Wednesday, May 5, 2021

The love that dare not speak its name until halfway through the third act


Directed by William Wyler
Written by John Michael Hayes (based on the play by Lillian Hellman)


Directed by William Wyler
Written by Lillian Hellman (based on her play The Children's Hour)

Spoiler alert: moderate, maybe high

In 1959, William Wyler had just finished Ben-Hur.  The most expensive movie ever made at the time of its release, it had earned huge profits for itself anyway, not to mention a small army of golden statues, the most Oscar wins of any film in history until Titanic tied it.  I regret that I have less production history than I'd like for his next film, but it's impossible not to speculate that Wyler leveraged his epochal success on its behalfthat now, armed with the prestige of Ben-Hur (and his own Best Director award, his third) and prepared to chip away further at a crumbling Motion Picture Production Code, he took the opportunity to press United Artists to help him correct an injustice he'd committed a quarter century earlier.  And so, in 1961, Wyler returned to a film he'd already made once before, 1936's These Three, to make it again, the way it should've been.

Wyler's 1961 The Children's Hour is perhaps more aptly-described, then, as a whole new adaptation of Lillian Hellman's 1934 stageplay, rather than a remake of These Three, and it's not difficult to uncover what went wrong the first time.  Hellman's play had been a landmark for queer (specifically, lesbian) representation on Broadwaybold enough that it could've been shut down at any point by the New York authorities, and, had it been any less acclaimed, it probably would've beenand, because this was the fate of many a successful play, it was turned into a movie.  Produced as Wyler's first film for Samuel Goldwyn with the Code at the height of its oppressive powers, it bore a screenplay rejiggered by Hellman herself to remove all reference to homosexuality.  It therefore prompts such questions as "why'd they bother?" and "seriously, what idiot paid for the film rights to a play about one and possibly two lesbians in 1934?"  (Hell, the Hays Office prohibited so much as using the play's fucking name.  The poster's reference instead to "suppressed love" is absurdly disingenuous.)

There's a certain mustiness to The Children's Hour's landmarkedness: perhaps it goes without saying, but the 1934 play is not 2021-vintage wokeness incarnate, revolving as it does around two schoolteachers who are attacked for being lesbians, and who deny this status bitterly as their lives and livelihoods fall down around them, with no happy ending.  (Likewise, the '61 film isn't half as actually gay as Britain's own '61 icebreaker, Victim.  On the other hand, it's more congenial than '59's Suddenly, Last Summer!)  By the same token, however, you sure can't accuse it of copping out.

As for These Three, it changes the slander at issue, from an allegation of lesbianism to one of mere adultery with a man.  Hellman defended this alterationas well she might, since I assume she liked getting paidby explaining that The Children's Hour was rather more "about" the damage that rumor and gossip can do.  I mean, yes, it is about that.  Hellman may've been thinking about the first Red Scare, and seems to have had a premonition of the second, which shut her out of Hollywood: a secondary resonance of the '61 Children's Hour is that it represented the return of a blacklisted writer's name to the screen, and this may also have had something to do with Wyler's determination to do the film when he did, as he'd abhorred the blacklist.  So I don't want to imply that These Three was entirely a crude find-and-replace effortfor example, in service of its half-assed heterosexuality, it has a pointless and unfunny first act about romantic-comedic home repair, and it has an entirely different endingbut you do have to wonder if Hellman knew, in her heart, that her defense was bullshit.

Just to begin with, the scandal isn't nearly as dramatically credible when it's only an unreliable report of schoolmarm Martha Dobie (Miriam Hopkins) being in a room alone at night with Joe Cardin (Joel McCrea), who (because These Three certainly doesn't go out of its way to not be a find-and-replace effort) is still a doctor, just like the character was in the play, and thus might have any number of reasons for being in a woman's room at a schoolhouse at night.  With the door open.  Sure: such gossip could have social repercussions, and strain her friendship with Martha's fellow schoolteacher and Joe's fiancĂ©e, Karen Wright (Merle Oberon), particularly because Martha does have romantic feelings for Joe.  (That strain doesn't remotely happen, however, because the play was written with Martha's attentions fixed totally upon Karen; and because the only reason rewriting it didn't involve ctrl+F is because Hellman didn't have a word processor.)  But this would not, I think, entail the same apocalyptic consequences, because while whispers of a straight tryst would obviously not be good, it's difficult to believe that the life-destroying actions taken over the course of the play would be triggered by the mere possibility that such a thing occurredfor The Children's Hour depends fundamentally on small and frightened people feeling an overpowering need to react to this "mere possibility," while all along convincing themselves that, if they're to be justified, a mere possibility must also be true.  In the same way that the protagonists have to be schoolteachers entrusted with the young, they have to be lesbians; I have doubts that a child's blatant fiction about a man and woman making babies would trigger the same unreasoning, hysterical terror of contagion and exploitation that underlies so much conservative thought on gender and sexuality.  Hellman had been inspired to write the play by an actual defamation caseand the scandal there was not about an unmarried chick who banged some dude.

So I'm happy to concede my bias here, inevitably accrued from watching the compromised, less-good version of a movie within twelve hours of seeing the clearly-cut definitive version, but These Three comes off gutless and weak.  Frankly, it's boring.  It's useful mainly for demonstrating that not everything that cinematographer Gregg Toland shot was actually great (you can see that Toland and Wyler already have ideas about composition in depth, and were able to achieve precious few of them with the lenses and filmstock available in 1936).  It is, out of the double-digit Wyler movies I've seen, the only one that is actually bad, andif we're still speculatingthe existence of The Children's Hour twenty-five years later is strong evidence that Wyler must've thought his movie sucked, too.

The Children's Hour, thenrestored by screenwriter John Michael Hayes to near-fidelitybrings us back to that small girls' school somewhere in a vague Northeast, founded by and bearing the names of our previously-mentioned former college roommates, Martha (Shirley MacLaine) and Karen (Audrey Hepburn).  It's the life's work of the former, but it's something more like an interlude for the latter, for, at some point in an eventual future, Karen must probably be moving on with her fiancĂ©, the doctor Joe (James Garner).  Even so, Karen would miss Martha terribly if she left, and perhaps it's for this reason that she's been putting Joe off going on two years now.  Or perhaps it's because whenever she discusses Joe, Martha becomes hurt and resentful.  Or perhaps...  Well, they have help, sort of, in the form of Martha's dissolute ex-actor aunt, Lily Mortar (Miriam Hopkins again, taking over the role from Catherine Doucet), though no one really wants her help, given that she's an unlikeable moron.  Nevertheless, the school's going well.  The only real problem is Mary Tilford (Karen Balkin), granddaughter of Joe's wealthy aunt Amelia Tilford (Fay Bainter in her final role) and a consummate troublemaker.  Having fallen afoul of Martha and Karen's discipline, Mary hatches a plan, piecing together a sensationalistic tale out of a few eavesdropped words and a preternatural ability to manipulate others.  She's clocked Martha as different, somehowthere's a noticeable absence of men in Martha's life, and it doesn't help that Aunt Lily refers to her preoccupation with Karen as "unnatural"and, honestly, Mary may just be aware of what lesbianism is and what its social ramifications in 1961* could be, because soon she's put together a vengeful story of sapphic love that gets all around town, and ultimately puts the Dobie-Wright School out of business, with every effort that Karen, Martha, and Joe make to fight it proving utterly futile.

That carries us to a little more than the halfway point of a 107 minute film, and to some degree that's where its plot stopsthere's really only one more place left to goand the remainder of the picture is spent stewing in the disintegration of three people's lives (this town is astoundingly homophobic: Joe even loses his job).  This second phase works very well, obliteratingly so, but the first is certainly more surprising.  The thing everybody knows about The Children's Hour, of course, is that it's a queer tragedy and generally heavy stuff, with a blatant political angle about, if not liberation, then tolerance; whereas being a Wyler joint, it would be reasonable to assume it's well-built Oscarbait (even Oscarbait roughly four decades ahead of its time, though it was indeed nominated for several), and despite Wyler's demonstrated ability to make Oscarbait compelling, it could easily have wound up disagreeably schematic and dry.  Unfortunately, it seems this is the only thing everybody knows about The Children's Hour.

It is, in fact, damned near a bona fide thriller (even a horror movie), in ways that Hellman's play and even Hayes's script don't require, but which Wyler imposes upon it because it gets at the themes of the story better if you have the same emotional investments as its characters rather than just an intellectual understanding that their persecution is unfair and sad.  It fairly sets up the dynamic between Karen, Martha, and Joe; it gives MacLaine in particular a great deal of room to communicate Martha's desires that aren't even really "coded."  But that first hour?  That "children's hour," you might say (kill me)?  That's a Bad Seed Movie, and a very great one, concerned with one of cinema's most love-to-hate-her children, who's been provoked in the mildest way and replies by destroying human lives.  It has as much in common with Village of the Damned as anything, with the same emphasis on how intense close-ups of a child's glare can be terrifying.  Children's Hour is an immaculately-acted thing, for the most part, but the most difficult performance to get a handle on for viewers then and now is almost certainly the one that isn't "immaculate" whatsoever.  That's Balkin's, which is off-the-damn-wall nuts, a collection of scowls and weird-faced shrieks, punctuated by cold, affectless stares into the camera like close-ups of a snake wearing a person suit.  It is not restrained, or well-channeled, or modulated, or whatever phrase you customarily use to describe "good" acting, and in a lot of respects it's bad actingbad child acting, evenbut it's weaponized bad child acting that Wyler's using to reach very specific and very well-chosen places that Hellman's story would not reach without it.  It is, tellingly, the one element that isn't much altered from its 1936 predecessor, though even here Balkin's personality disorder is more impressively monstrous than that of her These Three counterpart, Bonita Granfield.

Balkin's an utter grotesque and a servant of chaos, and that's part of the point: even for a kid, Mary is hardly a believable source.  But she gets believed anyway, in part because it seems incredible to a conservative listener that a child could invent such a story, and in part because the "consequences" of not believing her are unthinkable to a certain kind of paranoid mind.  (And this is where the "immaculately-acted" part comes back into play to complement the very messy acting presently dominating the film: Bainter was nominated for an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress, and very probably for the scene where Mary whispers poison in her grandmother's ear.  Bainter's face shifts imperceptibly from incredulity to belief in the span of seconds, and even in the black-and-white loses her pallor.  She looks like she might throw up, as compact a representation of a homophobe's lizard brain as one could ask for.)  Likewise, being a thriller, it doesn't feel out of place when Wyler starts washing the whole thing in abrasive style (jagged editing, an inordinately mobile and muscular camera, frequent recourse to distressing angles).  Wyler begins gently enough with the introduction to the busy Dobie-Wright School in tracking shots through a large, bustling set that he treats like a diorama, or a dollhouse, but even this pleasant image will be echoed later in an eerie, haunted register, after the children have gone away.

It feels almost like Wyler doing a Lumetthere wouldn't have been all that much Lumet to do it from yet, but I mean 12 Angry Mentaking material that's right on the edge of didacticism and injecting it with crackling tension and incipient violence.  The locked-down setting and Franz Planer's somewhat-brutalist high-contrast black-and-white cinematography makes the comparison even more tempting.  But, in a sense, it's only the culmination of the work Wyler had been doing for years, particularly in his black-and-white dramas, with a motivated camera, deep focus compositions, and stark photography, and while Children's Hour has a reputation as "stagelike" I don't think that quite holds, given the liberal use of close-ups and a frequently shifting frame.

I think it must come from how there's no eradicating its stage origins, and from its willingness to use certain aspects of stagecraft, above all rigid blocking that arranges its human figures into narratively-loaded geometric arrangements, in ways that are sometimes too deliberately iconic to not come off as artificial.  It still tends toward cinema, anyway, used in conjunction with the camera, so that, for example, the carefully-choreographed interrogation of Mary's lie is used to instantly communicate information about power relationships, but probably can't even be considered strictly diegetic, whereas a great deal of the film is an exercise in the isolating possibilities of deep focus within a widescreen frame.  (It is, then, also a strong argument from Wyler, who didn't especially like widescreen formats, that he was one of their first masters.)  The use of sound could also only work in a movie: Wyler turns the squeamishness of the still-extant Code into something like a strength, often placing the utterance of the rumors into scenes of chilly silence (I'm especially in love with how he places us in Martha's perspective, as she watches somebody tell Karen why all the children are leaving through the window on the door, and while we hear none of it, MacLaine makes us understand she has correctly guessed).  And this creates expectations that are subverted, when, eventually, Martha does more-or-less openly scream the truth behind the lie out loud.

For all this, it's still possible to call it an actors' movie; the other thing that Wyler's genre spin does is that the thriller ultimately has nothing left to do except shrivel up in a corner and die; convincing Amelia she's wrong means very little when the rumor's infected Martha and Karen's whole world.  The high pitch of the first phase has put the film on a heightened emotional plane; but it has nowhere for those emotions to go except inward, where they slowly, then very quickly, begin to rot.  MacLaine gets by far the showier role, though to describe it as "showier" doesn't mean I think it's necessarily easieror even that she isn't the best in the cast, tasked with anchoring you to Martha's real tragedy, which isn't even that she's lost her school, but that she's carefully nurtured an empty void barely beneath the surface of her personality, populated only by inchoate fantasies that seem to have only lately even reached the level of conscious sexual desire.  In the same way that MacLaine plays to her strengths in Martha's very visibly implosive personality, Hepburn is enigmatic, using the stiffness that could sometimes accompany her precision for some very productive ends, letting us know that she is thinking, but not necessary what, rendering Karen increasingly opaque as the story goes along.  The climax and, especially, its coda, is a study in actorly ambiguity, as we are never quite permitted to see how Karen processes Martha's late-coming revelationsthough we are invited to guess.

There's also something provocative simply in casting the hottest woman in the world and a plausible runner-up: I expect someone must've written about why Hellman chose women (she was, as far as I can tell, straight), or why the one major American gays-are-okay film of the early 60s was about women, and how that suggests certain things about how heteronormativity can eagerly accommodate attractive, fake lesbians that an assumed male audience would find pleasing to look at.  I think Children's Hour knows this, which is how the first scene that forces you to viscerally identify with Martha and Karen's humiliation is also an accusation, as random men just sort of start hanging out around the empty school, out of some vaguely-expressed expectation that if they look through the right window at the right time, maybe they'll see MacLaine and Hepburn fuck.  That's a startlingly aggressive move.  But then, there's enough chemistry between the two that you can see, wistfully on Martha's behalf, how such a thing could be possible, which is good because one of the film's weaknesses is that it is mostly a situation that descends upon the friends, and showing them being friends isn't as high a priority.

It does have weaknesses, after all.  I don't really approve of putting Hopkins in an undignified and gorgoned-up Nora Desmond Lite role, for example; nor do I like how the film jumps forward half a year in what seems like a day.  Though generally full of great dialogue, the biggest problem is how writerly it sometimes gets, occasionally privileging theme over credible human speech and behavior, and indulgent of the kind of florid monologue that feels like Martha or Karen are addressing an unseen audience they're sure must be sitting in front of them.  It's where the "filmed stageplay" complaint finds the most purchase; it's especially unwelcome in a movie where Wyler and MacLaine and Hepburn have devoted so much energy to visual storytelling.  But the strengths of The Children's Hour are tremendous, and more proof of one the finest late careers any Hollywood director ever had.

Score, These Three: 4/10
Score, The Children's Hour: 9/10

*Or 1934.  The crampedness of the story makes it hard to tell if it's a period piece, but going by Hepburn's hair, I assume it's 1961.  I'm pretty sure the cars are contemporary, too.

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