I recently had the pleasure of viewing The Heiress, the 1949 film starring Olivia de Havilland and Montgomery Clift, based on the 1880 novel Washington Square by Henry James. It is a remarkable piece of work, essential viewing and accessible on DVD.
The film was written by Ruth and Augustus Goetz, who adapted their 1947 play. It is a masterpiece of adaptation, one of the few instances of a film adaptation far outpacing its literary predecessor.
The film concerns Catherine Sloper (de Havilland), a simple girl of few accomplishments and much money. She lives with her widowed, bitter father, Dr. Sloper (Ralph Richadson), who constantly compares Catherine unfavorably to her late mother. Also in the household is Dr. Sloper’s sister, Catherine’s Aunt Lavinia (a magnificent Miriam Hopkins), a well meaning, but meddlesome and silly woman.
Catherine’s life changes when she meets the dashing Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift), who woos and wins Catherine. Townsend manages to do something unexpected – he awakens passion in Catherine, bringing her to life and providing excitement, energy, color and a sense of self-worth. However, Dr. Sloper suspects that the handsome Townsend is a fortune hunter, and spirits Catherine away on a six month European cruise, hoping she will forget.
Upon her return, Catherine is in love as much as ever. During a rainy night rendezvous, Catherine and Townsend make plans to elope. She tells him her father has cut off his portion of her inheritance, but they will be happy on her smaller income. They plan for him to take her away at 12:30 that night.
Catherine, with her bags (along with all of her aspirations, dreams of love and self-respect) wait for Townsend to arrive, but he never does. Townsend only wanted her money, and the bitter, unyielding, frosty Dr. Sloper was right all along.
Years later, after Dr. Sloper dies, Aunt Lavinia arranges for Catherine and Townsend to meet again. He has greatly come down in the world, working as a lowly sea-hand, and he once again promises her love. She arranges for him to leave his seedy lodgings and marry her, but when he returns to the house at Washington Square, Catherine locks the doors, the light inside slowly fading as she climbs the grand staircase. Townsend will never have her love or her money, and Catherine’s revenge is complete.
One of the many remarkable things about the film is that its most potent set pieces are nowhere found in James’ novel, which is a much more insular character study. The changes wrought by the Goetz duo make for a more dramatically satisfying work.
For instance, in the novel, Townsend is never depicted as anything other than a smarmy fortune hunter; while in the film, this is ambiguous until he jilts Catherine after midnight.
Dr. Sloper in James is ironical and detached, but nowhere near as bitter and mournful for his lost wife as he is in the film. And Catherine, for James, is largely swept along by events. She’s delighted to be the object of a handsome man’s ardor, but nowhere is there the sense that here is a woman wretched, starved for love, and slowly dying from want of attention.
The two great set pieces of the film: Townsend’s desertion of Catherine and his later comeuppance, never appear in the novel. In James, Townsend mostly drifts out of the picture … he appears comfortable and portly to Catherine 20 years later only to be politely sent away.
The Heiress is a textbook example of how to adapt a literary work. The overall structure and plot are the same, yet incidents are invented (or dropped) to translate the work into a dramatic medium. In addition, the characters are modified only to the extent necessary for actors to interpret them more effectively.
And interpret them they do. The Heiress is a little master’s class in film acting. De Havilland, so often the vapid love-interest of Errol Flynn, was a fine dramatic actress when given a chance. Her transformation as Catherine Sloper is perhaps the greatest performance of her career. From young, callow and somewhat insipid, to hard, bitter and vituperative, De Havilland etches a portrait hard to forget. She won the Oscar that year for her role, and it is richly deserved.
Montgomery Clift is fine as Townsend, but he lacks dash. He is certainly a handsome presence, and he is artful enough to mask his ultimate caddishness. However, he is too modern a figure, perhaps, for a period drama. Oddly enough Flynn, though too old at this point, would’ve been a perfect choice: it would be easy to believe his pretty face hid a black heart.
Miriam Hopkins, a leading lady and pin-up girl of the 1930s, is a revelation as Aunt Lavinia: intrusive, stupid and silly, yet also human and touching. Why this remarkable actress did not work more steadily throughout the 1950s is a mystery.
Ralph Richardson was nominated for an Oscar portrayal, and he does a fine job. Richardson played the part in London in the 1948 production directed by John Gielgud. However, the part was originated on Broadway by Basil Rathbone, and one cannot but regret that this wonderful actor’s performance was not recorded on film. (See photo below.) All of Sloper’s character traits – the incisive reasoning, the frosty demeanor, the masterful carriage – were all Rathbone trademarks; indeed, Rathbone won the Tony Award for his portrayal. Wendy Hiller, who played Catherine on Broadway, stated that his performance was definitive, and it must sadly remain lost to posterity.
The film was directed by William Wyler (The Best Years of Our Lives, Mrs. Miniver and scores of others) and the score was written by Aaron Copeland. It is perhaps Copeland’s score that is the weakest link of the film: listening to it, one expects at any moment Washington Square to be besieged by Jesse James.
I recommend that anyone interested in the art of literary adaptation spend some time with the Slopers of Washington Square.