11.29.2012

The homosexual in the text: Shirley MacLaine as Martha Dobie in "The Children's Hour" (1961)



Something I’ve come to notice in the process of working my way through gay and lesbian film history: the films that make up the gay canon are often the ones that dominant culture (and dominant cultural histories of film) find abhorrent, embarrassing, or just plain bad.  Stanley Kauffmann on Cat on a Hot Tin Roof: “it lacks resonance beneath its action; its writing is sometimes stilted, some of its motivations are insufficient, and its resolution is feeble.”  Pauline Kael on The Children’s Hour: “a portentous, lugubrious dirge. […]  I’m not sure the material would work even if you camped it up and played it for laughs.”  Geoff Andrew on The Killing of Sister George: “with its grotesque stereotyping and tour de force bitchiness and hysteria, it’s like yet another installment in the Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? saga.” 

Yet in spite of—or perhaps because of—having been derided by mainstream film criticism, these films have gone on to become touchstones for gay and lesbian critics and audiences.  Even their “grotesque stereotyping” and unfashionable portrayals of gay and lesbian people as depressive and suicidal have not prevented them from becoming important cultural texts.  The Children’s Hour (dir. William Wyler, 1961) is a good example of a film that caused a small stir when it was first released, was generally dismissed by the likes of Kael and was subsequently forgotten about.  Objectively speaking, it’s only a fair film; the directing is, as always with Wyler, perfunctory; the acting is solid, workable.  But as a cultural text—as opposed to simply an aesthetic object—it becomes immensely more interesting.  That’s not to say that we shouldn’t also think about it as an aesthetic object, merely that certain films work better as cultural documents than as entertainments.  This has been borne out by academic film scholarship, much of which has taken to valuing films as historical artifacts rather than as art works.  (One of my attempts in writing this blog has been to bridge that gap to some extent by mixing reviews with analysis—by my acting both as film critic and film scholar.)    

Taken as an historical artifact, The Children’s Hour becomes something far greater than the sum of its parts.  It gives us a window onto a particularly nebulous point in the history of homosexuality on screen, when lesbianism could be articulated but not condoned: Shirley MacLaine’s tortured Martha Dobie is granted a powerful and moving coming-out scene, but is inevitably forced to pay for it with her life.  It’s also a film that speaks to the McCarthyism of the 1950s; we should recall that Lillian Hellman, who wrote the play on which the film was based, was called to testify before HUAC.  The film bears more than a little resemblance to Arthur Miller’s The Crucible (another key McCarthy-era text) in its indictment of an entire community given over to paranoia and hypocrisy, made crazy by the whims of malicious girls.  But as a McCarthyist parable The Children’s Hour goes even further than The Crucible by daring to point out the extent to which McCarthy’s purges were fueled by homosexual panic.  The Children’s Hour begs to be understood within the cultural context of America of the early 1960s, outside of which it looks like just another creaky melodrama.  It’s a kind of rescue operation for which we have the practitioners of cultural studies to thank.

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