The Heiress (1949)

Montgomery Clift and Olivia de Havilland
Montgomery Clift and Olivia de Havilland

'The Heiress' is a spellbinding, drama film made in 1949, directed by William Wyler and starring Olivia de Havilland, Montgomery Clift, and Ralph Richardson.

The movie was critically well received on release although its box-office performance was poor, particularly in comparison to Paramount's other major film of 1949, 'Samson and Delilah', which was an enormous commercial success. However it has since come to be regarded as a classic.

The whole production oozes class from start to finish, underlined by Aaron Copland's evocative score. The movie's success comes from sharp, meticulous direction by William Wyler with his trademark long takes and masterful lighting and camera techniques, combined with outstanding acting from the principals.

'The Heiress' received a total of eight Academy Award nominations, winning four, for Best Actress (Olivia de Havilland), Best Art Direction/Set Decoration, Best Costume Design, and Original Music Score (Aaron Copland). In 1996, 'The Heiress' was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.


Olivia de Havilland plays Catherine Sloper, a shy, naive young woman who lives with her father, Dr. Austin Sloper, played by Ralph Richardson, in mid-19th century New York. The father constantly compares Catherine unfavorably to her dead mother. When a handsome, but poor man, Morris Townsend, played by Montgomery Clift, falls in love with Catherine, Dr. Sloper believes that he can only be after her inheritance. His widowed sister Lavinia Penniman, played by Miriam Hopkins, helps the young couple, and important life lessons are learned by all concerned.


The original Broadway play "The Heiress" by Ruth and Augustus Goetz, on which the film was based, opened at New York's Biltmore Theater in September, 1947. It ran for 410 performances. The play, in turn, was based on the Henry James's 1880 novel 'Washington Square'.

The Goetzes sold the play's film rights to Paramount for $250,000 with the promise of $10,000 a week to write the movie screenplay. The movie was originally intended to be produced by Liberty Films, an independent production company headed by a partnership which included William Wyler, but when the company was taken over by Paramount in 1948, the studio took on the production of the film.

Olivia de Havilland, after seeing the Broadway play, approached Wyler about adapting it for a screen version which would feature her in the lead role. Her faith was well placed and and she gave one of her best performances under his direction.

The Goetzes were anxious that the plot of the film should be faithful to the play. Wyler requested only that they cut some lines early in the movie, to make Townsend less obviously a fortune hunter. Wyler wanted to maintain some audience suspense on that issue, claiming that it was closer to James' original. The studio also wanted to get the maximum effect of Clift's reputation as a romantic leading man.
OLivia de Havilland was not enamoured of Montgomery Clift, whom she regarded as too selfish on stage.
In the Broadway play, the leads were played by Basil Rathbone and Wendy Hiller, but the studio did not consider them to be suitable box-office attractions.

Cary Grant was interested in playing Morris Townsend but was turned down by the studio. Wyler had originally been keen on Errol Flynn in the role, reuniting him with his long time movie partner, Olivia de Havilland.

Olivia de Havilland manages to portray a plain, gauche, girl marked as a spinster despite the considerable fortune she will inherit. When she is jilted by the fortune-hunting wastrel played by Montgomery Clift, she makes a compellingly believable transition to effect a bitter revenge upon Clift in the final scene.

Ralph Richardson, is also excellent as de Havilland's emotionally distant yet ultimately loving father, reprising his role in the London stage production.

Similarly, Betty Linley reprised her role of "Mrs. Montgomery" from the original Broadway production.

Montgomery Clift did not impress the Goetzes on set and they complained that his carriage was not sufficiently upright for a man of the period. Wyler made Clift spend weeks learning nineteenth century social dances to help him develop the correct posture.

Main Cast

Olivia de Havilland ... Catherine Sloper
Montgomery Clift ... Morris Townsend
Ralph Richardson ... Dr. Austin Sloper
Miriam Hopkins ... Aunt Lavinia
Mona Freeman ... Marian Almond
Vanessa Brown ... Maria
Betty Linley ... Mrs. Montgomery
Ray Collins ... Jefferson Almond
Selena Royle ... Elizabeth Almond
Paul Lees ... Arthur Townsend
Harry Antrim ... Mr. Abeel
Russ Conway ... Quintus
David Thursby ... Geier


Director ... William Wyler
Producer ... William Wyler
Distribution Company ... Paramount Pictures
Written by ... Ruth and Augustus Goetz, based on
Based on ... "Washington Square" by Henry James
Music ... Aaron Copland
Cinematography ... Leo Tover
Release date ... October 6, 1949
Running time ... 115 minutes

Academy Awards

Four Wins:
Best Actress ... Olivia de Havilland
Best Art Direction/Set Decoration, Black and White ... John Meehan, Harry Horner, and Emile Kuri
Best Costume Design, Black and White ... Edith Head, Gile Steele
Original Music Score ... Aaron Copland
Four Unsuccessful Nominations:
Best Director ... William Wyler
Best Picture ... William Wyler
Best Supporting Actor ... Ralph Richardson
Best Cinematography, Black and White ... Leo Tover