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Tuesday, December 23, 2014

THE CHILDREN'S HOUR (1961)

Lillian Hellman’s stage breakthrough was this ‘daring’ play on the personal & professional destruction that follows the made-up tattle of a school-girl on a supposed lesbian affair by the operators of her private all-girls academy. And it was Hellman herself who successfully bowdlerized the script into a conventional heterosexual triangle for the film THESE THREE/’36. Twenty-five years on, that film’s director, William Wyler, thought he could retackle the subject without the censorship. Oddly, the remake, adapted by John Michael Hayes, now feels more stagebound than Hellman’s earlier version; its starry new cast, at best, a wash. (The kids, slightly less than ‘a wash.’) Hellman was at pains to point out that the lesbian angle wasn’t important, but rather the power of a lie. Here, the lie of an entitled, vicious little brat. Well, maybe. Largely written off when first released as behind the times (where the original was ahead), the town’s overreaction to Audrey Hepburn & Shirley MacLaine being in what used to be called a ‘Boston Marriage’ was received with condescension. So unsophisticated. Fifty years on, the film now seems as much a period piece as the ‘36 original. And can probably be more readily accepted as such. As for Hellman, she’s surely mistaken about the dropped lesbian theme making no difference. Restoring it seems to change everything, informing every decision made by Shirley MacLaine’s secretly attracted, closeted character. James Garner, very good in a role that’s more plot point than person, is around to hold Hepburn to the straight and narrow, so to speak. It’s probably the element most in need of rethinking for a modern audience. In any event, time has been unusually beneficial to this well-wrought piece. While still no match for the earlier film, it’s a deeply felt, considerable achievement in its own right. And what movie maven would pass up a chance to compare & contrast lensers Gregg Toland/’36 & Franz Planer/’61 working with Wyler on such similar material?

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY I:Note our poster: a still from a presumably cut trial scene?

SCREWY THOUGHT OF THE DAY II: A successful B’way revival with Kim Hunter & Patricia Neal may have blinded Hellman & Wyler to the fast changing social/sexual Zeitgeist.

DOUBLE-BILL: Alas, THESE THREE still awaits Stateside DVD release.

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