The Crash Course syllabus is starting to edge into the 1950s, and after the last few contemporary films it feels almost like a throwback to see a costume drama. But this was contemporary; The Heiress is based on the play of the same name (itself an adaptation of Henry James’ novel Washington Square), and was one of the hot Broadway tickets of 1948. Star Olivia de Havilland was one of the celebrities who caught the show, and immediately contacted director William Wyler to suggest it as a potential film.
De Havilland stars as Catherine Sloper, the shy, plain daughter of a wealthy doctor living in New York in the 1840s. Her father Dr. Austin (Ralph Richardson) was widowed when Catherine was young, and has been in mourning for his lively and delightful wife ever since; and unfortunately, he has been unconsciously comparing Catherine to her memory, and found her wanting. Not for lack of trying – he’s paid for Catherine to have classes in music, cooking, elocution, and the like; but she still is awkward and antisocial, preferring to keep indoors working on her endless embroidery projects and doting on her father. All Catherine has going for her, really, is her inheritance; a sizeable one from her late mother, and another one she’ll eventually get from her father.
Sloper enlists Catherine’s aunt Lavinia Penniman (Miriam Hopkins) for help; Lavinia has recently been widowed and she’s more outgoing, and Catherine seems to like her company. Maybe she can help get Catherine out of her shell, he thinks. And sure enough, at the first party Lavinia drags Catherine to, she meets dashing Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift), who seems quite taken with Catherine. Over the next several days, Morris woos Catherine, completely sweeping her off her feet. However – Dr. Sloper has been making some discreet inquiries about Morris, and suspects that the only thing that Morris really sees in Catherine is a bank account. Even though Lavinia begs him to keep mum (who cares why Morris wants to marry Catherine, because hell, at least someone does) Dr. Sloper still confronts Morris with his suspicions, and then – uncomfortably – Catherine. Catherine is of course horrified at Dr. Sloper’s mistrust, and begs Morris to elope with her. Sssssssure, Morris says, he’ll just go pack and be back in just a minute….
The story goes on a little from there, of course, but that painful scene – where Catherine finally gets her eyes opened about both her sweetheart and her father – is really the heart of the film, and my hunch is it’s what spurred De Havilland into opting the play. Catherine is a very, very different character at the end of the play than in the beginning, and it’s a plum of a role for an actress. For any actress – I saw the 1995 revival of the play with Cherry Jones, and it’s the production that deservedly made Cherry Jones a household name in the New York theater world. The screen adaptation changes very little; the original playwrights, Ruth and Augustus Goetz, were asked only to make Morris a little more sympathetic, so that the studio could better push Montgomery Clift as a romantic lead. But his character is oily and duplicitous enough still that you are never quite certain whether to really buy his excuses for his spending habits.
The film also wisely keeps a lot of the action inside the Sloper’s home. There’s always the temptation to throw in a bunch more sets when you’re adapting a play for the screen, and the production could have gone nuts and thrown in scenes with Catherine attending church, a ladies’ club, going shopping, etc., to amp up the Costume Drama Spectacle of it all. But that would have been all wrong for the shy Catherine, and things are kept largely to a few rooms and a courtyard in the Sloper’s house, and that one fateful ball; and one very brief scene with Catherine sitting in the park across the street from the house. (It’s a spoiler for me to elaborate on why, but it’s a heck of a moment.)
I’m still personally making up my mind whether I prefer Cherry Jones or Olivia de Havilland’s take on the role. But absolutely agree that de Havilland shines; the role earned de Havilland her second Oscar.