In 2007 in a suburb of Atlanta, Georgia, a male teacher with seniority was politely asked to resign by the high school where he had worked for several years because his personal website (where his name did not even appear) contained suggestive photos of himself and his lover; it was somehow found and reported on to the principal. So you see, the premise of "The Children's Hour" is not at all out-of-date!
What is absolutely fascinating about this film, and what makes it unique in all the dramas which have been made on the subject of homosexuality, is the treatment of the road of self-discovery taken by these two very different women.
MacLaine wants Hepburn to buy some new clothes in an early scene, because she remembers how stylish her friend liked to be in her university days, and she even shares the memory of her first sight of Hepburn, when she said to herself, "What a pretty girl!" By the time the action of this movie begins, these two women have already lived and worked together for at least ten years. There was university together. Then, they both started teaching and accumulated several years' worth of experience; and it must certainly have taken a while to save up the money to set up the private girls' school of their dreams. That is a long relationship, a very committed relationship. Many similar career women in the 1960's, back to the 1870's (!) - famous women novelists, scientists, musicians, artists, poets - are now casually described in academia as lesbians, if they had any kind of a lengthy partnership with another woman at all. It has become a fashionable, politically correct label. But are these labels accurate?
Years ago, a sisterly friendship was accepted as just that. Now some kind of sex act is required and assumed. Nobody is supposed to be able to exist without regular orgasms. Nonsense! The culture has turned us all into Pavlovian dogs who salivate on cue. It is not true that 'everybody is doing it.' It wasn't true in past generations, and it isn't even true today.
The women in "The Children's Hour" were not 'doing it' either. But the movie is thrilling because it is not concerned with the spasms of body parts, but with the deep things of the heart.
MacLaine adored Hepburn, and always had. Hepburn was surely conscious, at some level all those years, of that adoration. Every lasting friendship between two people has unspoken dynamics, reasons why the individuals relate strongly to one another, key roles they play in each others' life story; sex may or may not be involved at all.
But, in this case, we can be sure that sex was involved, at a repressed level to start with. MacLaine came to realize that even touching Hepburn's hand was a pleasure which formerly she had chosen not to analyze too closely.
Mary, the awful, precocious schoolchild, whom we have seen reading some 'dirty book' in bed at night with a flashlight, evidently got her hands on something very graphic indeed, and this is what horrified the grandmother when she whispered what she couldn't say aloud, in the back of the rich old lady's limousine. There was more to this account than merely a story of 'kissing'.
As MacLaine says in her own great scene, somehow that monstrous little girl had sensed by intuition 'a grain of truth' to wrap her lie around. That 'grain of truth' becomes a snowball, by the end of the movie. MacLaine has confessed her love for Hepburn. Without histrionics, but with quiet honesty, Hepburn has confessed the same to her friend: "I love you, too." And Hepburn, even faced with total vindication and financial security from the libel award, never once considers contacting James Garner and putting their marriage plans back on track. Why not? The answer is that she herself has slowly come to a realization of her own need to make a life with MacLaine. She goes for her walk, ready for the future ahead.
But it is MacLaine, looking lovingly out the window at Hepburn, almost blissfully, secure for the first time that she is loved and valued by the person she cares about the most, who still knows that the future ahead for the two of them will entail a higher price for her than she is willing to pay. She cannot face the inevitable physical expression of her love for Hepburn. She is also burdened by a dysfunctional family background, with her only relative being the crazed, delusional aunt who has sponged off of her, and then let her down when she ignored those telegrams pleading for her to come back to testify for the two of them.
MacLaine and Hepburn do know, as they reveal in one of their final conversations, that there are lesbians, someplace, out there somewhere, who do accept themselves and who do somehow make lives for themselves. But MacLaine says, "We are not like that."
Hepburn has the strength to try. MacLaine isn't strong enough.
This is what Hepburn senses as she walks back towards the house, as she has been thinking things over on her walk. The aunt's calling out, looking for MacLaine, makes her really alarmed. But by the time she breaks down MacLaine's door, it is too late.
Hepburn's second walk, after the funeral, so purposefully reminiscent of the previous walk, is the quick step of a soldier, marching to battle. She is not afraid. And she is free to make any choice she wants. The stick figures of the townspeople standing at the edge of the graveyard can never touch her again.