Have you ever been stood up on a date? Did your parent ever forget to pick you up after practice on a rainy day? Have you ever feared an ulterior motive to a friendship or relationship? If you answered yes, or can twist minor details of any of those questions to fit you personally, then you will probably identify with poor Catharine, the titled heiress.
All Catharine’s life she has not been able to live up to the image of her mother that her father, Dr Austin Sloper (Ralph Richardson), holds in such high esteem. Catharine (Olivia de Havilland) is a sweet and naive girl, but doesn’t have any qualities that find her very marriageable in the 1850’s. She does not sing, play the piano or care to dance. Instead she is clumsy, unsure of herself and very awkward in social situations. Beauty-wise, she is a step above homely, but not exactly a knock-out. Basically, the only good qualities left are her excellent needlepoint skills and the loads of money she will inherit. Her father sees these shortcomings and uses them to emotionally abuse her. There is still her eager, sweet and trusting personality, but that won’t make anyone a good wife in upscale 1850. It just makes her a target.
So when Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift) starts courting Catharine, she is overjoyed but her father is skeptical. This seems like the first time Catharine has been the object of any one’s affection and it is so wonderful to see her face just beam over it. However, Morris seems like a deadbeat, since he has no job and blew all his inheritance to travel. Dr. Austin is concerned that Morris is just a gold-digger and he threatens to disinherit Catharine if she marries him. Certain that their love can provide better than money, Catharine decides to elope, but Morris may be a little unsure about their plans, now that they will not have any money.
Honestly, you can probably draw some conclusions from this review, but I don’t want to ruin the big ending. I’ll just say it made my day, it made me jump off the couch and cheer. Of course, I’m very cynical and love these kind of endings, other viewers may find themselves less overjoyed.
Olivia de Havilland won her second Oscar for portraying Catharine. Her performance is so genuine, darling and awkward that anyone who has suffered the pains of puberty will be drawn in. When she thinks she has found love, the expressions of bliss and anticipation are priceless. And when they are crushed, we are crushed beside her. Nothing stings more than rejection without even being acknowledged. She becomes the personification of a half-healed wound about to be opened back up again. Amazing.
Of all the films of 1949, The Heiress drew me in the closest and left me the most satisfied. I could easily identify with the plain, awkward Catharine and that tingling excitement of hope that is only too good to be true. If you’re looking for a film with a compelling story that won’t insult your intelligence and an excellent performance, check out The Heiress.
“Yes I can be very cruel. I have been taught by masters.”