The Children's Hour (1961)
The Children's Hour is a good film otherwise marred by an overwrought score, some jumbo scenery chewing by the young actress who plays the evil brat, and some surprisingly hack delivery by the usually serviceable James Garner.
The story: Karen Wright (Audrey Hepburn) and Martha Dobie (Shirley MacLaine) are founders and teachers of a posh girls' school where a horrible bully of a girl named Mary Tilford (Karen Balkin) tells a vicious lie implying that Wright and Dobie are lesbians. Tilford's grandmother (Fay Bainter) believes the lie and removes Mary from the school, telling all the other parents in the process, causing them to disenroll their girls, thereby ruining Karen and Martha's school and reputation.
William Wyler directed both this and the original film version of Lillian Hellman's play, "The Children's Hour." The first, released in 1938, was renamed These Three, and starred Merle Oberon as Martha, Miriam Hopkins as Karen, Joel McCrea as Joe, and the infinitely more evil Bonita Granville as Mary, the horrible horrible little girl. The earlier version couldn't address the lesbian theme of the original play, but chose instead to make the scandal one of general impropriety, the lie of the child carrying weight for being of sexual matters supposedly beyond her understanding. It totally works.
The second picture is heavier and more despairing for taking on the issue of "perversion" head on. And while it is not Garner's best work, the part of Karen's stalwart doctor boyfriend is pretty thankless -- look how teeny he is in the poster. Miriam Hopkins is excellent as the worthless wretch of an aunt who abandons niece Martha, skillfully played in turn by Shirley MacLaine -- until the end, of course, but that's not her fault.
I think we can all agree that Audrey Hepburn was an angel sent from heaven.
But the best performances in this picture are by Fay Bainter as the guilt-ridden grandmother and Veronica Cartwright, an underrated, natural young actress, as the tormented schoolmate of evil Mary.
I do wonder how the film might be made today. It was a tough picture to see when I was coming up and out, though to be honest, (before the last reel, of course) I thought, "Cool, there are lesbians who look like Shirley MacLaine!" -- and it's hard to watch still. One hopes that in this day and age, Martha's torment wouldn't be so thorough and tragic, but "Modern Family" notwithstanding, there's still a lot of loathing to go around.
The lesson: Never underestimate the meanness of a 12-year-old girl.