Stage to Screen Blogathon: The Heiress (1949)

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This post is part of the Stage to Screen Blogathon, hosted by Rachel’s Theatre Reviews and The Rosebud Cinema.

The 1949 film The Heiress is an adaptation of the 1947 play of the same name by Augustus and Ruth Goetz, which in turn is an adaptation of the 1880 novella Washington Square by Henry James. The novella was inspired by a story told to James by an actress named Fanny Kemble, about her brother’s courtship of a dull but very rich young woman. While Washington Square remains to this day one of James’ most popular works, James himself disliked it.

The novella, play and film offer most of the same basic plot points: set in the mid-1800s, the story follows a Dr. Austin Sloper and his daughter Catherine. He has raised her alone after his wife died of complications from childbirth. Bitterly disappointed in the loss of his wife, he is also dissatisfied with his daughter, who he sees as dull-witted in comparison to his idealized memory of his wife. He finds it impossible to love her.

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One day Catherine is introduced to Morris Townsend, a poor but charming and attractive young man, who sweeps her off her feet. They decide to marry. Convinced Townsend is a fortune hunter, Sloper does everything he can to dissolve the engagement, including taking his daughter away for a European tour. Catherine finally becomes aware of her father’s contempt for her, and believes he will disinherit her if she marries Townsend. She still proceeds with marriage plans. Townsend is convinced her father will forgive her eventually, but Catherine tells him that will never happen because her father doesn’t love her. Townsend jilts her and disappears for several years. Townsend returns after Sloper has died and once again tries to woo Catherine. This time it is she who refuses him.

Even though the novella and play (and film) follow most of these plot points, they diverge in some subtle and key ways. In the play, there’s an ambiguity to Morris’ actions that make his motivations far less plain. The characterization of Catherine is changed quite a bit in the play and film. The ending is also significantly different.

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The play was a success (ironic, as James tried and utterly failed to make a success as a playwright). Actress Olivia de Havilland approached director William Wyler about making a film adaptation. Wyler convinced Paramount Studios to purchase the rights to the play. The Goetzes were hired to write the screenplay. Ralph Richardson was cast as Dr. Sloper (reprising his role from the London production of the play) and rising star Montgomery Clift was hired to play Morris. Miriam Hopkins rounded out the main cast as Catherine’s Aunt Penniman.

The film was also a success, netting four Academy Awards and de Havilland’s second Best Actress win. Though I couldn’t help but notice there was a somewhat condescending tone to reviews at the time. Critics seemed to both praise and look down on the film, perhaps dismissing it as melodrama because on the surface it seems to be about a woman’s romantic troubles.

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That’s not really the case. The true primary relationship in the story is the one between Catherine and her father. He is initially presented as a somewhat distant yet superficially courteous father (Richardson is sublime in the role) who cuts his daughter down in the same breath that he praises her. His high expectations and constant digs have turned Catherine into a shy, socially inept woman.

But only in front of her father and strangers. With her Aunt Penniman (a silly, overly romantic but loving woman), she’s different. In fact, she’s quite intelligent and capable of some wicked wit.

This is one way the play and film differ from the novella. James never shows anything about Catherine that would seem to contradict her father’s opinion of her, though he does imply towards the end of the story that she has some attractive qualities because two other men sincerely court her.

(A more faithful adaptation of the novella is the 1997 film Washington Square, directed by Agnieszka Holland and starring Jennifer Jason Leigh, Albert Finney, Ben Chaplin and Maggie Smith.)

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Montgomery Clift was famously unhappy with his performance in the movie, feeling an outsider next to actors such as de Havilland, Richardson and Hopkins. He even criticized de Havilland for letting Wyler influence her performance. He also believed he was better suited to playing modern characters.

Even so, I find it difficult to imagine a better actor to play Morris. Perhaps the conflict between Clift and de Havilland helped enhance their onscreen chemistry. You can believe Catherine falls in love with him simply because he gives her the attention and kindness her father has withheld, but there’s also an obvious sexual attraction. Which is what seems to enrage Sloper the most about their relationship.

Clift’s outer beauty (still not marred by the car accident that would later curtail his career) combined with his inner moodiness perfectly embodies Morris’ ambiguity. Even though common sense tells you that he’s an opportunistic cad, a little part of you will probably still want to believe him.

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Morris is the catalyst that brings Sloper and Catherine’s relationship to the breaking point. It also mirrors it (Catherine believes she is loved when she is not). If Sloper had been a loving father, we could perhaps forgive him for trying to separate his daughter from an obvious fortune hunter. His contempt for her makes it easy to hate him for being right about Morris. One wonders why he wouldn’t be happy to get rid of her, even to a fortune hunter. Though he despises Catherine, he still enjoys her awe of him and her unconditional love. He doesn’t want to love her back, but also doesn’t want to lose her.

In the novella, Catherine’s revenge on her father and Morris falls on the passive-aggressive side. After Morris’ abandonment, she dutifully takes care of her father until he dies. He tries to extract a promise from her that she will never marry Morris. She obstinately refuses. In consequence, he disinherits her. When Morris comes around again, destitute and dissolute and hoping to resume their engagement, she rejects him without much ceremony. She is last seen taking up her embroidery, with James observing “for life–as it were.”

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In the movie, Catherine’s revenge is far more direct. A big change the Goetzes made is Sloper’s ultimate decision not to disinherit his daughter. After Morris runs out on her, Catherine has a confrontation with her father where she finally stands up to him. She insists he disinherit her on the spot and upbraids him for starving her for affection. Knowing he is dying, he tries to reconcile with her, but she refuses to attend him at his bedside. He dies alone, probably convinced Catherine will use his money to reclaim Morris.

In Catherine’s character, there are echoes of other Victorian-era heroines, including and Hardy’s Tess Durbeyfield and Trollope’s Lily Dale. Like Tess, she loses the man she loves because it never occurs to her to be anything but entirely honest with him. Like Lily, she remains in love with a man even after he has revealed himself as unworthy of her. (Both her father and aunt also remain faithful to the memory of lost loves to the end of their lives.) Unlike those heroines, Catherine finds a way to triumph over the men who have hurt her.

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In a direct contradiction to the novella, she gives Morris the impression that he has won her over again and they will complete their interrupted plans to marry. Catherine is finishing an elaborate piece of embroidery but tells her aunt she will “never do another.” (The one compliment her father ever gave her–which he used more as an insult–is that she “embroiders neatly.”) When Morris returns to claim his bride, she locks the door on him. She climbs the stairs as he pounds the door and begs her to let him in.

In spite of her great beauty, de Havilland is still thoroughly convincing as a plain spinster. Physically, this was achieved with very little makeup and some bushy eyebrows. But it’s not just her appearance. How she has been beat down all her life is conveyed in her facial expressions, body language, and an almost mousy tone of voice. As Catherine falls more and more deeply in love, the change is subtle but noticeable. Her voice and body language change. Once Morris is gone and she finds the strength that was always inside her, she changes even more. By the end of the story she is a handsome, imperious and poised woman, yet still doesn’t believe it when someone compliments her. De Havilland plays all the notes of this character so beautifully it’s one of my favorite performances by her–or, indeed, by any actress.

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Because he was never considered an “auteur” by film critics, William Wyler is often unfairly dismissed as someone who just shot the story as written. But I have always loved his direction. When Catherine finally realizes that Morris has jilted her, he shows her defeated climb up the stairs, dragging her luggage back to her bedroom. After she has jilted Morris, she climbs those same stairs in triumph.

Unlike James’ Catherine, I want to believe after her final dealings with Morris this Catherine found a life beyond the limited confines of the house in Washington Square.

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18 thoughts on “Stage to Screen Blogathon: The Heiress (1949)

  1. The Heiress is one of my favorite movies. (I’ve also seen quotes from Martin Scorsese that it’s one of his as well.) Interesting to read how the movie differed from the novella, especially about the disinheritance. I think Clift was great in it, maybe his uncertainty about it all gave his performance the ambiguity it needed. Now I want to watch Washington Square. Thanks for post.

    1. I’ll be honest, I was a little disappointed in Washington Square. That may just be because I so love The Heiress and the actors in it. It is interesting to compare the two movies, though.

  2. Great post! I didn’t know the story behind the novella, I actually read it recently and think James was pretty hard on himself. This sounds like a great adaptation – I’m a big de Havilland and Clift fan. The ‘condescending tone’ you mention seems to be symptomatic of the era (Asquith’s Earnest was also not well-received), I wonder if the general expectation of stage to screen adaptations was higher, today we’re used to homages that alter the source considerably.

    1. Thanks! I wonder if the attitude towards these films was simply a perception that the subject matters were “lightweight”–in the critics’ view, anyway.

    1. Thank you! I imagine she travels and has some interesting experiences–maybe even romances. At the very least, not staying true to a love that never really existed.

  3. I’ve always found James a tough writer to get into, but this is an excellent movie, and ranks as one of my three favorite film versions of his work (the other two would be THE WINGS OF THE DOVE and WHAT MAISIE KNEW). And I’m glad you singled out both Clift (whose acting genius was, for me, taking familiar roles like this one and putting a different spin on them) and Wyler (whom I agree is undeservedly overlooked by “auteur” critics). Anyway, nice write-up.

    1. Yes, he’s a little on the dense side. I’ve seen The Wings of the Dove but haven’t seen What Maisie Knew. I’ll have to check it out.

      When I think of Wyler’s filmography and how some critics dismiss him–I think they must have a collective screw loose. (They also don’t really understand auteur theory, which doesn’t actually claim auteurs are better directors than those who aren’t.)

      Thanks!

  4. I’ve read Washington Square but haven’t seen the film, as far as I can remember, but love those stern expressions in your first pic! It’s so interesting the changes made when fiction is translated to stage or screen and we can learn a lot from studying those differences, as you’ve done so well here.

    1. Thanks so much!

      I agree about changes. Sometimes an adaptation can be a bit TOO faithful to the source material. In this case, I enjoy both the novella and the film, but for different reasons.

  5. I had no idea that THE HEIRESS was a play before it was a film! You learn something new every day, don’t you? HAHA! Great post – I saw this movie for the first time a couple of years ago and it broke my heart. That final scene of Olivia walking up that staircase, so powerful!

    1. Agreed!

      The play is revived on Broadway every now and then–I think very recently, too, with Jessica Chastain and Dan Stevens (from Downton Abbey) as Catherine and Morris.

  6. Bravo, Debbie! A great review of an amazing movie. Like you, I can’t imagine an actor better suited to play Morris Twonsend than Monty Clift (hum…maybe Tyrone Power? But I think audiences wouldn’y like him playing an unsympathetic character). Olivia, Miriam an Sir Ralph Richardson are also magnificent.
    I learned a good deed about the novella reading your post! Thanks!
    Don’t forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! 🙂
    Greetings!
    http://criticaretro.blogspot.com.br/2014/10/variacoes-sobre-um-mesmo-tema-o-passaro.html

    1. Thank you!

      That’s interesting what you say about Tyrone Power. Have you ever seen Nightmare Alley? He played an very unsympathetic character and audiences at the time didn’t like it much. But reportedly, it was his favorite role.

  7. The 1997 “Washington Square” is most definitely NOT a more faithful adaption of the James novella. It contains absurd backstories, and additional scenes of blatant sexuality not contained in or in keeping with the source material, and thanks to the terrible performance by Jennifer Jason Leigh as Catherine, it often resembles a “Carol Burnett Show” parody of this film. Warning to all: bypass the remake at all costs.

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