Karen Wright (Audrey Hepburn) and Martha Dobie (Shirley MacLaine) are just beginning to succeed in their struggle to make the Wright-Dobie School for Girls a going concern. Karen believes she will soon be able to marry Joe Cardin (James Garner). However, Karen has to discipline Mary Tilford (Karen Balkin). Mary always wants her own way and, worse, is a congenital liar. Mary complains to her grandmother Mrs. Tilford (Fay Bainter). To lend strength to her complaint, Mary repeats part of a conversation that she overheard, but barely understood--a conversation in which Martha's aunt Lily (Miriam Hopkins) accused Martha of having an unnatural attachment to Karen. Mrs. Tilford is horrified and spreads the word to the parents of the other girls--with disastrous results.
THE CHILDREN'S HOUR is William Wyler's second version of Lillian Hellman's controversial 1934 Broadway play. In Wyler's first version, THESE THREE, made in 1936, the lesbian theme was entirely suppressed. In contrast, THE CHILDREN'S HOUR, somewhat belatedly, allowed the theme out of Hollywood's closet. THE CHILDREN'S HOUR is clearly set in the 1960s but retains many of the 1930s attitudes toward lesbianism--the result is a movie that hovers curiously between the 1930s and the 1960s.
This screen adaptation of Lillian Hellman's play deals with two teachers at a private girls school accused of lesbianism. The fomenter of the scandal is one of the pupils, a mean-spirited and mentally unstable girl who convinces her grandmother that she and the other students have been exposed to unspeakable depravity. In the course of the escalating affair, havoc is wreaked on all sides. Karen Wright, the younger and more emotionally vulnerable of the two teachers, watches her relationship with her fiance collapse while her alleged lover, Martha Dobie, must come to terms with her own hidden desires.