William Wyler's 1949 film, The Heiress, is based on the 1880 Henry James novel, Washington Square. The movie involves the rapid metamorphosis of the main character, Catherine Sloper (Olivia de Havilland). Her change has to do with falling in and out of love.
Catherine starts out as a young naïve girl with a soft-spoken voice. In the movie, she is pretty, but she does not have a good fashion sense and is very clumsy. The only things she has going for her is that she is nice and rich.
This is the way Catherine is before she goes to a ball with her father (Ralph Richardson) and Aunt Lavinia Pennimen (Miriam Hopkins). A young man named Morris (Montgomery Clift) becomes interested in her. He has everything going for him; he is good looking, smart, and very charismatic.
Catherine instantly falls for him. She is still the girl she has always been and is still naïve as ever. It is the time when Morris proposes to Catherine that her attitude changes. Her father does not like Morris and has forbidden her to marry him. She does not initially disobey him, but she does not change her plans either. Catherine is deadset on changing her father's mind so that she can happily be married. She is the soft-spoken slumpy girl starting to get her own voice and opinion.
It is not until her father tells Catherine that Morris likes her only for her money that she becomes angry. Dr. Sloper lets her know that she has absolutely nothing going for her and that Morris is up to no good. Catherine's sweet voice starts to lower, and she becomes more adamant about marrying Morris as well as disobeying her father.
Catherine's demeanor changes even more when Morris fails to pick her up for their elopement. She had told him she was not going to receive her father's inheritance of $20,000, only her mother's of $10,000; and he was very demanding when telling her to write a note so that her father would forgive them and still leave the money. It is the point when he does not come back to take her away that she realizes her father has been right. This is the point that Catherine no longer smiles all the time.
A few years after abandoning her, Morris comes back to woo Catherine again because her father is now dead. Right before Morris returns, Catherine is seen telling Maria (Vanessa Brown) what to do. This is something the polite, nice Catherine would not have done before. Her voice is very strong, clear, and lower than before. She does not smile, but she takes care of her appearance. Instead of the frumpy dresses and undone hair, she wears her expensive dresses from Paris. Her hair is done up neatly, and she is portrayed as very confident. At this point, it does not seem that she cares whom she pleases, and she will do what she wants.
The final stage of Catherine's metamorphosis happens when Morris returns. Catherine is well aware of the reason he is back. She is not the naïve girl he thinks she is. She becomes revengeful and pretends she will marry him. When he comes back with his belongings, to go off with her, Catherine leaves him knocking at the locked door. She lets him know that she is doing to him what he had done to her by having Maria bolt the door and letting him see the lights go off in the house as Catherine proudly mounts the stairs, carrying her lamp high in triumph. Catherine has changed from a shy young lady into a strong, confident woman, but she has lost her innocence and happiness along the way.