A meek protagonist is accused of homosexual conduct. They are cast out of their social circle and forced to start a fresh life. I enjoyed 2018’s Giant Little Ones but some melodramatic elements didn’t sit well with me. The film seemed a direct descendant of two older stories: Tea and Sympathy and The Children’s Hour. The works were smash hits on Broadway but heavily censored by Hollywood. I thought I’d compare and contrast.
The following recaps contain spoilers.
Trigger Warning: Both films contain incidents of self harm.
Tea and Sympathy
Broadway 1953. Hollywood 1956.
Act One: Tea
HAYES CODE: If you put this sinful play on film it has to be heavily censored.
DEBORAH KERR: I like Tom. Why do they call him queer sister boy?
SCHOOLMASTER: Because he was caught sunbathing nude with a man sewing.
DEBORAH KERR: He’s being bullied.
SCHOOLMASTER: Don’t worry. They’re going to haze him at the school bonfire. That will make a man of him.
(Tom runs past in unflattering 50’s boxers.)
DEBORAH KERR: Why did the students rip off his clothes? That’s not in the play.
SCHOOLMASTER: It’s just boys being boys. Fit young men shivering in their underwear as the cold wind tickles their skin… I have to go. (Exits in a hurry.)
TOM: They all hate me. What do I do now?
TOM’S FRIEND: Just walk butch. Like this. Stompy stompy stompy.
TOM: Like this? Stampy stampy stampy!
TOM’S FRIEND: No! Look, I’ll set you up with a prostitute waitress. Go sleep with her and tell the guys.
DEBORAH KERR: Don’t do it Tom.
TOM: I have to.
Act Two: Sympathy
On the surface, “Tea and Sympathy”… is an indictment of the dangerously limited ways Americans have codified masculinity. ~ Gina Bellafante. New York Times. 2007.
TOM’S DAD: I’m so proud of you for sleeping with that prostitute waitress!
TOM: I couldn’t go through with it. I attempted suicide instead.
DEBORAH KERR: You’re a bully! You hate that boy because… you’re a homosexual impotent!
SCHOOLMASTER: Go to hell.
TOM: I guess I gotta be gay now. Maybe join the Navy.
DEBORAH KERR: Cut the bull Tom. You clearly want me. Let’s bang.
TOM: Is this to teach me a lesson about masculinity?
DEBORAH KERR: That, and my
gay impotent husband hasn’t touched me in years.
(Here’s the play’s most famous line: )
DEBORAH KERR: Years from now when you talk about this—and you will—be kind.
(They sleep together.)
HAYES CODE: Wait! We’ve got to add a coda.
DEBORAH KERR: Dear Tom, I wrote you a letter to say I’m sorry I sinned with you. It went against the Hayes Code and I’m a bad, bad woman. Shame on me. So naughty.
TOM: Gosh! I’m glad I have a wife and kids now!
The Children’s Hour
Broadway 1934. Hollywood 1936. Remake 1961.
Act One: Scandal
AUDREY HEPBURN (A Teacher): I’m engaged to James Garner!
SHIRLEY MACLAINE (Another Teacher): I’m sure going to miss our platonic friendship.
AUDREY HEPBURN: Don’t be silly. We’ll still be friends.
GRANDMA: Why were you sent home from school! Were you misbehaving?
1936’S MEAN GIRL: No! I saw my teacher sleep with the other one’s fiancée.
1961’S MEAN GIRL: No! I saw Shirley MacLaine sleeping with Audrey Hepburn!
GRANDMA: Heavens to Betsy!
JUDGE: Were there any witnesses?
BLACKMAILED GIRL: Me. They did whatever the Mean Girl says they did.
JUDGE: There you have it. You’re guilty and we’re shutting down your school.
AUDREY HEPBURN: These recaps aren’t funny
SHIRLEY MACLAINE: Well these movies are angry and depressing.
AUDREY HEPBURN: Should we still publish this post?
SHIRLEY MACLAINE: Yes. Let’s hear what other Avocadoan’s thought of these films.
Act Two: Tragedy
“Hellman can’t decide whether she is writing about the corrosiveness of false accusation or the power of buried sexual passion.” ~ Michael Billington, The Guardian. 2011.
JAMES GARNER: Did you really sleep with her?
AUDREY HEPBURN: No. But you’ll always think I did. So, we should break up.
SHIRLEY MACLAINE: I’m so sorry you broke up! It’s all my fault!
1936’S MIRIAM HOPKINS: I didn’t sleep with your fiancé but I was in love with him. (Leaves town.)
1961’S SHIRLEY MACLAINE: I was a lesbian all along! (Kills herself.)
AUDREY HEPBURN: And we all learned a lesson about prejudice and the dangers of gossip… And cemented a trope of lesbians dying in films that would last for decades.
Critic Richard Schickel called Tea and Sympathy “a long justification for a mercy f*ck.” ~ Bad Gay Movies.
Would the films be more interesting if John Kerr and Audrey Hepburn’s characters were not straight? Not necessarily. The story is about the dangers of mob mentality. It plays either way. So, where does that leave LGBA rep? Neither story wants to demonize homosexuality. Shirley MacLaine and Deborah’s closeted husband are meant to be pitied, not feared. They don’t offer much to LGBA audiences but a straight audience might have taken baby steps towards tolerance.
Have you seen any of these films? Would you like to? How do you feel about Tea and Sympathy’s infamous ending?
For more reviews of LGBT+ media click here.