The Heiress is a 1949 American drama film produced and directed by William Wyler and starring Olivia de Havilland as Catherine Sloper, Montgomery Clift as Morris Townsend, and Ralph Richardson as Dr. Sloper. Written by Ruth and Augustus Goetz, adapted from their 1947 play The Heiress. The play was suggested by the 1880 novel Washington Square by Henry James. The film is about a young naive woman who falls in love with a handsome young man, despite the objections of her emotionally abusive father who suspects the man of being a fortune hunter.
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||William Wyler|
|Produced by||William Wyler|
|Screenplay by||Ruth and Augustus Goetz|
|Based on||The Heiress|
by Ruth and Augustus Goetz
|Music by||Aaron Copland|
|Edited by||William Hornbeck|
|Distributed by||Paramount Pictures|
|Box office||$2.3 million (US rentals)|
Catherine Sloper (Olivia de Havilland) is a plain, painfully shy woman whose exacting, and emotionally detached father, New York physician Austin Sloper (Ralph Richardson), makes no secret of his disappointment in her. He is terribly bitter about the loss of his charming and beautiful wife, whom he feels fate replaced with a simple and unalluring daughter. Catherine is devoted to her father, however, and too innocent to fully comprehend his mistreatment or the reasons for it. Catherine enjoys quiet pursuits, such as caring for her father and embroidery, and seldom ventures out socially.
Catherine's gregarious Aunt Lavinia Penniman (Miriam Hopkins) moves into the household after becoming widowed, and attempts to prod Catherine into being more social and find a husband. When she meets the handsome Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift) at a ball, Catherine is taken by the attention he lavishes upon her, attention she's never received before and desperately wanted, and flourishes under his affections. Catherine falls madly in love with Morris and they plan to marry.
Catherine is of age, receiving $10,000 a year from her mother's estate, and is expected to receive an additional $20,000 per year on top of this after the passing of her father. Dr. Sloper believes Morris, being far more attractive and charming than Catherine, but poor and with few prospects after he wasted his own inheritance, is an idler courting Catherine only to get her sizable income. Aunt Lavinia is in favor of the match regardless, being both romantic and pragmatic enough to view this as Catherine's chance at a happy married life, since Morris seems somewhat genuinely fond of Catherine's honesty and kindness, despite his largely monetary motivations.
A frank discussion with Morris' sister confirms Dr. Sloper's opinion of Morris as a gold digger. The doctor tells the young couple he believes Morris is attempting to dupe plain and gullible Catherine and takes his daughter to Europe for an extended time to separate them, but she cannot forget her betrothed, especially since he frequents the house to visit Aunt Lavinia in their absence, who enables the two to keep in contact. When they return to New York, Dr. Sloper threatens to disinherit his daughter if she marries Morris, and they have a bitter argument in which he makes his disdain and distaste for her abundantly clear, and she realizes how poorly he views her.
Catherine and Morris make plans to elope with the help of Aunt Lavinia, but Catherine tells Morris about her desire to disinherit herself from her father and never see him again. Catherine is impatient to cut off all contact with her father and desperate to prove him and Aunt Lavinia incorrect: someone does love her, and not her money, and she has not been stupid to think so.
Catherine eagerly packs her bags and waits for Morris to come and take her away to happiness according to their plan. She waits all night. He never comes. She drags her luggage back upstairs and puts her belongings away.
Catherine is heartbroken and grows colder, now painfully aware of her father's opinions of her, but trapped caring for him nonetheless. Soon afterwards, Dr. Sloper reveals he is dying. To cause him distress, she vengefully tells her father she still loves Morris and dares him to change his will if he is afraid they will waste his money after he dies. He does not alter the will and dies, fretful, leaving her his entire estate as Catherine refuses to see him on his death bed.
Years later, Morris returns from California, having made nothing of himself, and poorer and with fewer prospects for his efforts. Aunt Lavinia arranges for Morris to visit Catherine. He finds Catherine wealthy and unmarried, and is more attracted to her (and possibly her fortune) than before. He claims that he left her behind because he could not bear to see her destitute, and is quick to reproclaim his love for her and his desire for her affections. Aunt Lavinia is thrilled for her niece, thinking this is Catherine's great chance. Catherine ignites Morris' hopes when she requests Morris recreate their failed elopement plans. She gives Morris a gift of ruby buttons that she had bought for him in Paris. Morris eagerly promises to come back for her that night, and she tells him she will start packing her bags.
When Morris arrives later that night with the promised carriage and rings the bell, Catherine calmly orders the maid to bolt the door, leaving Morris locked outside, shouting her name and banging repeatedly on the locked door. Her aunt asks her how she can be so cruel, and Catherine coldly responds, "I have been taught by masters." The film fades out with Catherine silently ascending the stairs while Morris' despairing cries echo unanswered in the darkness.
- Olivia de Havilland as Catherine Sloper
- Montgomery Clift as Morris Townsend
- Ralph Richardson as Dr. Austin Sloper
- Miriam Hopkins as Lavinia Penniman
- Vanessa Brown as Maria (pronounced Mariah)
- Betty Linley as Mrs. Montgomery
- Ray Collins as Jefferson Almond
- Mona Freeman as Marian Almond
- Selena Royle as Elizabeth Almond
- Paul Lees as Arthur Townsend
- Harry Antrim as Mr. Abeel
- Russ Conway as Quintus
- David Thursby as Geier
After seeing The Heiress on Broadway, Olivia de Havilland approached William Wyler about directing her in a screen adaptation of the play. He agreed and encouraged Paramount Pictures executives to purchase the rights from the playwrights (Ruth and Augustus Goetz) for $250,000 and offer them $10,000 per week to write the screenplay. The couple were asked to make Morris less of a villain than he was in their play and the original novel in deference to the studio's desire to capitalize on Montgomery Clift's reputation as a romantic leading man.
Ralph Richardson reprised the role of Austin Sloper he originated in the London production of the play.
The Heiress received universal critical acclaim and won four Academy Awards. In his review in The New York Times, Bosley Crowther said the film "crackles with allusive life and fire in its tender and agonized telling of an extraordinarily characterful tale" and added, "Mr. Wyler ... has given this somewhat austere drama an absorbing intimacy and a warming illusion of nearness that it did not have on the stage. He has brought the full-bodied people very closely and vividly to view, while maintaining the clarity and sharpness of their personalities, their emotions and their styles ... The Heiress is one of the handsome, intense and adult dramas of the year."
TV Guide rates the film five out of a possible five stars and adds, "This powerful and compelling drama ... owes its triumph to the deft hand of director William Wyler and a remarkable lead performance by Olivia de Havilland.
Time Out London calls the film "typically plush, painstaking and cold.... highly professional and heartless."
Channel 4 says of the performances, "de Havilland's portrayal ... is spine-chilling ... Clift brings a subtle ambiguity to one of his least interesting roles, and Richardson is also excellent."
In popular culture
In 1975, the twenty-first episode of the eighth season of The Carol Burnett Show featured a take-off of the film called "The Lady Heir", with Carol Burnett as Catherine and Roddy McDowell as Morris. In 1992, Filipino Film Company Reyna Films did a remake of it With Ikaw Pa Lang Ang Minahal starring actress Maricel Soriano.
Awards and nominations
- Academy Award for Best Actress (Olivia de Havilland)
- Academy Award for Best Art Direction/Set Decoration, Black and White (John Meehan, Harry Horner, and Emile Kuri)
- Academy Award for Best Costume Design, Black and White (Edith Head and Gile Steele)
- Academy Award for Best Original Score (Aaron Copland)
- Golden Globe Award for Best Actress - Motion Picture (Olivia de Havilland)
- National Board of Review Award for Best Actor (Ralph Richardson)
- New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Actress (Olivia de Havilland)
- Academy Award for Best Picture
- Academy Award for Best Director
- Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor (Ralph Richardson)
- Academy Award for Best Cinematography, Black and White (Leo Tover)
- Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress - Motion Picture (Miriam Hopkins)
- Golden Globe Award for Best Director - Motion Picture
- Writers Guild of America Award for Best Written American Drama
- The Top Box Office Hits of 1950, Variety, January 3, 1951.
- Variety Film Reviews, September 7, 1949, p. 11.
- Harrison's Reports and Film Reviews
- The Heiress at Turner Classic Movies
- The New York Times review
- TV Guide review
- Time Out London review Archived 2009-03-16 at the Wayback Machine
- Channel 4 review
- IMDB. "The Carol Burnett Show (1967–1978) Episode #8.21". Retrieved August 3, 2017.
- "NY Times: The Heiress". NY Times. Retrieved 2008-12-20.
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