Director: William Wyler
Cast: Olivia de Havilland, Montgomery Clift, and Ralph Richardson
Rated: Not Rated
Runtime: 116 min.
by Brian Eggert
Original Release Date:
A period piece set in 1840’s New York, the prestige picture classic The Heiress began as the novella Washington Squareby Henry James. Having heard a story told to him by an actress whose brother failed in an attempt to swindle a rich woman into marriage, James wrote his novella. The stage play, adapted in 1947 and renamed The Heiress, starred Wendy Hiller (Pygmalion) and Basil Rathbone (The Adventures of Robin Hood) and became a huge success on Broadway. Hollywood star Olivia de Havilland eventually saw the play on recommendation and immediately moved to develop it for film. With director William Wyler behind the camera and De Havilland, new star Montgomery Clift, Ralph Richardson, and Miriam Hopkins appearing onscreen, The Heiress was destined for greatness.
A two-time Academy Award winner for Best Actress, De Havilland plays the introverted, young Catherine Sloper, whose father Dr. Austin Sloper, played by Richardson, gives her all the social, educational, and etiquette training his big money can buy. The result is a woman too quieted for the must-do social affairs of the period. Catherine seems hopeless; her behavioral mannerisms are awkward at public events or during conversation, and her only talent is the lonesome art of embroidery.
Thus, it comes as a shock to Catherine’s father when Morris Townsend (Clift) begins to court her. Already she inherits $10,000 a year from her mother’s estate, and after her father passes, she will begin receiving an additional $20,000 a year—altogether making Catherine a hearty prospect for a would-be gold-digger. Dr. Sloper, concerned more about matters of money and appearances and always comparing the unworthy Catherine to her idyllic dead mother, refuses to accept it when Catherine and Townsend plan to be wed after only a few days of knowing each other. Dr. Sloper’s concern is that the $20,000 a year will be put to waste, as clearly no man could love a woman as bland as his daughter. Townsend must be a swindler. Dr. Sloper cruelly makes it clear to Catherine that she is a despicable woman, “unmarriable,” and there is no other explanation for Townsend's intentions.
Miriam Hopkins plays Catherine’s loving aunt, Lavinia. Though widowed and clothed in black, Lavinia only dresses so because society expects her to; otherwise, the character’s pleasant mannerisms, heightened by Hopkins’s light nature, bring a blithe spirit to every scene. Hopkins, particularly in the joyful Ernst Lubitsch picture Trouble in Paradise, has the chittering laugh of a child that is a pleasure to hear. Her character however unfortunately agrees with Dr. Sloper that Catherine is in need of social skills, but Lavinia never squanders the girl’s hopes and does not put her down for her lack of social grace. Throughout the story, Lavinia remains a close friend to Catherine—unlike her father.
De Havilland gives the young Catherine a homely appearance, complete with unplucked eyebrows and defined wrinkles under the eyes and near the mouth. Uninviting and nearly unattractive, you would never think a beauty like De Havilland could look so plain. Somehow she manages it. De Havilliand reveals a stark vulnerability in her eyes, an expression rivaled only by the actress’s sister, Joan Fontaine. As with Joan Fontaine in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca, De Havilland’s performance in The Heiress shows a beaten, weak character, victimized by the power of a man lacking the ability or will to show love.In life, De Havilland was anything but a victim. Eight years previous to filming The Heiress, the actress was forcibly placed into roles that stressed her popular onscreen presence as a charming and innocent female. De Havilland wanted more. When she complained to Warner Bros. about her contract and how they were misusing her onscreen, they suspended her for six months. After her suspension ended, they demanded she make up the lost time, so she sued them as Bette Davis had unsuccessfully tried to do in the 1930s. After winning the lawsuit, the new “De Havilland Law” was passed, and studios were limited to the power held over their talent. De Havilland could now freely choose her roles. With a five year hiatus during the trial, she returned to the screen in 1946. Subsequently, over the next five years she would be nominated for three more Oscars for Best Actress, winning two for To Each His Own and The Heiress. Unwilling to be dominated by the studio, it is clear why De Havilland was attracted to the role of Catherine Sloper.
In retaliation to her father’s spiteful words, Catherine decides to forego her inheritance and elope with Townsend. In a spur-of-the-moment decision, they arrange to run away together at midnight. She confesses to Townsend that her father has refused to grant her an inheritance, that her father does not love her, perhaps never has, and that she does not need his money. Townsend agrees to return in front of the house with a carriage, but he never shows. Catherine is abandoned and left crushed, faced with the fact that her father was correct.
Eight years pass. Her father is dead, but because she was abandoned by Townsend, she now receives her father's $20,000 a year. Catherine has developed into a hard, independent woman, likely as a result of her trauma with Townsend. Word comes that Townsend has returned to New York. He now bears a thin, villainesque moustache when he returns to visit Catherine. The two discuss marriage again. He explains that he did not abandon her, but rather, that he did not want her to be forced to give up her inheritance because of him. Very quickly they make plans to run away and get married. Townsend leaves to gather his things, and when he returns, he finds that Catherine has bolted the door. Sweet, vengeful retribution punishes Townsend.
And how can Catherine be so heartless, having been victimized all her life? She famously responds in reference to her father, “Yes, I can be very cruel. I have been taught by masters.” Flexible enough for a crowd-pleasing drama, the film also makes a bold statement about social obedience and feminine reliance. Subject to the deceit and affliction of men all her life, finally, Catherine achieves her independence when she denounces Townsend. And Townsend, the sleaze that he is, remains banging on the door, desperately crying out for Catherine to open up, fated to never understand why she does not.
During the film’s production, problems arose between the performers—mostly due to Montgomery Clift. Having been featured in only two films prior (Howard Hawks’s superb Red River and Fred Zinnemann’s The Search), the relative newcomer was already achieving star status for his good looks and comparable onscreen intensity to Marlon Brando. With a chip on his shoulder from early fame, Clift was criticized by fellow actors for showing up to work unshaven and poorly dressed. This lax attitude would deepen over time, as Clift developed a problem with pills, and then health problems as a result.
Libby Holman, the Broadway beauty, discovered Montgomery Clift in the early 1940’s and played career mother to him; some would argue she inadvertently strayed Clift down the wrong path (such as advising Clift not to take the lead role in Sunset Blvd.—an ironic choice of narratives, given the situation). Rumored to be exclusively homosexual, the actor maintained sexual relationships with a spree of actresses; then again, the actresses may have been a publicity bout in hopes to sway the rumors of Clift’s tastes. In 1948, the actor’s first role in Red River (which was filmed in 1946, but delayed in release for two years because of a legal claim by Howard Hughes that Red Riverwas stealing from his own Western film The Outlaw) made Clift a star. Subsequently, he began a career overflowing with remarkable performances, including those in Alfred Hitchcock's I Confess, the Vittorio de Sica film Terminal Station, and the iconic From Here to Eternity. By 1950, he was riddled with health problems—problems that kept him out of WWII. In 1957, he suffered injuries from a car accident wherein he crashed into a tree. The accident left his face in need of reconstructive surgery, which never truly restored his noted good looks. Likewise, his career was never fully restored, partly from the accident, partly because of his drug use.
But even before the actor’s troubled period, some thought Clift was not capable of playing the villain of The Heiress; or rather, they did not want to see him playing a villain. One of the few rewrites to the play, William Wyler removed several lines of dialogue that confirmed Townsend was a “fortune hunter.” The result leaves the audience guessing as to whether or not Catherine is making a mistake by vengefully abandoning him at the end. Nevertheless, though Townsend says or does nothing to confirm his villainy, the audience trusts Catherine, and so we trust her judgment that both she and, regrettably, her father, were correct about Townsend.
Other problems arose because Clift and De Havilland were threatened by Ralph Richardson’s theatrical professionalism, as his poise and proficiency in his acting style were a far cry ahead of normal Hollywood standards of the period, which in turn are a far cry ahead from today’s Hollywood standards. Richardson had just finished filming the masterpiece The Fallen Idol with Carol Reed directing, moving on to The Heiress afterward. He gives one of his best performances as Catherine’s despicable, heartless father, partly due to Wyler's flawless direction.
Lacking the filmic or stylistic signature of, say, Alfred Hitchcock, John Ford, or Akira Kurosawa, William Wyler nonetheless has a filmography filled with staples of Golden Age cinema. Nominated for the Best Director Oscar a stunning twelve times, Wyler won three of them for his work on Ben-Hur, The Best Years of Our Lives, and Mrs. Miniver. But also in his body of impressive work are films like The Letter, The Westerner, Dead End, The Desperate Hours, Roman Holiday, How to Steal a Million, and The Big Country—all considered greats within their genres. Despite his long list of both commercial and critical successes, he is not remembered as an auteur the way John Ford or Orson Welles are, but rather a great workhorse of the Hollywood studio system.
The Heiress, though not as commonly known as other classics from the period, brings together some of the top talent of the time. As resilient as her character, Olivia de Havilland gives one of her best performances in a film about a woman subject to both the rules of social protocol and push-and-pull of men in her life. Like Catherine, time proved to be the measure by which this film was strengthened. Now seen as a classic of 1940s cinema, The Heiress, like its star and main character, has overcome time to be remembered as one of the very best. Today, Olivia de Havilland is rarely seen publicly, but in the few interviews she has given, she remains lively and lighthearted. She is one of the few remaining icons of the era where classics like The Heiress were born.