Fabulous Films of the 1940s Blogathon: The Heiress (1949)

TheHeiressA Fabulous Films of the 1940s Blogathon and the Academy Awards ceremony coming up in a just a few short days gave me the motivation to watch a movie I had been eager to watch for a few months now, The Heiress.

As I mentioned in my post about my favorite movie podcasts, I love the “A Year at the Oscars” series hosted by Jason O’Brien on his radio show, Oscar, Oscar where in each show covering a separate year of the Academy Awards, he gives an in depth analysis of the year’s nominees and winners.

The most recent episode from November covered the year 1949, when All the King’s Men won the award for Best Picture. Although he had some positive things to say about that movie, two movies that he thought were more deserving were The Bicycle Thief and The Heiress.

As he was praising The Heiress for its many great qualities, I couldn’t remember if I had seen it before but had a vague recollection that I had many years ago . . . and didn’t like it. So I consulted my trusty spreadsheet where I keep track of whether or not I like the movies I watch, and sure enough, right next to the movie’s title were the words “didn’t like.”

I know we aren’t going to like every movie we see, but I was really intrigued as to why I didn’t like this movie when Jason, whose opinions I really respect, and many others thought so highly of it. Could it be that I once had something against Montgomery Clift? I say that because I didn’t like the movie I Confess the first time I watched it either but ended up really liking it the second time around and really came to appreciate Clift’s acting. Or could it be that at the time I wasn’t a fan of “period pieces” given that this movie was set in the 1840s? Whatever the reason, like I said, I was eager to re-watch it and perhaps find out why, which is why I chose it for this blogathon.

The HeiressHouse

Based on the 1947 play of the same name, which was in turn based upon the novel “Washington Square” by Henry James, The Heiress, tells the story of Catherine, a plain, shy, and socially awkward woman who lives with her wealthy father Dr. Sloper and his widowed sister in a lavish house in New York City.

When she meets and falls in love with the poor but handsome and charming Morris Townsend, her father begins to suspect that he is only after her for her money, a generous inheritance left to her by her mother which is set to double upon her father’s death.

Despite her father’s objections and threats to disinherit her, Catherine and Morris plan to get married. For the remainder of the movie, we are left in suspense wondering if her father is correct in his suspicions or if Morris does indeed love Catherine. It all leads to a riveting conclusion that honestly still gives me chills when I think about it.

Apparently I have something in common with director Martin Scorcese who said, “I’ve never seen an ending like that. I have chills even talking about it now. What did these people do to each other to warrant such a thing?” If you haven’t yet watched the movie, I’ll leave it to you to discover who “these people” are and just what it is they did to each other. :-)

Critical Reception and Academy Award Recognition

When The Heiress was first released it was not warmly received by audiences although it did receive much critical acclaim, becoming the most honored film at the Academy Awards that year with 8 nominations and 4 wins. Given that the 85th Academy Awards ceremony is almost upon us (even though *gasp* I won’t be watching it), it seemed appropriate to take a look at the following categories for which The Heiress was nominated, the first four being those for which it took home the award:

Academy Award Victories:

Academy Award for Best Actress – Olivia DeHavilland

Olivia DeHavilland had already won an Oscar for the movie To Each His Own (1946) when she once again captured top honors for her wonderfully compelling portrayal of Catherine in The Heiress. I have to admit, in the beginning of the movie I found Catherine to be a little too “mousy” for my liking despite the fact that I could totally relate to her shyness and social awkwardness (I’ve suffered from them myself!), and I’m wondering if that played a part in why I did not like the movie the first time.

However, as the movie went on I came to realize that it was necessary to see that side of her in order to appreciate how she transformed throughout the movie into a much bolder and more self-assured woman. Ironically, by the end of the movie she reminded me a lot of her real life sister Joan Fontaine’s character in the movie Rebecca. I can still hear her telling Mrs. Danvers, “I’m Mrs. DeWinter now!” DeHavilland was definitely a deserving choice for this award.

Academy Award for Best Costume Design, Black and White – Edith Head


This was the second of eight Academy Awards won by Edith Head, making her the most honored costume designer and woman in Academy Award history. The costume design award was first established the previous year when she won for her work in the movie The Emperor Waltz, and she would go on to be nominated for a total of 35 Academy Awards.

Even though the picture to the left doesn’t do it justice, I think my favorite dress from the movie was the one Catherine wore to the party where she first met Morris Townsend.

Academy Award for Original Music Score – Aaron Copland

An American composer famous for his works such as Appalachian Spring, Lincoln Portrait, and Fanfare for the Common Man, Aaron Copland composed several movie scores including the Academy Award nominated scores for Of Mice and Men (1939) and The North Star (1943).

Although there is some controversy regarding how much of it was actually composed by Aaron Copland, his score from The Heiress seems to be universally loved based on all the reviews I’ve read. I’m so frustrated with myself though, because for some reason I tend to barely notice movie scores while I’m watching a movie and I did it again with this one! It’s something I have to constantly remind myself to do yet I continue to forget! :-(

I think I need to comply with Copland’s own wish when he said, “I’d love to be able to have audiences see a film with the music, then see it a second time with the music turned off, and then see it a third time with the music turned on. Then, I think they’d get a much more specific idea of what the music does for a film.” If only there were more hours in a day, I would do that for many of the movies that I watch!

Academy Award for Best Art Direction/Set Direction – John Meehan, Harry Horner, and Emile Kuri

Although I can’t say for sure how authentic the sets were to the 1840’s time period, I can say that I loved many of the visual elements in the movie including the Sloper’s house, the furniture, the gaslights in the streets, etc.

Other Nominations:

Academy Award for Best Picture

As I mentioned previously, The Heiress lost out to All the King’s Men for this award. The other nominees were Battleground, A Letter to Three Wives, and Twelve O’Clock High. Out of the five, I have only seen The Heiress and A Letter to Three Wives, so I can’t say which I thought was most deserving, although I don’t really like to do that anyway. It’s too subjective in my opinion.

Academy Award for Best Director – William Wyler

Olivia DeHavilland specifically requested that William Wyler direct her in this screen adaptation of the play, and it’s clear that he brought out the best in her, something he did with many of the actors and actresses he worked with. He directed 31 different actors in Oscar-nominated performances (more than any other director), and an impressive 13 actors won Academy Awards under his direction. From what I understand, Montgomery Clift did not respect Olivia DeHavilland’s acting abilities or treat her very well on set, and Wyler became her biggest supporter. Despite his best efforts, it was Joseph L. Mankiewicz who won the award for A Letter to Three Wives.

Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor – Ralph Richardson

In the movie version, English stage actor Ralph Richardson was reprising the role of Dr. Sloper, which he originated in a London production of the play. Richardson does a great job of playing Catherine’s often cruel, disdainful father who is constantly comparing her to his late wife, and very unfavorably I might add. Unfortunately, he lost out to the eventual winner, Dean Jagger from Twelve ‘O Clock High.

Academy Award for Best Cinematography – Leo Tover

The cinematography in this movie was absolutely beautiful and seemed to perfectly capture the atmosphere of 1840s New York City. In 1949, the award was still being given out for both black & white and color films, and of course this film won in the black & white category. Cinematographer Leo Tover had also worked on the movie The Snake Pit (1948) for which Olivia DeHavilland was also nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress.

No Nominations for Montgomery Clift

I found it interesting that Montgomery Clift was the only major player in this movie not to be nominated for any kind of award. Although Miriam Hopkins, who played Dr. Sloper’s sister, was not nominated for an Academy Award she was nominated for a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress. When reading various reviews, I discovered that many people thought he did a brilliant job of masking his true motive for pursuing Catherine, but many others thought his performance seemed too “modern” for the time period. In fact, Montgomery Clift himself was so unhappy with his performance, he apparently walked out of the Premiere. It certainly wasn’t my favorite role of his, but I tend to agree with those who respected his performance.

If you enjoy movies from the 1940’s as much as I do (I’ve watched more movies from that decade than any other from the classic era), I’d encourage you to check out all the other great posts in the Fabulous Films of the 1940s blogathon! Thanks for reading!


This post is part of the Fabulous Films of the 1940s Blogathon, sponsored by the Classic Movie Blog Association (CMBA).

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  1. R. D. Finch says:

    Ginny, this is such a great-looking film, as you wrote, but it has a lot more going for it too, which you also covered, especially the performances and the terrific direction by William Wyler. He directed some great movies, but this might be my favorite of them all. You also discussed the only two things I have reservations about, the at first off-putting mousiness of de Havilland and the acting style of Montgomery Clift, which clashes slightly with that of the rest of the cast. Otherwise, just about perfection.

    • Ginny says:

      Thanks for your comment R.D.! I don’t think I realized before that I liked so many of Wyler’s movies and doing this review has made me more aware of his impressive career. It’s interesting to hear that I’m not the only one who initially felt that way about Catherine’s personality, but I’m glad I came to appreciate her performance.

  2. KimWilson says:

    Great pick! I love the ending of this movie. Olivia de Havilland owned this role. Ah, if she’s only been allowed to show off her skills earlier in her career!

    • Ginny says:

      Thanks Kim! The ending was definitely my favorite part of this movie, and gave me a better appreciation for Olivia de Havilland’s talent. I still have many of her movies left to see.

  3. Page says:

    Hi, Ginny!
    I loved your look at The Heiress and the way you approached it regarding Oscar. Very refreshing and interesting.

    I’ve discussed this when others have reviewed The Heiress, but I just wasn’t that keen on it. While there are a lot of Clift fans I’m just not one of them. (Somewhere Elizabeth Taylor is giving me the side eye) I’m quite fond of Olivia though but just not in this period piece.

    I am quite surprised that Clift was snubbed though, with The Heiress being the critical darling that it was. You need your leading man to get you to the end zone. I would think.

    Anyway, this was an interesting read and a great contribution to the Blogathon.
    Looking forward to Oscar night now that I’ve seen all of the nominees.

    • Ginny says:

      Hi Page! Not liking this movie the first time, I can certainly relate to your feelings about the movie. I definitely changed my mind and would now say I like it, but I still don’t think I’m as much of a raving fan as others. Thanks so much for your nice comments!

  4. R.A. Kerr says:

    I am a huge fan of this movie – I think I watch it every time it’s on TCM. But I also enjoyed your analysis of many of the film’s aspects. Thanks for choosing this for the blogathon! :)

  5. Bacall says:

    I LOVE this film! Olivia’s character at first was quite irritating, but as she transformed into a vindictive B*tch, she became more likeable to me. 😀 Like you I feel that this was not Montgomery’s best performance. I did hear that Olivia found him to very cold, and aloof, making it very hard for her to work with him in this film. Montgomery was a tortured soul and only Liz Taylor knew all the juicy details of his life. And l agree that Montgomery had a hard time getting into 19th century thinking in this film, which is one of the reasons he did so bad in this role. Ralph Richardson as the father who could not get over the death of his wife, and blamed his poor daughter, was stellar! Great post!

    • Ginny says:

      Thanks Bacall! Watching Olivia’s character transform and become stronger throughout the movie was fun to watch. I read that too about their relationship on set so it’s great that she had William Wyler’s support to help her through it.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  6. One of my favorites, a wonderful film rich in mood and detail. Nice post.

  7. Thanks for selecting this movie. It’s one of my favorites, and like you, I didn’t react strongly to it the first time I saw it many years ago. Now that I’ve seen it a half dozen times, I really love both the source material and this particular production. The performer who always surprises me in this film is Miriam Hopkins, whose character must walk a fine line between honoring her brother’s wishes and helping her niece attempt to break free from the iron hand of her brother. Overall it’s a fantastic film and thank you for your post!

    • Ginny says:

      Thanks for your comments! I loved Miriam Hopkins’ character and didn’t realize who the actress was until I looked it up. I found it interesting that it was her first movie role in about 6 years after making Old Acquaintance with Bette Davis. I do want to read the book Washington Square at some point and then re-watch this movie, something I don’t usually do with movies based on books. For some reason this movie really has me interested in doing that though.

  8. It’s interesting how different movies mean different things to us at different times of our lives.

    Regarding film scores, if you ask my daughter how she liked a certain movie she always responds first with how she felt about the score. Also, if she has heard something from a score that appeals to her then she will want to see the movie. As someone who approaches movies first from script and performance, I find it very disconcerting. It takes all kinds.

    I really enjoyed your look at a movie that is easy to admire, but not always easy to like.

    • Ginny says:

      Thanks Patricia! I first watched so many of the great classics about 10-15 years ago when I didn’t have the knowledge and maturity to appreciate them like I do now. So it’s always interesting to revisit movies that I didn’t really care for back then and look at them in a whole different way.

      Your daughter’s approach is very interesting. I definitely want to become more aware of and knowledgeable about scores, but similar to you I focus on the storyline and acting more than anything.

  9. Aubyn Eli says:

    I really love this film and if I ever make the mistake of thinking I’ll just watch a few minutes of it on Youtube or TV, I will inevitably wait around for the finale. I like all the performances in it, from de Havilland to Hopkins. Clift is indeed a little modern for the part, but I like the smooth charm he brings to it. Someone more openly dashing (an Errol Flynn type I guess) would have scared Catherine away while Clift is very gentle with her, making his motives a little more ambiguous. I also enjoy Ralph Richardson in this whose scene-stealing, razor-sharp delivery is such a contrast to Clift’s more internal acting and de Havilland’s more subtle performance.

  10. FlickChick says:

    Very interesting and well done piece. I am a little conflicted about Monty myself, but I do like him in this role. As you say, it has to grow on you. Olivia was just wonderful and Wyler made a film that stands the test of time.

  11. John says:

    Nice write up on The Heiress, Ginny. I saw it a few years ago and that chilling ending still sticks in my mind. I love DeHavilland and I think her best performances are in The Strawberry Blonde and The Snake Pit. Believe it or not she is still alive and living in France, far from her sister Joan Fontaine who is also alive and resides in Carmel, California. As for Clift, I really enjoyed him in Red River and I Confess. To me, Clift’s character portrayals always had an eerie feeling about them. I believe he always seemed to convey some inner torment that seemed to be trapped deep inside of him. I believe Liz Taylor once said that he was wrestling with alotta inner demons deep inside him throughout his whole life. I think many people go through life this way, always looking to find their true inner selves but never quite getting there.

    As for those film nominees in 49, I think Battleground should have won hands down. It was a tremendous war film, probably Van Johnson’s signature film. But, I think the great character actor James Whitmore might have stole the film. As for why it didn’t win the Oscar, I think that America might have been undergoing a social change during this year. The patriotism of the 30s an 40s which I loved so much was nearing its end and maybe a movie about political corruption such as All The Kings Men just happened to be made at the right time. Timing is everything in life.

    Thanks for your interesting review Ginny. I found it to be refreshing and concise. What I like about your writing style is your ability to relate any film or movie character to yourself and a particular time in your life. It makes for interesting reading. I would hazard to guess you are a great storyteller. You would fit in perfectly with James Cagney, Pat O’Brien and Frank McHugh who used to spend endless hours at each other’s homes just in great conversation telling stories. I think as a society we are losing the ability to socially converse. It is becoming a lost art. I really believe having a great conversation is the best thing in life one can experience.

    Oh, I didn’t watch the Oscars either on Sunday. To put it nicely, these modern films don’t do much for me I guess.

  12. Alan says:

    The Search is an incredible film from 1948 starring Montgomery Clift.