Oct. 6, 1949—The Heiress, a costume drama that demonstrated the big-screen potential of the psychological fiction of Henry James, premiered in New York City. Though not a box-office success, it scored with critics, and it stands today as a model for screen adaptations of novels and plays.
My headline understated the process by which the word-heavy James came into focus in image-heavy Hollywood. The dramatic promise latent in “The Master,” largely unrealized in his own lifetime (see my prior post on his London stage disaster, Guy Domville), was first manifested by Ruth and Augustus Goetz in their hit 1947 adaptation of Washington Square, The Heiress.
That same year, Hollywood might have been forgiven for tiptoeing around James after the critical and box-office drubbing given The Lost Moment, an adaptation of The Aspern Papers starring Robert Cummings and Susan Hayward.
But after watching The Heiress on Broadway, Olivia de Havilland was so convinced it would work on film that she persuaded William Wyler to take on the project, and the Oscar-winning director meshed so well with the Goetzes on fashioning the screenplay that Paramount Pictures generously bankrolled the production.
But the raw material in the hands of Wyler and the Goetzes was more than a bit challenging. James’ attitude towards his characters was frequently ironic; inferences about motives were largely between the lines; and he refused to provide a happy ending for his heroine.
I heard Washington Square (1880) once described wittily (and more or less accurately) “the James book for those who hate James.” Written two decades before the rococo style of his “later period” in the early 1900s (The American, The Golden Bowl), this was simple in comparison.
The content, however, is anything but, focusing on a struggle for autonomy, as Catherine Sloper—the shy “heiress” of the play and film title—is scorned by her father for ungainliness (an ironic reminder of the beautiful mother who died while giving birth to her), pursued by a fortune hunter, and undermined by an insipid aunt. She must not only negotiate the path to adulthood without honest, practical advice from any responsible adult, but do so in the face of a trio with no real regard for her feelings.
When imagining how to reconceive a play for the screen, most directors think in terms of “opening it up” with exterior shots. But Wyler did not see this as appropriate for this drawing-room drama.
Washington Square was preeminently an interior mental drama, marked by the multiple obstacles to happiness in the way of the painfully self-conscious Catherine. As a visual counterpart to her mental state, then, Wyler emphasized the interior architecture of the Sloper home.
The quickest the camera moves, then, is in the crucial dance scene, not only because of the bodies waltzing around the floor but because of Catherine’s giddiness when the charming cad Morris Townsend passes unexpected attention to her.
Otherwise, the stillness of the camera throughout most of the rest of the movie underscores Catherine's growing agony as her father, justifiably suspicious of Townsend’s intentions, threatens to disinherit her and a disappointed Townsend abandons their plans to elope.
It is Catherine’s understanding of this last development that allows Wyler to capitalize on the Sloper home’s interiors. In the play, she gave full vent to her sorrow in a long monologue. Wyler dispensed with just about all the lines penned by the Goetzes, choosing instead to have de Havilland trudge wearily up the staircase.
Director Martin Scorsese later described to critic Roger Ebert the impact of The Heiress on his budding movie consciousness:
“When I was nine or 10, my father took me to see ‘The Heiress,’ which was the first costume piece that had a powerful impact on me. I didn't understand every detail, but I knew that something terrible had happened, a breach of trust and love - and everybody was dressed so nicely and they had such nice drawing rooms. I didn't understand how a father could talk that way to his daughter, explaining that the man was after her for her money, 'Because you're not clever and you're quite plain.' That's quite a scene.”
Other scenes, equally memorable, owe much less to the novella. In the book, several years after jilting Catherine, Morris returns, having lost most of his hair in the interim. (It is as if he left looking like Rob Lowe and came back looking like Wallace Shawn.) In the film, Clift’s sunny confidence is gone but not his looks.
Most of all, Catherine’s response to Morris’ desperate plea to marry him for real this time is the exact opposite of James’ quiet fadeout. It is the logical consequence of her fierce answer when her Aunt Pennyman asks if she can really be so cruel. Yes she can, Catherine answers: “I have been taught by masters.”
And so, Catherine, after seemingly consenting to go away with the supposedly chastened Morris, locks him out when they are supposed to meet, leaving him pounding the door in helpless frustration. It is only partly an audience-pleasing act of revenge, for it also involves Catherine’s emotional imprisonment as a lifelong spinster in a house that has never meant happiness for her.
No two ways about it: this material was grim. After agreeing to back the film, Paramount evidently sense the nature of the proposal it had accepted, and pressed Wyler to make Morris sympathetic. In the end, Wyler only softened the character without changing his essential nature, and that only heightened the suspense through much of the film about whether he would in fact go ahead with his plan to wed Catherine.
As would occur with Carrie (1952), Wyler’s adaptation of Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie, the director’s refusal to make more than minimal nods toward audience expectations of a happy ending cost Paramount dearly at the box office for The Heiress. But Hollywood honored the film with eight Oscar nominations; de Havilland ended up winning her second Best Actress Oscar for the role; and the movie is now studied by cineastes such as Scorsese as a sensitive and spot-on literary adaptation.
Perhaps the only inexplicable misstep in the production involved the score by Aaron Copland, which was, in the words of this fine post on the blog “Words of Note,” “chopped to bits, poorly dubbed, and rescored without his approval” by Wyler. Though the composer won an Oscar for the score, Copland—who had been contributing music for movies for the last decade—created only one more film score for the rest of his life.