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The Heiress (October 22, 2009)

Henry James wrote Washington Square, a novel about a 19th century New York heiress who battles with her father over a suitor, in 1880. The story evoked the life of an elite in a lost time, even when it was published, which was forty years after the period in which the story was set. Ruth and Augustus Goetz wrote a play based on it called The Heiress, which opened on Broadway on September 29, 1947, and which starred the British actors Wendy Hiller (as Catherine) and Basil Rathbone (as Dr. Sloper). The Goetzes wrote the screenplay. The movie was filmed from June through September 1948 and was released on December 28, 1949. Reportedly Olivia de Havilland had seen the play and approached William Wyler about adapting it as a film featuring her as Catherine. Wyler was one of the principals behind an independent production company called Liberty Films (along with Frank Capra, among others). Liberty was to make the movie, but Paramount took over Liberty in 1948 and agreed to produce the project.

The character Catherine in the novel opposes her father, but never admits, out loud, that she was wronged. It is one of the strengths of this screenplay, in my opinion, that Catherine in the film realizes this and announces it near the end of the picture. Ralph Richardson had played Dr. Sloper in the London production of the play. Montgomery Clift reportedly did not value de Havilland’s skills as an actress, and made those views clear during the production. The music in the film is by Aaron Copland, though he denied composing the music behind the opening credits, which was substituted for his own music by the producer. His music uses late 18th and early 19th century songs and dances, mostly from France, including the featured “Plaisir d’amour” by Johann A.P. Schwartzendorff and Jean-Pierre Florian.
De Havilland won the best actress Oscar for her performance. John Meehan, Harry Horner and Emile Kuri won an Oscar for best art direction and set direction, Copland won an Oscar for the music, and Edith Head and Gile Steele won an Oscar for costume design. The movie was nominated for best picture, Richardson was nominated for best supporting actor, Wyler was nominated for best director, and Leo Tover was nominated for best cinematography. In 1996 the film was named to the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry as a film worthy of preservation.

In this picture Wyler again evokes a long-vanished past with skill, and again depicts a woman dealing with conflict and choices. The acting, from de Havilland, Clift, Richardson, Miriam Hopkins, and the rest of the cast I think you will find first-rate, and I hope you enjoy seeing The Heiress tonight.