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The Heiress

The Heiress(1949)

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One of Hollywood's finest directors, William Wyler turned out a high percentage of bona fide classics, distinguished adaptations of books and plays. He had great success with actress Bette Davis (Jezebel, The Letter, The Little Foxes) but also provided some of the best roles for Margaret Sullavan (The Good Fairy), Mary Astor (Dodsworth), Greer Garson (Mrs. Miniver) and Audrey Hepburn Roman Holiday. The Heiress stars Olivia de Havilland and is yet another triumph, an absorbing adaptation of a Broadway play adapted from Henry James' book Washington Square. Commercially, the film is a challenge. It takes place in the remote period of the late 1840s. Its heroine is not a great beauty and love does not conquer all.

This may be Olivia de Havilland's best film, period. It was the only the third screen role film for co-star Montgomery Clift and it cemented his stardom. The real fireworks in the drama are between de Havilland's character and her father, played by Ralph Richardson in his first Hollywood role.

New York, 1849. Doctor Austin Sloper (Ralph Richardson) idolizes his dead wife and cruelly judges his daughter Catherine (Olivia de Havilland) as inferior in every respect: She's awkward, plain and a wallflower at parties. He encourages his widowed sister Lavinia Penniman (Miriam Hopkins) to coach Catherine in the social graces. At a party Catherine meets Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift). The dashing young Morris pays her every attention and quickly avows that he's in love. Catherine feels she's found the man of her dreams -- no small miracle considering her father's low opinion of her prospects. But Dr. Sloper thinks Townsend's whirlwind proposal is far too good to be true ... and suspects that the young man is after Catherine's inheritance.

Ruth and Agustus Goetz' play restructures the Henry James book, simplifying the storyline and focusing the characters. In the play Morris Townsend's past history is much more explicit. He lived off women in Europe and is interested in Catherine only for her bank account. The play eliminates a great deal of incident and adds an entirely new plot twist, when Morris discovers that Catherine will only inherit a quarter of what he thought she would.

The film project was initiated by its talent, not the studio. Olivia de Havilland was urged to see the Broadway play and immediately asked William Wyler to do the same. Laurence Olivier recommended Wyler to Ralph Richardson, who didn't normally leave his stage work in London. Miriam Hopkins had of course been a big star for Wyler (Barbary Coast, These Three) and she served him well in his later films Carrie and The Children's Hour. Errol Flynn was considered for the Morris Townsend role but backed out.

The playwrights were surprised when the director kept his word and hired them to adapt their play for the screen. Wyler' eliminated Catherine Sloper's final, theatrical dialogue line at the top of the stairs, as his blocking of the situation had already made a powerful statement. Of course, this being a William Wyler film, a staircase is the focus of the key dramatic scene.

We're also told that de Havilland and Clift's acting styles didn't mesh. De Havilland arrived ready for Wyler to shape scenes for her while Clift had exactly in mind what he wanted to do. The actress felt that Clift was directing his performance to the camera and not to her. Still, Errol Flynn would probably have been a disaster as Morris -- too attractive to turn away even if he was a cad.

Composer Aaron Copland was on the edge of the blacklist but Wyler made sure that he was hired anyway. Yet the director insisted that the existing theme 'Plaisir d'amour' dominate the score. It enters the film sung by Montgomery Clift's insincere suitor. Perhaps Wyler thought that the song evoked the film's period.

The Heiress remains impressive today for its profound character relationships, especially between the father and daughter. Austin at first seems overly critical of Catherine, who appears incapable of appearing in public without causing embarrassment. The insecure Catherine lacks the temperament to play the role of a well-to-do eligible lady; she's incapable of hiding her emotions. She is shunned by her peers and must be monitored by her busybody aunt Lavinia through the simplest of rituals. Told at a party to use her fan to keep her hands busy, Catherine rattles it nervously.

Catherine has no defense against the attentions of Morris Townsend. She's easily taken in by his skilled flattery, so much so that she almost loses our respect. The doctor sizes up Morris as an unworthy fortune hunter and does his best to quash the romance behind Catherine's back. The conflict comes as we realize that Austin is highly prejudiced against his daughter, as she's no match for his idealized, dead wife -- whom even Lavinia thinks the doctor has romanticized all out of proportion. Austin means well but he foolishly thinks that he can control his daughter's life and that she will somehow still love him for it. This is where The Heiress shows its maturity. Austin needs Catherine's cooperation to test the young man's sincerity. But Catherine would never agree to such a thing, or think for even a minute that Morris could confuse his love with monetary considerations.

Dramas of this sort often pose choices between love and money, or love and class distinction. The Heiress compares one kind of love against another. Austin loves his daughter, but the truth is that he simply doesn't know her. She becomes convinced that he hates her when he's still confused and partly obsessed by his dead wife. A drafty sidewalk café in Paris brings forth a 'ghost presence' of the dead wife that gives Austin the germ of death. Meanwhile, reports from Lavinia convince Austin that the usurper Morris is already trespassing in his parlor and smoking his cigars.

The shattering climax of The Heiress is justly famous. One's first reaction to the story is that it is the making of a bitter spinster, which is accurate only up to a point. Catherine has been cheated by unfair comparisons to her mother. In reality, Catherine is a realist like her father, but his overprotective parenting has prevented her from seeing the world as it is. When she finally lashes back, Austin may or may not realize that Catherine's true nature has been suppressed all this time, smothered by his own 'critical coddling.' If he'd only seen fit to speak his mind to her about the world, or let her out of the house once in a while, Catherine wouldn't have become a victim or bred such inner bitterness.

William Wyler films always seem to be of the highest quality. I find him more consistent than George Cukor, another director known for excellent work with actresses. George Stevens may be technically more fastidious than either of them, but by this time his films were becoming heavier and self-important. Wyler did veer off into message territory every so often (The Big Country), but I still rank him more highly. He could make a 'wholesome and square' tale like Friendly Persuasion into a priceless experience.

Universal's DVD of Paramount's The Heiress is a finely tuned B&W transfer of a handsomely filmed show, with a strong soundtrack. Robert Osborne offers a TCM-style introduction. A trailer is included but there are no other extras.

Research source:A Talent for Trouble: The Life of Hollywood's Most Acclaimed Director, William Wyler by Jan Herman. De Capo Press 1997.

For more information about The Heiress, visit Univers al Home Entertainment. To order The Heiress, go to TCM Shopping.

by Glenn Erickson