“Maybe I love you the way they said I love you!” Martha Dobie, played by Shirley MacLaine, exclaims at the climax of The Children’s Hour. Released in 1961 and based on a 1934 play of the same name, The Children’s Hour follows Martha Dobie and Karen Wright (Audrey Hepburn) as their livelihoods and reputations are destroyed by a lie—that the two women, who run a small boarding school for girls, are actually lesbian lovers.
Martha and Karen have been friends since college, and while Karen is engaged to a doctor named Joe (James Garner), Martha has never had a serious romantic relationship. In fact, Martha seems resentful of Joe but tries to tolerate him for Karen’s sake. Her attitude toward him is not lost on Karen nor to her aunt Lily (Miriam Hopkins), who also teaches at the school. Martha fears Karen will abandon the school, thus abandoning her, if she marries Joe.
The conversations between the two women about Joe and the school and the root of Martha’s fears of abandonment are, unbeknownst to them, being eavesdropped on by a troublemaking young student named Mary. Martha and Karen prohibit Mary (Karen Balkin) from attending a boat race with her classmates so Mary decides to pursue revenge for their supposedly unfair actions. She tells her grandmother only in a whisper, leaving the audience only to infer that Karen and Martha are in love with each other. Mary backs up her claim with the conversations she had overheard as well by blackmailing another student, Rosalie (Veronica Cartwright), into corroborating the story.
Enraged parents pull their daughters out of school, filing a lawsuit against Martha and Karen, who ultimately lose when Lily refuses to testify on their behalf at the trial. After being isolated in their empty school, Martha and Karen lament on where things had gone wrong. At first, Joe still wants to marry Karen, even inviting Martha to come with them when they move to a new town. Later in the movie, Karen breaks off her engagement with Joe, after he esentially tells her that he thought the rumors about she and Martha being in love were true. While Karen tries to convince Martha to leave town with her, Martha refuses, saying too many people know who they are and that they could never start over.
Martha rambles for several moments before crying out, “Maybe I love you the way the said I love you. Listen to me! I have loved you the way they said!” Her declaration of love is heartbreaking and desperate, as she’s tried so hard to convince herself and others that she loves Karen as a friend and nothing more. She cries into her hands over a love that she knows she can never have and about a life that she can never own. Martha sees herself as abnormal, that something was always wrong with her, reinforcing a portrayal of lesbians unfortunately all too common in media until only recently.
Karen tries to convince Martha that she’s just letting the stress of the situation take over her emotions, but Martha remains firm in her declaration of love for Karen, that she just hadn’t realized the truth. Martha finally brings up the question burning in the viewer’s mind at this point in the film: Why would Mary choose Martha and Karen’s relationship of all things to lie about? Why would she pick the one lie with some truth to it? Most importantly, why was it so easy for everyone to believe it?
Ultimately, Rosalie confesses that Mary had made her lie. Mary’s grandmother (Faye Bainter) returns to the school in an attempt to apologize to the women and offer to have the ruling against them overturned and a public apology be made. The women reject the offer, saying that the damage has been done and everyone involved will have to live with their guilty conscience. In an ending reflective of the era, Martha, unable to accept her lesbian identity and feeling immense shame about her attraction to a friend, commits suicide.
The Children’s Hour is a heartbreaking piece of cinema, particularly for the LGBTQ community in seeing the overly familiar and gut-wrenching experiences of shame and guilt over our identities, whether internalized or perpetuated by those around us. The Children’s Hour never had to be heartbreaking. Karen and Martha could have accepted their feelings and identities and left town to start new lives. Instead, as too common found in LGBTQ media, we don’t get the happy ending. We don’t get to cheer for the happy couple as they share their great movie kiss and walk off into the sunset.
Still, there is some merit to The Children’s Hour, as two of the most-highly regarded actresses of the ‘50s and ‘60s, Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine, star in what can now be considered one of the earliest cinematic examples of how harmful institutionalized homophobia is to members of the LGBTQ community. It’s not Martha’s sexuality that ruins her life, but rather the intolerance and prejudice of those around her. Prior to the accusations, Martha was a beloved teacher for the girls at the school and their parents liked her as well. Still, her extraordinary kindness and teaching skills were suddenly irrelevant when her sexuality came into question.
Watching The Children’s Hour in the era of Love, Simon and One Day at a Time makes one want to reach through the screen and tell Martha that everything’s going to be okay, that there’s nothing wrong with her. It’s a reminder of how much progress has been made in the LGBTQ community, but also how much more work needs to be done to ensure that in the end, it won’t matter if there’s truth to the lie.
Edited 02/20/2021 to reflect that Karen broke off her relationship with Joe, not the other way around as previously written.