Thursday, November 28, 2019

Girl Week 2019: The Heiress, a guest post by Joel

Girl Week 2019 has reached Day 4. If you're here in the States, it's also Thanksgiving Day. I hope you enjoy yours safely with great company, and lots of food. I know I will.

Once again, I'm turning the keys to the blog over to Joel for another review.

Directed by William Wyler.
1949. Not Rated, 115 minutes.
Olivia de Havilland
Miriam Hopkins
Sir Ralph Richardson
Mona Freeman
Selena Royale
Montgomery Clift
Vanessa Brown
Ray Collins
Harry Antrim
Betty Linley

In the upscale section of Manhattan known as Washington Square in the mid-century 1800’s shy Catherine Sloper (Olivia de Havilland) lives with her austere father, respected and wealthy Dr. Austin Sloper (Sir Ralph Richardson) and his widowed sister, Lavinia Penniman (Miriam Hopkins).

Aunt Lavinia is a recent addition to the household brought from her upstate New York home by Dr. Sloper in hopes that she will be able to instill in Catherine some social ease. For you see, Catherine, despite her wealth, years of training in various areas, and the fact that in private she is intelligent and forthright, is a dowdy wallflower. Her mother, much beloved by the doctor and a woman according to him of supernatural grace and exquisite beauty, died at Catherine’s birth and the doctor has held the child at arm’s length and a cold remove ever since. Despite this Catherine is slavishly devoted to her father, worshiping him and trying to please him in any way possible only to face either his disdain or indifference meted out with chilly condescension. The years of this treatment have paralyzed Catherine in any sort of social setting and she becomes clumsy and withdrawn.

So when the family attends the engagement party of Marian Almond (Mona Freeman), daughter of Dr. Sloper’s other sister Elizabeth (Selena Royale), Aunt Lavinia endeavors to bring Catherine out of her shell without much success. That is until she is approached by the prospective groom’s handsome cousin Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift). Sensing Catherine’s nervousness he slowly draws her out and appears in every way besotted by the timid but sweet woman. Aunt Lavinia is delighted and Morris appears most ardent pursuing Catherine’s acquaintance for days afterwards until he is finally invited to dine with the family. Dr. Sloper is wary since Morris is not a man of means, far from it. He has been subsisting on the remnants of a small legacy while living with his widowed sister and her children, and comes to the conclusion that Morris is a fortune hunter and, after a meeting with Morris’s sister for whom he has done nothing, dismisses him from his thoughts.

But Catherine, basking in kind attention from a man for the first time in her life, falls hard and agrees to marry Morris before gaining her father’s blessing. When Dr. Sloper learns of this, despite advice from Lavinia and Elizabeth that Morris might make Catherine happy, he flatly refuses Morris’s delayed request for her hand and a panicked Catherine begs him to reconsider. He requests that Catherine accompany him to Europe for six months and he will think it over during the journey, but actually hopes that she will forget about the man.

She does not and on their landing back in the States declares to her father her desire to still marry at which point ill from the voyage and frustrated by her unexpected obstinacy Sloper laces into her. Stating baldly all the things he has only referenced for years he tells her he’s sure that Morris is only after her money (Catherine has an income of $10,000 a year-about $400,000 in current dollars which will increase to $30,000-nearly a million bucks today upon the doctor’s passing.) for she has nothing else to offer except for the fact that she embroiders neatly.

At this moment she spies Morris waiting in the arbor behind the house. Bereft and devastated by the realization that the man whose opinion has always meant the most to her disdains everything about her Catherine pleads with Morris to flee with her that very night. Already with elopement plans for the next evening he feels she is being hasty and that they should secure her father’s permission first. Catherine tells him she doesn’t need Dr. Sloper’s good wishes, that she intends never to see or speak to her father again and doesn’t care if she’s disinherited. After a bit of persuasion Morris acquiesces and agrees to return late at night to spirit her away.

Full of joy she quickly prepares to leave her father’s house forever waiting expectantly with Aunt Lavinia, who has found her waiting in the drawing room, as carriage after carriage pass by. Catherine growing increasingly more anxious wonders why Morris doesn’t come. Aunt Lavinia, realizing the truth, tells her she shouldn’t have told Morris of her break with her father until after they were married. When Catherine wonders why and states that she still has $10,000 a year and that is a great deal of money Lavinia wryly notes “Not when you were expecting 30.”

At last grasping that she has been jilted a broken Catherine retires in defeat lugging what was to be her trousseau up the long staircase to the prison of her room.

Living in an atmosphere of barely concealed animosity the now bitter and hostile Catherine repels any attempts at reconciliation made by her father, who is fatally ill. When he discovers that Morris has left and tries to praise her for coming to her senses Catherine harshly tells him that she was deserted but if she could she would go after Morris because she loves him still. When Austin threatens to disinherit her she insists he should knowing full well he doesn’t want to. When he says that he doesn’t know what she’ll do when he’s gone and that she may very well make a fool of herself and pursue the lout she vindictively replies “That’s right Father….you’ll NEVER know”.

Time passes, the doctor dies and Catherine sadder but wiser and sure of herself at last settles into an insular existence in Washington Square until a fateful visitor allows her to complete her journey and assume control of both her life and what is at last HER house.

Though set in a world of luxury and proper manners this is a hard edged tale of emotional brutality. Masterfully directed by William Wyler who never wastes a frame on any detail that won’t ultimately feed the story. It also has sharp incisive dialogue, when Catherine is asked by one character “Can you be so cruel?” She replies “Yes I can be very cruel. I have been taught…by masters!”

What really sells this is the extraordinary performances of the cast. Montgomery Clift still relatively new to films, this was his third feature, is full of unctuous somewhat smarmy charm slithering his way into Catherine’s good grace while belying a sense of underlying opportunism. He makes it easy to see how a na├»ve and trusting girl could fall under his spell, and it doesn’t hurt that he is almost painfully good looking.

Miriam Hopkins is note perfect as the flighty but compassionate Aunt Lavinia who always wants the best for her charge and tries to buffer her from some of life’s harsh realities. In her first picture in six years this was an attempt at a film comeback for her. A major star of the thirties she had damaged her career by being notoriously hard to work with using every trick in the book to upstage her costars so the spotlight would always remain on her. So frustrated did Edward G. Robinson become with her during the making of the 1935 film Barbary Coast that rather than delivering the planned stage slap during a scene he let her have it openhanded and the crew, equally fed up, broke into applause. An equally tense relationship existed between Bette Davis and she as well as a host of others. She was also renowned for arguing with the director of almost every film she made. But she respected Wyler, a tough taskmaster who brooked no shenanigans, and she buckled down on this film and delivered a fine piece of work. The damage was done however and she worked only sporadically in pictures for the rest of her life.

This was the tremendously talented Sir Ralph Richardson’s first American film after a distinguished career in British films (if you’ve never seen The Fallen Idol absolutely do) and he chose wisely for his debut. Having honed the role of Dr. Sloper in the London production of the play, which in turn was based on the Henry James novel Washington Square, he has every nuance of the thoughtless martinet down so he never appears to be acting. He received a well deserved Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination.

But the success of the film rests on the very capable shoulders of Olivia de Havilland (still with us at 103!). She navigates through the extremely tricky emotions of the seemingly fragile Catherine hitting every note on her journey from dominated doormat to empowered and confident independence.

The grit she instills in the part came naturally to her. As was the case with her good friend and fellow Warner Brothers star Bette Davis, Olivia battled throughout her time under contract to that studio, especially after the acclaim for her performance as Melanie Wilkes in Gone With the Wind failed to result in what she considered worthy projects.

After completing the turgid and mostly false Bronte Sisters bio flick Devotion she assumed that she had fulfilled her much despised seven year contract with Warners only to be informed that time she had been on suspension had been appended and she still owed them six months further service.

Feeling this was unjust she filed suit siting a statute that held any contract longer than seven years constituted slavery! She won and after an appeal by the studio was denied the de Havilland Law became part of United States rules and regulations breaking the back of the contract system. Though she was effectively blacklisted for a couple of years when she returned in 1946’s To Each His Own she won the first of her two Best Actress Oscars. The other was awarded for her work in The Heiress and it is one of the most deserved in the Academy’s history. Still as feisty as ever when she felt that the recent TV miniseries Feud had defamed her she filed libel charges which were denied but considering the terrible performance Catherine Zeta-Jones gave (and the misinformation the show served up) she was right to be incensed.

Day 3 Entries


  1. You did it again Dell, this looks fantastic! The photos are perfect compliments. I love this film in all its psychologically punishing glory and Olivia's work I think is one of the most deservedly rewarded by the Academy.

    Happy Thanksgiving!!!

    1. Thanks! I need to see this movie, so it's certainly on the radar. As always, love the history that comes along with the review.

      Happy Thanksgiving to you, too!

  2. Joel always has such wonderful classic recommendations! This is another one I haven't seen, but one that I should.

    1. Thanks Brittani!

      I thought for sure I had chosen something that both you and Dell had seen. Back when Drew was still around with A Fistful of Films he did a series of panel discussion posts called Twice a Best Actress that I could have sworn you both participated in that looked at this picture as well as her other Oscar winner "To Each His Own" and all the other actresses who had won two times. Oh well the memory is playing tricks on me again!

      Be that as it may hope you do make a point of seeing it (maybe one of your Blind Spots for the coming year!) it's definitely worthwhile.

  3. I love your review! This is an excellent character study film, so well written, directed and acted. Miriam behaved! Talk about a diva who really did deserve that slap. You wonder why some people think they deserve to be heralded as above everyone else. Bette Davis also got some digs into this actress and you smile because of it. Olivia is beautiful, intelligent, a great actress and one strong and determined person. People underestimated her and should have looked at how she and her sister got on..didn’t get on. She was not to be trifled with and she deserved this Oscar. I want to see Feud but I just don’t see how Catherine Zeta Jones could play her.

    1. Thanks for the kind words Birgit!

      Miriam really was her own worst enemy. Bette Davis said Miriam was a perfectly charming woman....socially. But working with her was another matter entirely. It really is a shame because she was a wonderful actress excelling in both comedy and drama.

      The Heiress is just top-notch in every department but especially in the performances of the entire cast.

      Feud might have worked for those who were unaware of the multiple backstories but for me it so full of wild inaccuracies that I was left feeling letdown. Neither Sarandon nor Jessica Lange really captured their characters fully.