The Fading of Temporary Ideals

     When one presents a story that has so many attachments to its place and time, it is highly likely that the theme will not hold true for generations to come. The 1949 film The Heiress, directed by William Wyler and based on Henry James's 1880 Washington Square, is an example of temporary ideals fading through the course of time.

     The story is of a young girl, Catherine Sloper, who is an heiress to her father's wealth; money which he has accumulated from his medical practices and wealthy wife. She is plain and simple, and falls for a fortune-hunter by the name of Morris Townsend. Thus, she, depicted by Olivia de Havilland, becomes torn between her respect for her father, the later award-winning Sir Ralph Richardson, and this newfound, yet, undefined love for Morris (played by Montgomery Clift). This sordid state of affairs leads to a possible disinheritance, arranged eloping, and eventual realization of her inefficiency to see people as they are.

     The mannerisms of courtship in the film were that of a restrained Victorian era. There was a great focus on propriety: invitations, dance cards, curtseys, formal wear, elegant dining, money, and a barrage of personalities and accessories that wear in value and come in glossy-coated packaging. This apparently was a greedy class structure whose values are misguided.

     The root of the story is that innocence, represented by Catherine, searches for a love that her father would never give her. The man she thought to have loved, in turn, used her as a source of monetary income. This message is interesting at glance, yet, could quickly and easily come across in fifteen minutes of footage. The film lacked enthusiasm in conveying this message. It was more or less filled with this fixation that coordinance, "royalship," and flat-out arrogance are more powerful than love and virtue.

     In the time this film was made, however, these beliefs were common. Therefore, the audience needed and understood this story line as a backdrop to the main plot. Unfortunately, although the direction and cinematography were intriguing, the film has fizzled in some respects. It would upset me to believe that today's society sees these once sacred virtues as important. Does this make The Heiress a bad film? I feel that the time and age of a film should be considered upon critiquing it. This simply means that times have changed greatly, and those once-revered ideologies no longer apply to the audience's interest.

Brandon Smith

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