The Heiress: A Golden Star among Classic Films

         In this 1949 dramatization of Henry James's 1880 Washington Square, directed by William Wyler, Olivia de Havilland plays Catherine Sloper, the plain but presentable spinster who lives with her domineering father (Ralph Richardson). What she lacks in looks she makes up for in wealth and soon finds herself the object of much attention by Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift). At the heart of this drama is the question of his possibly mercenary agenda. Catherine does not seem to care one way or the other, but her father cannot believe any man would love her for any reason but her wealth.

         This version does not stray too far from the novel. It is a masterpiece that reveals both suppressed anger within a family and the suppression of women in the nineteenth century. Dr. Sloper is a tyrant at home, dictating his daughter's every move and cruelly telling her that she bears no resemblance to his dear departed wife, who was beautiful and charming. Suitors shun Catherine--who is awkward in her movements, conversation, and manners--until she receives some unexpected attention from Morris at a ball. He flatters her and asks to call on her, news that is derisively greeted by Dr. Sloper, who tells Catherine that Morris must be a fortune hunter, and will break her heart.

         Ralph Richardson is equally good, injecting a majestic presence into his portrait of a hateful man who is really so fearful for his daughter's future that he will incur her permanent loathing to protect that future. Lavinia Penniman, as depicted by Miriam Hopkins, is fine as a presence in the movie but Morris, as acted by Montgomery Clift, is surprisingly weak. I expected a more powerful performance, considering that his character is the one that drives us through the whole movie and sets Catherine's character free from her father's grasp.

         Even though Morris' character was weaker than I expected from the character in the book, I really enjoyed the movie, and it has gained its place into my classic favourites. It is a golden star among classic films.

Evanthia Sotiriou

Table of Contents