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The Children's Hour

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The politics of sexuality and censorship in the first Hollywood film to feature a lesbian character in a lead role.

Based on a play by Lillian Hellman, The Children’s Hour (1961) was the first mainstream commercial American film to feature a lesbian character in a leading role. It centres on a teacher at a girls’ school (Shirley MacLaine) who is accused of harbouring feelings for her co-worker (Audrey Hepburn) and depicts the intense moral panic that ensues. Produced in the social climate of the Lavender Scare, the film reveals deep insights into the politics of sexuality and censorship in midcentury America, only a few years before more visible struggles for queer liberation.

The director, William Wyler, lobbied hard to get the film made after an earlier straight-washed version in 1936. The tense road to production included debates about whether to eliminate mentions of lesbianism from the script and how implicitly queer subject matter might conflict with the Production Code, by then weakened but still in force. Julia Erhart’s reading of the film’s conception, production, and reception advances a nuanced case of censorship as a productive force. While contests between Hellman and Wyler suppressed scenes of overt affection between main characters Karen and Martha, reception was comparatively fixated on the characters’ lesbianism: it threatened middlebrow movie critics in the mainstream press and resonated with queer audiences. Erhart’s attentive interpretation of both the script and the sonic landscape yields a detailed analysis of the soundtrack as an original pro-lesbian element.

As issues of queer censorship continue to permeate life and culture more than fifty years later, Erhart demonstrates that The Children’s Hour is as salient to social and political tensions around gender and sexuality today as it was in the 1960s.

Julia Erhart is associate professor of screen and media at Flinders University.

Title: The Children's Hour

Format: Paperback

Product dimensions: 168 pages, 9" H x 6" W

Shipping dimensions: 168 pages, 9" H x 6" W

Published:  May 7, 2024

Publisher: McGill-Queen's University Press

Language: English

ISBN: 9780228021209

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The Children's Hour


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