As a fiction writer and lover of classic literature, I usually come to watch a film based on a book by reading the book first. But in the case of The Heiress (1949), it happened the other way around. I’ve been a great fan of Olivia De Havilland for a long time and The Heiress is one of my favorite films. I’ll admit I’m cheap when it comes to buying DVDs but this film is one I own because I love it so much I can see it again and again and always appreciate it.
The film is based on a novel written in 1880 by Henry James called Washington Square. James is one of the godfathers of psychological fiction and I’m a great fan of his work. The story of Washington Square impressed me so much I took a chance and chose it as the novel for an Introduction to Literature course I taught to college freshmen several years ago. I talk a little bit about why I made that choice and the results in my blog post about young people and old literature.
The story of The Heiress is still relevant as “[a]n intensely human story against the backdrop of straight-laced and cold 1840’s New York…” (Fowler, par. 1). The human story comes out largely because of the brilliant acting and complex characters. James was known as a writer who never sugarcoated or idealized his characters as many Victorian writers were apt to do but exposed their strengths and weaknesses as human beings. Bosley Crowther, in his 1949 review of the film in The New York Times, succulently describes the real issues behind the plot:
“[T]he conflict that this story is basically built upon—the struggle between a timid daughter and her willful father over the suitor of the girl—becomes an impassioned and arresting clash of immediate minds and a locking of adult emotions that we can expressly comprehend.” (par. 4)
Indeed, the love story between Catherine Sloper (Olivia De Havilland) and Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift) is only slightly more interesting than the more conventional Victorian love stories of writers like Jane Austen and Edith Wharton, largely due to the idea that Catherine is an heiress and Morris is poor. The more compelling interactions occur between the shy and awkward Catherine and her dominant, perfectionist father, Dr. Austen Sloper (played with precision by Sir Ralph Richardson). David Denby’s article about the book and film describes Dr. Sloper:
“Around the house… he is absolute master, his bonhomie is tinged by nasty irony. He cheers himself up by teasing the mediocrity of his female companionship [i.e., the women in his house who include Catherine and his sister Mrs. Penniman].” (par. 7)
Today, Dr. Sloper would be described as a gaslighter and an emotional abuser. It’s not a stretch to conclude Catherine’s extreme shyness, her lack of self-confidence, her somewhat frivolous love of bold colors and clothes, and her social and intellectual ineptness are largely due to the abuse she suffered at the hands of her father, even if James’ time was not alert to these psychological issues.
Photo Credit: Olivia De Havilland in The Heiress, 1949, Warner Bros. From the dress she is wearing, it’s clear this is from one of the final scenes of the film: Bebe735/ Wikimedia Commons/PD US no notice
I believe one reason why The Heiress still compels and speaks to a modern audience is the believable way De Havilland portrays the transformation of Catherine from a shy, awkward young woman to a more self-assured and self-sufficient person. This is a very tough thing to do in the course of an hour and fifty minute film. But De Havilland was more than up to the task and maintains a delicate balance of a young woman coming to realize her father is not the loving and kind man she had always imagined him to be. De Havilland portrays Catherine as naïve in words and actions but at the same time, there are moments when we know she realizes something is off with her father. One of these scenes is near the beginning of the film when Catherine presents herself to her father dressed in an elaborate gown for her cousin’s engagement party. Her dress is cherry red and she reminds him how her mother (who died when she was born) used to wear the color. Dr. Sloper muses with nostalgic sentiment, hinting his wife wore the color as it should be worn because of her beauty and poise, qualities he has made very clear he does not believe his daughter possesses. The deflated expression on De Havilland’s face strips her previous excitement and pride.
De Havilland uses voice and expression to show the change in Catherine’s psychological reality. The hesitant demure gestures of the naïve Catherine become belabored and purposeful as her illusions about her father and her life begin to come apart. Similarly, De Havilland’s voice is sing-song and girlish at the beginning of the film but when she discovers how much her father really loathes and disrespects her, her voice becomes more natural, even pointed and brittle at times. One of the best examples of this is in the scene where she makes plans with Morris to elope after she returns from a trip to Europe with her father. She has just had a particularly nasty conversation with her father where his true loathing of her came to light. Speaking with Morris about their plans, she is girlish and fluttering as a bird. When Morris suggests she write to her father to explain to him so he can forgive them later for eloping, her voice becomes cold and hard. It takes a very skilled actress to be able to portray the transformation of a character from one extreme to another within the same scene and make it believable.
The final scenes of this film fascinate as few final scenes do, largely due to the complex rainbow of emotions De Havilland is able to convey. It begins with the return of Morris to New York after he has fled his promise to elope with Catherine. By this time, Dr. Sloper’s threat of disinheritance has proved to be all bark and no bite. Dr. Sloper is dead and Catherine is a very wealthy woman living alone and in fairly content with her aunt in Washington Square. One night, her Aunt Lavinia (Miriam Hopkins) has allowed Morris to walk her home and he is waiting to see Catherine. At first, Catherine refuses but then invites him in. The scene is a marvel of emotional complexity, as Lara Gabrielle Fowler points out in her blog post about the last scene in the film:
“[Catherine’s] expression changes so subtly and gracefully–from cold and distant, to sad, to hopeful, to wistful and nostalgic, to sad again, and then ultimately back to cold and distant, but this time with an air of calculation about her.” (par. 5)
The dregs of her previous love for Morris are clear until he begins to spurt out the same lies he fed her a year ago. Unlike the old naïve Catherine, the new world-wary Catherine recognizes his flattery and affection for what they are – attempts to marry into an easy life as a rich woman’s husband (it should be noted here that in the Victorian era, married women and everything they owned were considered the husband’s property). This time, she is not about to give in but she is clever about it. She plays with his emotions as he played with hers, promising to run away with him. Fowler interprets this as vengeance for the pain the men in Catherine’s life have caused her:
“Catherine has been so hardened by the constant abuse from her father and by the treachery of Morris that her only answer is to become jaded and cold, as they were.” (par. 4)
Photo Credit: Publicity photo of Sir Ralph Richardson who plays Dr. Austin Sloper in The Heiress, 1949, Paramount Pictures: Materialscientist/Wikimedia Commons/PD US not renewed
There is some truth to this, as when her aunt accuses her of being cruel, Catherine answers, “Yes, I can be very cruel. I have been taught by masters.” This cruelty blooms in the final scene when she gives Morris his just desserts. He comes to fetch her at midnight with a carriage, just as they had agreed upon, but she leaves him pounding at the locked door while she ascends the stairs to her room.
These last scenes have caused a lot of discussion. For Fowler, “[i]n the wake of Morris’ desertion, Catherine, previously a sweet, naive girl, turns into a cold, distant woman” (par. 3). While there is certainly bitterness in Catherine’s character, I also think De Havilland understood that for a woman in the nineteenth century, living on her own terms in the wake of emotional abuse was not all negative but positive also. The last scene is an act of vengeance, to be sure, but it also contains a sense of justice, a closing of accounts so Catherine can move on with her life not as a jilted woman but as an independent one. This is why I disagree somewhat with Denby’s assertion “[Catherine] achieves not a feminist triumph but a spiritual and moral triumph: She preserves her integrity; she discovers her will, a proud self-sufficiency” (par. 5). De Havilland certainly gives Catherine integrity, will, and self-sufficiency at the end of the film but in the context of the Victorian separate spheres, Catherine also achieves independence and righteousness and that is something of a feminist triumph.
De Havilland achieved her own just desserts with this film as well. She had a rough time making this film largely due to the men she worked with. Montgomery Clift made no secret of his disdain for her and her acting skills (my guess as to the reason is that Clift embraced Method acting which was quite different from De Havilland’s more classic Hollywood acting style) and treated her badly. Similarly, Sir Ralph Richardson was rumored to try and dominate their scenes together. It was bad enough for director William Wyler to support her and give her the kind of screen time most actors dream of. De Havilland got the best of both men, though, when she won the Oscar for Best Actress for this film. It is an award well deserved!
Crowther, Bosley. “‘The Heiress,’ With Olivia de Havilland in Leading Role, Arrives at Music Hall.” The New York Times, The New York Times Company, 2017. 7 October 1949. Web. 28 June 2017.
Denby, David. “The Heiress: William Wyler unveils the psychological ferocity of Henry James’s Washington Square.” Library of America, Literary Classics of The United States, Inc. 4 May 2016. Web. 28 June 2017
Fowler, Lara Gabrielle. “The Final Scene of ‘The Heiress’ (1949).” Web blog post. Backlots. WordPress, 21 August 2011. Web. 28 June 2017.