Review: The Heiress (1949)

If, like me, you are a Gone with the Wind fan, the name Olivia de Havilland is likely synonymous with Melanie Wilkes. De Havilland won an Oscar, however, for her portrayal of the title character, Catherine Sloper, in 1949’s The Heiress, and if you want to see another side of this lovely actress, I definitely recommend this movie.

Miss Sloper is a plain, unaccomplished young lady living with her father, a wealthy doctor (Ralph Richardson) in New York during the mid-19th century. Despite having all the best schooling, Catherine is shy, unskilled in social graces, dancing, music … in short, all the things that young ladies were supposed to be able to do at that time. She is a constant disappointment to her father, who despairs of ever finding her a husband. More importantly, he compares her to her dead mother, and finds her extremely lacking. Catherine seems unaware of his disappointment, though, and remains blindly faithful to him, and not unhappy with her rather reclusive lifestyle.

All of that changes when she meets handsome Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift), who immediately shows a preference for Catherine, and very soon sweeps her off her feet. Her father, given his negative opinion of his daughter, believes Townsend to be a fortune hunter, as Catherine will be very wealthy upon his own death. What ensues is a power struggle between Dr. Sloper and his daughter as she learns to stand on her own feet and makes plans to marry the man she loves. The big question, though, is whether or not he really loves her … or her money.

By way of full disclosure, prior to seeing it, I thought this was a cute, fluffy, romantic movie. I’m not sure why; it is, in fact, none of those things. I’m don’t even really know what to call it, exactly. It’s dramatic, but not overly heavy, and it’s dark, but not at all comedic. It bears a strong resemblance, in some ways, to a thriller, but that’s not right either. What it is is a taut, emotional film with excellent performances. Each of the characters move through a variety of stages over the course of the film: we see Richardson indulge his daughter, then take control of her; he sometimes seems to acknowledge his dislike for her, but ultimately contends that his actions are out of love. Montgomery Clift does a truly remarkable job with the character of Townsend; one moment you’re sure he’s just a sleazy guy out for Catherine’s money, and the next moment you think maybe you’ve misjudged him, and he really does care for her. Both of these actors strike the fine balance necessary to showcase the flaws in their characters, and to keep the plot and the emotional tension of the movie running tight and high.

De Havilland, though, is a revelation. It’s hard to describe the transformation of her character without giving too much of the plot away, but I’ll do my best. In the beginning, Catherine is a loving, obedient daughter, content with life. She’s not at all unhappy with not being the belle of the ball. After she meets Morris, she is a young woman in love, capricious and emotional, and torn between her feelings for her lover and her duty to her father. What comes after, though, is something altogether removed from either of those aspects. She becomes a tower of strength, but at the same time, something so fragile that you fear she might burst apart at any moment. The strength and resolve that she shows do not, one thinks, come from a place of sanity, shall we say? The result is actually somehow terrifying. I can’t say much more than that; you’ll just have to watch it.

And you should watch it. It’s a great piece of film, particularly where the acting and the writing is concerned. I found it to be somehow more modern in tone than expected. It packs quite a punch. The only flaw that springs to mind is that it was clearly very difficult for the make-up and costume crew to somehow make the lovely de Havilland “plain.” They mostly succeed via severe gowns and truly awful hairstyles, but you can sort of tell that it took a lot of work. It’s an enjoyable film to look at as well, and I should also mention that the score is by Aaron Copland. All in all, if you like classic film, you should definitely give this one a try.

4 responses to “Review: The Heiress (1949)

  1. Agree that the make-up was harsh and the hairstyles unflattering for any woman to wear…and yet, there were several times during Catherine’s awkward stage where de Havilland looked pretty in close-ups.

    But the transformation scene (wearing the white dress at the end) revealed just how beautiful de Havilland really was, even though she was still s0mewhat undercut by the period hairstyle. She had transformed into a much more attractive woman years after her ordeal and a wiser one. Also agree that her performance, with its many nuances, is one of the greatest by an actress on the screen.

  2. Pingback: The Large Association of Movie Blogs | Classic Chops: October 19th

  3. Fantastic review! You captured many things I feel about this film and you’re right it seems to defy classifications. I really thought it’s a fluffy romance film but then of course I was floored by Catherine’s transformation and drastic decision. I’m so glad I haven’t read anything about this film as it really took me by surprise. De Havilland is superb in this, such a different character from Melanie Wilkes! No wonder she won an Oscar for this.

    • Thanks! I’m excited that you seem to be checking out more classic films, and I look forward to hearing your opinions about them1 🙂

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