Sunday, July 5, 2009

'The Heiress': Catherine, Plain and Tall


Ahhh ... "The Heiress." Olivia de Havilland in the role that is arguably her best. A drama of depth and intelligence. And yet not widely popular upon its release.

I recently presented this film at the Aurora Public Library and was pleased that not only did people really like this movie but also were passionate in the post-film discussion. Much centered on the ending -- which I won't give away because I hate doing that.

Released in 1949, "The Heiress" is set in New York's Washington Square in the 1850s. Well-to-do Dr. Sloper and his daughter, Catherine, live in a fine brownstone. A widower, Sloper keeps an eye out for his daughter, who he admits is shy and plain. Still, he wishes that she would interact more with people, develop friendships and perhaps even find a man to marry.

But the irony is that the good doctor is also mindful that such a prospect may also be interested in Catherine only for her money.

This is exactly what happens when handsome young Morris Townsend begins a whirlwind courtship with Catherine. Like a schoolgirl, she laps up this offering of love like a thirsty man crossing the desert and finding a small pond. Yes, he may be handsome, and yes, her aunts argue, he may be after her money, but why not allow her to experience the feeling of being desired? Morris openly declares that he has no prospects, which is all Dr. Sloper needs to know to openly disapprove of the young man.

The psychological clash between father and daughter is what fascinates in this piece, as Catherine, so devoted to her father, now begins to doubt whether he ever had her best interests in mind. The father, both wanting the best for his daughter but feeling the need to protect and be honest with her, risks losing her love.

It's a brilliant film, coming at the end of the 1940s, at a time when post-World War II films were willing to be serious, whether it was through film noir, social issue stories or a strong drama.

The material is based upon Henry James' "Washington Square." It was brought to the London stage first, then to Broadway, where de Havilland apparently saw it and convinced director William Wyler to do the same. The film rights were bought and the film was released by Paramount.

Catherine is played superbly by de Havilland, who was willing to deglam for the role -- although, in director William Wyler's opinion, she didn't do so enough. His efforts to make her even more plain were rebuffed by de Havilland, who felt her fans needed at least some of her personal beauty to be evident, even if most of it was stripped away. Still, she is convincing as an innocent, lovelorn woman dazzled by the charming, handsome man courting her, but perhaps she's best when she begins to "grow up" and realize what her father has done to her -- and been doing to her since she was a girl.

Ralph Richardson (pictured above, right) brilliantly plays the father, a role he originated on the London stage. He had resisted coming to Hollywood but could not pass up this material. Wyler, known for multiple takes, was delighted with Richardson's ability to slightly alter his performance for each take.

Montgomery Clift, new to films just the year before, has the requisite charm for Morris. It's clear why Catherine so willingly falls for him. Miriam Hopkins, not a favorite actress of mine, perfectly plays Catherine's Aunt Lavinia, a willing participant in the pairing of Morris and Catherine. What I really like about Hopkins here is that while Lavinia may come off as addle-brained, she is not stupid, and Hopkins gives her depth. It's clear that she, more than her brother, realizes what is at stake for her niece.

I loved the discussion that took place at the library, particularly the father/daughter battle of wills. It became clear that several interpretations can be made of this dynamic -- was the father aware of what he was doing to her? What was the father's motivation -- love or selfishness? What does the future hold for Catherine? One woman and I differed greatly on this, because I felt she was looking at this last question through the eyes of a modern-day woman and not seeing it through the historical context of the 1850s. (I would share more but it involves the film's ending.) Still, her points were well-made and valid, and that's what makes the film a classic -- discussions can still take place today over what occurred in the story.

BTW, the great William Wyler was contining to turn out one classic film after another. Look at his resume from the 1940s, which includes "The Letter," "The Little Foxes," "Mrs. Miniver" and "The Best Years of Our Lives." Wyler was terrific at composing shots, trying to keep the take going rather than moving from one closeup to another. You see this in "The Heiress," where characters are positioned close to the camera while others move in and out of the frame in the background. It's hard to explain without showing a scene, but it's effective and a technique he continued to master.

The film was nominated for eight Oscars, including best picture, best director, actress and supporting actor for Richardson. Winners include de Havilland, who was a free agent in the late 1940s. Without a lengthy explanation, her lawsuit in the mid-1940s against Warner Brothers successfully gained her release and was a landmark in Hollywood (another discussion later). Starting with the release of "To Each His Own" and "The Dark Mirror," both in 1946, she sought the best roles and is arguably the best actress of the late 1940s, with "The Snake Pit" also on her resume.

The great composer Aaron Copland lent his musical talents to the rich score. Composer of such classics as "Billy the Kid" and "Rodeo," music almost everyone would recognize even if they're not familiar with the names of the pieces, Copland wrote few film scores, but you can hear familiar elements in "The Heiress." His work received an Oscar.

My friend Dan Pal runs his own web site and a series of terrific podcasts. We did one together counting down the top 10 films of the 1940s. "The Heiress" was just out of the range, but having seen this brilliant film on a big screen recently, I'd possibly need to amend that list to fit this in. Then again, I love so many films from the 1940s that the list is always changing.

One final note: Perhaps the film wasn't more popular because of its seriousness. Some claim Paramount was more interested in pushing "Samson and Delilah," which ended up being the year's top box office draw. Go figure. Regardless, make a point to see "The Heiress" -- put it on your Netfix queue NOW (and I mean NOW!).

5 comments:

  1. Brian,

    Great post! Thanks for mentioning my podcasts! Yes, The Heiress is one of the great films of the 1940s. I was fortunate to see Cherry Jones play the lead on Broadway. Another great production of a great work!

    Dan

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  2. Would have loved to see Cherry Jones in this role. I know she won a Tony for it and I bet she was terrific.

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  3. REGARDING OLIVIA de HAVILAND, ALTHOUGH I AGREE HER PERFORMANCE IN "THE HEIRESS" WAS TERRIFIC.... (WHEN WAS SHE EVER BAD???), I JUST SAW "MY COUSIN RACHEL" ON THE FOX MOVIE CHANNEL .....WOW....OLIVIA DOESN'T SHOW UP UNTIL AFTER THE FIRST 25 MINUTES, BUT FROM THERE ON OUT, IT'S HER FILM. AND THAT FILM SCORE...TERRIFIC. ONE OF MY FAVORITES. IF OLIVIA EVER MADE A BAD CHOICE, IT WAS "THE AMBASSADOR'S DAUGHTER"...GUESS SHE WANTED TO SEE HERELF IN COLOR. BUT LET'S FACE IT....SHE WAS A BIT TOO LONG IN THE TOOTH IN 1956, TO PLAY THAT ROLE. ANYWAY, EVERYONE MAKES MISTAKES. SHE MADE AN APPEARANCE A FEW YEARS AGO IN AMERICA TO PROMOTE THE RE-RELEASE (AGAIN) OF "GONE WITH THE WIND" AND I HAVE HER INTERVIEW ON THE DVD RELEASE. WHAT A GAL...AND SHE AND HER SISTER JOAN FONTAINE LIVE TOGETHER SOMEWHERE IN EUROPE.

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  4. She was/is terrific. It's been at least 20 years since I've seen My Cousin Rachel that I don't remember much of it. I'll have to see it again. Some of her Warner Brothers films aren't the best, but that was more about the studio forcing her to do material she really didn't have an interest in. Look for my review of Princess O'Rourke, if you get a chance.

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  5. Agree that MY COUSIN RACHEL shows Olivia at her finest. She's very beautiful in the period costumes, resuming her natural beauty after playing two highly unglamorous roles. Her performance maintains just the right balance of good and evil, ambiguous in very subtle ways as intended by DuMaurier. Well worth seeing with a fantastic background score by Franz Waxman.

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