Changing Minds and Hearts

         In the 1949 William Wyler movie, The Heiress, based on Henry James’s 1880 Washington Square, and in Anthony Asquith and Leslie Howard’s 1938 adaptation of Pygmalion, written in 1913 by George Bernard Shaw, a young woman is at the center of a drama. In both of these movies the lead women are forced to make a choice concerning their lives that will forever change things. These choices are not made in a vacuum, though; and people intervene trying to affect the outcome. But the intervention makes the characters reexamine their earlier decisions and make choices differently.

         In The Heiress, we see a woman who is given a choice of the heart. Catherine (Olivia de Havilland) can either go against her demanding father (Ralph Richardson) by marrying Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift), or she can wait for someone her father approves of. Catherine’s Aunt Penniman (Miriam Hopkins) completely supports Morris and with Morris tries to set up a future marriage. Catherine’s father, Dr. Sloper, however, tries to do everything he can to stop it. After finding out Morris is a gold-digger and did not care for her, as she thought he did, Catherine becomes bitter. She decides not to allow her heart to control her actions anymore, so when Morris comes back years later trying to appeal to her heart she plays a cleverly harsh trick on him.

         In Pygmalion, the situation is much different from that in The Heiress. Eliza Doolittle (Wendy Hiller) is given a choice to better her life. Although she knows she will miss her life as a flower girl, she decides to take up an offer given by the master linguist Professor Higgins (Leslie Howard). Higgins trains her, with the backing of her lazy father (Wilfrid Lawson), who thinks he can get a better life out of the deal. After she is trained though, she realizes her situation really limits her future. Basically she can go with a man named Freddy (David Tree) who wants to marry her, or she can stay with Higgins. With Freddy she would probably have a future and be able to start a flower shop if she wanted (as she did in the play), but with Higgins she would probably continue being a maid and “go’ for girl.” The catch is she likes Higgins, so since she had limited her options earlier by a logical decision she decides to follow her heart.

         Thus, in The Heiress, the head ruled over the heart, which was the opposite case in Pygmalion.

Andrew B. Hildenbrand

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