Director: William Wyler
See it on YouTube here.
The Heiress is a story about the troubles of being wealthy, and not knowing if you're wanted for love or for a thicker wallet.
It's New York in the middle of the 19th century, and Catherine Sloper (De Havilland) lives with her dominating father, Dr. Austin Sloper (Richardson). Catherine is a kind-hearted woman, but shy and clumsy - and her father doesn't encourage her more by constantly comparing her to her deceased mother. It is obvious that Dr. Sloper has altered the memory of his wife into something of a goddess, so no matter how hard Catherine tries she will never fulfill his expectations.
One day Catherine meets a debonair, but poor, gentleman at a ball - Morris Townsend (Clift). Townsend put a lot of effort in courting Catherine, and soon they are engaged. Even though Catherine's aunt Lavinia (Hopkins) is head over heels happy for the couple, Dr. Sloper is resentful. He is convinced that Townsend is nothing else but a gold digger, and he tells Catherine so in the most brutal way: [paraphrasing] "What do you think he loves about you? Your looks? Your charms and your wit?" In other words, he's a complete jackass.
For once Catherine stands up against her father, and decides to get married to Townsend anyway. He is pleased to hear that she wants to get married right away, but when he hears about her quarrel with her dad he gets concerned. She responds happily that she doesn't care for inheritance - they can manage without it.
They decide that he will pick her up later at her house, so they can run away and get married. He does not show up.
Scene: This will give you a good idea of the film - just hear that horrible Dr. Sloper's go on about his worthless daughter. We also see Montgomery Clift make an entrance.
Now to the actors:
Olivia De Havilland never stops to amaze me as an actress. Few actresses can express so much by doing so little. In The Heiress De Havilland makes two major transformations of her character through the movie. First the shy and insecure Catherine (blank face, melting in with the background). Then to the madly in love Catherine (glittering eyes, lively face), and then over to the jilted Catherine (hardened features, vengeful eyes). It's amazing.
Miriam Hopkins is completely lovable as the rather unintelligent and hopelessly romantic aunt. Hopkins is another one of those actresses we seldom see in Hollywood today - those who, as they age, choose parts according to their own age.
Montgomery Clift is perfect for the part of the young gentleman who is careless with money, but very careful in the search for resources. Unfortunately I read that Clift often sneered at De Havilland and the way she acted, and that makes me sour. Luckily I didn't care much for him anyway. But he's a good actor, nonetheless.
Ralph Richardson is a talented actor, and he plays his part well enough. But after having read Basil Rathbone's own statement that he had played the part of Dr. Sloper on Broadway, and was really depressed not getting the part in the film adaption, I can't help but seeing him in the role. And I know that he would have made the part unforgettable. Perhaps he would have stolen the scenes from De Havilland, but that is something Richardson deliberately did with his improvisations.
Now I start to gossip Hedda Hopper style. Enough with that, I will summarize for you:
- De Havilland and Hopkins are irreproachable. De Havilland won her 2nd Oscar.
- I don't care much for Clift or Richardson, even though they did a good job.
- William Wyler is one heck of a director.
- The script is clever and well written.
- The Oscar-winning musical score is grand.
- The b/w photography and the playfulness with lighting and shadows are a feast for the eyes.
- Basil Rathbone should have played Dr. Sloper.
Some funny trivia for you: Ginger Rogers was presumably offered this part, but declined. Just as the other De Havilland roles in The Snake Pit [post] and To Each His Own.