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Film / The Heiress

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Charming, clever, cultured... what is he doing with her?

The Heiress is a 1949 drama film directed by William Wyler, adapted from the 1947 play of the same name by Ruth and Augustus Goetz, which in turn is an adaptation of the 1880 novel Washington Square by Henry James.

In mid-19th century New York, Catherine Sloper (Olivia de Havilland) is a cripplingly shy woman who lives with her widowed father, Dr. Austin Sloper (Ralph Richardson), and his flighty sister, Lavinia Penniman (Miriam Hopkins). As she's viewed by everyone as lacking personality, it's a big surprise when handsome, charming Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift) takes an interest in her. Her aunt is in favor of the match, but Dr. Sloper is opposed, believing that Morris couldn't possibly be interested in Catherine for herself and must be after her inheritance.

Olivia de Havilland's performance won her an Academy Award; the film also took Academy Awards for its costumes, sets, and score (by Aaron Copland).

This film contains examples of:

  • Abusive Parents: Dr. Sloper relentlessly abuses Catherine emotionally, letting her know that she'll never measure up to her mother.
  • Adaptational Attractiveness: The supposedly plain Catherine is played by Olivia de Havilland.
  • Calling the Old Man Out: As part of her development into a more assertive person, Catherine calls her father to task for his awful treatment of her and then some, even calling him on his bluff to disown her.
  • Despair Event Horizon: Catherine reaches it when, after waiting all night, realizes Morris has jilted her and will never come with the carriage.
  • False Reassurance: Catherine is happy when her father assures her that he will treat Morris with due respect. NOT!
    Dr. Sloper: I shall be as fair and honest with him as he is with you.
    Catherine: Thank you, father, that is all we shall need.
  • The Ghost: In a sense, Catherine's mother. Though she's already long-dead at the start of the film (making her a Posthumous Character) there is also a small framed photograph of her that many characters pick up and admire. The audience never gets to see it, leaving her physical appearance up to the imagination. The only thing we're told of her appearance is that, unlike Catherine, she was "fair".
  • I Can't Believe a Guy Like You Would Notice Me: Catherine is stunned when the handsome and charming Morris notices her plain and shy self.
  • Grew a Spine: This aspect of Catherine's development is emphasized even more than in the original story.
  • Jerkass Has a Point: Dr. Sloper is a real piece of work, but he is absolutely correct about Morris being a Gold Digger.
  • Last Request: While Catherine is sitting outside one day, Maria the maid rushes to her side, telling her that her father is succumbing to his illness and his final wish is to see Catherine one more time. All she says is, "I'm sure he does. Too late, Maria."
  • The Lost Lenore: Catherine's father mourns his dead wife with an intensity that shows just how detrimental this trope can be in a real-life setting. When someone points out he has a daughter that he's been neglecting and failing to love or even connect with his whole life, Dr. Sloper snaps that only he knows what he lost when his wife died. He apparently conveniently forgets that Catherine lost her mother as well as him losing his wife.
  • Maiden Aunt: Catherine ends up as a Maiden Aunt, doting on the children of her cousin Marian, who call her "Aunt Catherine".
  • The Mourning After: Dr. Sloper still mourns his wife even though it's been years since her death. This isn't portrayed as being remotely positive or healthy, showing how holding onto the past has damaged his relationship in the present with his daughter.
  • No Sense of Personal Space: Morris has a habit of leaning into Catherine's personal space, which at the beginning of their courtship makes her visibly uncomfortable and she tries to get away from him. It may be an early indication of his true character.
  • Old Maid: Plays with this trope and ends up being one of the few works to portray it positively; Catherine never marries her Gold Digger love interest or anyone, and is shown to embrace spinsterhood and be confident in herself in a way she never was when she had to worry about the prospects of marriage.
  • Pragmatic Adaptation: Most of the changes in the story were carried over from the play, and were made arguably due to being more dramatically interesting:
    • Due to studio mandated changes in Morris's character, instead of what he does in the book, the night they are supposed to marry, he tells her he will come for her in a carriage. She eagerly waits all night for him, but he never comes. Less openly malicious than what he does in the part, but arguably even more traumatizing for Catherine.
    • The issue of the will which drove a lot of the plot is handled differently, too. Dr. Sloper does not have it in his heart to change his will, and Catherine gets everything when he dies.
    • Additionally, while in the book Catherine becomes detached from her father, in the movie it becomes a clear hatred, even refusing to see him on his deathbed. Her disposition overall after her experience is colder than what was portrayed in the book, and ironically, more clever.
    • The answer to Catherine and Morris's Will They or Won't They? is the same, but it is played differently: When Morris comes to see her, she actually does act as if she wants to rekindle their romance. She tells him she wants to marry that night, and tells him to leave and get a carriage while she gets her things ready. Morris comes back with the carriage and knocks on Catherine's door... but no one ever answers.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Dr. Sloper's Break the Cutie tirade against Catherine is much more direct and dripping with sarcasm and contempt, telling her flat-out that she is plain, boring, and would only be valued by anyone for her money.
  • Romantic Rain: Catherine runs out into the rain as Morris is leaving and he rushes to meet her so they are both dripping wet when they kiss a few moments later.
  • Saying Too Much: When Catherine wants to elope with Morris, it comes about in the conversation that she will not inherit or take a penny from her father, and she expects them to rely on nobody but themselves. This causes Morris to abandon her as he realizes he won't inherit the great fortune he expected her to have.
  • Shipper on Deck: Catherine's aunt would very much like her to marry Morris.
  • Stood Up: Catherine gets stood up by Morris on an occasion when he had promised to come for her in a carriage to elope at midnight. This is even worse because the decision to elope came right after a major falling out with her family (her father was convinced that Morris was just a Gold Digger and told her the only reason anyone would want a Plain Jane Shrinking Violet her was because of her money) and she was convinced that Morris would care for her and love her in a way her father never did.
  • Sugar-and-Ice Personality: By the end, Catherine has developed this personality (previously being a Shrinking Violet). She is as kind and friendly as she always was with people she likes. With people who get on her bad side, she is a complete ice queen.
  • Tall, Dark, and Handsome: Morris Townsend, as played by Montgomery Clift.
  • A Taste of Their Own Medicine: The ending in which Catherine inflicts the same amount of cruelty upon Morris as he inflicted upon her.
  • Time-Passage Beard: Morris shows up with a moustache on his return from California.