Starring: Shirley MacLaine; Audrey Hepburn; James Garner
Director: William Wyler
Distributor: MGM DVD
From the opening shot of this black and white classic you get the feeling that you’re in for something out of the ordinary. Oscar nominated cinematographer Franz Planer tracks along a country lane with a posse of uniformed girls as they ride their bicycles out of the school zone. But the jolly old tone soon turns dark and menacing with some dramatically framed shots of the freakishly evil Mary (Karen Balkin) eavesdropping on her teachers Karen Wright (Audrey Hepburn) and Martha Dobie (Shirley MacLaine) in the background. You see, nobody at the Wright Dobie School for Girls likes Mary and it’s easy to understand why. She’s a mean spirited bully, blackmailing other girls like Rosalie (Veronica Cartwright) to join her in her wicked plan to bring about the downfall of the school, which she does quite successfully.
Her prize ammunition is a single world, overheard in an argument between Martha and her aunt Lily who accuses her niece of being “unnatural”. When Mary mentions this suspicious word to her grandmother, backing it up with something so unspeakable that it must be whispered in her ear, the old woman swiftly pulls twisted Mary out of the school and encourages every other parent in town to do likewise. Soon not one single student remains and the teachers have no idea why. Only when desperately pressed does one father finally explain the situation but once again, the dialogue is muted, taking place out of earshot in the distance. We get the picture, though; some little brat has accused them of lesbianism.
Now, in the early ’60s this sort of behaviour was not tolerated in small town America and it was even more taboo in the ’30s when Lillian Hellman wrote the stage play on which the film was based. Director William Wyler (Ben Hur, Funny Girl) had a crack at adapting the play in 1936 with a film entitled These Three, in which the homosexual story (drawn, incidentally from a real life incident in Scotland) was replaced with a heterosexual threesome. Miriam Hopkins starred in the original as Martha Dobie and returned a quarter of a century later as Martha’s flamboyant aunt Lily in Wyler’s remake, a role that earned her and the film another Oscar nomination.
In his book ‘The Celluloid Closet’, Vito Russo observes that gay men and women more often than not meet tragic ends in Hollywood movies and this is one of the most tragic. Melodramatic? Sure, but also radical in its time. At least now, thanks in part to this movie, we can actually say the ‘L’ word in public and even watch sit-coms about it on TV.