The Heiress

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The Heiress
Theatrical release poster
Directed byWilliam Wyler
Screenplay byAugustus Goetz
Ruth Goetz
Based onThe Heiress
by Augustus Goetz
Ruth Goetz
Produced byWilliam Wyler
CinematographyLeo Tover
Edited byWilliam Hornbeck
Music byAaron Copland
Color processBlack and white
Paramount Pictures
Distributed byParamount Pictures
Release dates
  • October 6, 1949 (1949-10-06)
  • December 28, 1949 (1949-12-28)
(Wide release)
Running time
115 minutes
CountryUnited States
Budget$2.6 million[1]
Box office$2.3 million (US rentals)[2]

The Heiress is a 1949 American romantic drama film directed and produced by William Wyler, from a screenplay written by Ruth and Augustus Goetz, adapted from their 1947 stage play of the same title, which was itself adapted from Henry James' 1880 novel Washington Square. The film stars Olivia de Havilland as Catherine Sloper, a naive young woman who falls in love with a handsome young man despite the objections of her emotionally abusive father who suspects the man of being a fortune hunter. Montgomery Clift stars as Morris Townsend, and Ralph Richardson as Dr. Sloper.[3][4]

The Heiress premiered in Los Angeles on October 6, 1949, and was theatrically released by Paramount Pictures on December 28, 1949. Although a box office failure, grossing $2.3 million on a $2.6 million budget, the film garnered critical acclaim, with reviewers praising Wyler's direction, its screenplay and the performances of the cast. The film received a leading eight nominations at the 22nd Academy Awards, including for the Best Picture, and won four awards (more than any other film nominated that year): Best Actress (for de Havilland), Best Original Score, Best Production Design, and Best Costume Design.

In 1996, The Heiress was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".[5][6]

Universal Pictures, through its EMKA division, currently handles distribution of the film.


In 1849 New York City, Catherine Sloper, a plain and shy young woman, lives with her wealthy father, Dr. Austin Sloper, in the prestigious Washington Square. Catherine's mother, who was charming and talented, died early, and quiet Catherine constantly disappoints her father with her lack of social graces. Catherine's widowed Aunt Lavinia Penniman moves in and suggests she help Catherine improve her social skills.

At a ball, Catherine meets Morris Townsend, a handsome and charming, but poor, young man. Morris, encouraged by Aunt Penniman, pursues Catherine ardently, and she quickly falls in love with him. Catherine accepts and blossoms under Morris's courtship, but Dr. Sloper suspects Morris is a fortune hunter only interested in his plain daughter's wealth, and investigations into Morris's family relations confirm Dr. Sloper's poor opinion.

When Morris formally requests Catherine's hand in marriage, Catherine is elated, but Dr. Sloper refuses. Dr. Sloper vows he will disinherit Catherine if she marries Morris without his blessing and arranges to take her on an extended trip to Europe to separate the pair as a 'test'. Catherine is torn by her desire for her father's approval, but is becoming more and more eager to marry Morris regardless and become independent.

Morris convinces Catherine to wait and earn Dr. Sloper's approval during this separation and promises to remain true while she is away. During Catherine and Dr. Sloper's European trip, Morris frequently visits the Sloper home and behaves with proprietary ownership over the property and personal contents of the house.

Dr. Sloper is disappointed his daughter does not gain any sophistication from the trip and remains devoted to Morris. Upon their return home, he reveals his poor opinion of his child at last and cruelly belittles his daughter's lack of intelligence, beauty, and accomplishment, making it clear he views her as impossible to be attractive to a man outside of her inheritance.

Wounded and angry, Catherine becomes determined to prove her father wrong and elope with Morris. Catherine runs to Morris and begs him to arrange their immediate elopement. Certain Morris loves her and wanting to cut free from her father, Catherine tells Morris about her pending disinheritance as they discuss the details of her sneaking out to meet him, and makes it clear they can expect nothing from her father ever again.

Catherine waits with her bags packed, and Aunt Penniman, who helped facilitate the plans, offers to stay with her, but is dismayed that Catherine stupidly revealed there would be no money from her father. Aunt Penniman believes Morris is Catherine's only chance at marriage, and that it would be best if they got married first and then dealt with the aftermath.

As the appointed time comes and passes without Morris's arrival, Catherine realizes that Morris has abandoned her upon learning she will not inherit her father's wealth and brokenly returns to her room.

Shortly afterward, Dr. Sloper reveals he is dying. Initially proud of Catherine for rejecting Morris, Catherine at last gets her revenge on him by denying him the ability to die peacefully. In a bitter argument, Catherine tells him she planned to elope and was rejected and says he has cheated her by denying her even the chance to 'buy' a husband who would pretend to love her. If he leaves her his money, she might waste it on Morris or other fortune hunters. Dr. Sloper dies fretting until his last breath on if he should change his will but ultimately cannot bring himself to disinherit his only child.

Years later, wealthy, independent, and single, Catherine still lives in the Washington Square house with her aunt. Aunt Penniman informs Catherine that Morris has returned from California. Initially reluctant, Catherine eventually agrees to see him. Morris, now destitute, attempts to win Catherine back. Catherine proposes they recreate their failed elopement. When Morris returns to take her away, Catherine refuses to let him in, leaving him pounding helplessly on the door as she turns off the lights and goes to bed.



After seeing The Heiress on Broadway, Olivia de Havilland approached William Wyler about directing her in a screen adaptation of the play.[7] He agreed and encouraged executives at Paramount Pictures to purchase the rights from the playwrights (Ruth and Augustus Goetz) for $250,000 and offer them $10,000 per week to write the screenplay. The couple were asked to make Morris less of a villain than he was in their play and the original novel in deference to the studio's desire to capitalize on Montgomery Clift's reputation as a romantic leading man.[8]

The film premiered at Radio City Music Hall in New York City on October 6, 1949.[9]

Ralph Richardson reprised the role of Austin Sloper in a London production of the play.[7]


The Heiress received universal critical acclaim. Bosley Crowther for The New York Times wrote that the film "crackles with allusive life and fire in its tender and agonized telling of an extraordinarily characterful tale" and added Wyler "has given this somewhat austere drama an absorbing intimacy and a warming illusion of nearness that it did not have on the stage. He has brought the full-bodied people very closely and vividly to view, while maintaining the clarity and sharpness of their personalities, their emotions and their styles...The Heiress is one of the handsome, intense and adult dramas of the year."[9]

The Brooklyn Eagle found the film "an intensely satisfying drama that holds a high level of interest throughout, building relentlessly to a moving climax." Praise for the principals lauded de Havilland especially: "the transformation of Catherine Sloper from a pathetically shy girl to a cold, handsome woman" being "handled with finished skill."[10]

The Philadelphia Inquirer praised the Goetzes for a skillful transformation of their stage version, finding it "in almost every way...superior." Prospects of an Academy Award for de Havilland were judged "thoroughly reasonable" as well.[11]

TV Guide rates the film five out of a possible five stars and adds, "This powerful and compelling drama...owes its triumph to the deft hand of director William Wyler and a remarkable lead performance by Olivia de Havilland.[12]

Time Out London calls the film "typically plush, painstaking and cold...highly professional and heartless."[13]

Channel 4 stated "de Havilland's spine-chilling...Clift brings a subtle ambiguity to one of his least interesting roles, and Richardson is also excellent."[14]


Martin Scorsese has cited The Heiress as a key influence on his 2023 film Killers of the Flower Moon. Specifically, the portrayal of Mollie Kyle and her relationship with her husband Ernest Burkhart drew inspiration from de Havilland's portrayal of Catherine and her relationship with Morris.[15]

In popular culture[edit]

In 1975, the twenty-first episode of the eighth season of The Carol Burnett Show featured a take-off of the film titled "The Lady Heir", with Carol Burnett as Catherine and Roddy McDowell as Morris.[16]

The film's Philippine adaptation, titled Ikaw Pa Lang ang Minahal, was made in 1992. The adaptation was written by Raquel Villavicencio, produced by Armida Siguion-Reyna, and directed by Carlos Siguion-Reyna. The film stars Maricel Soriano and Richard Gomez as Adela and David.

Awards and nominations[edit]

Award[17] Category Nominee(s) Result
Academy Awards Best Picture William Wyler Nominated
Best Director Nominated
Best Actress Olivia de Havilland Won
Best Supporting Actor Ralph Richardson Nominated
Best Art Direction-Set Decoration – Black-and-White John Meehan, Harry Horner and Emile Kuri Won
Best Cinematography – Black-and-White Leo Tover Nominated
Best Costume Design – Black and White Edith Head and Gile Steele Won
Best Scoring of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture Aaron Copland Won
Golden Globe Awards Best Actress in a Motion Picture Olivia de Havilland Won
Best Supporting Actress – Motion Picture Miriam Hopkins Nominated
Best Director – Motion Picture William Wyler Nominated
National Board of Review Awards Top Ten Films 4th Place
Best Actor Ralph Richardson (also for The Fallen Idol) Won
National Film Preservation Board National Film Registry Inducted
New York Film Critics Circle Awards Best Actor Ralph Richardson Nominated
Best Actress Olivia de Havilland Won
Writers Guild of America Awards Best Written American Drama Ruth Goetz and August Goetz Nominated

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "No Such Thing as Safe Story, Sez Wm Wyler". Variety. 24 May 1950. p. 7.
  2. ^ The Top Box Office Hits of 1950, Variety, January 3, 1951.
  3. ^ Variety Film Reviews, September 7, 1949, p. 11.
  4. ^ Harrison's Reports and Film Reviews
  5. ^ Stern, Christopher (1996-12-03). "National Film Registry taps 25 more pix". Variety. Retrieved 2020-10-13.
  6. ^ "Complete National Film Registry Listing". Library of Congress. Retrieved 2020-10-13.
  7. ^ a b Hutchinson, Pamela. "The Heiress: A Cruel Inheritance". The Criterion Collection.
  8. ^ "The Heiress: William Wyler unveils the psychological ferocity of Henry James's Washington Square | Library of America".
  9. ^ a b Crowther, Bosley (October 7, 1949). "'The Heiress,' With Olivia de Havilland in Leading Role, Arrives at Music Hall". The New York Times. Retrieved August 7, 2020.
  10. ^ Sheaffer, Lew. "De Havilland Excellent as 'Heiress'." Brooklyn Daily Eagle, 7 October 1949.
  11. ^ Martin, Mildred. " 'The Heiress' at Stanley Is Movie Melodrama." Philadelphia Inquirer, 24 December 1949.
  12. ^ TV Guide review
  13. ^ Time Out London review Archived 2009-03-16 at the Wayback Machine
  14. ^ Channel 4 review
  15. ^ Vicino, Mia Lee (27 October 2023). "The Official Marty Watchlist: Martin Scorsese shares the cinematic companions to Killers of the Flower Moon and his wider filmography • Journal • A Letterboxd Magazine". letterboxd. Retrieved 27 October 2023.
  16. ^ IMDB. "The Carol Burnett Show (1967–1978) Episode #8.21". IMDb. Retrieved August 3, 2017.
  17. ^ "NY Times: The Heiress". Movies & TV Dept. The New York Times. 2007. Archived from the original on 2007-11-23. Retrieved 2008-12-20.

External links[edit]