In 1840\'s New York Catherine lives with her father, Dr. Sloper. Her mother died some years before, and Dr. Sloper still idolizers her, and never misses an opportunity to compare her daughter to her -- a comparison the daughter can never win.
When Morris Townsend, a handsome but pennyless young man, comes along, and woos and wins his daughter\'s heart, Dr. Sloper is sure that he is after her considerable inheritance, and opposes their marriage. Dr. Sloper takes his daughter to Europe in hopes she will forget Morris, but she does not. After Catherine returns to New York, the young lovers plan to elope. Dr. Sloper threatens to disinherit his daughter. Will this dissuade Morris?
Olivia de Havilland ... Catherine Sloper
Montgomery Clift ... Morris Townsend
Ralph Richardson ... Dr. Austin Sloper
Miriam Hopkins ... Lavinia Penniman
Vanessa Brown ... Maria
Betty Linley ... Mrs. Montgomery
Ray Collins ... Jefferson Almond
Mona Freeman ... Marian Almond
Selena Royle ... Elizabeth Almond
Paul Lees ... Arthur Townsend
Harry Antrim ... Mr. Abeel
Russ Conway ... Quintus
Certainly among the finest literary adaptations, \"The Heiress\" was based on Henry James\'s novel, \"Washington Square\" and features arguably Olivia de Havilland\'s finest screen performance. Morris Townsend , a handsome young man with ambiguous motives pursues Catherine Sloper, a plain spinster, who is slightly past marriageable age and possesses limited social skills. The young woman, who is the heiress of the title, is vulnerable prey for a penniless fortune hunter.
However, Montgomery Clift plays Townsend in an enigmatic manner, and viewers can debate his true intentions. Catherine\'s father, played by Ralph Richardson, and her Aunt Lavinia, played by Miriam Hopkins, take opposite sides in Townsend\'s pursuit of Catherine. Although both her father and her aunt appear to see through the handsome suitor, Aunt Lavinia is practical and sensitive to her niece\'s emotional needs, and she counsels compromise in pursuit of happiness, if only fleeting. However, Catherine\'s father is unyielding and essentially unloving in his opposition to the match. Throughout, Dr. Sloper compares his daughter\'s virtues to those of his late wife, and Catherine comes up lacking in every quality that he values. Sloper threatens to disinherit his daughter if she marries the suitor.
Montgomery Clift may appear shallow and transparent to some, but in essence those are the traits of his character. While Morris is slick and obviously fawning, he is not intelligent enough to be totally deceptive. Only someone as naive and needy as Olivia could fail to grasp that Morris may want something more than her love. Olivia de Havilland transcends her other performances and skillfully and convincingly evolves from a shy, introverted girl into a strong, vengeful woman. De Havilland has often portrayed women who appear genteel and soft on the outside, but whose hearts and backbones can harden into pure steel (e.g. Gone with the Wind; Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte), and Catherine Sloper is the finest of those roles. With able support from Richardson and Hopkins, Clift and de Havilland make the most of an outstanding screenplay, which was adapted from a stage play. William Wyler directs with a sure hand, and the atmospheric cinematography captures 19th century New York life. Period films are often unraveled by their hairstyles, which generally owe more to the year in which the film was made rather than that in which the story is set. However, even the coiffures excel in \"The Heiress.\" De Havilland\'s hair looks authentic 19th century and underscores Wyler\'s fastidious attention to detail.
With an award-winning de Havilland performance, a handsome Montgomery Clift on the brink of stardom, and an engrossing Henry James story, \"The Heiress\" is one of the finest films of the 1940\'s. Without qualification, the film holds up to and merits repeat viewings if only to better argue the underlying motives of Clift and the fateful decision that de Havilland has to make.
To call this film well-acted is like calling \"Citizen Kane\" a nice movie and Alfred Hitchcock an \"okay\" director. William Wyler was known for eliciting excellent performances from his actors (he\'s responsible for them receiving a record 14 Oscars in acting; more than twice as many as any other director) and in \"The Heiress\" he\'s in top form. This movie should be played in every acting class ever taught to show the brilliance of subtlety and range of expressions possible when one is conveying a character\'s inner emotions.
Olivia De Havilland is a beautiful woman, but you believe she\'s an ungainly bundle of shy awkwardness in the role of Catherine Sloper. And her transformation to a cruel wounded creature is perfectly believable. And Ralph Richardson as Dr. Sloper and Miriam Hopkins as Aunt Lavinia are letter perfect beside her. Sir Ralph (at least, I THINK he was knighted) can do more with stillness and a flick of an eyebrow than any actor I\'ve ever seen (including Brando, Penn and any other method actor you care to toss into the mix). He was robbed at the Oscars.
Montgomery Clift was beautiful and seductive and, except for a couple of moments where he seemed too 1950s instead of 1850s, just right for the part. He almost holds his own with Sir Ralph when they meet to discuss him marrying Catherine, but he did do better work in \"A Place In The Sun\" and \"From Here To Eternity.\"
Wyler\'s simplicity and grace in directing only enhanced the story. The use of mirrors to deepen emotional content (as in when Dr. Sloper, now ill, goes to his office after getting the cold shoulder from Catherine) is stunning. So is his willingness to let a scene play out rather than force along the pacing of the moment, as so many directors do, today (as in when Catherine offers to help her father rewrite his will).
There are no easy answers in this movie. You can think Dr. Sloper is right about Morris and only wants to protect his daughter, or you can see his actions as those of a vindictive man who blames her for the death of his beloved wife (in childbirth). Morris could be a fortune hunter, or he could be a man who does care for Catherine, in his own way, and would make her happy. Or all of the above. The whole movie is so beautifully composed, it\'s breathtaking. A definite must see for anyone who appreciates great stories well-told.
Because he so identified with England in his last thirty years (and even became a British citizen during World War I) people tend to forget that Henry James was an American - as American as his celebrated psychologist/philosopher brother William (the \"good\" James Boys, as opposed to their non-relatives Frank and Jesse), and his fellow Gilded Age novelists Sam Clemens/\"Mark Twain\" and William Dean Howells. His early writings, including \"The American\", \"The Portait Of A Lady\", and \"The Europeans\" were written while he was an American citizen. His later classics, \"The Spoils Of Poynton\", \"What Maisie Knew\", \"The Ambassadors\", \"The Golden Bowl\", and \"The Wings Of The Dove\", were written when he resided in England. The novels he wrote through 1897 (\"What Maissie Knew\" being the last of these) were short and controlled in terms of descriptions. But his final set of novels (beginning with \"The Ambassadors\")had a more flowery writing, as James struggled to find \"le mot juste\" in every description. Many like this, but I find it a peculiar failure. It takes him three pages of description in \"The Wings Of The Dove\" to show Mily Theale is looking down from an Alpine peak to the valley thousands of feet below.
\"Washington Square\" was written in the late 1870s, and was based on an anecdote James heard about a fortune hunter who tried to move in on one of James\' neighbors in Manhattan. The neighbor, when a young woman, was wealthy and and would be wealthier when her father died (she was an only child). The father did not think highly of the daughter\'s choice of boyfriend, and a war of wills between the two men left the young woman scarred. James took the story and fleshed it out.
One has to recall that while ultimately this is based on James\' great novel, the film proper is based on the dramatization by the Goetzs. So there are changes (one of which I will mention later). But the basic confrontation between the father and the suitor remains true. On stage the father was played by Basil Rathbone, and in his memoirs (\"In And Out Of Character\"), Rathbone makes a case that Dr. Sloper (his role) was not the villain in the novel - it was Sloper who was trying to protect his naive daughter Catherine from the clutches of fortune hunting suitor Morris Townshend. It\'s a nice argument, and one can believe that Rathbone/Sloper was less villainous than Morris. But his desire to protect Catherine does not prevent his cold and aloof treatment of her - he has little respect for her personality. This is tied to the Doctor\'s constant mourning of his wife (Catherine\'s perfect mother). It enables Dr. Sloper to compare and belittle his daughter.
The Goetz play and screenplay show (as does the novel) that the battle of wills between the two men only hurts poor, simple Catherine. There are only two major changes from the novel. First, in the novel Dr. Sloper does not discover how his contempt for his child loses her love. He only sees that Catherine will not see reason about what a loser Morris is. So he does disinherit her (she only has her mother\'s fortune of $10,000.00 a year, not her father\'s additional $20,000.00). Secondly, when Morris does return in the end in the novel, years have passed, and he is a querulous fat man. The dramatic high point when Catherine locks the door of the house on Morris is not in the novel.
Olivia De Haviland\'s performance as Catherine is among her most sympathetic and satisfying ones, as she tries to navigate between two egotists, and manages to avoid a shipwreck that neither would totally disapprove of for their own selfish reasons). Her second Oscar was deserved. Ralph Richardson\'s Sloper is a curious combination of cultured gentleman, egotist, and caring father, who only realizes what his behavior costs him when he is dying and it is too late. Montgomery Clift\'s Morris is a clever scoundrel, able to hide his fortune-hunting tricks behind a mask of care and seeming devotion to Catherine. Only when he learns that she has broken with her father does Morris show his true colors - suggesting that a reconciliation may still be possible. Finally there is Miriam Hopkins as Aunt Penniman, a talkative blood relative who does have a sense of reality and romance in her - she does try to make a case with Dr. Sloper that he accept Morris for Catherine\'s emotional happiness, but Sloper rejects the idea because he distrusts Morris so much. These four performances dominate the film, and make it a wonderful, enriching experience - as only \"the Master\'s\" best writings usually are.
* To help Olivia de Havilland achieve the physically and emotionally weary and worn effect that he wanted, director William Wyler packed books into the suitcases that the actress lugged up the staircase in the scene where her character realizes that she has been jilted by her lover.
* This film was selected to the National Film Registry, Library of Congress, in 1996.
* Montgomery Clift learned to play the piano for the scene where he sings, \"The Joys of Love\" to Olivia de Havilland.
* In a letter to the New York Times, \'Aaron Copland (I)\' denied writing the music used for the opening credits. His cue for the credits was deemed too challenging for audiences and replaced at the direction of the producer.
* De Havilland chose William Wyler as her director, wisely considering that such a meticulous director would be able to coax a strong performance from her. As it turned out, Wyler became a staunch supporter of his leading actress, particularly in regard to the sneering attitude that Montgomery Clift displayed towards her (he didn\'t rate her talents as an actress) and Ralph Richardson taking every opportunity to steal scenes from under her nose with his improvisations.
* Ralph Richardson reprised his role as Dr Sloper, having played it in London\'s West End opposite Peggy Ashcroft.
* The original idea was to reteam Olivia de Havilland with her frequent co-star Erroll Flynn but this was dropped in favor of the more subtle acting that Montgomery Clift could bring to the part.
* Ginger Rogers was first offered the leading role but turned it down.
* One of over 700 Paramount Productions, filmed between 1929 and 1949, which were sold to MCA/Universal in 1958 for television distribution, and have been owned and controlled by MCA ever since.