Size Matters?

        After reading Henry James's 1880 novel, Washington Square, as with most novels, plays, etc. I came away with a certain idea of how it would have unfolded on screen. I had imagined how the house would look, how the street would look and how the characters would look. But upon seeing the 1949 film adaptation, The Heiress, directed by William Wyler, the only thing that surprised me was the size of Dr. Sloper, as played by Ralph Richardson. I had imagined a large imposing man; and, after seeing his first scenes in the movie I thought he would not have the physical presence needed to portray this role. But after I thought about it I realized that there are actually two different types of oppression; physical as well as psychological, and the further we got into the movie, the more I thought, maybe this type of Dr. Sloper is exactly what is needed.

         After reading the novel, I had envisioned Dr. Sloper as the kind of man similar to James Avery, the actor who played Uncle Phil in the Fresh Prince of Bel Air series. Not only was he physically imposing, but also he was a great, smart man, he was a judge, and this is another reason why he came to mind at first. The novel did not allude to it, and I did not believe that he was a violent man, but I envisioned him as the kind of man that kept you on edge, like he could beat you at any given moment if he wanted to and there would be nothing you could do about it. This type of father would have made Catherine (Olivia de Havilland) timid and scared, which she was, but a father of another type could do a lot more damage to her psyche.

         The further along in the movie we got I realized that there was more to the relationship than I had thought at first. Dr. Sloper did not need to be ten feet tall and bulletproof; he was just perfect just the way he was. I realized psychological oppression is just as harmful as physical oppression. To break someone's spirit, is much harder than just breaking his/her arm. By being the way he was he was able to train his daughter to be the way he wanted, and he did not by the threat of physical abuse.

         I found by the end of the movie that the Dr. Sloper shown in the movie was perfect for the role, much better than the one in my mind. A large man might have been just a little to overwhelming especially played against the very feeble Catherine. Also it might not have worked out the same way if Morris (Montgomery Clift) was scared of getting his ass kicked by Dr. Sloper. It also worked out great because he was a better fit with Morris that we knew, because Morris was the type of guy to play mind games.

        In the end I learned that, just because you envision things one way, that does not mean they cannot work out in another way. In this case I believe they worked out better. I guess that is the reason why I am a college student and casting directors are casting directors. But it is these differences in opinions that I believe add to the stories, especially in the cases of different forms of literature interpreted in cinematic form.

Jon Jones

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