Tag Archives: Olivia de Havilland

‘The Heiress’

Original poster.

Original poster. A truly pretty good motion picture and an awful poster.

When Jane Greer was cast as the femme fatale in “Out of the Past,” director Jacques Tourneur explained what he wanted from her: “First half of film, good girl; second half of film, bad girl. No big eyes!”  In “The Heiress” (Paramount, 1949), Olivia de Havilland pulls essentially the same trick, though she uses big eyes from first to last.  For two thirds of the picture, she plays Catherine Sloper as a ninny, almost a mental defective; she pitches her voice up high and speaks her dialogue like a child reciting “The boy stood on the burning deck.”  Then she gets her heart broken good and hard, whereupon her voice drops an octave and she is instantaneously transformed into a shrewd, cynical, hard-bitten spinster with steel in her spine and ice water in her veins.  She won the Academy Award for her performance.  Taken as a whole, what she does is little more than a parlor trick, but there are individual scenes that she plays beautifully.

Olivia de Havilland, Montgomery Clift

Olivia de Havilland, Montgomery Clift

Catherine is an unattractive, painfully shy young woman who lives at 16 Washington Square with her imposing father, Dr Austin Sloper (Ralph Richardson) and his recently widowed sister Lavinia (Miriam Hopkins).  Catherine’s late mother was a great beauty; Dr Sloper cannot conceal his shame and irritation that their child has grown up to be so untalented, awkward and brainless.

When Catherine falls in love with a handsome young man named Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift), Dr Sloper very quickly concludes that her suitor is a fortune hunter.  Lavinia, a sentimentalist and busybody, believes otherwise.

Catherine has an annual inheritance of $10,000 from her late mother, and stands to inherit an additional $20,000 annuity upon her father’s death.  Dr Sloper threatens to leave his entire estate to his clinic if she marries young Townsend.  But when the girl proves obdurate, Dr Sloper loses all patience; the savagery of his scorn is overwhelming.  Richardson played the role in the West End; Basil Rathbone played it on Broadway.  Rathbone must have been excellent, but I doubt anyone could have played, or will ever play, this scene better than Sir Ralph.

You can hear how her voice descends on “Oh, what a terrible thing to say to me . . . ”  There’s more heartbreak on the way for Catherine, but from that line till the end of the picture, her voice stays down at the bottom of her range.

de Havilland as Catherine Sloper:  The harassed heiress.

de Havilland as Catherine Sloper: The harassed heiress.

Ruth and Augustus Goetz, who wrote the play and the screen adaptation of Henry James’ novella, “Washington Square,” greatly altered the story by giving Catherine the sort of second act that she doesn’t get in the book.  The same terrible things happen to her, but she responds differently.  For instance, near the end of the Goetzes’ adaptation, her Aunt Lavinia asks, “Can you be so cruel?” and Catherine replies, “Yes, I can be very cruel.  I have been taught by masters.”  It’s a great line, perhaps the best in the play and movie . . . but it’s not in the book; more importantly, Henry James’ Catherine couldn’t have said such a thing:  she doesn’t have that sort of sophistication.

Miriam Hopkins is surprisingly wonderful as Aunt Lavinia; it may well be the only good performance she ever gave.  Richardson is superb as Dr Sloper; he is reason enough to see the picture. Betty Linley reprises her Broadway role (Mrs Montgomery, Townsend’s sister).  Her scene with Richardson is exquisitely acted.  “The Heiress” is the only picture she ever made.  Montgomery Clift, alas, is less good. He was never more handsome (even though some of his costumes make him look like Jiminy Cricket), but his posture and casual speech make him seem to exist in a different century from the rest of the cast.

de Havilland, Clift:  Promises in the rain.

de Havilland, Clift: Promises in the rain.

It’s a great shame that William Wyler hated Aaron Copland’s sparse score.  He had much of it reorchestrated and reconceived by Hugo Friedhofer, who did the Oscar-winning “important” score for Wyler’s “The Best Years of Our Lives.”  Those bars of Copland’s score that remain unaltered offer sad testimony of how great the score must have been before Wyler insisted on a grander, more traditional Hollywood sound.

My Cousin Rachel

To see Richard Burton in “My Cousin Rachel” (20th Century Fox, 1952) is to understand why, for so many years, he was one of the most famous men on the planet. After “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Burton made a series of depressingly terrible pictures, and was often as bad as or worse than the bum material he appeared in. But his Hollywood career began auspiciously in 1952, when he starred as Philip Ashley opposite Olivia de Havilland (as Cousin Rachel) in this Cornish gothic mystery. He’s superb in “My Cousin Rachel” — it’s a real star-making performance. And he certainly never looked better.

Richard Burton as Philip Astley:  So that's what all the fuss was about.

Richard Burton as Philip Ashley: So that’s what all the fuss was about.

The picture is based on Daphne du Maurier’s best-selling novel and is in every way superior to “Rebecca,” with which it has much in common.  Both stories are full of ambiguity and miscommunications, and both are set on the blustery coast of Cornwall. But “My Cousin Rachel” is murkier, more mysterious and has a greater sense of mounting dread, doubt, suspense and episodes of delirium (what used, in Russian novels, to be translated as “brain fever”). Brain fever is what “My Cousin Rachel” is all about.

In “Rebecca,” suspense and mystery are created by withholding essential pieces of information from the audience until the end. Were that information known in advance, the story would lose most (though certainly not all) of its interest. “My Cousin Rachel” is different: when Cousin Rachel enters the life of the high-strung young Philip Ashley, he believes she is responsible for the death of his beloved guardian, Cousin Ambrose; for the rest of the story, we must try to determine whether she’s a cunning villainess or the near-saint that she appears to be . . .  Whether this question can be answered remains for the viewer to decide, but whatever the answer is, the mystery remains full of ambiguity and dark corners.

Burton, de Havilland:  Sweet Rachel

Burton, de Havilland: Sweet Rachel

de Havilland, Burton:  Evil Rachel

de Havilland, Burton: Evil Rachel

Here’s how the picture opens. These first few minutes should give you a clear sense of what the rest of the picture is like.

As a character, Rachel is full of surprises — alternately loving and peremptory, compliant and steely.  De Havilland navigates the contradictions with ease and skill. She’s not a particularly exciting actress, but there’s real pleasure in watching her handle difficult material so gracefully and intelligently.

Olivia De Havilland, Audrey Dalton, Richard Burton:  Rachel, my torment; what is she up to?

Olivia de Havilland, Audrey Dalton, Richard Burton: Rachel, my torment; what is she up to?

The screenplay is by Nunnally Johnson; it’s one of his best scripts and is notably faithful to the novel. Johnson was an extremely prolific writer and producer, so his work is very uneven. Much of what he did is not much better than hack work, but I’m a fan of his, partly because he was known to be a very witty fellow, which goes a long, long way with me. The novelist Frederic Wakeman (“The Hucksters”) was in Johnson’s office one day when Johnson’s secretary buzzed to say that legendary Broadway producer/son of a bitch Jed Harris was on the wire.  “Shall I say you’re in?” she asked.  Johnson considered the matter for a long time. “Well,” he said slowly, “if I take the call, he’ll invite himself to dinner. At dinner he’ll insult Alice, and I’ll order him out of the house. But he’ll go into the kitchen where Alice is crying and turn her against me. So the real problem is, Do I want to divorce Alice?” After another pause, he answered, “Tell him I’m out of town.”