The Heiress is a Cinematic Master Class
by Kristin Battestella
Wealthy but dowdy Catherine Sloper (Olivia de Havilland) is pursued by the penniless Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift) in producer and director William Wyler's (Ben-Hur) 1949 The Heiress, based upon the Ruth and Augustus Goetz play inspired by Henry James' Washington Square. Despite his widowed sister Lavinia Penniman's (Miriam Hopkins) support of the romance, stern Doctor Austin Sloper (Ralph Richardson) fears Morris is nothing but a fortune hunter after the even larger finances Catherine stands to inherit. He insists the couple wait to marry, testing Morris and holding his daughter to unrealistic comparisons of her late mother – leading to lifelong bitterness and cruel revenge.
Well! The good doctor spends a family party whispering over how he doesn't like his unmarriageable daughter, looming large in the foreground in his shiny top hat while his meek daughter is off to the side, small within the picture frame. Who is this suitor asking for all her dances? He's far too charming to like her, and the fortnight courting moves whirlwind fast with multiple visits, flowers, and songs. The Heiress does have awkward humorous moments thanks to innocently deadpan responses as Catherine drops her bag in shock when she's complimented. However, increasing skepticism and hindrances progress as the camera reflects each tug and pull – men debate on either side while she remains tiny in the middle. Visual parallels mirror the one-on-one confrontations per act with father and daughter, daughter and lover, or father versus suitor scenes all carrying dual symbolism. The basic man courts daughter and dad objects story may appear simple, but the focused performances and character interplay tell the who's who suspicion on all sides. Who is right and which one is wrong? Catherine can't fathom Morris wanting her for her money, even though her father already views her as the unworthy price of her mother. The Heiress is dialogue laden thanks to the play source, but the extra subtext translates in the positioning and postures onscreen. One superb two-hander halfway through presents the dilemma almost as a courtroom case, escalating the conflict with protocol, well spoken arguments, and fallacies disguised as pleasantries. Romantic scenes, three second kisses, swelling music, and cinematic embraces plead for love and honesty, and every encounter is all the more intense because The Heiress does its bitter tragedy with words instead of unnecessary bells and whistles. There's no need for visual deflection because the script is so strong; stage directions or men pacing create little need for major cuts or editing. Catherine grows bold by turning back and forth between the two men, leaving the camera as a witness to the unexpected twists. One night of tense waiting hits home with ticking clock anticipation, and nineteenth century perspectives as well as today's interpretations can be debated as father and daughter go head to head. By the second half of The Heiress, Catherine's stature dominates the frame – growing larger upon the ascending stairs as her cruelty spreads across the screen, warning those who would try it to keep clear in an excellent, turning tables master course finale.
Best Actress Oscar winner Olivia de Havilland (Gone with the Wind) is a beautiful woman but Catherine Sloper is dowdy with a severe bun, sullen face, and ill-fitting gowns. Her shy, bumbling naivety makes her seem younger than she really is, and she messes up everything she does. Catherine is guided around with little will of her own and told what to do. She can't even hold her fan right and men forced into a dance ditch her. She thinks no one listens to her, letting others lead the conversation by only giving yes, no, or agreeing answers – but above all, Catherine wants to please her father. Why does everyone have to push and manipulate her? Why can't she just mature or wallflower at her own pace? She's not stupid and has no time for a snobby hospice committee uninterested in cleaning or kitchen work. Catherine has some witty banter with her aunt as well – when asked if her late uncle is watching over them, Catherine answers, “That depends on where he is, Aunt.” Of course, she doesn't realize when Morris is flirting with her, and is shocked that he wants to dance every waltz. Catherine physically bends to Morris, literally leaning back against doors or furniture as he comes closer. She's apprehensive at his hold over her but understandably falls in love with him. She already has a hefty monthly sum from her mother's estate, enough to live on if her father disapproves of a marriage and leaves his wealth to his clinic, but Catherine says she would never defy her father. Morris, however, asserts she is her own of age woman, and she looks at herself in the mirror anew and carries herself differently once kissed. Catherine tells her father they are engaged rather than asking for his approval, for a beautiful man who has everything a woman wants wants her. Her aunts describe Catherine as a new woman radiant and happy at the proposal, but her father insists Morris is worthless and Catherine is his willing victim. Further dialogue clues suggest she is aware of his abusive tone, and later Catherine admits a life with Morris couldn't have been as bad as her life with her father has been. Catherine learns how deep the despising goes after her father's terrible tirade, and she will not relent against his scorn – thus risking her elopement as a result. I want to quote The Heiress word for word, but can't give everything away! Catherine's mousy unassuming voice becomes hardened as the love she thinks will take her away from home turns into a surprisingly progressive story about how a woman need not be bound by a father or a lover. Unfortunately, she will be defined by their negative ebb and flow, master makers turning the once kind girl rigid and cruel.
Is Morris Townsend only after Catherine's money? Montgomery Clift (From Here to Eternity) is the epitome of fool me once, shame on you in The Heiress, and every time I see this, my opinion on our suitor's ambiguous intentions changes. Morris has an empty dance card, too; he has to count out his waltz and promises not to kick Catherine if she won't kick him. He always has an upper hand with a joke, wink, or smile. He makes her blush at his improper touchy feely, and it's easy to be swept up in the charismatic moment with that “Can't Help Falling in Love” Plaisir d'amour. He brings the piano music but doesn't need to look at the rehearsed notes – he clears his throat and asks for pity if his falling in love with her makes him sound stupid. Morris does seem to like Catherine and her genuine manner, however, he already knows who she is when he approaches, and his flirtatious words are hiding in plain sight responses. Did he plan this courting or is he an opportunist taking the chance presented to him? He's the only opportunity she has anyway, right? Isn't the affection he offers her more valuable than money? It might not be bad if he married her for her money but was kind and took care of her. Morris already squandered his own inheritance touring Europe, so is Dr. Sloper right to suspect him as a manipulative fellow? Morris has an answer for everything, and Catherine defends him against her father, opening her eyes to his dislike of them both. He pushes her to stand up to her father and run away with him after only two weeks because her father claiming he is after her money doesn't matter if she loves him. Morris is working harder to win Catherine because he's poor and loves her, isn't he? He isn't wrong in saying her father enjoys making her miserable, but Morris won't marry without his approval and agrees to wait six months to avoid causing Catherine further unhappiness. However, he grows smug at her father's challenge, smoking the house cigars while sipping claret with his feet up by the fire. Morris admires Dr. Sloper as a man of fine taste – they hate each other but like the same things. He cheats at games with Aunt Lavinia, and Morris can for sure prove his con one moment while pleading his defense as an unworthy poor man in love in the next minute. He remains passionate with Catherine, ready to elope with the reverend waiting. He and his dear girl and shall be happy – until she stands up to her father, that is. I simply adore the scene when Catherine wishes to leave one night early, as Clift's brief oh...sheeettt look to the camera becomes a stunning cinematic moment amid the sweeping kisses and devoted promises in the rain. Can a man who really loves a women let her lose so much for him? Or is the bluff called and Morris gets his just desserts? The Heiress is the first film in which I saw Montgomery Clift – taping it off AMC way back when they showed commercial free classics – and I've been praising him ever since. We see Morris' slick internal puppeteering but his suave cast just enough reasonable doubt. Today's actors would willfully break the fourth wall in scene chewing obviousness, unable to play such subtle, shady perfection. The irony, of course, is that Clift himself disliked his performance and walked out of the premiere. Damn son!
Best Supporting Actor nominee Sir Ralph Richardson's (The Four Feathers) Dr. Sloper slams the door to make his presence known to the courting couple. He's sophisticated, wealthy, educated – and embarrassed by his dim-witted daughter. Sloper traded a radiant wife for this mediocre child he dislikes but expects her to reflect well on him rather than merely embroider neatly. He forces her to socialize, sent her to the finest schools for failed training in music, arts, and dance, and compliments her ballgown by saying she looks wealthy in it but the color was worn better by her mother – who's ear was also so impeccable she could tune her own piano. Dr. Sloper contests Morris' feigned modesty, suggesting he go West to make something of himself and suspecting him of looking for an upscale position in his very house. If he had a job would Sloper feel differently? The doctor takes his time, sits properly, and talks smoothly – a older man of leisure himself who, while he complains about how mousy Catherine is, likes his superiority. Morris may be the strong son he may have wanted, but having a tough son-in-law who doesn't stand for insults or indignities won't do, and Sloper goes on his own quest to disprove Morris. He doubts his opinion that Catherine is delightful, for the doctor himself values her cheaply. Sloper lies to keep her miserable, unable to understand his refusal of the match will break Catherine's chance at happiness – despite every single person telling him he expects too much of people and will always be disappointed unless he proves his own deductions. Arranged and loveless marriages were common then, so why not tie up the money in detailed will stipulations or trust allowances? Dr. Sloper takes care of himself when he becomes ill after their voyage, for he's more interested in looking after his property and legacy than his disappointing daughter who would tarnish his respectability with this union. He's right in making sure Morris knows he wasn't born yesterday, but the doctor is wrong to presume he will dictate their lives. Sloper has bent Catherine with the unkind version of his unrealistic truth, and maybe she wouldn't have fallen for the first questionable man to come along if he had given her the attention she deserved. He unleashes decades of cruel thoughts on Catherine when she grows a backbone over Morris, and he only comes to admire his daughter too late – after her thorny outlook turns her into an abrasive image of himself.
Despite being a little over the top and intentionally flaky, the perfectly cast Miriam Hopkins (Becky Sharp) earned a Golden Globe nomination as Catherine's widowed aunt Lavinia Penniman. Dr. Sloper's sister is surprisingly giggly for a minister's wife, a busybody who's spent a lot of time drinking, observing others gossip, and waxing on romance. She's still suppose to be in mourning and continues to wear black, even briefly wondering if it is appropriate to socialize at her sister's party. However, Lavinia says she'll just be grief stricken wherever she may be – which happens to be on the dance floor. The Heiress almost requires Aunt Penniman for some expected levity or humorous moments, but such a character is also a necessary audience avatar and counterpoint to our stern father. Dr. Sloper keeps his sister on at Washington Square to help Catherine mingle and mature, but Lavinia almost seems smitten by Morris herself. She says one thing and does another, placing both sides of the dilemma into one supporting player who can like Morris, rebuke the elder Sloper, or otherwise address what the viewer is thinking. As much as her father is against the affair, Lavinia pushes Catherine in the opposite way, telling her to be gracious to a man who's come courting. She repeatedly tells her brother this could be a good match to be thankful for and volunteers as a chaperon before faking a headache to leave the lovebirds alone. Lavinia eurekas over the proposal and acts as a go between with her letters during Dr. Sloper's insisted wait, but even the romantic aunt comes to see the truth will out between father and daughter has gone too far. She stands by Catherine when things take a turn for the worst, but even she wishes her niece had indeed been just a little more clever when it came to her inheritance versus her romance rather than letting cruelty get the best of her.
The Victorian finery of The Heiress is distinctly 1840s New York rather than the casually thought of nineteenth century southern belle, but gloves, top hats, fans, cameo jewelry, and petticoats set off the absolutely divine Edith Head (Samson and Delilah) Black and White Costuming wins alongside calling cards, white tie formality, and old fashioned protocol. Men need to dress like this again! Period clutter with crystal, glass, silverware, and candles create a shiny silver screen glitter and shimmer reflecting the family's titular wealth. The splendid furniture is worthy of the Art and Set Black and White Decoration awards, and superb interiors with pocket doors open scenes or divide players as needed – not to mention that critical multi-storied staircase. I want to live in this townhouse with its sweet cobblestone courtyard, fountains, carriages, gazebos, and park views. The black and white photography is crisp with bright staging inside and out thanks to mirrors, gaslight chandeliers, oil lamps, and large windows. There's a beautiful glow about the screen before the night time scenes become progressively darker as The Heiress turns frosty with Oscar winning music romantic or chilling to match. Bleak capes and dark clothing add to the gothic atmosphere, shadow schemes, and long cast silhouettes. The Heiress remains a brilliant production, a known classic essential nominated for Best Picture, Director, and Black and White Cinematography with more awards praise. However, the Universal Cinema Classics DVD edition is bare bones but for an introduction from the late TCM host Robert Osborne and the required subtitles, leaving The Heiress ripe for a proper blu-ray release. None of this currently unavailable, phantom region, non-existent nonsense! The 1997 Washington Square sourced directly from James' page also isn't that bad a period drama as today's period dramas go, but when you see The Heiress first, it's bitter panache just can't be surpassed.
The Heiress takes multiple viewings to study each scene. It never gets old, and the more times you see it, the more likely you are to see something new. No one can really tell you about The Heiress, one just has to see it and make up his or her own mind on the maybe, maybe not payback. You can watch this from Catherine's point of view and see her need to be loved, or from Dr. Sloper's point of view that Morris is a louse. One can also watch The Heiress looking for Morris in love or purely as a fortune hunter – and there will be evidence for each case thanks to the must see mastery here.