The Children’s Hour (1961)
Reviewed on 2011 June 14
Lillian Hellman wove this anti-gossip piece from a real-life event at an Edinburgh school circa the 1800s. Apparently some little brat felt slighted because she didn’t get enough dessert or hair ribbons or something, and went for the jugular, spreading rumors about her teachers. The results here are a bit different but the impact is still painful years after Hellman penned her play, and Wyler does his usual good job directing.
Karen Wright (Audrey Hepburn) and her college bud Martha Dobie (Shirley MacClaine) finally got their school for girls out of the red, and Karen feels that at last she can settle down with her doctor beau, Joe Cardin (James Garner). Life should be going along swimmingly for them, but as usually happens when you should be pondering what bubbly you should use for toasting your good fortune, something goes horribly and cruelly wrong. One of the little darlings at the school, Mary Tilford (Karen Balkin, giving Damien and the snot from The Bad Seed runs for their money here), is a budding sociopath, who thinks nothing of lying to get what she wants or bullying the weaker students.
One day Mary feels persecuted by Karen, who does unthinkable things like, you know, ask Mary to stop lying for a change. The little monster retaliates by spreading a rumor that Karen and Martha are more than friends, and we don’t hear the whole string of lies she whispers in her credulous grandma’s (Fay Bainter) ears, but based on her evil quotient and grandma’s face I wouldn’t be surprised if she tossed in a hookah and some opium too. In about five minutes of blabbing, Karen and Martha have their lives ruined.
When you read the IMDb boards about this, a lot of people think Karen Balkin’s performance pales in comparison to other actors in similar roles. Not me. Watch the scene where Hepburn tells her to quit lying, and check out the look in Balkin’s eyes. Not only is this kid evil, you get the horrible feeling that she’s good with that. And I can’t think of any time where Hepburn and MacLaine aren’t worth watching. The way they react to losing their livelihood and the way the local idiots react to them, is painful. Wyler directed an earlier version called These Three where the big lie was the two women apparently shared the doctor character like a plate of tira misu, and my next mission is to track that down. In the meantime this is more faithful to Hellman’s original play, and it’s good as it is painful.
Three chocolate morsels, and some coffee cake would be nice.