The Heiress (1949) | My Favorite Classic Movie Blogathon

William Wyler directed some of the greatest, sweeping adventure moments ever captured on film, such as those in Ben-Hur or The Big Country. However, Wyler would often create excitement in internal crises. The Heiress –a drama from 1949-is a case in point.

 It stars Olivia de Havilland who plays a timid and wealthy lady of 19th century New York City who must determine whether her beau –Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift) - loves her or her money. The heiress’ father, Dr. Sloper  (Ralph Richardson), tends to believe the latter – that Catherine has nothing to offer but her inheritance. What is the truth?
The mystery, the ambiguity, will bring you back to this film again and again.

Ruth and Augustus Goetz adapted the popular Henry James novel, Washington Square,  into a hit Broadway play - The Heiress. Olivia de Havilland saw the play and campaigned to have it adapted to film.

Wyler, de Havilland and the rest take advantage of the subtleties offered by the film medium, adding layers of complexity. 

Some of the subtlety includes physical changes in our heroine. In public and around her domineering father, Catherine speaks almost in a whisper, wringing her hands, second guessing her own decisions.
In private and with her Aunt Lavinia, (Miriam Hopkins),  the shy young lady speaks at a normal volume and gives  definite opinions. 

When we first meet Morris, Aunt Lavinia stands up and leaves the two alone. Morris takes the vacated seat and eventually becomes the new person in her life who encourages the opinionated, independent woman inside Catherine. With Morris, the heiress unfolds her petals and blossoms. 
But can Morris be trusted? Sometimes the script gives lies to the people you like and truths to the characters that you dislike. The audience is placed in the same predicament as Catherine – whom should she trust?

The Heiress makes the internal struggle so vivid that the New York Times critic Bosley Crowther was compelled to say that, 

“…Mr. Wyler has taken this drama, which is essentially of the drawing-room and particularly of an era of stilted manners and rigid attitudes, and has made it into a motion picture that crackles with allusive life and fire.

You don't need chariot races and big, broad, Western landscapes to create an epic film. This film creates an epic tale in intimate spaces, not the least of which is that inside the human mind.

We could discuss the accolades and awards lavished on this movie, including Olivia de Havilland’s second Academy Award for Best Actress. We could discuss the fact that a prominent song in this film was later revamped and turned into a hit song for Elvis Presley. But all of that is merely the cherry on top. What makes The Heiress great is brilliant storytelling, source material, acting, directing, editing, the score… Everything comes together to bring you a film you will never tire of revisiting. The Heiress should become your next favorite film.


  1. Great post on The Heiress! It's one of my favorite Olivia de Havilland movies. She most definitely deserved the Oscar for her amazing portrayal of Catherine.

  2. "You don't need chariot races and big, broad, Western landscapes to create an epic film. This film does creates an epic tale in intimate spaces, not the least of which is that inside the human mind." Beautifully put. This is, indeed, moving, haunting film of large themes delivered in quiet but powerful images. Lovely post.

    1. It seems that during and after WWII, mind exploration was all the rage in these dramas. Now that I think of it, the The HEIRESS reminds me of GASLIGHT - period drama, extended psychological torture of the lead female who finds strength.

      Thank you for the compliment, Jacqueline. It means a lot.

  3. Excellent choice. Very well done. Loved your review on "The Heiress". It's a great film, and I Olivia gives her finest performance in this.

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  4. Great post! You've made me want to watch this movie again!

  5. Java, you nicely described the subtleties of this nuanced film. I think that's one of the reasons it's is immensely popular among classic film fans. The other, no doubt, has to do with the performances and Wyler's direction. I especially liked the scene you described where Morris physically--and symbolically--replaces Aunt Lavinia. That's the power of cinema.

    1. There are about 3 things going on at that moment.

      1. Aunt Lavinia and Morris are like Olympic runners passing each other the torch.
      2. Morris dominates the shot and towers over Catherine and her world for first time. He'll do that a lot throughout the film.
      3. Morris is introduced showing his back and speaking, but you do not see his face. This is to tantalize the Bobbysoxers and give that movie star reveal. After revealing his face, there is a pause and inconsequential dialogue for a few minutes there; you can imagine the cinema audience squealing with delight the whole time.

  6. The Heiress is simply marvelous -- one of the best. Olivia is in superb form, Montgomery was just right, and Richardson is so cold I could feel a chill up my spine. I liked the way Olivia's look changes as the film goes on. She starts out with heavy eyebrows, no eyelashes to speak of, tight, unattractive hair. All of this changes to more delicate beauty a little at a time. Brilliant. I really enjoyed your take on this movie!

    1. Yes! The caterpillar eyebrows! I know them well; I have them, actually (my own eyebrows, that is).
      I also love that she starts out with simple, dark dresses (like she's hiding in the shadows) and ends up in a light Parisian gown with frills here and there.

  7. I agree – I never tire of this film. Like you pointed out, it's essentially a drawing-room drama but it's so tense! And that scene where Olivia de Havilland waits for Montgomery Clift, who isn't coming, is heartbreaking. Everything about this film is top-notch.

    1. So heartbreaking! I sometimes fast forward that scene when I don't want to cry.

  8. Though I am a big admirer of Montgomery Clift, I was late in coming to this film, only seeing it a year or so ago. The film has a strong visual sense as well as amazing performances by the cast. You did a great job bringing out the film's power.

    1. The Heiress, Raintree County and A Place in the Sun are the only films of his I've seen. I'm still catching up to everyone else.

      Thanks for commenting.


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"Java's Journey: A really fun, informative well-written blog that explores all of the things - and I mean all - I love about classic films."-- Flick Chick of A Person In The Dark Email:


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