22 September 1999 | Chris-564
Ripe for re-release!
A 'classic' film, (whatever that may be), can almost never be re-made in quite the same way again. It's something that we've thought about for quite a while, though - and noted filmmakers (including Gus Van Sant and Sydney Pollack) have tried and failed to re-make films to jazz up their appeal, and make them more accessible to a wider audience. It's something that passed through my mind quite a few times as I watched "The Children's Hour" today. Quite clearly, this is a film that more people deserve to see and know about, and it would certainly be interesting to try and re-make it, but we would definitely lose something in the translation.
The largest reason for this is because it is a film of a definite period - the issues raised in the film are widely discussed these days, whereas in the period the film was set, homosexuality was something to be feared and despised. Similarly, we do not have the various elaborate codes of honour that are so prevalent in the film, and dictate the actions of almost all characters. It's a pity, then, that this film will be alien to lots of people today. The answer, however, is not in a re-make (the film is itself a re-make of a 1936 film by the same director called "These Three", and an adaptation of a play of the same name by Lillian Hellman), but a re-release of this fine example of moviemaking.
Boasting a terrific cast including Audrey Hepburn, Shirley MacLaine and James Garner, "The Children's Hour" is the story of two teachers, Miss Dobie and Miss Wright, who found a school for young girls in an idyllic town in America. Then, out of boredom, spite and plain maliciousness, a child tells a vicious lie that will bring about the downfall of the school, the teachers, and all caught up in the horrible set of affairs. It is quite possible to see the creeping evil and hatred that stems from Mary, the child concerned (played wonderfully by Karen Balkin). Eventually, it reaches out and destroys all it touches.
The photography is great (it was nominated for an Oscar) - there are many scenes which are so wonderfully composed that each frame paints a thousand words: the climax of the movie is a great example. The relationship between MacLaine and Hepburn is delicately and sensitively portrayed, especially for a cast who didn't know what they were doing (according to MacLaine in an interview for "The Celluloid Closet"). James Garner is also good in his role as the doctor about to marry Hepburn, although the movie is clearly not aimed at giving him the best lines. There are also many, many superb supporting roles - and the film's strength comes from a great ensemble performance.
It doesn't really matter what the child accuses the teachers of (indeed we only find out a good hour into the film, although it has been strongly implied), because the film isn't really about homosexuality. As MacLaine points out in "The Celluloid Closet" (a cracking documentary about the history of homosexuality in the movies), it is about "a child's accusation". It is also about the power held by a town to bring about the downfall of two perfectly nice, perfectly ordinary young people. The are lines in the film that one should never forget and it should also make us think about the way our words shape the situations in which we live: ("unnatural" is a great example).
All in all, a lovely film from director William Wyler ("Ben-Hur", "Roman Holiday", "Funny Girl"), and one that deserves to be seen by a wider audience - re-release, please!