In the mid-1800's, the wealthy Sloper family - widowed surgeon Dr. Austin Sloper, his adult daughter Catherine Sloper (Dr. Sloper's only surviving child), and Dr. Sloper's recently widowed sister Lavinia Penniman - live in an opulent house at 16 Washington Square, New York City. They have accrued their wealth largely through Dr. Sloper's hard work. Despite the lessons that Dr. Sloper has paid for in all the social graces for her, Catherine is a plain, simple, awkward and extremely shy woman who spends all her free time alone doing embroidery when she is not doting on her father. Catherine's lack of social charm and beauty - unlike her deceased mother - is obvious to Dr. Sloper, who hopes that Lavinia will act as her guardian in becoming more of a social person, and ultimately as chaperon if Catherine were ever to meet the right man. The first man ever to show Catherine any attention is the handsome Morris Townsend, who she met at a family party. Catherine is initially uncertain as to ... Written by
When Dr. Sloper goes into his office to examine himself because he isn't feeling well, as he opens up his doctor's bag, the middle finger of his right hand is shown quite unusually extended, but then the next cut shot shows it in a different position. See more »
Because he so identified with England in his last thirty years (and even became a British citizen during World War I) people tend to forget that Henry James was an American - as American as his celebrated psychologist/philosopher brother William (the "good" James Boys, as opposed to their non-relatives Frank and Jesse), and his fellow Gilded Age novelists Sam Clemens/"Mark Twain" and William Dean Howells. His early writings, including "The American", "The Portait Of A Lady", and "The Europeans" were written while he was an American citizen. His later classics, "The Spoils Of Poynton", "What Maisie Knew", "The Ambassadors", "The Golden Bowl", and "The Wings Of The Dove", were written when he resided in England. The novels he wrote through 1897 ("What Maissie Knew" being the last of these) were short and controlled in terms of descriptions. But his final set of novels (beginning with "The Ambassadors")had a more flowery writing, as James struggled to find "le mot juste" in every description. Many like this, but I find it a peculiar failure. It takes him three pages of description in "The Wings Of The Dove" to show Mily Theale is looking down from an Alpine peak to the valley thousands of feet below.
"Washington Square" was written in the late 1870s, and was based on an anecdote James heard about a fortune hunter who tried to move in on one of James' neighbors in Manhattan. The neighbor, when a young woman, was wealthy and and would be wealthier when her father died (she was an only child). The father did not think highly of the daughter's choice of boyfriend, and a war of wills between the two men left the young woman scarred. James took the story and fleshed it out.
One has to recall that while ultimately this is based on James' great novel, the film proper is based on the dramatization by the Goetzs. So there are changes (one of which I will mention later). But the basic confrontation between the father and the suitor remains true. On stage the father was played by Basil Rathbone, and in his memoirs ("In And Out Of Character"), Rathbone makes a case that Dr. Sloper (his role) was not the villain in the novel - it was Sloper who was trying to protect his naive daughter Catherine from the clutches of fortune hunting suitor Morris Townshend. It's a nice argument, and one can believe that Rathbone/Sloper was less villainous than Morris. But his desire to protect Catherine does not prevent his cold and aloof treatment of her - he has little respect for her personality. This is tied to the Doctor's constant mourning of his wife (Catherine's perfect mother). It enables Dr. Sloper to compare and belittle his daughter.
The Goetz play and screenplay show (as does the novel) that the battle of wills between the two men only hurts poor, simple Catherine. There are only two major changes from the novel. First, in the novel Dr. Sloper does not discover how his contempt for his child loses her love. He only sees that Catherine will not see reason about what a loser Morris is. So he does disinherit her (she only has her mother's fortune of $10,000.00 a year, not her father's additional $20,000.00). Secondly, when Morris does return in the end in the novel, years have passed, and he is a querulous fat man. The dramatic high point when Catherine locks the door of the house on Morris is not in the novel.
Olivia De Haviland's performance as Catherine is among her most sympathetic and satisfying ones, as she tries to navigate between two egotists, and manages to avoid a shipwreck that neither would totally disapprove of for their own selfish reasons). Her second Oscar was deserved. Ralph Richardson's Sloper is a curious combination of cultured gentleman, egotist, and caring father, who only realizes what his behavior costs him when he is dying and it is too late. Montgomery Clift's Morris is a clever scoundrel, able to hide his fortune-hunting tricks behind a mask of care and seeming devotion to Catherine. Only when he learns that she has broken with her father does Morris show his true colors - suggesting that a reconciliation may still be possible. Finally there is Miriam Hopkins as Aunt Penniman, a talkative blood relative who does have a sense of reality and romance in her - she does try to make a case with Dr. Sloper that he accept Morris for Catherine's emotional happiness, but Sloper rejects the idea because he distrusts Morris so much. These four performances dominate the film, and make it a wonderful, enriching experience - as only "the Master's" best writings usually are.
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