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Shirley MacLaine Discusses The Children's Hour at the 2015 TCM Classic Film Festival

April 16, 2015

 “I love this!”


Immediately after Shirley MacLaine looked out into the audience and uttered those words, she went giddy over a man’s bald head in the front row: “Look at his head. It’s so shiny!”


(Right off the bat, I wasn't expecting this interview to stay totally focused on the film at hand, which I was initially hoping for. But Shirley did discuss the movie a fair amount, so I was satisfied in the end).


The moment I heard that Shirley MacLaine would be a guest at the 2015 TCM Classic Film Festival, I eagerly penciled one of her two films screening on my must-see list.  


No, it wasn't The Apartment (1960). To be honest, I haven't even seen it. (I know, I've already been admonished by some of my co-workers for that one). I've had several chances, but just never made the effort. Though I'm guessing that watching it on the big screen with MacLaine in attendance would have been a pretty damn solid inaugural viewing, I simply didn't feel like dealing with the inevitable lines/insanity/everything that comes with screenings in the Chinese IMAX. 

I rebelled against my imaginary TCM Film Fest code of watching new-to-me films and opted for the picture I had seen before, The Children's Hour, starring Shirley MacLaine as Martha, Audrey Hepburn as Karen, and James Garner as Dr. Joe. Though I saw the movie only a month or two prior, my main incentive for attending the screening was to hear MacLaine talk about the 1961 film, which is based on Lillian Hellman's play about a young girl accusing her two teachers of being lesbians. As I mentioned in my TCMFF Days 3 and 4 recap post, I made the decision to skip the actual screening of the film to take care of some things I had to wrap up before the end of the festival. After hearing people's reaction afterwards, I definitely added missing the movie itself to my (small) list of festival regrets. Actually, I think it's the only entry on that virtual register.


Hellman's play was raided on Broadway when it opened in 1934 due to the subject matter, and under the rigidity of the Production Code, William Wyler's 1936 film adaption, These Three, deleted any hint of lesbianism and changed the love triangle to two women chasing after the same man. Wyler revisited the piece 25 years later and reverted to its original title; for sure, a lot had changed in the cultural and societal landscape over those two and a half decades, and that's what interested me most going into this screening: what MacLaine had to say about the subject and its depiction.  

I really like this poster for the 1936 adaptation.

Eddie Muller's discussion with MacLaine before The Children's Hour followed her Club TCM interview with Leonard Maltin. When the Film Noir Foundation's Muller asked MacLaine when was the last time she saw this movie, she replied sarcastically: "1922." Though it obviously wasn't that long ago, she said it's been a while; in fact, she rarely stops to watch her movies unless there's a dance sequence.


Speaking of dancing...


Muller spring-boarded off a question that Maltin had asked her earlier in the afternoon (Muller sheepishly admitted that he basically followed her around that day), the answer to which surprised him. When Maltin asked MacLaine how she identifies herself as a performer, she said that she sees herself as a dancer - not in the physical sense because she doesn't dance much anymore - but because she values discipline and team work. (Not to mention she was also used to directors and choreographers “schooled in cruelty,” as she put it).


As a person, though, MacLaine said she’s an observer: “I would be happy just watching others.” Well, you could say that she turned the whole audience into observers, because everyone at the Egyptian was pretty content listening to her speak for the afternoon. 

Shirley MacLaine joined Leonard Maltin in Club TCM before the screening of The Children's Hour for a discussion on her career. (Photo credit TCM)

MacLaine mentioned that when director William Wyler remade The Children's Hour in 1961 using Hellman’s original story he was a little “trepidatious” about the subject matter. Though society and public opinion certainly advanced in regards to topics such as this in the roughly three decades since Hellman initially wrote the play, MacLaine remembers only one European film that broached the same subject and did it well. I have tried to find the movie she was referring to but haven’t had any luck. If you know what it is, please let me know!  


Why was Wyler so intimidated? MacLaine claimed it was because he knew The Children’s Hour focused on such a serious subject. As such, he sought to film it as “legitimately” as possible, showcasing Martha’s love for Karen in simple, yet revealing ways - for example, by the way Martha lovingly brushes Karen’s hair or irons her clothes (quick note: in real life, MacLaine said she adored Hepburn). Wyler cut some of these scenes out in the final release, most likely due to the censors and his nerves getting the best of him, MacLaine guessed. According to the actress, these deletions hit at the core of what it was like to be in love with another woman (at least in her mind), but MacLaine assured us that we’d still get the gist of it; after all, it’s 2015 and the subject inhabits more of the mainstream than it did in 1961.  

Karen (Audrey Hepburn) comforting Martha (Shirley MacLaine) in a scene from The Children's Hour.

Muller asked MacLaine why she thought Wyler remade the movie if he felt so apprehensive. She wasn’t sure of the real reason, but guessed that he was upset that he “screwed up” his first adaptation, These Three, and didn’t respect the original material (note: with the Production Code, he couldn’t have anyway).


As a quick aside, MacLaine mentioned that Wyler had an affair years before with Miriam Hopkins, who played MacLaine’s role in the original and returned as her aunt in the 1961 version. According to MacLaine, the cast and crew knew their history and every so often they would flirt in the middle of a big dramatic scene. “I love that, watching these two old senior lovers flirt…it was so cute!” she said. Personally, I don’t think this fact played a role in Wyler’s decision to revisit The Children’s Hour, but you never know!

William Wyler and Miriam Hopkins, with what looks like a photo of her younger self, on the set. What could they be discussing?! (Probably nothing scandalous)

As for working with Wyler, MacLaine said that he was a terrific man who didn't say much, but he knew how to get performances out of his actors and force them to think deeper. MacLaine shared two stories from production that highlighted this method. One scene in the script called for Martha to run up a flight of stairs. Wyler made MacLaine dash up and down 25 times, and when asked why he had her repeat the action over and over again, Wyler remarked that he just wanted her to be tired! Well, as an ex-dancer, MacLaine said the cardio didn't wear her out. She chided Wyler: "Why didn't you tell me that?!"


The other incident occurred right before the film's climax. During this particular scene, Martha was upstairs (hopefully tired out!) looking down at Karen. (Quick aside: At this point in the story, MacLaine spoiled the ending, and after realizing what she had done, she blurted out, "Bye!" before continuing on). Apparently, it was time to break for lunch, and there was no time to re-light the set, so Wyler told MacLaine to move into the lights, well up, and cry, BUT...he didn't want her tears to flow below the bottom of her nose. You know, like you can control that. Well, MacLaine must be magical, because somehow, she nailed those instructions on the first take. But of course, that wasn't enough for Wyler. Oh no. Now they were really running out of time, and for his next shot, Wyler requested that she cry out of the other eye. Once again, I don't know if that is something you can manipulate, but MacLaine seemingly pulled off yet another insane bodily feat.


And that's how Wyler extracted performances - by challenging his actors.


(Though when she thought about it, MacLaine doubts Wyler used either of those takes. "I must write to him!" she exclaimed). 

Hepburn, Wyler, and MacLaine.

Muller briefly brought up the fact that The Children's Hour was produced a few years before the Production Code crashed and burned in 1968. At that time, since Hollywood was still under the reigns of the PCA (though the cracks were definitely showing), if a writer or director wanted to tell a real story, they were forced to be hypocrites in some way. Case in point: Muller compared The Children's Hour to The Apartment, which screened the day before. He was surprised at how overt the implications of illicit sex were in the latter, while any inference of homosexuality between women (both technically forbidden under the code) was out of the question in the former.


When asked how she thought a modern audience would react to The Children's Hour, MacLaine replied that she wasn't sure, though she was certainly curious to find out (whether or not she did, I don't know). While the subject matter feels a bit dated today, MacLaine argued that the story goes way beyond that; it's really a manipulation of the truth and how one child's accusation, though truthful in some manner and definitely eye opening, ultimately led to tragedy. 

Hopkins, MacLaine, and Hepburn with James Garner.

Though MacLaine stated earlier that she wasn't sure of the reasoning behind Wyler's desire to remake the picture, near the end of the conversation her take on that subject seemed to change. The actress recalled the popular phrase: "In every lie there's an ounce of truth," which she said rang true for Hellman and resonated with Wyler, because in the story Martha knew that there was some inkling of reality in every charge she objected to. 


Before the interview wrapped up, MacLaine openly shared her gratitude for TCM and everyone in attendance. "It’s such a pleasure to come to this celebration and see the respect for the past and the way it was done," she professed. Naturally, her sincerity elicited a strong round of applause from the audience.


If you caught her interview and the movie, what were your thoughts?

thanks for stopping by!

I See a Dark Theater is a website dedicated to classic movie-going—and loving—in the City of Angels. Whether it's coverage on screenings, special presentations, or Q&As around Los Angeles that you're looking for, or commentary on the wonderful and sometimes wacky world of classic cinema, you've come to the right place for a variety of pieces written with zeal, awe, and (occasionally) wit. Enjoy.

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