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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.