The Heiress (1949): Her Mother's Presence

The memory of a brilliant but deceased mother impedes a timid young lady’s social progress in this William Wyler film.

The Heiress is a 19th century drama adapted from a Henry James novel and  a Ruth and Augustus Goetz play. The plot hinges on whether penniless Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift) is offering affection and devotion to shy Catherine Sloper (Olivia DeHavilland) or, as the wealthy lady’s father  and prominent surgeon (Ralph Richardson) argues, is merely prospecting for a fortune.

Dr. Sloper‘s sister warns that Catherine cannot “compete with this image you have of her mother. You‘ve idealized that poor dead woman beyond all human recognition.” Still, the doctor takes no heed.

Although there are portraits of her around the house, Mrs. Sloper is, wisely, never clearly shown to the audience. We, like Catherine -who never knew her mother- must rely on the embellished memories of an angry man in perpetual mourning for his wife. Catherine‘s father has effectively made the late woman a shadowy interloper in her own daughter’s  future.
One scene in particular shores up the idea of mother inadvertently creating an abbreviated future for Catherine. When Morris’ sister, Mrs. Montgomery (Betty Linley) calls on Dr. Sloper on the latter’s invitation, the literal image of Mrs. Sloper is a point of conversation. Mrs. Montgomery  eagerly anticipates meeting her prospective sister-in-law, but before she does,  the woman notices a framed portrait of a lady on the table. She picks it up and asks if this is the doctor’s daughter . The woman seems visibly deflated when he assures her that the beauty in the frame is not Catherine but her mother. 

After the two agree on the deceased woman’s loveliness, plain-featured Catherine enters. It’s too late. Mrs. Montgomery’s mind is a blank slate which has become filled with the family’s old habit of making Mrs. Sloper the standard. Catherine has little chance of creating a good first impression here, as is her lot in life. Mrs. Montgomery’s paradigm shift  is emphasized in how she interacts with the portrait once Catherine enters. The film version boosts the presence of the mother more in this scene than does the play.

Onstage, Mrs. Montgomery is directed to pick up the miniature as Dr. Sloper calls for his daughter, then replace it on the table when Catherine enters. With this gesture thoughts of the mother gently waft  in and out of the audience’s mind during Mrs. Montgomery’s visit and through to the end of  the scene when Morris himself comes to call and sits at the center table. However, the movie is more relentless in driving home the point.

In the film, when Catherine enters, Wyler directs  Mrs. Montgomery  to stand up with the small portrait in her hand, where it remains during the entire conversation with Catherine. When Mrs. Montgomery stands with portrait, her hand and the picture are directly in the center of the movie screen. Catherine is on one side of the frame while most of Mrs. Montgomery’s body and Dr. Sloper stand on the other.  Morris’ sister effectively uses the literal image of the mother to cut off Catherine from everything on the other side of the room - the approval of her father to marry, having a chance to make a decent first impression  on a prospective sister-in-law and everything that goes with these concepts.

The cinema’s peculiar properties  and the placement of characters allow Mrs. Montgomery to hold Catherine’s past in her hands in a way  which - almost like a knife-  truncates the young lady’s future. This could not have been done as effectively in the play since  audience members have different vantage points. Plus the Goetzes do not allow for this kind of positioning.

After a few painfully awkward exchanges between the two ladies, Mrs. Montgomery exits the house, never to be seen onscreen again. The lady figuratively takes with her not only the image of  Mrs. Sloper in mind, but also Catherine’s and Morris’ plans for marriage. The downward spiral of an already tenuous courtship begins  in earnest once  the entrenched familial image contaminates the thoughts of even this open-minded visitor to the Sloper residence.

See Also:
The Heiress (1949): The Garden Muse
The Heiress (1949): Why Not Disinherit Catherine?


  1. I don't think I've ever sat down and watched this film all the way through--sad times considering I love Montgomery Clift and Olivia Dehavilland, and have a soft spot for Ralph Richardson due to his being close with my favorite British couple. Wyler is a genius and your review was lovely *adds The Heiress to Love Film* :)


  2. Terrific analysis of the imagery of this scene. I've never seen it on stage, but I'd love to; it's a favorite. I love your detailed examination.

  3. I love this movie and I really love the ending!!! Monty Clift got what he deserved:)

    That was a wonderful analysis, I wish I could be that obervant when watching films!

  4. Kendra, I have a soft spot too for Ralph Richardson, especially in this film, because his character is right, but in most reviews he's seen as the one and only villain. I enjoy the ambiguity of who's the bad guy, because both he and Morris are mean and Catherine herself - our heroine!- becomes a villain, in a way. Chilling!

    By the way, I love your blog. I've had it on my side bar for a few months now.

    Jacqueline T. Lynch, thank you for the compliment. I'd love to see the play as well. My review is based on the play in book form -which has a lovely photo of the cast from 1947. I wonder if seeing it live will change my perspective in any way.

    Victoria, Morris certainly does get what he deserves. Though I must admit the first time that I saw it I kept hoping there was some misunderstanding and some redemption. "Surely this isn't the end," I thought. I've come to accept it now. :)

    Thanks, everyone, for dropping in and contributing to the conversation!

  5. Just discovered your blog several days ago and was very interested in the section Joan and Olivia, with facinating items about these two sisters. However it has now been deleted-why? I would like it to be re-instated please-is this possible?

  6. Apologies about the spelling mistake,please substitute facinating with fascinating-thanks!

  7. Dear Anonymous, I recently cut a few things from my sidebar to reduce clutter. I didn't delete them, I simply erased their tag from the sidebar. I'm re-instituting the Joan and Olivia categories per your request.

    You might also be interested in a blog that I have returned to the side bar,Olivia & Joan: Sisters of the Silver Screen.

    Thanks for popping in. :)
    - Java

  8. Great review!

    We're linking to your article for Academy Monday at

    Keep up the good work!


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