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The Children’s Hour: Production Code dilutes


‘The Children’s Hour’ (1961), released as ‘The Loudest Whisper’ in the United Kingdom, was based on a famous 1934 play of the same name by Lillian Hellman. The play was partly inspired by an actual case in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1810. A pupil named Jane Cumming accused her schoolmistresses, Jane Pirie and Marianne Woods, of having an affair. Dame Cumming Gordon, the accuser’s influential grandmother, advised her friends to remove their daughters from the boarding school. Within days the school was deserted and the two women had lost their livelihood. Pirie and Woods sued and eventually won, both in court and on appeal, but given the damage done to their lives, their victory was considered hollow.

When the play was premiered on November 20, 1934, at the Maxine Elliott Theatre in New York, the mention of homosexuality on stage was illegal in New York State, but authorities chose to overlook its subject matter when the Broadway production was acclaimed by the critics. The play eventually ran for 691 performances.

The first film adaptation of the play was ‘These Three’ directed by William Wyler and released in 1936. By this time, the Hays Code was already in effect and did not permit a film to focus on or even hint at lesbianism. This development resulted in Samuel Goldwyn being the lone producer interested in purchasing the film rights to the play. He signed Hellman to adapt her play for the screen, and the playwright changed the lie about the two school teachers being lovers into a rumour that one of them had slept with the other’s fiancé. Furthermore, the Production Code refused to allow Goldwyn to use the play’s original title, and it had to be changed to ‘The Lie’, and subsequently to ‘These Three’.

When Wyler – following his iconic movie, Ben-Hur (1959) – was ready to film the remake in 1961, the Hays Code had been liberalised to allow screenwriter John Michael Hayes to restore the original nature of the lie. Aside from having Martha hang rather than shoot herself as she had in the play, Hayes remained so faithful to the original work that large chunks of the dialogue in the 1961 film are identical to those in the play. Hellman played no role in the screenplay to the 1961 version, having withdrawn from the project following the death of Dashiell Hammett – fellow writer and political activist – in 1961, with whom she was romantically involved.

Actresses Katherine Hepburn and Doris Day were originally offered the lead roles, which eventually went to Audrey Hepburn, then 32 and Shirley MacLaine, then 27.

‘The Children’s Hour’ was actor James Garner’s first film after suing Warner Bros to win his release from the television series, ‘Maverick’ (1957-1962). Wyler broke an unofficial blacklist of the actor by casting him, and Garner steadily appeared in films and television shows over the following decades, including immediately playing the lead in four different major movies released in 1963, including ‘The Great Escape’.

Actress, Miriam Hopkins who played Martha in ‘These Three’ enacted the role of Martha’s aunt, Lily Mortar in ‘The Children’s Hour’. Furthermore, actress, Merle Oberon who played Karen in the original film turned down the part of the grandmother, Amelia Tilford in the 1961 remake. Actress, Cathleen Nesbitt was then announced to play the grandmother role, which finally went to Fay Bainter.

The film’s location shooting was done at the historic Shadow Ranch, in present-day West Hills of the western San Fernando Valley.

After the filming was complete Wyler said: “I haven’t done a remake, this time I actually filmed Lillian Hellman’s play.” He nevertheless cut several scenes hinting at Martha’s homosexuality – including the one where MacLaine is brushing Hepburn’s hair – for fear of not receiving the seal of approval from the Motion Picture Production Code. However by that time it was announced that “the strict ban on depicting sexual perversions such a homosexuality or lesbianism has now been lifted to allow discreet or tasteful treatment of such themes. Thus, a Code seal can be granted to two major new films, which have not yet been released, Oto Preminger’s ‘Advise and Concent’ and William Wyler’s ‘The Children’s Hour’, adapted from Lillian Hellman’s play.”

‘The Children’s Hour’ was re-titled as ‘The Loudest Whisper’ for UK release to avoid confusion with the BBC’s popular Children’s Hour slot on radio and television.

When released, ‘The Children’s Hour’ received mixed reviews. Produced at a budget of $3.6 million, it could collect only $3 million at the Box Office. The film received six Academy Award nominations – excluding the Best Picture and Best Director categories – but could not win any Oscar.

With the passing of time, the theme of unequivocal lesbian relationship have been accepted by the film fraternity, with ‘Carol’ (2015) starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, being the latest example of this acceptance. In fact, ‘Carol’ was based on the 1952 novel ‘The Price of Salt’ by Patricia Highsmith, with the novel taking more than six decades for its screen transformation. Interestingly, in spite of receiving six Oscar nominations, ‘Carol’ did not receive nomination in the  Best Picture and Best Director categories, and finally none of these six nominations could convert into wins, thus prompting speculation about the perceived indifference of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences toward female-and-LGBT-centred films, even in the second decade of the 21st Century.


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