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HEIRESS, THE (director: William Wyler; screenwriters: Ruth & Augustus Goetz/based on the playby Ruth & Augustus Goetz and the novel Washington Square by Henry James; cinematographer: Leo Tover; editor: William Hornbeck; music: Aaron Copland; cast: Olivia de Havilland (Catherine Sloper), Montgomery Clift (Morris Townsend), Ralph Richardson (Dr. Austin Sloper), Miriam Hopkins (Lavinia Penniman), Vanessa Brown (Maria), Mona Freeman (Marian Almond), Ray Collins (Jeffrey Almond), Selena Royle (Elizabeth Almond), Betty Linley (Mrs. Montgomery); Runtime: 116; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: William Wyler; Paramount; 1949)
Though it had a poor box office upon its release, it eventually became recognized as a masterpiece.

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The 1946 play The Heiress by Ruth & Augustus Goetz was based on the 1881 novella Washington Square by Henry James, who based it on a real-life fortune hunter acquaintance. The Goetzes wrote the screenplay. It won for Olivia de Havilland her second Academy Award for her portrayal of Catherine Sloper, the socially awkward, timid, plain-Jane daughter of self-made wealthy widower Dr. Austin Sloper (Ralph Richardson). Director William Wyler (“Jezebel”/”Wuthering Heights”/”The Letter”) keeps it faithful to the book and meticulously recreates the austere Victorian setting of high society in Greenwich Village in the 1840s.

It’s a classy, literate, engrossing and entertaining American drama. Though it had a poor box office upon its release, it eventually became recognized as a masterpiece.

At a party celebrating the wedding announcement of her father’s older sister Elizabeth’s (Selena Royle) daughter, Catherine meets the handsome, well-spoken, bon vivant but penniless idler Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift)–a cousin of the prospective bridegroom. In a whirlwind romance, the forward Morris asks her to marry him. But the imperious dad sees through him as a fortune hunter, after his daughter’s large inheritance, and doesn’t allow the marriage. Father and daughter travel for six months to Europe to forget the romance, and upon their return she seeks to marry the charmer. But when dad threatens to cut off her inheritance, he deserts. Catherine ends up as damaged goods (heartless and cold, which means she will no longer be the naive girl who can be easily manipulated) when she finally realizes that the two men in her life, her dad and her suitor, don’t love her.

Wyler does a grand job making the play cinema friendly and keeps it suspenseful as to whether or not Clift is a fortune hunter. The acclaimed filmmaker, who has a rep for being an actor’s director, gets marvelous performances from his talented cast (Ralph Richardson sparkles as the arrogant dad, who can’t help putting down his daughter for not being as good as her idealized mother and Miriam Hopkins has a juicy part as Catherine’s recently widowed aunt who is Catherine’s confidante when she comes to live with the Slopers in their luxury Washington Square townhouse).


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”