The Heiress of Washington Square and her Cinderfella


What this movie taught me about life, which I already knew, is angst and pain almost always sound better in French, especially if your first language is English and that’s all you know. The French always sound like they’re just trying to keep the fun to a privileged few rather than spread it around, even when they’re forthright about the waters being full up with sharks.

Brigitte Bardot avec Lino Ventura – plaisir… by patvar

Oh, boo hoo, I have finally watched The Heiress, and, damn, though you know in your heart of hearts (and from some readings of James) that there’s no way in hell things could or will possibly go right, a counselor isn’t going to pop up out of the shrubbery of Washington Square and usher everyone into some quick rounds of therapy for painful insights followed by confused but thank-god-that’s-all-over hugs, little Dalai Lama elves aren’t going to magically recalibrate everyone’s emotional balance beams with “consider the true meaning of life” moments shoved center screen–though you know it’s not that kind of film, one still rather wishes this had at least an alternative ending feature that offered happiest, kind-of-ok, and not very definite resolutions, so with your blood sugar satisfied you can accept the reason you care as much as you do is precisely because it’s not that kind of film.

I had never heard of The Heiress until yesterday, and not that this is an unforgivable oversight, but why you should ever trust anything I’ve to write about movies after learning that,I don’t know, because The Heiress is that great a classic, and I suppose we can only be happy it’s not one of the top ten because no one will sully it with a remake.

Olivia de Havilland, how adorable was she? And I am not one to spread the word “adorable” around lightly, not even with infants, puppies, and never on Fridays will you hear me remark on a cat photo, “Adorable.” But Olivia’s Catherine Sloper was just that, deserving of being adored as opposed to being only cute. I wanted to make a reality show of the Slopers that I could watch a new installment of daily, even just five minutes as a morning injection of resilience in the face of mind-numbing status quo, or a calming afternoon meditation, because I found Olivia so refreshingly shy of the deft artifice that can pass for sociability in any age and climate.

I loved the rapturously wide-eyed innocence of Catherine Sloper (or rather how Olivia portrayed her shyness as shielding a fine, passionate nature), and I loved the ever circumspect Dr. Austin Sloper (or how Ralph Richardson portrayed his conflicted personality with such care he could be equally horrible and sympathetic), and the good-natured foolishness of Aunt Lavinia Penniman (or how Miriam Hopkins portrayed her love for life), and Morris Townsend, too, never mind that I read Montgomery Clift looked askance upon Olivia’s acting skills (how could he). I was calling out to my husband every few minutes, “I love these people! Never mind their foibles, there’s not an unlikeable one in the bunch!” Which may not reflect too well on me either, considering Dr. Sloper is a tyrannical ass to his devoted daughter, comparing her unfavorably to her dead mother at every turn, and Lavinia is an easily manipulated busybody and Morris is a gold-digger after Catherine’s money. But they aren’t so simple, not a one of them. I have only glanced at Henry James’ Washington Square, but these are very different characters here, I think, than what James had envisioned. They’re more complex, and if I’m wrong on that, if they aren’t more complex, then they are complex in a different way, just as the plot is a good deal different than that in the book, and what is the plot in this film but action driven by the passions of its characters, the story having little room for chance and the arbitrary intrusions of nature?

Cases in points, and spoilers aplenty: to our knowledge, Catherine’s father doesn’t disinherit her in the movie as he does in the book, and Catherine doesn’t bring back from Europe the gift of ruby wedding buttons that she eventually grants Morris at movie’s end. And in the book, Catherine returns to her embroidery in the final paragraph, “picking up her morsel of fancy work…for life, as it were”, whereas in the movie she says that the piece she is working on will be her last.

What does she intend to do, considering that she also reveals she’s planned it that Morris will never return to ask her hand in marriage again. The last knot tied and her embroidery needle put away, as Morris beats at the bolted door begging entry, is she going to ascend to the floor above, open the window, and take a flying suicidal and murderous leap out of it onto Morris’ head?

How to communicate how wonderful to me the many nooks and crannies of the interior lives of these individuals, given as much care as the perfectly appointed settings and costumes? The histories of each intimated worlds. Flat worlds, but worlds. Maps with dangerous edges that could possibly morph into more safely navigable globes if this wasn’t the feel bad version of the Addams Family.

Because, finally, it occurred to me who these people were.

Here was the penultimate Victorian era Addams Family. Anything Edgar Allen Poe could imagine pales in comparison. The twentieth century TV and film variations are cozy–until little Wednesday wakes up to the screams of the special effects people and realizes that’s real blood on Pugsley’s axe.

I don’t intend to treat these characters poorly here, to seem to demean or make jokes of them. No, I’m sincere when I say they completely pulled me into their disparate, struggling universes. The blurb offered by the television channel about the film only said Morris was a fortune hunter. We’re intended to take him at face value, from the outset, as only a fortune hunter, but there’s so much more going on than that with the nuanced performances, and the direction. At face value, it is all so simple, Catherine is unattractive in comparison to her finely tuned peers, her only value is her dowry, and that is all that Morris wants and all his words are to be taken as false and a conniving act seeking only her money. But not a one of these issues is so black and white. Every person in their own way presents to the viewer the question as to why is Morris unacceptable if he treats Catherine with great affection and she loves him? Why would a marriage to a person of some financial worth be better for Catherine, if, again, it was only Catherine’s significant dowry that was the prime attraction and deal sealer and the individual didn’t truly love her for herself? How is Morris so bad for Catherine when he encourages her rather than denouncing her for what she is not? Does he really say anything untrue about her? Does she not, after all, possess all the positive qualities he says her to have, which her father can not accept as they do not reflect her dead mother? And how are we to even know what kind of person her mother was when, as it is pointed out in the film, Dr. Sloper has transformed her after-image into one that no longer bears any resemblance to what she was when alive?

The movie is pretty much a polar opposite to what we are situated to expect, because we are primed to preconceive Morris as being entirely false, and instead presented a very possible scenario in which Morris, whatever his motives, is the one person speaking the truth about Catherine, her environment, and the upper class prejudices of her father and peers. He acts as the physician’s physician when he remarks to Dr. Sloper (paraphrasing) that great doctors may not see the illness right under their noses, and I’m not so sure it is dumb irony as much as a deftly offered revelation.

Doctors probably shouldn’t treat themselves. Had Dr. Sloper taken himself out for a second opinion on the state of his own health, he might, well, he might have been a different person. And he wasn’t.

In the end, what William Wyler conveys about Catherine is not that she is empowered by her many painful realizations, but that she becomes perhaps even more emotionally crippled and suspicious than her father, unable to accept any compliment or benevolence as not offered without ulterior motive, disenfranchised from society in a manner far more severe than when she was only shy and inexperienced. Her father had initially promised she could be with Morris if their relationship withstood a separation of six months. Had Dr. Sloper kept that promise, and Catherine married Morris only to later find he was false, that disappointment may have been one she could have weathered, having attained a natural maturity, and with the support of family, not having suffered also a keen betrayal on their part. The most dire betrayal was Dr. Sloper’s not keeping that vow.

But that’s way too much psychologizing even for me. We aren’t supposed to imagine a better end for Catherine. It wasn’t in the cards.

Plaisir d’amour ne dure qu’un moment.
chagrin d’amour dure toute la vie.


Or, in other words:

The pleasure of love lasts only a moment
The pain of love lasts a lifetime.


When a lover serenades one with those lyrics, shouldn’t one be grateful for the warning?

“So what does this teach about life?” my husband asks, unwilling that I should ditch this blog’s titled promise at only my second posting. I ask him what he thinks because I’m floundering for a final wrap-up paragraph down that vein, it’s just not happening. “That intentions are not what really matters,” he supposes. “That what you do is what really matters. And sometimes scoundrels can be really likeable.”

Hmmm. I can think of many times when I would hope my best intentions would be considered and the counted thought be honored over the end result.

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Juli Kearns

Juli Kearns is the author of Thunderbird and the Ball of Twine and Unending Wonders of a Subatomic World (or) In Search of the Great Penguin. She is also an artist/photographer, and the person behind the web alter of "Idyllopus Press".

One thought on “The Heiress of Washington Square and her Cinderfella”

  1. Just reading your review of this great film. There was a remake and it is also great: Washington Square with Jennifer Jason Leigh and Albert Finney as the wicked father.

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