Throwback Thursday: Shirley MacLaine Recalls Filming Lesbian Drama 'Children's Hour' in 1961

Courtesy of Everett Collection
Hepburn and MacLaine in 'The Children's Hour'

Before the Cannes hit 'Carol,' starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, 'Children's Hour' took a small step toward telling a story about women in love. Says MacLaine: Director "Willie [Wyler] cut the scenes that indicated we were lovers, where I'm brushing Audrey [Hepburn's] hair, for example. There was no physical touching. I think he got afraid of it."

This story first appeared in the June 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

While the lesbian-themed Carol drew enough attention at Cannes to earn Rooney Mara a best actress award, in 1961 it was The Children's Hour that took a small step toward telling a story about women in love. THR wrote that the William Wyler-directed drama was "obviously not for all audiences" but called it "one of the most honest films ever made in Hollywood."

Hour was a remake of 1936's These Three, which was based on Lillian Hellman's 1934 Broadway hit The Children's Hour about a true-life 1809 case of two women running a girls' school whose lives were ruined after a student accused them of being lesbians. The story goes that when These Three producer Samuel Goldwyn was told the Hays Code prohibited making a film out of the play because it was about lesbians, he replied, "That's OK; we'll turn them into Armenians." What he turned them into instead were heterosexuals involved in a love triangle with a man.

By 1961, the Hays Code had been sufficiently relaxed that Wyler could direct a new version that hewed closer to the play's intent, with Audrey Hepburn, then 32, and Shirley MacLaine, 27, as the leads. "I haven't done a remake," said Wyler. "This time I actually filmed Lillian Hellman's play." Veronica Cartwright, who was 11 when she was cast as schoolgirl Rosalie, says, "A lot of the kids were pulled when their parents found out what it was about." During production, she adds, MacLaine became her mentor even though "we were told not to hang around Shirley because she had a foul mouth. But she was so cool." Cartwright was allowed to attend the black-tie premiere at the Fox Wilshire Theater but not permitted to see the film.

Remembers MacLaine: "Willie [Wyler] cut the scenes that indicated we were lovers, where I'm brushing Audrey's hair, for example. There was no physical touching. I think he got afraid of it." As for Carol, MacLaine says she's eager to see it: "Between the two films, it just amplifies how far we've come."

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