Shirley MacLaine, Audrey Hepburn, James Garner, and Miriam Hopkins star in this widely-acclaimed drama adapted from the 1936 play by Lillian Hellman.
A boarding school girl (Mary Tilford, as played by Karen Balkin) accuses two teachers (MacLaine and Hepburn as Karen Wright and Martha Dobie) of having a lesbian affair, purely out of spite, and just because she can. Dr. Cardin (Garner) is Karen’s fiancee. Things are tight all around as the perpetrator of the rumors, Mary, is the granddaughter of Amelia Tilford (Fay Bainter), a local notable; Dr. Joe Cardin is Amelia’s nephew and Mary’s cousin.
There’s a sort of double-focus to the accuser-victim theme: it’s clear that the girl wanted to get back at Karen, so she made the allegations, what we don’t know is if the two teachers are what it’s said they are. The lack of a value judgement helps us to say–so what if they’re lesbians?–but exploring their relationship is going to show the heart of the film.
As we wade into boarding school life, we find Mary throwing a fit, as she faints–or seems too. The doctor gives Amelia a catastrophic diagnosis just to mess with her “I don’t know who’s teaching her fainting, but she flunked”. Meanwhile, Martha argues with her aunt Lily (Miriam Hopkins) about, well, everything. Karen decides to separate Mary from her current roomates–who are apparently picking up her bad traits.
Back in their room, the girls discuss that there’s something “unnatural” about Karen. Mary bullies Rosie around, a ‘shakedown’ so to speak. Next thing we know, Mary’s badmouthing the teachers again–to her grandma, those ladies are into “all sorts of things.” They were in the same room together, late at night, and other “things”. She whispers the rest to Grandma. That gets the old bat’s attention.
Amelia goes back to the school directly–to fetch the two miscreant teachers. First some gossip with Lily, who supposedly has inside info. Now grandma tells the little dear Mary that she don’t have to go school.
In Karen’s French class, Martha pokes in. They summon Rosalie: she’s also being sent away. That’s just the beginning of the exodus, as it seems, judging by the herd of swanky cars coming and girls leaving. True to the denial mentality going on in this era, parents won’t even tell Martha and Karen why he’s taking their daughters out of the school.
Meanwhile, Rosalie and Mary, temporarily reunited, resume their unequal relationship; Mary blackmails Rosie into continuing to build little lies to support the big lie, or story anyway, regarding the teachers. Later, Amelia bugs Joe about the engagement; she says he can’t marry Karen because “there’s something wrong with her.” That’s what the twelve-year-olds’ rumor mill has conjured up, anyway.
Martha and Karen come calling…”there’s no school anymore” says Karen, because her and Martha were “lovers.” According to Amelia, that is. She says she’s “sure.” This is a very good scene, all four actors throw darts all around. Anyway, the two teachers will sue for libel. They know that all of the stuff was spun from Mary’s web. With masterful double-speak, Amelia insists that Mary can’t be wrong, because she can’t know about such things.
Joe grills Mary, she’s caught in her own lies. Finally, she fingers Rosalie as the ‘witness.’ Rosalie denies everything. Mary prods her, slyly, using the alleged missing bracelet ‘stick’–the bait Mary’s already trapped Rosalie with. So, with that theft threat looming, she screams out that all the “unnatural” stuff about the teachers is true after all.
It should be completely obvious, even to Amelia, that Rosalie lies to protect herself from Mary; it’s also obvious that Mary’s been lying from beginning to end. The logical thing, then, would be for Amelia to call off the dogs, and maybe send Mary packing–to another school.
But no. Instead, we see locals spying on Karen and Martha. Another creepy bit finds the grocery delivery guy getting up close, and leering at them. Even Joe is getting the cold shoulder; he gets the sack too. Great time for Aunt Lily to come back, bragging about her theatrical performances. About the real tragedy, she offers only “let’s let bygones be bygones.” As she didn’t testify at the hearing, Karen and Martha’s “sinful sexual knowledge” wasn’t refuted by Lily.
She, of course, is much worse than Mary. The kid took the rumors and blew them up, but Lily started the problem, and continues to relish in what she started by disclaming responsibility. And she’s the adult. Joe intends to go ahead with the marriage. He even says “There’ll be enough for all three of us” in his new situation.
He wants to “put the whole business behind us” Karen’s happy momentarily, but balks when he says they should wait to have a child. So, sensing her hesitation, he asks if “it” was true. She says no, that they never touched…meaning, what? She wants him to go away for a while. The fact seems to be that she really doesn’t know what to do. He’ll leave, but only for a short time.
Then, Rosalie, getting ready for a new school, bumbles with her things: boing! A cache of jewelry falls out. She insists that Mary made her steal the stuff. Amelia, shocked, collapses. She now believes Rosalie.
Karen tells Martha that Joe’s gone for good, and that he thinks ‘it’ is true– now she’s stretching it some. She wants to leave with Martha, right away. Martha says she “loves” her as a friend; but then she says “maybe” the other way, finally, she fully admits “I’m guilty!” And that she resents her plans to marry Joe.
“It’s all mixed up” continues Martha; that Mary told “the lie with an ounce of truth.” Who’s knocking? Can’t be opportunity. No, it’s Amelia. She has some news: the girls admitted they lied about everything. The court ruling will be reversed, etc. “So you’ve come to relieve your conscience” says Karen. Now Amelia, realizing that everything that’s happened can’t be undone, feels awful. Tough cookies, I guess.
Having disposed of Amelia, Karen tells Martha again that she’s going away, and invites her to come with. Karen goes walking off, then, sensing that something’s wrong, comes back. Martha’s killed herself. After the funeral, Karen walks away, right past Joe, smiling.
The performances really made this movie work. Hepburn’s and MacLaine’s characters’ emotional range is mostly tragic and poignant, but there’s a certain light-heartedness with Garner, that gives this an unnaturally bouyant feel at times.
The child actors are more or less types, but done with great nuance. We feel trapped like Rosalie, who seems so nice, but unfortunately so vulnerable. At the same time, Mary get her way until the very end, and we see that she’s never happy or even satisfied. Victimizing has become an obsessive end it itself.
Mary reminds me of the ‘bad girl’ character, Rhoda, from 1956’s The Bad Seed. Of course, Mary isn’t psychopathic like Rhoda, but likshe seemse a kid who’s been indulged without being loved. My complaint would be that the world has to nearly end before Amelia will seriously doubt her.
Without any notable physical contact to alert us, Martha and Karen could be just good friends, lovers, or one more lover than friend to the other, as it turns out. Their relationship is actually a mystery that drives the plot. For the most part, it’s drawn differently by different characters. Even the two women can’t quite figure it out until the very end. The irony is that it shouldn’t matter.
An excellent drama, fine acting, great characters. Of course it’s very chatty, but never really slows or meanders off course. If anything, with the cloistered setting, the atmosphere is a bit claustrophobic. Worth more than one viewing.
Farmermouse was pretty sad as expected, but he did dig those cool rides in the school driveway: ’57 Cad, ’61 Lincoln, and ’60/1 Imperial. Can’t beat that for period style. Anyway, he gives the Children’s Hour nine French lessons. 9/10.