The Heiress

They asked me how I knew my true love was true
Willaim Wyler
Olivia De Havilland, Ralph Richardson, Montgomery Clift, Miriam Hopkins
The Setup: 
Socially-inept woman falls in love with a man who’s after her money. Her father forbids it.

This is an adaptation of Washington Square by Henry James, which was turned into a play early on. Apparently, so the guy who comes on before the movie tells it, someone told Olivia De Havilland to go up to New York and see it immediately, and she did, and bought the rights at the first intermission, and told director William Wyler to come up and see it, and he called her to say “Let’s do it.”

We open with credits over embroidered scenes, since the main character Catherine does so much embroidery. During this time we discover that the music here is by Aaron Copland! Woah, there’s a shocker. This also stars Montgomery Clift, in only his third film, and Ralph Richardson, who is about the most delightful actor in existence, as far as I’m concerned.

The deal is that this woman Catherine Sloper is an old maid at twenty, due to her being extremely socially awkward. Her father, Dr. Sloper, is kind but very condescending and emotionally-removed from her. He worships the memory of her mother, who was beautiful and socially graceful and accomplished in everything. Living with them is Catherine’s aunt, Lavinia Penniman.

They go to a party, where Catherine meets Clift as the handsome and charming Morris Townsend, who shows a great deal of interest in Catherine, and ends up coming to call three times in a week. Quite soon they have agreed to marry—even before Morris has discussed anything with Sloper, which doesn’t sit right with the doctor. Sloper calls in Townsend’s sister, who is poor and raising children—this is the late 1880s, by the way. Morris came into some inheritance, but he went to Europe with it and used it all up, on himself, without helping her in any way. The doctor notices that Morris appoints himself in fine gloves while he gives his sister nothing.

So Sloper refuses the marriage. If Catherine chooses to go ahead, she will only get ten thousand a year instead of thirty—which is still considered a fortune. And this creates the big moral quandary of the work: Even if Morris is only marrying Catherine for the money, would it matter, if he makes her happy?

James’ novels are often about some of moral quandary of this kind, bristling with ambiguities but no right answer, and no real bad guys. Here, her father is guilty of refusing to see her as she is, and bring her out for that, but he is also protecting her and there’s good reason to think he’s right about Morris. Aunt Penniman is friendly and supportive, but there’s no doubt she thinks quite little of her neice and her chances that anyone might truly love her.

The film, which is quite faithful to the play version, compresses matters in a way that maintain the themes and delicate balancing of the shifting ways the characters feel about each other, but if you’ve read the novel [which is one of the easier, shorter and funnier or James’ novels], you might find some things missing. Sorely missed is all the humor from the second half of the novel around Aunt Penniman’s intrusive orchestrating of the relationship based on her own romantic ideals, and the film turns a gradual transformation of feelings over several months into a sudden snap in emotion happening over one night. The script does a good job of compressing a challenging story, but some of the qualities of the novel are missed.

What you do get in return is—aside from a shorter, less challenging experience—perfect casting and wonderful performances. De Havilland is a smidge too old for the part, but that helps her convey her spinsterhood, and her face is perfectly expressive for the part, showing her social awkwardness through the terror and anguish she shows in her eyes during what should be happy, relaxed situations. She doesn’t go too far, like Jennifer Jason Leigh did in the 1997 adaptation of Washington Square by Agneizska Holland. Do not watch that version under any circumstances. Miriam Hopkins as Aunt Penniman is wonderful, if more supportive and less condescending than her character in the novel. Montgomery Clift is suitably handsome, perhaps a bit bland, and I found his performance to skew in the direction that he IS chasing money, whereas the novel succeeds in floating this ambiguity right up to the end. The movie rightfully belongs to De Havilland, but Ralph Richardson is, as always, absolutely perfect as Dr. Sloper, keeping a firm wall of distance distance between himself and every character, and treating Catherine with polite, impenetrable condescention, which is exactly what the role requires.

It’s a quite good film—it’s just not the novel. You might say “Yes, but it’s a film.” True, but it doesn’t distinguish itself enough as a film to free itself from comparison, and doesn’t distance itself from the stage-bound nature of the play at all. We’re in that house virtually from beginning to end. Ah well, a very good adaptation with wonderful performances—just one that makes one miss the wider scope and greater moral ambiguity of the novel.

Should you watch it: 

Sure, it’s a good film with great performances and a moving story.

This film distrusts its source material and audience so badly it’s pretty much a travesty. Avoid at all costs.