Classic Movie Review: The Heiress (1949)

I love to watch Turner Classic Movies and sometimes, I leave the TV on just for the company even when I’m not watching it. One night, a movie called The Heiress came on when I was doing something else. I decided to take a peek because Montgomery Clift was in it. I enjoyed his performance in A Place In The Sun. That peek turned me into a riveted viewer. I just had to know the ending.

The Heiress Film
Olivia De Havilland stars as Catherine Sloper in the title role of this classic black and white movie as The Heiress. She portrays a plain young lady, who has more financial means than social skills and is well on her way to becoming the quintessential old maid. Catherine lives with her physician father and his sister, the meddlesome Aunt Penniman. When a handsome young man named Morris comes to court the lonely young woman, so bedazzled is she that she falls in love straight away. The swiftness and eagerness with which she is ready to accept his marriage proposal say a lot, although not a lot is said. That is the beauty of this movie.

Catherine’s father is not so eager to welcome Morris into the fold – he suspects that Morris is really after the $30,000 that Olivia will possess after his death, and strenuously opposes the union. Aunt Penniman, on the other hand, is very excited about the marriage and delighted to play go-between to the lovers.


Olivia De Havilland is most famous for her role as the kind and gentle Miss Mellie in the 1939 blockbuster, Gone With The Wind. Olivia was nominated for an Academy Award as best supporting actress for that role. However, Miss De Havilland walked away with the Oscar for Best Actress for her stellar performance in The Heiress. It was her second Academy Award, the first for her compelling work in the 1946 film, To Each His Own.

Don’t get the idea from Gone With The Wind and The Heiress that Olivia was always cast as the plain Jane – she often co-starred with the dashing actor, Errol Flynn, and was cast as a “sweet young thing” at the beginning of her career. A very talented and gifted actress, she soon wished to be cast in more meaty roles and even sued her movie studio in a battle that she won.

The Heiress


The role of Catherine’s father, Austin Sloper, is played by the outstanding English actor, Ralph Richardson. Nothing can convince Dr. Sloper that Morris has anyone’s best interests at heart but his own, and he means to get rid of Morris. Ralph Richardson was considered to be one of Britain’s 3 top stage actors, alongside the likes of Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud. All 3 of these gentlemen were knighted. Among Richardson’s notable films, in a career that spanned over 5 decades, are Anna Karenina, Exodus and Dr. Zhivago. Ralph Richardson is superb as the worldly-wise yet blind father in The Heiress.

Miriam Hopkins plays busybody Aunt Penniman, who also feels she has her niece’s best interest at heart. She obviously feels that a handsome gigolo is better than no husband at all and while she will do anything to help the marriage take place, not the least of her obstacles is the lack of feminine wiles on the part of the heiress herself. When Dr. Sloper takes Catherine to Europe in an effort to make her forget Morris, Aunt Penniman is busy entertaining Morris in the Sloper home, continually making excited plans to welcome Morris into the family. Ms. Hopkins was an accomplished actress who also enjoyed a long career. She appeared in the Frederic March version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and opposite Bette Davis in 1939’s The Old Maid. Her last role was in 1969 in Sally Field’s television hit, The Flying Nun.

Montgomery Clift portrays Morris Townsend. It is for you to decide whether Morris is a feckless, fortune-hunting cad or not. Clift was a fine actor and a close friend of Elizabeth Taylor. His notable roles include George in A Place In The Sun opposite Ms. Taylor; From Here to Eternity with Burt Lancaster, Deborah Kerr and Frank Sinatra; and The Young Lions with Marlon Brando and Dean Martin. Clift plays his role in The Heiress which just the right amount of charm and smarm to leave you wondering whether the marriage really is a good idea.

(1949) Heiress

While Olivia De Havilland undoubtedly owns the movie, these powerhouse actors are all excellent in The Heiress, which is also notable for its 1840 period settings in New York City. Most of the action takes place in the Sloper parlour. It’s far from the type of ‘action’ that modern moviegoers have become accustomed to. Nevertheless, The Heiress is so worth watching just for the subtle nuances that Olivia De Havilland brings to her portrayal, as well as those of Montgomery Clift. It is small wonder that Olivia won an Academy Award for her magnificent performance in The Heiress.

 Heiress Movie (1949)

Washington Square, an 1881 book by Henry James, is the book behind The Heiress and was, as a matter of fact, based upon a true incident that the author knew about. The book can be read online and, so intrigued was I by the film, that I did something I very rarely do: I did read the book after seeing the film. The film is very faithful to the book although the ending is slightly different.

In 1997, a remake of The Heiress starring Jennifer Jason Leigh in De Havilland’s role, came out called Washington Square, with an ending more in tune with the book. Albert Finney plays Dr. Sloper, with Maggie Smith and Ben Chaplin as the other two main characters. I have not seen this version. The general consensus seems to be that it doesn’t hold a candle to Olivia De Havilland’s performance, although some feel that it has its merits with the less dramatic ending.

Washington Square Film

It would be such a great gift idea for a classic movie buff you know to get The Heiress, Washington Square AND the book!

I recommend The Heiress to you highly, but you already know that! Look it up on Turner Classic Movies to see when they will run it again, or you can get a new or used VHS on Amazon, and eBay as well, at a good price. The Heiress is not yet out on DVD, but if you collect classic movies, you will really want to have this gem in your collection because you will want to watch it more than once.


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