The Heiress

Released:  1949

Cast:  Olivia de Havilland, Montgomery Clift, Ralph Richardson

Oscar Wins:  Best Actress (Olivia de Havilland), Best Art Direction/Set Decoration, Black and White (John Meehan, Harry Horner, Emile Kuri), Best Costume Design, Black and White (Edith Head, Gile Steele), Best Music, Original Score (Aaron Copland)

Oscar Nominations:  Best Picture, Best Director (William Wyler), Best Supporting Actor (Ralph Richardson), Best Cinematography, Black and White (Leo Tover)

SUMMARY:  Catherine Sloper (Olivia de Havilland) is a young woan who lives in New York with her father, Dr. Austin Sloper (Ralph Richardson), and her recently widowed aunt.  Catherine’s mother died some time ago, and while Dr. Sloper believed his wife to be beautiful and charming, he does not believe that his daughter received the same gifts.  He is not hesitant to mention these “faults” to others, nor the fear that Catherine will become a spinster who sits home and embroiders all day.  Catherine loves her father, and his frequent allusions to her plainness seem to go over her head.  Dr. Sloper’s chief worry is Catherine’s money:  after her mother died, she inherited $10,000 a year; upon his death, that sum will multiple several times — provided that he does not disown her.  Because he believes that Catherine is too unattractive and boring for any man to actually fall in love with her, he believes that any man that shows an interest in her must be after her money.  At a party one evening, after already being abandoned by one dance partner, Catherine meets Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift), who has recently returned to town after a long absence.  Townsend is immediately taken with Catherine, and to her surprise pays genuine attention to her.  For weeks after the party he calls at the house several times a week.  Finally, Townsend asks Catherine to marry him, and she happily agrees.  However, when they tell Dr.Sloper of the engagement, he is very displeased.  He believes that Townsend is just after Catherine’s money, since he has run through all of his own.  He goes so far as to question Townsend’s sister about her brother’s finances, and ultimately refuses to bless the union.  Townsend does not want to marry Catherine without her father’s permission, so when Dr. Sloper suggests a six month separation (during which time he and Catherine will go to Europe) to assure their feelings, Townsend agrees.

The six-month trip is cut short, because Dr. Sloper can see that his daughter has no interest in any other man but Townsend.  They return home, but when he finds that Townsend is still eager to marry Catherine, the doctor threatens to disinherit his daughter.  Catherine decides that she would rather be with Morris, and decides to elope with him.  Townsend has already made plans for them to run away the next day, but Catherine insists that they go that very evening.  Townsend is supposed to return in a few hours to pick Catherine up, but he never comes back.  A few days later she learns that he has gone to California.  Catherine is bereft at the betrayal, and this attitude angers her father.  The two get into an argument, and Dr. Sloper bluntly tells his daughter that she is unattractive and has no distinguishing qualities other than the ability to embroider:  there is nothing special about her.  This, finally, breaks through the love Catherine feels for her father, and nearly kills all of her feelings for him.  It eventually becomes clear that Dr. Sloper is dying, something he admits to knowing.  Catherine, who has become very hard-hearted toward her father, advises him to change his will if he does not want her to marry Townsend, because she intends to seek him out as soon as her father dies.  Surprisingly, Dr. Sloper chooses not to change his will; when he dies a short time later, Catherine receives her full inheritance.  She continues to live in the same house with her aunt, and is still there several years later when Townsend suddenly comes back to New York.  Her aunt is thrilled, and invites Townsend over, but Catherine is hesitant to see him.  When she does let him in, Townsend tells her that he left because he didn’t want to be the reason she didn’t receive her inheritance.  He also confesses that he still loves her and wants to marry her.  Catherine confesses to the same feelings, and agrees to elope with him that night, the way they planned many years before.  Just as then, Townsend leaves to pack, planning to return in a few hours.  However, after he leaves, Catherine locks all the doors to the house.  When Townsend returns, she forbids the maid from opening the door and calmly sits at her embroidery as he repeatedly pounds on the door and calls her name.  Eventually, she calmly goes upstairs to bed as Townsend, now realizing what is happening but not accepting it, continues to pound on the door.

MY TAKE:  I will admit that I did not see the whole “Townsend is a bad guy” thing coming, and I think this was on purpose:  the movie is based on a play, and the Townsend character was purposely made less obviously sinister for the movie.  I honestly believed that he loved her, until he didn’t come back for her.  Even then, I could have forgiven him if he had gone out to California and made his own fortune, then returned to Catherine as someone who would not have to rely on her money (as her father feared).  Unfortunately, the cruel Dr. Sloper turned out to be right.  Townsend apparently was only after her money, and hasn’t done anything of note in California (he mentions having to beg together enough money to come back).  I did see Catherine’s turning of the tables coming, mainly because I could see her face when she was embracing Townsend when he came back.  If you notice, she never actually kisses him, and her face stays pretty expressionless.  She’s not really in love with him anymore, and is only putting up with him in order to exact revenge.  I actually felt very sorry for Catherine, for several reasons.  First, her father thinks she’s pretty much worthless, which is a horrible thing for a father to think of his own child, and an even more terrible prospect for the child.  I don’t know if she ignored all of his little remarks over the years, or if she really didn’t get what he was saying, but he eventually makes his opinion of her painfully obvious.  Her aunt, who seemed to be very sympathetic to Catherine, also eventually reveals that she has pretty much the same opinion.  Then something terrific happens:  a nice young man shows interest in her, and seems to fall in love with her.  Her love for him is so great that she is willing to defy her father, never see him again, and lose a huge inheritance just to be with him — and her father, butthole that he is, turns out to be right.  After getting her hopes up of leaving her father and being happy with Townsend, Catherine now has to stay with her father and live with the knowledge that Townsend was just leading her on.  I understand how this turned her into the much colder person at the end of the film, but this also makes me feel sorry for her:  the bad side of life has changed her into a different person.  It’s definitely not a happy ending.

RATING:  Well done, crummy ending.

 

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