{06}Enforcing Heterosexuality: Adapting Lillian Hellman's 'The Children's Hour' for the screen


William Glass

SUMMARY: The Motion Picture Production Code of 1930 banned homosexuality from the screen. This paper uses two films as a case study of the Code's impact on Hollywood's depiction of homosexuality. Both These Three (1936) and The Children's Hour (1961) were adaptations of Lillian Hellman's play in which two single female teachers have their lives ruined by a lie that the women were lesbians. With the first the Code's impact was pervasive. The PCA dictated that the accusations of lesbianism be omitted. By the 1960s, the PCA was relaxing its ban so a film could be made that retained the play's lesbian content. This paper argues that the Production Code was Hollywood's means of enforcing heterosexuality and that, even in the era when the Code's influence was waning, the necessity of maintaining heterosexuality as society's norm still governed how movies (mis)represented the lives of queer people.



The Motion Picture Production Code of 1930 was Hollywood's effort at self-censorship. Its purpose was to forestall governmental attempts to control the content of movies. Ineffective and largely ignored in its first few years of existence, the Code grew teeth when film producers hired Joseph Breen in 1934 to head the Production Code Administration (PCA). The Code had an elaborate justification for its restrictions and contained detailed descriptions of what was and was not appropriate content for movies. It also prescribed the suitable methods for the depiction of adult topics. One terse sentence banned homosexuality from the screen: "SEX PERVERSION or any inference to it is forbidden."[1] As Vito Russo demonstrated in The Celluloid Closet film makers, actors, and actresses found ways to slip past Breen and his office coded references to gay and lesbian issues (Vito Russo, 1987, 62-123, passim), but the PCA was effective in keeping direct and open portrayal of homosexuality out of Hollywood's movies, even when the film's source in a play or novel or history had queer content.

While many films could be used to illustrate the Code's impact on Hollywood's portrayal of homosexuality, two in particular provide the basis for a good case study. Both These Three (1936) and The Children's Hour (1961) were adaptations of Lillian Hellman's play, The Children's Hour. In the play, two single female teachers have their lives ruined by the spiteful lies of a disgruntled student that the women were lesbians. Both film versions had adaptations by Hellman and direction by William Wyler.[2] Asserting that the story was "about the power of lies to destroy people's lives" (quoted in Bernard Dick, 1982, 126), Wyler obtained Hellman's cooperation when she turned the lie in These Three into a rumor that one teacher had a heterosexual affair with the fiancé of the other. By the early 1960s, the PCA was relaxing its ban so that Hellman and Wyler could make a film that retained the play's lesbian content. Thus these films provide a unique opportunity to isolate the influence of the PCA as the same creative talent worked on the direction and screenplay. Moreover, the films form bookends; These Three was made when the code's power was at its strongest and The Children's Hour as the PCA saw an increasing number of challenges to its authority.

In their essay, "Lesbians and Film," the authors suggest that movies are "a cultural institution that excessively promotes as a norm the single option of heterosexuality. The articulation of sexuality is neither natural nor inevitable; it is shaped and determined by a given society within a particular historical moment." They conclude,

This historically determined sexuality may be expressed personally between individuals or enforced publicly through institutions. It is always disguised as "natural" to mask its ideological functions (Becker, et. al., 1995 25-26).

This paper argues that the Production Code was Hollywood's means of enforcing heterosexuality and that, even in the era when the Code's influence was waning, the necessity of maintaining heterosexuality as society's norm still governed how movies represented (or misrepresented) the lives of queer people.

The main points of the plot remain essentially the same in all three versions. Karen and Martha, two single women and friends from college, run a private boarding school for prepubescent girls. One student, Mary, is particularly troublesome, cutting class, cheating, lying, and blackmailing other students to support her in her schemes. After being punished for one incident, Mary runs home to her wealthy, indulgent grandmother, Mrs. Tilford. Mary exacts her revenge by telling a lie. Mrs. Tilford believes Mary and organizes a campaign to have parents remove their children from the school. With assistance of Dr. Joe Cardin, Karen's fiancé, Karen and Martha sue Mrs. Tilford for slander. They lose, in part because Martha's aunt, Lily Mortar, failed to testify. Mortar's testimony was crucial because her comments in an argument with Martha is what provided Mary with the seed of Mary's lie. Joe loses his job at the hospital, Karen and Martha have lost their school, and all three have had their reputations ruined. From this point, the 1936 film version diverges from the play and reveals most clearly the role of the Production Code in enforcing heterosexuality.

Samuel Goldwyn, the producer of These Three, knew that the PCA would not allow The Children's Hour to come to the screen as it appeared on the stage. The Code warned, "Everything possible in a play is not possible in a film (Mintz and Roberts, 1993, 144). According to an apocryphal story, Goldwyn's initial solution was simple. When informed by a production assistant that the play had lesbians in it, Goldwyn replied, "Don't worry about that. We'll make them Americans” (qtd. in Marx, 1976 210).[3] Indicating the PCA's zeal to protect the public, Breen forbade Goldwyn in a memo dated 31 July 1935 from announcing that he had optioned the rights to the play and prohibiting the credits from indicating the film was an adaptation of the play (These Three file).[4] These restrictions were merely cosmetic, the most important obligation was to sanitize the play's "SEX PERVERSION," in the words of the Code.

The PCA had been forewarned of the play's content. In a 21 November 1934 memo to Joseph Breen, Vincent G. Hart described the plot and concluded that "thematically it is unfit material for the screen. He pointed to four specific problems: the lesbian content ("degenerates” in his words), the "sadistic nature” of Mary, Martha's confession of a "mental unnatural affection” for Karen, and the profanity (These Three file).[5] On 24 July 1935, Merritt Hurlburd, Goldwyn's story editor, submitted a treatment of play that eliminated the accusation of lesbianism and asked for the PCA's preliminary approval (These Three file). On 29 October 1935, Breen wrote Goldwyn that his office approved the script noting that it was "acceptable under the provisions of the Production Code and contains little, if anything, that is reasonable censorable {sic}" Breen also requested that one "damn” be removed and reminded Goldwyn that he could not link the film to the play in any publicity (These Three file). After viewing the completed film, the PCA gave its official approval on 14 February 1934 (These Three file).

Goldwyn's collaborator in this process was Hellman herself. She wrote the screenplay, and her solution was to turn Mary's accusations that Karen and Martha were lovers into a suggestion that Martha and Joe were having a heterosexual affair. That simple change necessitated a variety of other revisions to make the plot work and to meet the Code's requirement that not even an "inference" of sex perversion appear on the screen. Take for instance the language in which the characters discuss Mary's lie. The lie's precise contents are never heard either in the play or the film, rather Mary whispers it into her grandmother's ear and only code words are spoken. In the play, Mary claims that Karen and Martha "have secrets" and that those secrets are "unnatural." Mrs. Tilford warns Joe not to marry Karen because "there's something wrong with Karen--something horrible." Mary's lie forces Martha to recognize the truth of her feelings for Karen, and Martha confesses to Karen, "I have loved you the way that they said." To which Karen sensitively replies, "you are tired and sick," and Martha agrees, "Oh, I feel so God-damned sick and dirty" (Lillian Hellman, 1953, passim). In These Three, what the play called "unnatural" becomes merely "funny" and "bad." Martha admits that she did fall in love with Joe but denies that it was ever consummated: "I do love him. I've always loved him. He never knew about it. He never even thought about me." Significantly, Martha makes no comments about feeling "dirty" because of her love for Joe and offers this confession as an effort to "clean house" (These Three).

In the screenplay, Hellman also had to find a sufficient cause for the panic of the parents to remove their children from the school. In the play, the fear that their daughters might be learning something more than their ABC's from lesbian teachers is the reason for parents' decision to rescue their children. That a woman would fall in love with her best friend's fiancé would hardly justify the panic. In fact, a chauffeur of one of the parents admits that he could "care less what went on after the children were in bed" (These Three) But what outraged Mrs. Tilford was Mary's insinuation that Martha and Joe conducted their affair in Martha's room on the same floor as the students' rooms. Mary described how she was awakened by a noise in Martha's room and saw Joe leaving the room. Terrified that Mary will reveal that she stole a bracelet, Rosalie, another student, confirms Mary's story, and Mrs. Tilford begins calling other parents, spreading the lie, setting off the panic. In some ways, even by 1930s standards of conduct, the panic seems unjustified. Interestingly, Hurlburd's story treatment submitted to the PCA on 24 July 1935 included a more dramatic element. Joe came to the school to treat a student with pneumonia, and she dies. Mary sees Joe comforting Martha and the lie becomes that the student died because Joe neglected his duties in order to conduct an affair with Martha (These Three file).

The Production Code did more than just ban homosexuality, it actively strove to promote heterosexual marriage as the norm for American society. It suggested that "out of regard for the sanctity of marriage, the triangle that is, the love of a third party by one already married {or perhaps in this case, someone engaged}, needs careful handling. The treatment should not throw sympathy against marriage as an institution" (Steven Mintz and Randy Roberts, 1993, 130). These Three made clear Joe's faithfulness because it showed what happened in the room between Joe and Martha. He arrives at the school late one evening to visit Karen but finds that Karen is out. He joins Martha in her room and falls asleep on her couch while Martha paints a table. He awakes with a start, breaking a glass. This noise is what attracts the attention of Mary who sneaks out of her room to see Joe leaving Martha's room.

Furthermore, the movie leaves no doubt about the loyalty of Martha to her friends. While she does indeed fall in love with Joe and confesses her desire to Karen, she becomes the agent that unravels Mary's scheme and restores Karen and Joe as the normative couple. In so doing, the film also affirms the priority of heterosexual marriage. After losing the slander suit, Karen confronts Joe with her doubts that Mary's lie might have some kernel of truth. Joe claims that he never had any interest in Martha but his denial does not satisfy Karen and she breaks off the engagement. Having lost his job at the hospital, Joe decides to return to Vienna where he studied medicine. When Martha hears of this development, she corroborates Joe's story, but this confirmation does not erase Karen's doubts. Aunt Lily's chance remark about a stolen bracelet sends Martha on a quest to find Rosalie and hear Rosalie's story. Rosalie explains to Martha and then to Mrs. Tilford how Mary blackmailed her into supporting Mary's story. Now vindicated by the exposure of the lie, Martha forces Mrs. Tilford to give a message to Karen: "Tell her to go to Joe wherever he is. Tell her when that happens I'll be alright." These Three ends with Karen in Joe's arms in the doorway of a Vienna café and the threat to marriage defeated.

By the early 1960s, the PCA's ability to shape the presentation of certain topics was diminishing. Nonetheless, the office still moved to keep homosexuality off the screen, even in the vaguest of references. One of the more noted examples was when Geoffrey Shurlock, Breen's successor, sent Stanley Kubrick a memo (dated 5 April 1960) requiring him to delete the scene in Spartacus (1960) where the Roman general Crassus questions his slave about the slave's preference for oysters or snails (Spartacus file). Moreover, other film makers used the same solution as Goldwyn and Hellman: substitute some other problem or issue for homosexuality. For example, in the novel The Brick Foxhole a killer's rage against homosexuals became antisemitism in the movie Crossfire (1947) (Leff and Simmons, 1990, 144). In Tea and Sympathy (1956), a school boy's concern about being gay became doubts about his ability to cause a woman to love him (Tea and Sympathy file).[6] Under pressure from the PCA, film makers sanitized their adaptations of Tennessee Williams' plays Streetcar Named Desire (1951) and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958). In Streetcar, the homosexuality of Blanche's husband became "debility and weakness” (quoted in Murray Schumach, 1964, 74),[7] while Brick's attraction to Skipper in Cat turned into a "father fixation” (Cat on a Hot Tin Roof file). With a script by Gore Vidal, Suddenly, Last Summer (1959), though, was much more problematic. Producer Sam Spiegel initially tried to win the PCA's approval for the script by granting Sebastian's homosexuality and arguing in a memo to Shurlock dated 25 May 1959) that he "pays for his sins with his life." (Suddenly, Last Summer file). That ploy did not work, and Spiegel completed the film which the PCA rejected. Spiegel appealed the decision and won by agreeing to delete a scene that showed Sebastian with two boys and a line that clearly explained that he used his female cousin to procure his tricks (Suddenly, Last Summer file). The PCA files show that the office eventually gave its approval to two films about Oscar Wilde after they had been appealed (Oscar Wilde and The Trials of Oscar Wilde files).

Thus William Wyler knew that he would face opposition to an adaptation of The Children's Hour that was faithful to the play not just in theme and spirit but also in plot. But he could also see that the PCA could be made to approve films that treated homosexuality.

Wyler's motivation for making another version of Hellman's play stemmed in part from his "disappointment" with the dramatic results of These Three. "This was not the picture I had intended," he explained. "It was emasculated. On the stage it was a tragedy. The film was much weaker” (quoted in Michael A. Anderagg, 1979, 50, 52). United Artists backed Wyler to the point of being willing to distribute the film without the PCA's approval, but the company also worked behind the scenes to avoid a confrontation. Arthur Krim, a UA executive, pointed out in a letter to the PCA (10 May 1961) that the company had three big budget projects (The Children's Hour, The Best Man, and Advise and Consent) in various stages of development. In each, homosexuality was a key element in the plot, and Krim assured the office that none would contain "any acts or suggestions of homosexuality itself” (The Children's Hour file). The PCA relented and amended the Code: "In keeping with the culture, the mores and values of our time, homosexuality and other sexual aberrations may now be treated with care, discretion and restraint” (quoted in Frank Miller, 1994, 189). After the remake's release, Wyler claimed, "This time I have actually filmed Lillian Hellman's play, which we were not able to do twenty-five years ago” (quoted in Frank Miller, 1994, 188).

That may be, but the new version still shows the efforts of Hollywood to enforce heterosexuality. The 1961 film follows the play much more closely than These Three. Much of what was dropped from the 1936 movie was restored in 1961. The lie became an accusation that Karen and Martha are lesbians. The language describing homosexual love as unnatural, sick, and dirty was brought back. Even ads for the movie reinforced this message. One ad asked, "Did Nature play an ugly trick and endow them with emotions contrary to those of normal young women?" (quoted in Vito Russo, 1987, 137). Most important was the restoration of Martha's suicide after confessing her love for Karen. In These Three, her suicide was omitted, thus the implication is that confessing love for a friend's fiancé was not sufficient cause for suicide whereas confessing love for the friend was a good enough reason to kill oneself. Accordingly, Martha became one of the first of Hollywood queers who must meet an untimely end. In Suddenly, Last Summer, Sebastian is punished for his homosexuality by being cannibalized by his tricks, in Advise and Consent, a senator slits his throat when he learns he is about to be blackmailed for a youthful homosexual indiscretion, and the list goes on (Vito Russo, 1987, 126-179). Evidently, Hollywood in the early 1960s believed what Mart Crowley would say later in the decade in The Boys in the Band: "You show me a happy homosexual and I'll show you a gay corpse” (quoted in Vito Russo, 1987, 178).

In Women and Their Sexuality in the New Film, Joan Mellin in passing suggests that the 1961 Children's Hour more clearly than the play advances the theory that Karen might have "a latent or dormant homosexual component” (Joan Mellin, 1973, 75) Bernard Dick in Hellman in Hollywood seems to agree and offers as evidence that in the movie's conclusion at Martha's funeral Karen has an "androgynous" appearance and rejects the opportunity for reconciliation with Joe. The play, at least, held out the prospect that split between Karen and Joe would be healed. Dick, though, abandons the notion because nothing earlier in the film has foreshadowed the possibility and because Audrey "Hepburn's Karen was so completely feminine” (Bernard Dick, 1982, 48). Actually, more evidence than events and costume in the concluding scene can be mustered to raise questions about Karen's sexuality. Most important are the facts that Karen and Joe have been engaged for several years and that Karen resists Joe's efforts to set a definite date for the wedding. Moreover, Karen insists that she is concerned for the school and for Martha's security once Karen and Joe are married. Mrs. Tilford uses these facts to cause Joe to wonder about the nature of the women's relationship. Reversing the roles from These Three where Karen questions Joe about the accuracy of the lie, in this version, Joe becomes the accuser.

What is significant is not the dialogue by itself but the cultural context in which the film was first screened. The ideology that Elaine Tyler May labels as "domestic containment" still dominated the early 1960s (Elaine Tyler May, 1990). It purpose was to control troublesome issues concerning sexuality and gender roles by defining the appropriate place for women was in the home as wife and mother. Thus Karen's pursuit of a career and her unwillingness to marry Joe marks her as suspect. The enforcement of heterosexuality, then, comes not from the reunion of Joe and Karen as in These Three but from the negative example of what might happen to a woman that violates those norms.

That Hollywood studios, controlled by white heterosexual men and involved in the pursuit of profits for their stockholders, would engage in the enforcement of heterosexuality and the establishment of marriage as society's norm is not surprising. Whether the result of personal prejudice and ignorance or of market necessity to cater to expectations of the heterosexual masses, the movies they made and released resulted in the misrepresentation of the lives of lesbians and gay men. In the case of These Three, the goal was achieved by deleting the lesbian and thus making her invisible. In The Children's Hour, the realization of lesbian desire leads one character to suicide thus appearing to equate homosexuality with pathology. On the other hand, the decision of another character to pursue a career and reject marriage violates society's rules, thus the hints that she might be a lesbian serve as a warning to viewers to conform to heterosexual norms.

Works Cited

Anderegg, Michael A. William Wyler. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1979.

Becker, Edith, Michelle Citron, Julia Lesage, and B. Ruby Rich. "Lesbians and Film." Out in Culture: Gay, Lesbian, and Queer Essays on Popular Culture. Eds. Corey K. Creekmur and Alexander Doty. Durham: Duke University Press, 1995.

Black, Gregory D. Hollywood Censored: Morality Codes, Catholics, and the Movies. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.

The Children's Hour. Dir. William Wyler. Screenplay by John Michael Hayes. United Artists, 1961.

Dick, Bernard F. Hellman in Hollywood. East Brunswick: Associated University Press, 1982.

Hellman, Lillian. The Children's Hour. New York: Dramatists Play Service, 1953.

Herman, Jan. A Talent for Trouble: The Life of Hollywood's Most Acclaimed Director, William Wyler. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1995.

Leff, Leonard, and Jerold L. Simmons. The Dame in the Kimono: Hollywood, Censorship and the Production Code from the 1920s to the 1960s. New York: Grove Weiden Feld, 1990.

Margaret Herrick Library, Center for Motion Picture Study, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Beverly Hills, CA.

Production Code Administration files

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof file.

The Children's Hour file.

Oscar Wilde file.

Spartacus file.

Suddenly Last Summer file.

Tea and Sympathy file.

These Three file.

The Trials of Oscar Wilde file.

William Wyler Papers.

The Children's Hour file.

Marx, Arthur. Goldwyn: A Biography of the Man behind the Myth. New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1976.

May, Elaine Tyler. Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era. New York: Basic Books, 1990.

Mellin, Joan. Women and Their Sexuality in the New Film. New York: Horizon Press, 1973.

Miller, Frank. Censored Hollywood: Sex, Sin, and Violence on Screen. Atlanta: Turner Publishing, Ind., 1994.

Mintz, Steven, and Randy Roberts, eds. Hollywood's America: United States History through Its Films. St. James, NY: Brandywine Press, 1993.

Russo, Vito. The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies, rev. ed. New York: Harper and Row, 1987.


Schumach, Murray. The Face on the Cutting Room Floor: The Story of Movie and Television Censorship. New York: William Morrow and Co., 1964.

These Three. Dir. William Wyler. Screenplay by Lillian Hellman. Metro Goldwyn Mayer, 1936


[1] The Code is reproduced in many places; the version I used may be found in "The Production Code of 1930," in Steven Mintz and Randy Roberts, 1993, 142-152; the comment on sex perversion in on 152. Discussion of the Code's history can be found in a variety of studies. See for example, Murray Schumach, 1964; Leonard J. Leff and Jerold L. Simmons, 1990; Frank Miller, 1994; and Gregory D. Black, 1994.
[2] Bernard Dick, 1982, noted that Hellman wrote the screenplay for These Three while she was under contract with Samuel Goldwyn, and produced an initial outline and adaptation for the 1961 version. He claims she was unable to complete screenplay due to the death of Dashiell Hammett. The shooting script came from John Michael Hayes (43). Jan Herman, 1995, though, has strong evidence that Wyler pursued Hellman for the screenplay but because of conflicts with a play opening and a commitment to teach at Harvard she could not do the screenplay. The Mirsch Company, which provided financing for the remake, had a contract for Hellman but withdrew it when its managers learned she would try to write the script in her spare time at Harvard. Hellman reviewed Hayes first draft describing it as having "a strange flat quality." After production began, Hellman rewrote some scenes and added some new ones but not produce a full revision of the script (413-416). Moreover, a memo from Oscar Steinberg to S. A. MacPherson, dated 15 February 1966), indicated that Hellman eventually received a check for $8,000 as a "writer on the picture THE CHILDREN'S HOUR" (William Wyler Papers).
[3] Arthur Marx, 1976, believes that Goldwyn was well aware of the play's content as he had Hellman under contract and frequently had lunch with her. Jan Herman, 1995, also suggests that Hellman convinced Merritt Hurlburd, Goldwyn's story editor, that an adaptation could be produced that would pass the Code. She said, "It's not about lesbians. It's about the power of a lie. I happened to pick what I thought was a very strong lie" (140-141). Vito Russo, 1987, claims Goldwyn made this comment when informed that the main character in The Well of Loneliness was a lesbian (62-63).
[4] Vito Russo, 1987, also suggested that the press cooperated with the PCA in trying to hide the connection by citing a Variety review that noted "it is verboten to ballyhoo the original source" (63). Other reviews with wide circulation let the cat out of the bag, one even suggesting that the changes in the film represented a marked improvement over the play. The PCA office maintained a clippings file of reviews for movies it evaluated. The reviews in the file for These Three to one extent or another indicated that the movie was adapted from Hellman's play. A typical comment was the one from Time. The unnamed reviewer noted the film's source as The Children's Hour and noted the teachers were accused of "normal" instead of "abnormal" behavior thus improving upon the play. These comments are interesting in that they imply that silence about the existence of gay men and lesbians was preferred by the broader culture. Other clippings offering similar comments include reviews from The Hollywood Reporter, 22 February 1936; Variety, 22 February 1936; and Motion Picture Herald, 29 February 1936.
[5] Hart also sent Breen a Variety review (27 November 1934) of the play that was quite strong and positive but called the plot "a reverse 'Maedchen in Uniform'" and describes Mary's lie as being that Karen and Martha were "lovers" (These Three file).
[6] This film actually created a substantial problem not just because of the issue of homosexuality but also because of the film's conclusion. The wife of one of the teachers at the boy's school has sex with him to demonstrate to him that he is straight thus the plot seemed to endorse adultery, another taboo proscribed by the Code.
[7] Kazan was quite blunt: "I wouldn't put the homosexuality back in the picture if the Code had been revised last night and it was not permissible. I don't want it. I prefer debility and weakness over any kind of suggestion of perversion" (quoted in Murray Schumach, 1964, 74).

Will Glass



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