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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.
Ruth and Augustus Goetz' play restructures the Henry James book, simplifying the storyline and focusing the characters. The play adds an entirely new plot twist, when Morris discovers that Catherine will only inherit a third 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 starred 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 for Catherine 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. 1
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 through the simplest of rituals by her busybody aunt Lavinia. 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 his own sister 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.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Heiress rates:
Research source:A Talent for Trouble: The Life of Hollywood's Most Acclaimed Director, William Wyler by Jan Herman. De Capo Press 1997.
1. Note from David Fletcher, 1.01.07:
But William Wyler had a bit of a tin ear, and famously didn't not care for the magnificent score to The Best Years of Our Lives. He had asked Copland to work in the theme of "Plaisir d'amour" to the score -- it's the song Montgomery Clift plays and sings in the movie. Copland did work it into the score.
Copland sent the notated score to Hollywood, where it was orchestrated to his wishes, and recorded. But Wyler had some of the title sequence removed and replaced by gushing versions of "Plaisir d'amour"! Even if one was unhappy with the music, this doesn't seem to be the way to treat our great composers. Copland expressed a huge amount of dismay, but won the Oscar anyway.
One can hear what the original title music might have been by listening to the original score as recorded by Leonard Slatkin and the St. Louis Symphony. The Slatkin recording is somewhat slower than the score in the finished film.
The movie itself is some kind masterpiece, and I'm really surprised that it took this long for it to find its way to DVD. Your friend, David Fletcher
2. Note from Robert Gutowski, 3.07.07::
Also, and maybe this is quibbling, but it's Sloper's other sister, Elizabeth, who accuses him of idealizing "that poor dead woman."
I've always found it fun to imagine Catherine's next day after ditching Morris. She has, significantly, proclaimed that she will never do another needlepoint sampler - who's to say that she doesn't break free from her self-imposed seclusion, now that the main issue of her life has been resolved? And she’s got all that money! First thing to do is to send Aunt Penniman packing, of course.
This is one of my favorite films in one of my favorite genres, "the worm turns." Best, Bob Gutowski
3. More corrections from Alan Gomberg, 3.07.07:
I did want to mention a couple of things in your review of The Heiress that seem to be incorrect.
You write, "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."
I don't yet own the DVD but I have seen the film many times and I do have a copy of the play, as well as James's novella Washington Square.
There's nothing in the play that suggests to me that Morris lived off women in Europe. If anything, it was there that he used up his inheritance. If he had lived off women, he would have come back with some money. Instead, after he comes back he's sufficiently broke that he must live off his sister. I'm not sure where you got this impression, but I can't find anything in the play to suggest this.
And in the novella, Morris does know that Dr. Sloper will disinherit Catherine if she marries him, leaving her with only the money she's already inherited from her mother (which constitutes a third, not a quarter, of what would have been her total inheritance).
In Chapter XVIII, Dr. Sloper says to Catherine, "There is one thing you can tell Mr. Townsend, when you see him again . . . . that if you marry without my consent, I don't leave you a farthing of money."
In Chapter XX, Catherine does tell Morris: "He told me to tell you very distinctly, and directly from himself, that if I marry without his consent, I shall not inherit a penny of his fortune."
In XXVI, after Catherine and Dr. Sloper return from Europe, we read, "Without waiting for him to ask, she [Catherine] told him [Morris} that her father had come back in exactly the same state of mind?that he had not yielded an inch."
At the start of XXVIII, Mrs. Penniman informs Morris by letter that the doctor "had come home more impracticable than ever."
And shortly thereafter in the same chapter, Morris says in conversation to Mrs. Penniman, "You needn't tell me again; I am perfectly satisfied. He will never give us a penny; I regard that as mathematically proved."
If anything, what is most interesting about this chapter is that Morris seems genuinely disgusted with himself that he will jilt Catherine, now that he's certain that they would never receive the full inheritance. Best, Alan Gomberg