Theatre / The Children's Hour
Karen (Audrey Hepburn) and Martha (Shirley Maclaine) in the 60s adaptation
Karen (Merle Oberon) and Martha (Miriam Hopkins) in These Three

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

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 original production ran from 1934-1936. In 1934 and 1936 the play was blocked from being played in both Boston and Chicago due to its content. A revival, directed by Lillian Hellman herself, played from December 1952-May 1953 in the Coronet Theatre. Two other revivals have existed since: a 2008 one in Manchester and a 2011 one in London. In 1971 the BBC produced a radio adaptation of the play for its Saturday Night Theatre series.

The play provides examples of:

  • Blackmail: Mary uses this to turn fellow student Rosalie into her collaborator.
  • Calling the Old Man Out: Martha does this to her aunt who raised her. She was too busy pursuing her acting career to testify in her and her friend's court trial, which caused them to lose it and essentially ruined their lives, but despite this she came crawling back to them pretending she will be there for them now.
  • Closet Key: Possibly in denial, or confused, about her feelings for several years, it takes a child's Malicious Slander to make Martha realize that she's gay. It doesn't help her stress and only makes her feel more guilty and terrible.
  • Consummate Liar: Mary lies frequently has has no qualms about it.
  • Downer Ending: Martha's and Karen's reputations are forever ruined by a rumor a child started, neither can be teachers again, and they're a well-known court case throughout America. Karen's fiance dumps her, Martha has unrequited feelings toward Karen, and to top it all off she kills herself at the end; in the play though she kills herself before Mary's grandmother comes over.
  • Drama Queen: Mary. She's constantly overreacting and cries over everything.
  • 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!
  • Gayngst-Induced Suicide: Martha, upon realization of her deviating sexual orientation, hangs herself as she couldn't live with the truth of it.
  • Have a Gay Old Time: Martha's aunt refers to her single night theatrical performances as "one night stands".
  • Inspired by...: The play was inspired by an actual Scottish court case from Edinburgh, Scotland in 1810.note 
  • Ironic Name: Mary is a bratty little girl who irreversibly ruined two women's lives.
  • Literary Allusion Title: The work gets its name from a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
  • 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. 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 1936 movie adaptation adds examples of:

  • Adaptational Sexuality: Martha is straight instead of gay due to censoring of the plot.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The movie ends on a lighter note compared to the play as Martha lives and Karen and Joe reunite but the reputation of their school remains ruined.
  • Bowdlerise: The film completely changes what happens in the play (replacing 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.
  • Promoted to Love Interest: Joe to Martha. It is unrequited.
  • Spared by the Adaptation: Martha.

The 1961 movie adaptation adds examples of:

  • Adaptation Distillation: This adaption still isn't completely true to the play but is still mostly so.
  • Ambiguous Ending: The film ends with Karen walking away after Martha's funeral, while the others watch her from a distance. What exactly does the scene imply is up to interpretation.
  • Bowdlerise:
    • Though there's still clear foreshadowing that Martha is a lesbian, several scenes were cut due to fear that the movie wouldn't get through the The Hays Code.
    • Martha's suicide by gun was changed to a slightly less graphic suicide by hanging. This also allowed them to use a shadow of her body to portray the death.
  • Get Out: Mrs. Tilford yells this at Karen and Martha when the two come to confront her.
  • Market-Based Title: The film is called The Loudest Whisper in the UK.
  • Remake Cameo: Miriam Hopkins played Lily Mortar, after having played her niece Martha in the 1936 version.
  • Setting Update: The second adaptation came out in The '60s but the play is from The Thirties and is based on real-life events from the 19th century.
  • Second-Act Breakup: Surprisingly subverted. After the Time Skip of the second act Karen sends Joe away but they don't reunite in the third act.
  • Time Skip: Instead of showing us the Courtroom Drama where the critical suit for slander was tried, the movie skips a few weeks ahead where we learn that the case was lost because of Martha's aunt not appearing in court. The court scene was apparently shot (as screencaps exist) however it was removed from the final film for whatever reason.

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