One thing I must fully acknowledge before beginning was that prior to signing up for this Blogathon Miriam Hopkins was not a name I could connect to a face. When I checked her filmography on the IMDb I saw that i had seen her in a few things but it hadn’t stuck with me for some reason. At that point I thought I would pass on the blogathon. However, then I got to following links and I realized that she was in not one but two versions of Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour on the big screen. The opportunity to cover the multiple fascinating angles that affords got me more into.
First of all, I find it quite interesting that both she and William Wyler were drawn to the title on more than one occasion. Second, an actor playing two parts in the same story over the course of a career is quite interesting as well. Third, due to the fact that 25 years elapsed between the films it also displays Hopkins at two very different stages in her career. Lastly, what makes these two versions of The Children’s Hour, the earlier called These Three, interesting to compare and contrast is that since the initial adaptation was made in the early days of the Code being fully enforced it’s a rather different treatment of the narrative that removes overt references to lesbianism entirely.
In the structuring of this post I will touch on all these topics while attempting to keep a bulk of the discussion on Hopkins, and extrapolate and disseminate other points from that place.
The Children’s Hour (1934 a play by Lillian Hellman)
To start with I wanted to finally get to read The Children’s Hour. When I was in college, in one of those oh-so-wise syllabus-requirements I was asked to purchase Six Plays by Lillian Hellman even though we were only going to study the Little Foxes. I don’t mind having extra plays, it just seemed a little silly as required reading.
I happened upon excerpted reviews of the play on Goodreads before I embarked on reading it that I must say disappointed me a great deal. They did so because they said things to the extent of “it doesn’t seem so shocking now, maybe it was then…” and they would proceed to discuss why they think the play is mediocre. The issue there is that they’re missing the point entirely. Firstly, there’s only a halfway decent rationalization of the time period. Yes, discussing the subject of homosexuality in 1934 carried far more weight, however, I do not think that shock was the sole intent of the play – or even the intent, at most it’s the hook. The tale in its original form and in the 1961 film is a tragic one. It’s about perceptions, attitudes, rumors and lies. Furthermore, many of the things that Lillian Hellman wrote in 1934 are still said in America in 2015 when the topic is discussed by some the perceived relationship is described as “unnatural,” “it becomes a great deal more than that when children are involved,” “I don’t understand it. I don’t want any part of it,” “But this isn’t a new sin they tell us we’ve done. Other people aren’t destroyed by it.” Clearly we’re not as advanced as we’d like to think. Some of these very prejudices and perceptions are still bandied about like they make the most sense in the world. Furthermore, a child’s word when they do not understand the totality of what they are insinuating is the same thing that incites the recent Danish film The Hunt. Clearly I think there is still a vitality to this play that belies the date of its first production such that I wouldn’t mind it being revisited anew. However, it clearly struck a nerve in 1934 and remained relevant enough that it was deemed worth of revisiting when film was entering a bolder, new era.
Now back to the era at hand when this story first rolled onto the silver screen the liberties Miss Hellman was afforded as a playwright were not the same she would be afforded as a credited screenwriter, not to the studio adapting her work seeing as how the Pre-Code madness was snuffed out and the Code was in full force.
These Three (1936)
In the initial Production Code there is a section on “Impure Love.” In that section is detailed that any sexual congress deemed inappropriate by the Bible were impermissible. It then goes on to detail how things like extra-marital affairs or pre-marital relations should be handled when necessary as plot elements. Banished from even mention in the code was homosexuality. Even miscegenation, was later addressed and strictly forbidden in an amendment. Homosexuality it was understood was not to be broached. It was in fact the “love that dare not speak its name” in his mind.
Thus, when dealing with a narrative wherein a child claims her two female teachers have an unnatural relationship not only can Martha not confess that she believes she has loved Karen “the way they said” the entire insinuation has to be struck or risk being banned altogether. Therefore, the story must be told under the guise of something that can be dealt with, but not glorified: a heterosexual love triangle with jealousy.
To make the story function in this manner two things were highly necessary: first, a meet-cute treatment for all three with Carden (Joel McCrea) being drawn to romantic interest in Karen (Miriam Hopkins), and just friendly interest with Martha (Merle Oberon). Second, Mary has to be even more the villain in this film than she was in the play. Thanks in large part to the rather spectacular scene-stealing performance by Bonita Granville that is accomplished.
Hopkins in this film has a statuesque poise and refinement that make her perfectly suited to the role. There’s a certain authority that lends her character, which while she seems affable enough she also has a no-nonsense approach to dealing with the likes of Mary and a cool patience with the flights of Mrs. Mortar (Catharine Doucet).
It would be tedious to quantify but it seems in this version Martha get a much greater share of the screen time. However, the ensemble scenes such as the initial confrontation with Mrs. Tilford (Alma Kruger) are all beautifully handled.
Hopkins certainly has no troubles engendering sympathy, and being the heroine getting for us to root for her. Now the story in this version does conclude in a standard Hollywood was (again owing to the code), however, while some say that this film reads as even more of a lesbian love story with the change in dynamics, I do not after first viewing. Yes, I did feel the insinuation nipping around the edge every once in a while, but Rebecca this most certainly is not.
The Children’s Hour (1961)
One thing that is immediately clear to those that have both read/seen the play and seen this version is that it is far more faithful to the original text than the prior incarnation. With the transformation of the alleged transgression in the first one changing one would think that would be a given, but this film does more closely approximate the play even in its claustrophobic mostly chambered set-pieces.
Part of the film being allowed to be so faithful is not just the different era in which it was made but also the involvement of screenwriter John Michael Hayes. Hayes a two-time Academy Award nominee and WGA Lifetime Achievement Award recipient was prior to this film wrote Rear Window, To Catch a Thief, The Trouble with Harry, The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) and many more.
Having William Wyler at the helm again helps this film achieve far greater heights than the one before it. Those achievements further bolstered by the film receiving five Oscar nominations.
The first time I saw The Children’s Hour was during TCM’s 31 Days of Oscar and it’s interesting to note that in an interview segment with Shirley Maclaine she lamented, practically apologized for the fact that the subject matter though known to all was not discussed on set. She felt it showed in the finished product. I don’t believe it did, and it astounds me based on the results. Now that I think on that fact more that could have a lot to do with the way scenes played out on film that the cast was working under the discomfort that people in society felt in even broaching the subject and channeled it into their performance.
From Martha to Lily
Not to be forgotten in the midst of the tremendous work that Hepburn and Maclaine do in this film is the contribution of Miriam Hopkins as Lily Mortar. As Martha’s aunt and the school’s elocution teacher she plays a pivotal role in the proceedings. Mrs. Mortar is a far more insidious type as she’s an aloof, eccentric actress who seems silly and harmless until she gets angry and uses the words that can all-too-easily be misconstrued, and later damns the pair with her absence.
Interestingly its Hopkins’ refined elegant air that here matured and combined with the eccentric behaviors she employs for the role of Lily that make the transition seamless. I was struck by this notion of playing different characters in the same drama ever since I saw a one-act play about an actress who spent her life in The Sound of Music transitioning from one role to another. It would’ve been fascinating to see Hopkins have completed a trilogy, but that’s just dreaming.
Interestingly, in part because as a whole the impact of The Children’s Hour is so much greater than its predecessor’s that, Hopkins impresses and sticks in my mind more in the newer version with a supporting role than in the original where she was one of the leads. This is due to the aforementioned air, the key role the scenes play and the humanizing aspect Hopkins brings to the part. It can be far too easy to play Lily Mortar as a caricature, but to make her human, understandable even if intolerable is the task of a great actress. It’s an occasion that she more than rises to, but embraces.
It is quite a small sample size, just two of over 50 credits, but it was great to have a chance to focus on her work in two versions of the same story. It was also great to be able to focus more closely on the adaptation and film-crafting of a story that truly moves me a great deal.