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The Children's Hour is a 1961 American drama film directed by William Wyler. The screenplay by John Michael Hayes is based on the 1934 play of the same title by Lillian Hellman.

The film, released as The Loudest Whisper in the United Kingdommarker, is a remake of These Three, also directed by Wyler.


Former college classmates Martha Dobie and Karen Wright open a private school for girls in New Englandmarker. Martha's Aunt Lily, an aging actress, lives with the two of them and teaches elocution. After two years of engagement to Joe Cardin, a reputable OB/GYN, Karen finally agrees to set a wedding date. Joe is related to wealthy Amelia Tilford, whose granddaughter Mary is a student at the school. Mary is a spoiled, conniving child who often bullies her classmates, particularly Rosalie Wells, whom she blackmails when she discovers her stealing another student's bracelet.

When Mary is caught in a lie, Karen punishes her by refusing to let her attend the weekend's boat races. Furious, the young girl exacts her revenge by inventing a story about Martha and Karen being involved in lesbian relationship, a tale based on fragments of a quarrel Mary's roommates accidentally overheard. She tells her grandmother she observed the two women kissing each other, and the woman immediately informs the other parents, who rapidly withdraw their daughters from the school, leaving Karen and Martha mystified about the sudden exodus. When one father finally explains what is happening, Karen angrily confronts Mrs. Tilford, together with Joe and Martha. Mary repeats her story and coerces Rosalie into corroborating the lie. The two women sue Mrs. Tilford for libel and slander but lose their case.

When the story is circulated by the local media, the reputation of the two teachers is destroyed. Only Joe keeps in contact with them, and he offers to take them away and start a new life. However, his trust in Karen is shaken, and he asks her if the rumors are true. In the ensuing quarrel, Karen ends their engagement, claiming she needs time to think everything over. When Martha learns about the break-up, she confesses she always had felt more than friendship for Karen and, upon hearing the false accusation, she finally realized she loves her.

Rosalie's mother discovers a cache of stolen items, including the bracelet Mary used to blackmail her, among her daughter's belongings, and the two girls are questioned. Mrs. Tilford learns that the story was a fabrication and visits the two teachers. She apologizes for her actions and assures them if the court case is reopened, they not only will be cleared of all charges but will be well-compensated for the trouble she caused. Feeling the damage to their lives cannot be undone, Karen refuses to accept the apology.

Afterwards, she briefly talks to Martha about their future, and suggests going somewhere far away to start a new life together. Martha tells Karen she would rather talk about it in the morning and Karen leaves the house to take a walk. In her absence, Martha hangs herself. At her funeral, Karen walks away alone, while Joe watches her from the distance.


Lillian Hellman's play was inspired by the true story of two Scottish school teachers whose lives were destroyed when one of their students falsely accused them of engaging in a lesbian relationship. At the time, the mention of homosexuality on stage was illegal in New York Statemarker, but authorities chose to overlook its subject matter when the Broadwaymarker production was acclaimed by the critics.

Because the Hays Code in effect at the time would never permit a film to focus on or even hint at lesbianism, Samuel Goldwyn was the only producer interested in purchasing the rights. 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 rumor that one of them had slept with the other's fiancé. Because the Production Code refused to allow Goldman to use the play's original title, it was changed to The Lie, and then These Three.

By the time Wyler was ready to film the remake, times had changed significantly and the Hays Code no longer was in effect, and screenwriter John Michael Hayes discreetly restored the suggestion of lesbianism without blatantly referring to it. Aside from having Martha hang rather than shoot herself as she had in the play, he remained faithful to Hellman's work, retaining substantial portions of her dialogue.

In the 1996 documentary film The Celluloid Closet, Shirley MacLaine said she and Audrey Hepburn never talked about their characters' alleged homosexuality. She also claimed Wyler cut some scenes hinting at her character's love for Hepburn because of concerns about critical reaction to the film.

The film was James Garner's first after suing Warner Bros. to win his release from the television series Maverick. Wyler broke an unofficial blacklist of the actor by casting him, and Garner steadily appeared in films and television shows over the following decades.

Miriam Hopkins, who portrays Lily Mortar in the remake, appeared as Martha in These Three.


Critical reception

Bosley Crowther of the New York Times observed,

Variety said, "Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine . . . beautifully complement each other. Hepburn's soft sensitivity, marvelous projection and emotional understatement result in a memorable portrayal. MacLaine's enactment is almost equally rich in depth and substance."

TV Guide rated the film 3½ out of four stars, adding "The performances range from adequate (Balkin's) to exquisite (MacLaine's)."



  1. British Film Institute website
  2. These Three at Turner Classic Movies
  3. Variety review
  4. TV Guide review

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