through individual's lives, a tragedy that is so sadly commonplace within our collective humanity and therefore, "The Children's Hour" is easily utilized as a parable, a means to hold up that much needed mirror to ourselves if we are to ever begin to understand the damage caused when we become piously judgmental. But the even greater tragedy for me remains as I think back to Martha as portrayed by Shirley MacLaine. I think of how everyone's journey of self discovery is so primal, personal and individualistic that it is nothing less than a crime to force another person to undergo lifelong transformation upon when they are not yet ready to acknowledge certain characteristics and qualities about themselves.
No, the film never announces "homosexuality" outright at any point but this is indeed the topic we are dealing with throughout the film and just imagine being a young woman in 1961, or rather anyone right now in 2015, who is entertaining questions about themselves and their sexuality. Shouldn't it be the right of each, individual person to be able to explore themselves when they wish to, if at all? With Martha, the rumor and the damage it ultimately causes for the school, Karen's impending marriage plus Joe's career (purely by association), brutally forces her to engage in her inner odyssey at a time when she was not ready, when she maybe wasn't even certain if she even had to embark upon such a journey anyway. It was a shock to the system. Too fast, too powerful and too soon and the effect was nothing less than an existential cataclysm. Again, the film's final scenes do indeed play to the melodrama of the time, and certainly didn't do the concept of addressing a person's homosexuality any favors as it does delve into the stereotypes of the time as well (lonely, never experiencing love, doomed to depression, etc...) but that being said, MacLaine delved deeply, unearthing the struggle poor Martha was not equipped to handle so rapidly and certainly within a public forum, where she is shamed, scorned, blamed and has soon become a public oddity or nasty curiosity.
How do we treat one another, acknowledge each other's similarities and differences, accept and admonish each other and especially based upon nothing but conjecture sits at the heart of William Wyler's "The Children's Hour," a heartfelt tale of love, lies and morality that is as essential to revisit in 2016 as it was to explore in 1961, 1934 and 1809, the year during which a real world event at a Scottish school involving two female teachers was the inspiration for the original play. Frankly, I would actually like to see a revival of this material for the 21st century but with people so divided, politically, racially, socially and spiritually, would anyone even take the time to listen anyway?
Yet, we should. So, for now, I invite you to place this film within your personal queues and settle in and I really think that when you experience the power of this film, and especially Shirley MacLaine's full performance, which equally moves from quaint and reserved to furious, shattered oblivion, may it remain housed inside of each of you just as it has for me.