Heiress, The (1949): Oscar-Winning De Havilland in Wyler’s Fine Adaptation of Henry James Novel, Co-Starring Montgomery Clift and Ralph Richardson

The spinster, or the old maid, has been another distinctive and enduring female stereotype, most evident in the roles allotted to women in the 1930s and 1940s. Olivia de Havilland won her second Oscar for “The Heiress,” William Wyler’s powerful adaptation based on Henry James’ 1881 novel, “Washington Square.”

De Havilland plays Catherine Sloper, the timid ugly duckling daughter of a strong, domineering father, Dr. Austin Sloper (Ralph Richardson), who is deceived and bitterly disappointed when she finds out that her young and handsome admirer, (Montgomery Clift) is a scoundrel interested in her wealth.

Dramatically compelling and meticulously acted, “The Heiress” is an example of a novel and then a Broadway stage play (by Ruth Goetz and Augustus Goetz) that was successfully translated to the big screen.

From Stage to Screen

Wendy Hiller originated the role of Catherine on Broadway, and Peggy Ashcroft played the title character. After seeing The Heiress on Broadway, Olivia de Havilland approached William Wyler about directing her in a screen adaptation of the play. He agreed and encouraged Paramount to purchase the rights from the playwrights for $250,000 and offer them $10,000 per week to write the screenplay. They asked to make Morris less of a villain than he was in the play and the original novel in deference to the studio’s wish to exploit Monty Clift as a romantic leading man. Ralph Richardson reprised the role of Austin Sloper he had originated in the London production.

The movie is replete with strong scenes between Richardson as the merciless widowed doctor who tells his plain-looking daughter that she bears no resemblance to her mother. A tyrant, Dr. Sloper rules the house, dictating every movie of his shy and timid daughter, whose conversations and manners are awkward and embarrassing to him.

Detailed Plot

Catherine Sloper (Olivia de Havilland) is a plain, painfully shy woman, living with her emotionally abusive father (Ralph Richardson). When she meets the charming Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift), she is smitten by his grace and attention, falling in love with him.

Catherine’s father believes Morris is greedy, courting his daughter to get her inheritance and threatens to disinherit her. Catherine plans to elope with Morris but she tells Morirs about her father’s decision. On the designated night, Catherine eagerly awaits for Morris, but he never comes.

Heartbroken, she has a bitter argument with her father who reveals he is dying. She tells her father she still loves Morris and challenges him to change his will. He does not, and when he dies, he leaves her the estate.

Years later, Morris returns from California, all the more eager for life in the Slopers’ luxurious house. Professing love for Catherine, he claims to have left her because he could not bear to see her destitute. Catherine pretends to forgive him and tells him she still wants to elope. He promises to come back that night.

When Morris returns, Catherine takes her revenge. She calmly orders the maid to bolt the door, leaving Morris locked outside, shouting her name. Her aunt asks her how she can be so cruel, and she responds, “I have been taught by masters.” The film fades out with Catherine slowly ascending the stairs while Morris’ desperate cries remain unanswered through the darkness.

Production values are very impressive, particularly Leo Tover’s dark and shadowy cinematography and the ominous dramatic score by Aaron Copeland, who had excelled as a composer for other melodramas of the era, such as “Of Mice and Men” and “Our Town.”

End Note

Stay away from Agnieszka Holland’s 1997 remake, which uses James’ title “Washington Square,” but is marred by many faults, including the miscasting of Jennifer Jason Leigh in the title role.


Catherine Sloper (Olivia De Havilland)
Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift)
Dr. Austin Sloper (Ralph Richardson)
Lavinia Pwnniman (Miriam Hopkins)
Maria (Vanessa Brown)
Marian Almond (Mona Freeman)
Jefferson Almond (Ray Collins)
Mrs. Montgomery (Betty Linley)
Elizabeth Almond (Selena Royle)
Arthur Townsend (Paul Lees)

Oscar Nominations: 7

Picture, produced by William Wyler
Director: William Wyler
Actress: Olivia De Havilland
Supporting Actor: Ralph Richardson
Cinematography (b/w): Leo Tover
Art Direction-Set Decoration (B/w): John Meehan and Harry Horner
Costume Design (b/w): Edith Head and Gile Steele
Scoring: Aaron Copland

Oscar Awards: 4

Art Direction
Costume Design

Oscar Context

In 1949, “The Heiress” competed for the Best Picture Oscar with “All the King’s Men,” which won, the marriage satire “A Letter to Three Wives,” and two WWII films, “Battleground” and “Twelve O’Clock High.”

This was Olivia De Havilland’s second Best Actress Oscar, after winning for “To Each His Own,” in 1946. Ralph Richardson lost the Supporting Actor Oscar to Dean Jagger in “Twelve O’Clock High.”