Theatre / The Children's Hour

Mrs. Lily Mortar: God will punish you.
Martha: He's doing all right.

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Karen (Audrey Hepburn) and Martha (Shirley Maclaine) in the 60s adaptation

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Karen (Merle Oberon) and Martha (Miriam Hopkins) in These Three

A classic (and, at the time, very much controversial) 1934 play that was the debut work of Lillian Hellman, The Children's Hour was adapted for the screen twice by director William Wyler. The first version was a bowdlerized adaptation called These Three, starring Miriam Hopkins and Merle Oberon, and released in 1936. The second version, starring Shirley MacLaine and Audrey Hepburn, was subject to less censorship by the time it came out in 1961.

The story of the play concerns Karen Wright and Martha Dobie, best friends who are also headmistresses of a private girl's school in New England. Martha's ex-actress and narcissist aunt Mrs. Lily Mortar acts as an elocution and vocal teacher at the school, though she spends most of her time lecturing, showing off, and telling stories about the golden days. They couldn't be happier, especially with Karen about to wed her longtime gynecologist boyfriend, Joe.

One day, however, the school's resident bad seed, Mary Tilford, decides to extract revenge on Karen by spreading gossip that Karen and Martha are involved in a love affair. Her grandmother, the town matriarch, leads the charge against the two, resulting in nearly all students getting pulled from school. Karen and Martha sue the Tilfords for libel; yet, even if they win, they really won't be "victorious."


The play provides examples of:

  • Bittersweet Ending: Mary's lie is exposed, but Martha is dead, the school is closed, and Karen and Joe have broken up.
  • Blackmail: Mary uses this to turn fellow student Rosalie into her collaborator.
  • Bury Your Gays: Martha.
  • Driven to Suicide: Martha, after realizing she was indeed in love with Karen.
  • Enfante Terrible: Mary Tilford is bratty, spoiled, and frequently lies. She kept on trying to lie even after ruining her teachers reputations and leaving them jobless.
  • Gayngst: Martha has her fair share, near the end.
    Martha: Don't you see? I can't stand to have you touch me! I can't stand to have you look at me! Oh, it's all my fault. I have ruined your life and I have ruined my own. I swear I didn't know it! I didn't mean it! Oh, I feel so damn sick and dirty I can't stand it anymore!
  • Inspired By: The play was inspired by an actual Scottish court case.
  • Ironic Name: Mary is a bratty little girl who irreversibly ruined two women's lives.
  • Malicious Slander: Mary spreads rumors that her teachers are having an affair.
  • Mistaken for Cheating: The plot deals with rumors that Karen is having an affair with Martha. Karen is engaged to Joe.
  • Mistaken for Gay: Karen and Martha are accused of being romantically involved but insist it isn't true. In Martha's case she actually was in love with Karen but confused about her feelings. Karen is more ambiguous.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: Mrs. Tilford, once she realizes her granddaughter's scheming. Karen however, tells her she's too late to apologize.
  • One-Gender School: Karen and Martha own a small all-girls school.
  • Pull the Thread: Mary's scheme is only uncovered when Rosalie's mother finds a cache of stolen items in Mary's possession.
  • Triang Relations: Joe and Karen are in a relationship, with Martha attracted to Karen in a platonic way. ...as it later turns out, not so platonic after all.
  • Two-Teacher School: Quite literally, Karen and Martha are the only teachers at their school.

The movie adaptations add examples of:

  • Adaptation Distillation: The second adaption still isn't completely true to the play but is still mostly so.
  • Adaptational Sexuality: Martha is straight instead of gay in These Three due to censoring of the plot.
  • All There Is to Know About "The Crying Game": The movie is most well-known for the last twenty minutes where Martha has an Anguished Declaration of Love before killing herself.
  • Ambiguous Ending: The Children's Hour ends with Karen walking away after Martha's funeral, while the others watch her. What exactly does the scene imply is up to interpretation.
  • Bowdlerise: The first film is this to the play, completely changing what happens in it (the first film replaced the rumors of a lesbian love affair with one about the two women dating the same man). The second film includes a little of this too, though more for simplification reasons instead of censorship.
  • Market-Based Title: The film version of The Children's Hour is called The Loudest Whisper in the UK.
  • Promoted to Love Interest: Joe to Martha in These Three. It is unrequited.
  • Remake Cameo: Miriam Hopkins played Lily Mortar in the 1961 film, after having played her niece Martha in the 1936 version.
  • Setting Update: The second movie came out in The '60s but the play is from The Thirties and is based on real-life events from the 19th century.
  • Spared by the Adaptation: Martha in These Three.

Alternative Title(s): The Childrens Hour, These Three

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