What is more important to a girl, the love of her father or the love of her fiance? In William Wyler’s (Roman Holiday, Ben-Hur) The Heiress, based on Henry James’ novel Washington Square, Catherine Sloper (Olivia de Havilland) is a young woman trying to live up to her father’s grand expectations.
It’s no wonder that Catherine has grown up to be a painfully shy and insecure woman when her father (Ralph Richardson) constantly degrades her with remarks about her never being able to be the woman her mother was. The only support Catherine has is her aunt (Miriam Hopkins), but all her aunt does is try to find Catherine a husband, not realizing that Catherine’s emotional side has become so fragile that even the slightest knock would destroy her innocence.
It’s at a party that Catherine’s aunt tries desperately to lure men into asking Catherine for a dance. It’s incredibly uncomfortable watching Catherine helplessly try to attract men to dance with her, and even more uncomfortable watching her aunt try helplessly to attract men to dance with Catherine. It is here that Catherine meets Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift) who seems genuinely interested in Catherine. Not knowing what to do with Morris’ repeated flirtations, Catherine becomes awkward and confused. She has never been shown such attention that she doesn’t know how to act, so she ends up being more desperate than affectionate.
After the dance, Morris visits Catherine on many occasions, and on one such day he finally meets Catherine’s father, Dr. Sloper. Dr. Sloper invites Morris to lunch and takes an immediate dislike to him. Morris had been traveling in Europe for the past year and had squandered his small inheritance. Dr. Sloper sees Morris as being only interested in Catherine’s future inheritance.
Dr. Sloper mightily objects to the relationship and when Catherine tells her father of her engagement to Morris, he threatens to cut Catherine out of his will. Is Morris’ love more important to Catherine than her father’s love? The better question might be, what does Catherine really want, love from either man or just simple love?
Catherine’s mother died many years ago and Dr. Sloper still idolizes his late wife, rejecting Catherine as a shadow. But would Morris’ love — if he were only interested in her money — be any different? In a scene where Catherine confronts her father, he angrily tells her that Morris only wants to marry her for her money. She replies that even if that were so, “at least he wouldn’t hurt me as much as you have.”
That might not satisfy everyone’s wants. But that could be everyone’s barest need. Someone who might not love us, but who just doesn’t hurt us.
Throughout the film, you can see how different Catherine is from everyone. Dr. Sloper put Catherine in the finest schools and tried to give her everything needed to be successful in life, although the one thing that he forgot was to give her confidence. Without confidence, people will walk over you, push you around, and never let you make a decision. Toward the end of the film, Catherine does eventually have to make her own decision, but will it be the one she wants to make or the one she needs to make?
Universal Studios presents The Heiress as part of their new Universal Cinema Classics DVD line. The film was digitally restored, but for being made in 1949, there are still lots of scratches and noticeable picture quality wear. There is also a video introduction by Turner Classic Movie host Robert Osborne and a theatrical trailer.