Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Film of the Week: The Heiress, 1949

Clift and de Havilland, courtesy Paramount Pictures.
Timid and unsure of herself, Catherine Sloper lives in New York in the mid Nineteenth Century. She shares a magnificent Washington Square townhouse with her domineering father, Dr. Austin Sloper, who is continually disappointed by his fragile daughter. Often comparing Catherine to her late mother—a great beauty and his true love—he cannot reconcile the fact that such a superior creature bore such a dull child. Catherine’s one great skill, as Dr. Sloper puts it, is that she “embroiders neatly.” Upon the visit of her Aunt Lavinia, the family goes to celebrate the engagement of Catherine’s cousin. At the party, Catherine is shy though she is encouraged by Lavinia to be more outgoing. There, Catherine chances to meet the brother of the groom-to-be, one Morris Townsend, a stunningly handsome and charming man who, unexpectedly, lavishes Catherine with his attentions. Catherine soon falls in love with Morris and hopes her father will consent to their marriage. Dr. Sloper, however, believes Morris to be a fortune-hunter. Why would such a worldly and attractive young man love his daughter if not for her ample inheritance? And, so, Catherine goes to great lengths to find a way to wed Morris despite her father’s wishes. However, does Dr. Sloper prove to be correct in his assumptions?

de Havilland as Catherine, Paramount Pictures
This was the plot of Henry James’ 1880 novel Washington Square (said to be based on real events) which inspired a hugely successful stage play written by Ruth and Augustus Goetz in 1947. Academy Award winning actress, Olivia de Havilland, upon seeing The Heiress on Broadway lobbied to play Catherine Sloper in the film version. She got her wish.

Augustus and Ruth Goetz wrote the screenplay for the 1949 Paramount Pictures version of the story and masterful director William Wyler (most notable for his work with Bette Davis) was set to direct. With de Havilland as Catherine, Sir Ralph Richardson reprised the role of Dr. Austin Sloper—a part he made famous in the London West End production of the play. Legendary Miriam Hopkins (notoriously difficult to work with) was cast as Aunt Lavinia. However, who was to play Morris? Enter relative newcomer, Montgomery Clift. Clift had already had considerable success on Broadway and had made a name for himself in his debut films, The Search and Red River. Clift most certainly had the physical beauty to play Morris Townsend, but would he be suitable for a period drama? He proved to be perfectly cast though he was never satisfied with his performance in the film.

Clift as Morris, Paramount Pictures
The Heiress was a critical and box-office triumph. With crisp acting from the principle cast, lavish sets and a touching musical score by Aaron Copeland, the picture was considered one of the top films of the year with Academy Award nominations for Best Picture and Best Director and winning the Academy Award for Best Actress (de Havilland), Best Scenic Design, Best Costumes, and Best Musical Score. De Havilland also took home a Golden Globe for her work as Catherine.

More suspenseful than the stage version, the picture is riveting and keeps you guessing about Morris’ intentions until the last moments of the film. For an enjoyable few hours and to learn something about the art of great picture-making, The Heiress is a must-see. As Catherine herself says, “I learned from masters…”


Darcy said...

I love this film, the acting, the script, the sets are all flawless.

Joseph said...

Darcy, it really is a wonderful film. There had been rumors of it being remade recently, but those seem to have died down. All the better. Why mess with perfection?

Dashwood said...

I have to say, though, that Dr. Sloper seems almost a doting daddy compared to your Lady Pauline.

Joseph said...

That's pretty funny, Dashwood.

Juanita's Journal said...

Darcy, it really is a wonderful film. There had been rumors of it being remade recently, but those seem to have died down. All the better. Why mess with perfection?

You are probably referring to 1997's "WASHINGTON SQUARE" with Jennifer Jason Leigh. It's actually quite good, aside from the last 20 minutes or so.