Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Love = Death in the 60's

Last night’s film was The Children’s Hour, a 1961 film by William Wyler. The story of how this movie came to be is very interesting. Wyler had just come off the great success of Ben Hur, and was probably the most powerful director in Hollywood at the time. He could have his pick of projects; he could pick anything he wanted. He chose to remake an earlier film, Those Three, based on a play by Lillian Hellman.
By 1967 the Hayes Code had been in full swing for 33 years. The Hayes code forbid any portrayal of homosexuality on film under the following clause:
3. Law, natural or human, shall not be ridiculed, nor shall sympathy be created for its violation.
Homosexuality was considered to be against “ natural law.” Portrayal of homosexuality, or even it’s frank discussion were prohibited. The Code is actually very interesting reading—the elite were very afraid of this new medium, film-- they could not control the unprecedented access of the “masses” and felt they had to dictate the ideas that would be put into the heads of the common folk.
Anyway, Wyler was able to challenge the code and get it changed to allow homosexuality… as long as “care, discretion and restraint” were used. In actuality this meant that the gay character had to die. Which also meant that the gay character had to be troubled, unhappy, tortured and ashamed. The Children’s Hour is regarded as a milestone film in the history of Queer Film, but how much of an "advance" is debatable.
I’m not sure how to respond to this film. I try to watch it through the eyes of an adult of that era, seeing and hearing frank dialog on homosexuality for the very first time on American film. But it’s so over the top, so pointedly melodramatic, it just goes two steps beyond what I can grasp as any kind of realistic reaction to what happened to them... I just don’t buy it. And I absolutely loathe the extended close-ups of actors contorting their faces in order to convey the emotion of the scene… Uggg.
It’s an interesting film and worth seeing if only for the historical value. Plus Shirley MacLaine is incredibly cute!

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chuck b. said...

This one I've never seen. Must put it in the queue.

What text are you using for this class? They can't still be using Vito Russo's The Celluloid Closet...

"I absolutely loathe the extended close-ups of actors contorting their faces in order to convey the emotion of the scene"

That's a very European slash silent film technique, isn't it?

anile said...

Hi Chuck,
the text we use is a compilation of chapters that he picked out and had printed up. A chapter from Russo is there, along with "ow You See It" , "The Fruit Machine" "Vampires adn Violets" among others. It's a very good compilation of film criticism and analysis.