James Garner in The Children’s Hour

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The late James Garner will be most remembered for the TV shows The Rockford Files and Maverick but for me he will always be most associated with a little known 1961 film called The Children’s Hour.

I’ve talked on this blog before about how I used to spend many happy hours in my childhood watching the old black and white movies that used to fill daytime TV in the 80s. I loved all the Norman Wisdom, Will Hay, Charlie Chan, George Formby, Margaret Rutherford as Miss Marple and Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes films but few of them really stuck with me. It was only really the Laurel & Hardy features that vividly lingered in my memory, The Laurel & Hardy features and The Children’s Hour.

It was late in the decade when I caught this Garner movie, in which he starred with Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine but I was so impressed by it that for some years I scoured the film pages of The Radio Times hoping to catch it again and tape it. (This was before the invention of DVDs, Amazon and the Internet of course.) Alas my search was in vain and over time I mostly forgot about it until Keira Knightley and Elizabeth Moss headlined a London Stage production of the original play three years ago.

Knightley and Moss were great but, to be fair, you can’t really compete with Hepburn, MacLaine, an atmospheric old monochrome film and two decades of nostalgic appreciation. Clearly I have now seen the movie again and it is a great piece of melodramatic cinema.

The story centres around Martha and Karen, two females teachers who run a private girls school. Garner is Joe, the obstetrician fiancé of Hepburn’s Karen who stands by both women when their careers and reputations are destroyed because one of their pupils tells her grandmother they are in a sexual relationship.

This was a pretty bold subject for a film in the early sixties which makes it an important piece of work. The events are played out around the scandal but the movie itself is not judgemental concerning the actions of which they are accused. It was actually a remake as director William Wyler, most famous for Wuthering Heights, Roman Holiday and Ben-Hur, had already adapted the play in 1936. In that version any suggestion of lesbianism had been totally removed, revolving instead around a heterosexual triangle involving Joe, because the Hays Code wouldn’t allow anything else. In fact any mention of homosexuality on stage was illegal when the play debuted in 1934 but interestingly when the critical reception was good this was over looked. No such leniency would’ve been considered in Hollywood.

With The Children’s Hour, it wasn’t just the subject of the film that Wyler was taking a risk on though. At the time James Garner had just sued Warner Brothers so that they would release him from his contract on Maverick. Convention dictated that this should have meant the end of his career and he was unofficially blacklisted by the studio. Wanting Garner for the part though Wyler risked the wrath of Warner Bros. He was at the end of his career anyway and as a result Garner was only really at the start of his. After The Children’s Hour Garner went on to star in over forty more movies, including of course The Great Escape, The Notebook and Mel Gibson’s Maverick.

Garner leaves behind him a strong body of work but The Children’s Hour possibly shows him at his best. Not just the charismatic, dashing, square jawed hero of so many of his other movies, Garner gives a great performance and works well with his fantastic co-stars. I hope that in all of the tributes he is remembered for this powerful and ground breaking film.

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