Sometimes a film leaves an indelible impression on you because its ending is so buoyant that you feel uplifted, lighter than air. The Heiress (Wyler, 1949) leaves a bruise on your heart, and it is because the ending is so irrevocably painful and bitter.
With a father like Dr. Austin Sloper, who takes every day as an opportunity to remind his daughter Catherine that she is lacking in all areas and is at best mediocre, how could the ending be different? For Catherine, her final decision may be to forever end her poisonous lineage by forsaking what might be her last chance at romantic happiness. The Heiress also asks us to consider an interesting question when arriving at that ending: can you marry for monetary gain and still be happy? Or must mutual love be the only pure way forward?
Along with the magical Ralph Richardson and the subtly emotive Olivia de Havilland, the director William Wyler made what I think is a canny choice to provide more room in the script for nuance from Montgomery Clift. Wyler stuck close to the play, but asked the screenwriters to cut some early lines that made it clear that Morris was a fortune hunter. This was in part because the studio did not want the leading man presented as a total villain. In that way, I think a constraint becomes an opportunity. Clift could be a character who conceals himself while convincingly presenting a man who at last seems to understand and appreciate Catherine. He may even be concealing that common trait of James’ characters–an inability to love.
This story has been adapted many times, and Catherine seems to have responded to all the emotional disappointments by toughening up each time. She makes for an exciting and unforgettable hero.
What you’ll find in this episode: a discussion of the meaning of the sampler, trying to figure out what the deal is with Dr. Sloper, and why some material gets adapted so often.
Links and Recommendations:
Check out The Heiress on IMDB.
Ericca’s further viewing pick of Rambling Rose.
Cole’s further viewing pick of Hobson’s Choice.
A parody from The Carol Burnett Show.
10 secrets of Washington Square Park.
A history of American Samplers.