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
This film was selected to the National Film Registry, Library of Congress, in 1996. See more »
In the scene when Catherine and her father have a heated disagreement and he leaves the room, you see Catherine seated with her left hand in an open palm in a vertical orientation but in the next cut shot, from the front view her left hand is now face down on her leg. See more »
One of my favorite movies, based on one of my favorite books. Henry James sitting in the audience would have been proud of this insightful filming of his novel, "Washington Square," because the film retains so much of the subtlety of his own writing. Usually, Hollywood eliminates any of the subtlety of a great author's voice (see the recent remake of "Washington Square" if you want to see a real Hollywoodization of a novel it actually depicts a young Catherine peeing her pants in public an inane "Animal House"-type Hollywood requirement that degrading a woman by showing her peeing is an erotic boost for any movie). But "The Heiress" is pure James. Olivia de Havilland is perfect as James' unlikely heroine, going from an awkward gawky girl eager to please her beloved father, to a simple, loving young woman who steadfastly stands by her lover, to an embittered middle-aged woman who understands that, as Henry James says, "the great facts of her career were that Morris Townsend had trifled with her affection, and that her father had broken its spring."
If you liked this movie, read the novel. Listen to James' descriptions of Catherine and her father and see if this isn't exactly what Ralph Richardson and Olivia deHavilland portrayed:
"Doctor Sloper would have liked to be proud of his daughter; but there was nothing to be proud of in poor Catherine."
"Love demands certain things as a right; but Catherine had no sense of her rights; she had only a consciousness of immense and unexpected favors."
" 'She is so soft, so simple-minded, she would be such an easy victim! A bad husband would have remarkable facilities for making her miserable; for she would have neither the intelligence nor the resolution to get the better of him.' "
"She was conscious of no aptitude for organized resentment."
"In reality, she was the softest creature in the world."
"She had been so humble in her youth that she could now afford to have a little pride . . . Poor Catherine's dignity was not aggressive; it never sat in state; but if you pushed far enough you could find it. Her father had pushed very far."
Clifton Fadiman, in his introduction to "Washington Square," says that the novel's moral is: "to be right is not enough. Dr. Sloper is 'right'; he is right about the character of Townsend, he is right about his own character, he is right about the character of Catherine. But because he can offer only the insufficient truth of irony where the sufficient truth of love is required, he partly ruins his daughter's life, and lives out his own in spiritual poverty."
Dr. Sloper's contemptuous "rightness," penetrating and accurate as it is, is no substitute for the kindness and love his adoring daughter craves from him. In "The Rainmaker," a great Katharine Hepburn movie, also about a plain woman seeking love, only this time with a loving father, the character of Hepburn's father sums up this moral that "to be right is not enough" when he says to his self-righteous son: "Noah, you're so full of what's right that you can't see what's good!"
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