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the Thinking Chicks Guide to Movies

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The Heiress (1949)

Reviewed on 2014 February 15

I only remember seeing Olivia de Havilland do her stuff in two movies prior to seeing this, and I liked her a great deal in both of them. I have to confess when I started watching this I was a little taken aback to see it was set in the 1800s, thinking it might be too dated to me. Once the movie got going, I realized I wouldn’t have cared if it was set in the age of Neanderthals. This story has happened since the first hominid noticed they had more shells or beads than the rest of the tribe and worried if someone was trying to get access to the stash without any of that pesky labor.

Catherine Sloper (de Havilland) is the shy, quiet daughter of the formidable and wealthy Dr. Austin Sloper (Ralph Richardson). Catherine’s mother was apparently one of those charmed and charming women who could do no wrong, and looked better than you while not doing it. She’s deceased but her spirit lives on, because doc beats his poor, awkward daughter over the head with it. He hopes his flashy sister Lavinia (Miriam Hopkins), widowed and living with them in their fine house, will be an influence. Catherine still seems content to work on her loom and be a homebody. To be fair, I think most people would feel more comfortable by themselves too, if their father kept reminding them of their shortcomings.

Catherine is at a party one day when she catches the eyes of dandy, one Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift). She is baffled by this shiny, suave man’s attention, but he shows her that his dance card is as empty as hers. Things progress and she falls for the smooth, pretty man. The problem is her father decides Morris is only after her money, and can’t seem to let Catherine know of his concerns without abusing her. I can understand why her father was skeptical, but it should have been more about what a do-nothing pretty boy he thought Catherine snagged and not about her failings in his eyes.

Olivia de Havilland is great in this, and her quiet beauty works: she’s genuinely pretty, she’s just not flashy like her more bubbly relatives. That makes her father’s criticisms more petty, baffling, and frustrating. It’s like faulting a violet for not being a rose. Montgomery Clift was so handsome here that I didn’t recognize him. He was easy to look at in From Here to Eternity, but this was only four years earlier and he looked like a human GQ spread. Here we had a Victorian-era frat rat. Had Old Spice® existed then, this would have been their man. On top of that he was great as Morris. You do see what his real intentions are (I’m not going to blow it, you have to watch the movie and read his face). This was de Havilland’s party though; she owned it.

Three chocolate morsels. A bit slow and quiet, but the payload is memorable.


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