The Children's Hour is a 1961 American drama film directed by William Wyler. The screenplay by John Michael Hayes is based on the 1934 play of the same title by Lillian Hellman. The film stars Audrey Hepburn, Shirley MacLaine, and James Garner.
Former college classmates Martha Dobie (Shirley MacLaine) and Karen Wright (Audrey Hepburn) open a private school for girls in New England. Martha's Aunt Lily (Miriam Hopkins), an aging actress, lives with the two of them and teaches elocution. After two years of engagement to Joe Cardin (James Garner), a reputable OB/GYN, Karen finally agrees to set a wedding date. Joe is related to wealthy Amelia Tilford (Fay Bainter), whose granddaughter Mary (Karen Balkin) is a student at the school. Mary is a spoiled, conniving child who often bullies her classmates, particularly Rosalie Wells (Veronica Cartwright), whom she blackmails when she discovers her stealing another student's bracelet.
When Mary is caught in a lie, Karen punishes her by refusing to let her attend the weekend's boat races. Furious, the young girl exacts her revenge by inventing a story about Martha and Karen being involved in a lesbian relationship, a tale based on fragments of a quarrel Mary's roommates accidentally overheard. She tells her grandmother she observed the two women kissing each other, and the woman immediately informs the other parents, who rapidly withdraw their daughters from the school, leaving Karen and Martha mystified about the sudden exodus. When one father finally explains what is happening, Karen angrily confronts Mrs. Tilford, together with Joe and Martha. Mary repeats her story and coerces Rosalie into corroborating the lie. The two women sue Mrs. Tilford for libel and slander but lose their case.
When the story is circulated by the local media, the reputation of the two teachers is destroyed. Only Joe keeps in contact with them, and he offers to take them away and start a new life. However, his trust in Karen is shaken, and he asks her if the rumors are true. In the ensuing quarrel, Karen ends their engagement, claiming she needs time to think everything over. When Martha learns about the break-up, she confesses she had always felt more than friendship for Karen and, upon hearing the false accusation, had finally realized the extent of her hitherto-repressed feelings. Upon this new acknowledgment of her feelings, she breaks down, blaming herself for ruining both of the women's lives.
Rosalie's mother (Sally Brophy) discovers a cache of stolen items, including the bracelet Mary used to blackmail her, among her daughter's belongings, and the two girls are questioned. Mrs. Tilford learns that the story was a fabrication and visits the two teachers. She apologizes for her actions and assures them if the court case is reopened, they not only will be cleared of all charges but will be well-compensated for the trouble she caused. Feeling the damage to their lives cannot be undone, Karen refuses to accept the apology.
Afterwards, she briefly talks to Martha about their future, and suggests going somewhere far away to start a new life together. Martha tells Karen she would rather talk about it in the morning and Karen leaves the house to take a walk. In her absence, Martha hangs herself. At her funeral, Karen walks away alone, while Joe watches her from the distance.
- Shirley MacLaine as Martha Dobie
- Audrey Hepburn as Karen Wright
- James Garner as Dr. Joe Cardin
- Miriam Hopkins as Lily Mortar
- Fay Bainter as Amelia Tilford
- Karen Balkin as Mary Tilford
- Veronica Cartwright as Rosalie Wells
- Mimi Gibson as Evelyn
- William Mims as Mr. Burton
- Sally Brophy as Rosalie's mother
- Hope Summers as Agatha