1949, Movies

The Heiress (1949, William Wyler)

Full disclosure: I read Washington Square years ago and hated it. I hated it because of Catherine, the main character, whom I felt was one of the worst characters I’d ever encountered in a novel. So I guess it’s a good thing I didn’t realize this was an adaptation of that novel.

SPOILERS

Catherine is different in this film (adapted from a play adapted from the novel) and that is both a good thing for the film and a bad thing. She is not the dullest woman in the world, rather it just feels as though her father thinks she is. That makes the story a little more believable – and certainly easier to take – but it raises other questions.

I’m not sure the casting works. de Haviland was in her 30s when this was made. Now, I know nobody had IMDB in 1949 but, presumably, people knew her age and could see it, especially when she’s upset. Maybe they intended her to be a proper spinster but at one point she implies she’s supposed to be 20, which strains believability. (This is not a comment on de Haviland’s performance, which won an Oscar. Also, there’s a far worse casting decision in Morris’ sister, who is ancient for no reason.)

The story is kind of weird and a little maddening. We’re supposed to believe Catherine is unmarriable but he is less boring than in the book and certainly seems eminently marriable despite her father thinking her a pale substitute for her mother. Her father doesn’t really make sense because he wants her to find a husband but, like, not this husband. We never know why Catherine’s point about Morris claiming to love her becomes invalid for her, it’s just sort of assumed she should feel this way because men shouldn’t try to marry rich (or something).

Catherine gets this brief moral victory which doesn’t seem to make her life better and doesn’t really seem to make up for the way her father treated her or what Morris did. Meanwhile, she’s now one of the richest women in New York, and more interesting than we thought – but she’s still just going to live out her days in this house? It may have felt like some kind of victory in 1949 but now it feels extremely hollow.

My favourite part of the film is when the score drops out and we’re just stuck watching Catherine form her plan to trick Morris. (By the way, the score is mostly Copland’s variations on the song that was adapted to become “Can’t Help Falling in Love.” So good luck watching this movie and not getting that stuck in your head.) But again, what she actually does afterwards feels hollow, and not really that much of a revenge. There’s not as much catharsis as I think the playwrights were hoping for.

Anyway, I think I understand why people liked it at the time. And it does make me think maybe I was too mean to Washington Square when I read it. But this didn’t quite work for me.

6/10

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