It’s a challenge to watch something in multiple media. Books to film are quite troublesome when one is particularly good. Mysteries or detective stories seem to translate well so long as the supporters of the one medium keep clear of the other. This goes hand in hand with our natural aversion to ‘spoilers’—which is self-evident in the choice of word—but have come to mean almost any plot point for a movie or television series. Was there ever a time when people were so wholly in the moment that they could remove any memory and enjoy a film or novel afresh despite being informed of all salient details? If you look at these trailers from as late as the 1970’s, that must have been the case. Either that or trailers didn’t have the kind of saturation currently in marketing fashion.
I submit that the psychology works as follows. First, we watch movies and read books to escape and to be enrapt by the style and the story. Sometimes, things interfere with that escape and turn us back towards reality which reflects the quality of the piece. Either the story is not interesting enough or fails to meet a threshold of probability. Sometimes it’s too real and those synapses fire with thoughts outside the film and ruin the moment. So, when we hear anything about the piece, the synapses or thoughts are too close to something outside of the theater or the page, the future of that very story. What I’m trying to say is that Carol Burnett almost destroyed my viewing experience of The Heiress (1949). It was just too close. It was a virtual summary of the story so that I knew everything that was coming—except the punchline, which wasn’t in the movie.
Catherine Sloper (Olivia de Havilland) is a young woman crippled by shyness. Her father, Dr. Austin Sloper (Ralph Richardson) has made many attempts to teach her music or languages, but nothing can break through her lack of self-esteem. Perhaps that has a little to do with his own hang-ups about his dead wife. And yet, he and his sister Lavinia (Miriam Hopkins) do not give up hope that she might find someone suitable in their Washington Square world. After all, she will inherit $30,000 a year (in the 1840s). One such day, Catherine is approached by Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift), the brother to Arthur Townsend who is marrying a close relation of the Slopers. He is recently returned from Europe where he has spent his fortune and no more. In very quick time, he and Ms. Sloper fall in love.
For some spoilers, suspense is the only casualty, but for others, there is also judgment. Reading some reviews that details how “the audience” is made to feel robs one of their own opportunity to make that original feeling. Perhaps it would have come anyway, but it is impossible to test the case. I think the story as I provided is enough to let you know the subject without harming the payoff. What conclusions you’ve drawn would have been similarly drawn within the earliest moments of the movie. But having watched that Carol Burnett sketch, I’m running stupid thoughts through my head to see what I think of the movie. The sketch placed everyone’s relation with the other in very stark terms. If I’d seen the movie ahead of the sketch, I would have found it doubly funny, but seeing it in the reverse order dumbed down the nuance of the characters.
That said, the acting in The Heiress is pretty sensational. De Havilland and Richardson deserve the highest praises. De Havilland plays this character with the kind of depth I never gave her credit for. I always took her for the ingénue throwing lilty tones around to denote emotion. But the Catherine is in her eyes and it is communicated beautifully. Richardson plays somewhere between George Sanders and Laurence Olivier and that’s a good place to be. I had some expectation that Montgomery Clift, who I hold in very high esteem after From Here to Eternity (1953), but either he played it simply or I failed to notice his nuance. One of those stupid questions I was asking myself lies in that performance because I couldn’t quite tell if the ending was ambiguous. It wasn’t. He simply was playing a game nobody else was playing. He was restrained and realistic while the melodrama called for more moustache twirling.
William Wyler directs, though I failed to notice. Wyler has some terrific credits, and The Heiress only adds to my respect for him, but I cannot sense him. Is he to be credited with the performances or the story or the writing? The Heiress is a play (adapted for screen) by Ruth Goetz and Augustus Goetz, the Goetz’s, “suggested” by a novel by Henry James called Washington Square (1880), which came from a true story. I suppose one could point out the lavishness of the set (production design Harry Horner, art direction John Meehan) or the choice of music in Aaron Copland (which is something of a self-plagarized version of Appalachian Spring). It’s all very difficult to tell. Apparently, Wyler was a perfectionist, requiring many takes and directing his stars and collaborators to numerous Oscar nominations and victories. Wyler himself earned twelve nominations in his life. While I hate to judge things based upon reporting rather than what I see before me, it is simply the case that film is collaborative and that means nothing is clear for attribution. All that is clear is that this is a very fine melodrama up there with Now, Voyager (1942) and others I cannot recall.
The Heiress is available on DVD for a reasonable amount and I certainly recommend it to those who would like to enhance their literacy in 40’s melodrama. I don’t want to be too sexist, but young ladies, I’m talking to you. Whether you know it or not, these characters will serve you better in your time of emotional distress than Ms. Heigl.