The Heir Up There: William Wyler’s THE HEIRESS (1949)

heiressWilliam Wyler’s THE HEIRESS (1949) was his first of five movies for Paramount, and made in the immediate aftermath of the failure of his Liberty Films venture — a partnership he had forged with Columbia Pictures head of production Samuel Briskin and fellow filmmakers Frank Capra and George Stevens. (Liberty had been ankled by the box office failure of its first film, Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life – now an undisputed Hollywood/holiday classic but an expensive flop in 1946.) Ground zero among the Hollywood studios for prestige pictures, Paramount gave Wyler the green light to adapt the Broadway smash The Heiress, an adaptation of Henry James’ novel 1880 novella Washington Square, as a vehicle for actress Olivia de Havilland, a four-time Academy Award nominee and Oscar winner for To Each His Own (1946). Paramount gave the project the full roll-out and a then-estimable $2.5 million budget. Though Wyler had hoped to snag Errol Flynn to play mercenary bachelor Morris Townsend, a footloose bounder with an eagle eye on the expected inheritance of de Havilland’s affluent but unmarriageable Catherine Sloper, Flynn demured; Wyler later came to see Flynn’s disinclination as a stroke of luck, as his reputation (both on screen and off) as a rogue would have given the character away all too early, telegraphing an ending that, in the film Wyler eventually made, bears a much more devastating payoff. In his third film appearance, Montgomery Clift is a revelation as the honeydripping cad, luring Cathy and moviegoers alike, into loving him when they suspect full well they should not. Though THE HEIRESS was not quite the cash cow that Paramount was banking on, the critics of the day were impressed with the accomplishment and the film received eight Academy Award nominations — among them Best Picture, Best Score (for Aaron Copland), Best Director, Best Supporting Actor (Ralph Richardson, an import from the London stage production), Best Cinematography (Leo Tover) and Best Actress in a Leading Role. De Havilland’s 1950 Oscar was her second and last.

heiress3Taking a break from his duties as the “Czar of Noir,” film historian and Film Noir Foundation presidente Eddie Mueller was on hand at the Chinese Multiplex last night to introduce THE HEIRESS (and William Wyler’s son David, in attendance with his wife) and to compliment the packed house on their good taste in movie choices, noting that it is not always an easy thing to pick just the right movie to see at the TCM Classic Film Festival. “Always see the William Wyler film,” Muller advised the attendees, while pointing them toward tomorrow’s screening of Wyler’s masterpiece, the multiple-Academy Award-winning The Best Years of Our Lives (1946). A natural born raconteur and storyteller, Eddie regaled the audience with stories about the making of THE HEIRESS, including one anecdote about Richardson schooling Wyler on the craft of an actor by doing multiple takes of hanging up his tophat, and another of how the director compelled his leading lady to do retake after retake of climbing a staircase until de Havilland threw a prop suitcase at him in frustration… leading Wyler to realize the suitcase was empty and far too light to help de Havilland effectively communicate Cathy Slope’s emotional burden; Wyler had the suitcase weighted down and retook the scene we now see in the finished film. A beautifully nuanced period piece, artfully executed and brilliantly played by a top-flight cast (among them Miriam Hopkins, in a delightfully batty performance), THE HEIRESS is a jewel in the crown of the fifth TCM Classic Film Festival. We all saw something special tonight.