Saturday, 20 August 2011
The Heiress (1949) dir. William Wyler
Starring: Olivia De Havilland, Montgomery Clift, Ralph Richardson
By Alan Bacchus
The story of a frumpy spinster and wealthy Heiress who is unlucky in love, finds her soulmate in a penniless gentleman and fights to keep him against the wishes of her controlling and oppressive father would seem like ripe material for a triumph of love over money. William Wyler’s adaptation of Augustus Goetz’s play, itself a refashioning of Henry James’ Washington Square, is one of the most unexpectedly cynical takes on romance in studio Hollywood.
It's the story of love from the angle of the courtship ritual, in this case the Victorian way – a brutal class system transported to America fits like a square peg in a round hole. Olivia De Havilland, one of the most radiant movie stars to ever grace our screens, plays the dowdy, shy and, believe it or not, unattractive spinster, Catherine Sloper. She's the heiress to a family fortune, but only if she can find a husband to marry. Her knight in shining armour appears to her at a party. He’s a polite gentleman, Mr. Townsend (Clift), who courts her while adhering to all the rules of the Victorian aristocracy. It’s a very specific procedure, articulated with precision by Wyler, consisting of dance while calling upon formal greetings and, most importantly, paternal approval.
Ralph Richardson plays the father, a successful and wealthy doctor with a very doubting eye. He’s characterized early as an oppressive figure with expectations that are too high, but in general he is disappointed in his daughter’s inability to fit into the social culture of his 'class'. While he can be a complete shit and disrespectful at times, we do feel he has his daughter’s best interests in mind. And so for much of the film he walks a fine line between being fatherly and being overprotective.
Montgomery Clift plays Townsend with his usual sympathy. He pours out his love for Catherine so quickly. It’s romantic and honourable until Catherine’s father starts poking holes in his character. And the judge of character was never more important as in this society, as it was tendered as currency back in these days.
Old man Sloper approaches his suspicions of Mr. Townsend like he’s diagnosing an illness. Through his conversations at tea and dinner and meetings with his family he slowly sands off the lustre of his charm and finds potentially nefarious motives.
But what it ultimately comes down to is his contempt for his own daughter, feeling that the only thing she has to offer is her money. By the midpoint, we’re kept in the dark about whether Townsend is genuine and whether the love between the two can surmount Sloper’s obstructions. Is Townsend a gold-digger? Or does he truly love her?
Admittedly, I expected up until the very end that studio Hollywood optimism would prevail, and so when the carpet is pulled out from under Catherine, it’s a sharp jolt to the audience as well. Wyler completes a dark and pessimistic character arc for Catherine, the stuff of great tragedy. Of course, if I had read Henry James, I wouldn’t have had this expectation. And so the ability of Wyler and Fox to tread such dark territory and fool me so easily is admirable.