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