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Theatre / The Children's Hour

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Karen (Merle Oberon) and Martha (Miriam Hopkins) in These Three (1936)
Karen (Audrey Hepburn) and Martha (Shirley MacLaine) in The Children's Hour (1961)

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

A classic—and, at the time, highly controversial—1934 play that was the debut work of Lillian Hellman.

The story concerns Karen Wright and Martha Dobie, best friends who are also headmistresses of a private girls' 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 boyfriend, Dr. Joe Cardin.

One day, however, the school's resident bad seed, Mary Tilford, decides to exact revenge on Karen by spreading gossip that Karen and Martha are carrying on 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 Children's Hour was adapted for the screen twice by director William Wyler. The first film version was a bowdlerized adaptation called These Three, starring Merle Oberon, Miriam Hopkins, and Joel McCrea and released in 1936. The second version, which starred Audrey Hepburn, Shirley MacLaine, and James Garner, was subject to less censorship by the time it came out in 1961.

The original stage production, starring Katherine Emery and Anne Revere, ran from 1934–36; during that time the play was blocked from being staged in both Boston and Chicago due to its content. A revival, directed by Lillian Hellman herself and starring Kim Hunter and Patricia Neal, played from December 1952 to May 1953 at New York's 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 Children's Hour provides examples of:

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    The original play 
  • The Beard: Subverted. After allegations by a disgruntled student, the entire town thinks Karen and Martha are a lesbian couple using Karen's fiance as a beard. Karen having repeatedly turned down his wedding plans spurs the rumors. This, however, is completely false. Karen does love Joe. However, even he has his doubts and ends up walking out on her. This is the last straw that spurs Martha into her Anguished Declaration of Love to Karen and her subsequent suicide.
  • 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.
  • Children Are Innocent: Despite being a troublemaker, Mary still plays true to this trope. The twist of the play is that Mary didn't ruin Martha's life by telling a lie, but in her childish innocence she saw the truth behind Martha living a lie.
  • 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 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.
    • In the play, Mary mentions that her father killed himself but her grandmother, his mother, won't admit it.
  • Enfante Terrible: Mary Tilford is bratty, spoiled, and frequently lies. She kept on trying to lie even after ruining her teacher's 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".
  • Get Out!: Mrs. Tilford yells this at Karen and Martha when the two come to confront her.
  • 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.
  • LGBT Awakening: The awakening is played tragically in The Children's Hour. It takes a girl's Malicious Slander of an affair between her and her best friend for Martha to realize she's gay and in love with her friend. She had either been in denial for years or she genuinely didn't realize it.
  • Literary Allusion Title: The work gets its name from a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
  • Love Triangle: 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.
  • 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.
  • New England Puritan: Set in a New England boarding school, the play deals with how such a community would react to two members being accused of being gay.
  • Period Piece: The play and its two film adaptations are contemporary, however revivals are strictly period pieces because the plot doesn't work in modern settings.
  • Pull the Thread: Mary's scheme is only uncovered when Rosalie's mother finds a cache of stolen items in Mary's possession.
  • The Show Must Go On: Lily mentions how she once saved one of her acting buddies who had a heart attack on stage. She also mentions her friend didn't miss a line even during the heart attack.
  • Two-Teacher School: Quite literally, Karen and Martha are the only teachers at their school.

    The 1936 film 
  • Adaptation Expansion: There's padding in the beginning about how the school came to be and how the women met Joe.
  • Adaptational Context Change: The plot of These Three is censored due to The Hays Code. In the original play the accusation is Martha and Karen are a couple, and Karen is cheating on her fiancee. In the 1936 version it's assumed Martha and Joe are cheating. Thus many of Joe's lines are given to Karen, and his anxiety over the concept of his girlfriend cheating on him is transferred to her. The climax and ending are completely different. Instead of Joe leaving Karen it is Karen who didn't believe Joe. The dialogue afterwards between Karen and Martha is considerably less dramatic as Martha is calmly confessing her unrequited feelings for Joe instead of giving a gayngst filled Anguished Declaration of Love to Karen. The ending is a Bittersweet Ending where Karen and Joe reunite but the reputation of their school remains ruined instead of the Downer Ending of the play where Martha killed herself and Karen and Joe stay separated.
  • Adaptational Explanation: Mrs. Tilford helps the Wright-Dobie school get started because she knew Karen's late grandmother well and, having just taken Mary out of her old school, decides to have Mary go to the Wright-Dobie school.
  • Adaptational Karma: Unlike the play or second adaptation, this version shows Mary getting exposed as a liar to her grandmother.
  • 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).
  • Lighter and Softer: The movie has more comedic elements, particularly in the material not adapted from the play, in which Karen and Martha meet Joe, and Joe and Karen's relationship develops. And no one dies.
  • Promoted to Love Interest: Joe to Martha. It is unrequited.
  • Second-Act Breakup: Joe and Karen break up because Karen doubts their love. In the end they're reunited.
  • Spared by the Adaptation: Martha just disappears from the story without resolution.
  • Unrelated in the Adaptation: Joe Cardin is not related to the Tilfords at all in this movie, while in the play he's Amelia Tilford's nephew.
  • Would Hurt a Child: Martha is accused of this. Mary accuses Martha of hurting Rosalie's arm when she caught Rosalie eavesdropping on her and Mrs. Mortar. In reality, Martha had accidentally shut the door on Rosalie's arm, while Mary later twisted Rosalie's sore arm to make her go along with her lies.

    The 1961 film 
  • Adaptation Distillation: This adaption still isn't completely true to the play but it is still mostly so.
  • Adaptational Context Change: The film changed Mary's grandmother apologizing to Karen to happen before Martha's death.
  • 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. Lines were also removed, such as Mary saying she saw Martha and Karen kissing and that her Disappeared Dad killed himself.
    • 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.
  • 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 '30s 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, The Loudest Whisper