Great Moments In Film – The Heiress (1949)
Olivia de Havilland is one of my favorite actresses to watch. Originally known as Errol Flynn’s leading lady, she would later strike out on her own in a little movie called Gone With the Wind. You may have heard of it. While the role of Melanie proved she could work away from sometimes lover Flynn (though they would still work together in the 1940s), it was still the same sort of damsel in distress role she had in those early movies. She knew that she was better than that and went out to prove it. Her transformation is rather remarkable and perhaps her most famous role from this part of her career is the one we look at today: The Heiress.
The Heiress has a rather simplistic plot, but it’s full of character study.de Havilland plays Catherine, an insecure and rather plain looking (I dispute this idea, of course) daughter of a very wealthy (albeit emotionally detached) man who is very disappointed with her. She meets Morris (Montgomery Cliff), a dashing young man who her father disapproves of. Her father believes that Morris is only after Catherine for the money she is due to inherit and will disown his own daughter should they wed. Sadly, the father would prove to be right: Morris leaves Catherine at the alter essentially and leaves for California, destroying Catherine emotionally in the process.
Years later, Morris returns having failed in California. He tries to woo Catherine (who’s father had died, leaving her the entire estate) as he once did. It seems to work, but there’s something different about Catherine. She is cold, calculating. Morris misses all of this. I’ll let you see the result of it all in the scene below. de Havilland is simply outstanding here. It’s a very understated performance, but it perfectly fits the theme of the movie. However, there’s an underlying sadness to it all. While we cheer for Catherine as she gets her revenge of the man that hurt her so badly, we also mourn the loss of the optimistic young woman she once was.
de Havilland is a master of body movement. Watch how she glides along in this scene. More importantly, watch her eyes. There are few, if any, better at using their eyes to tell a story than de Havilland. For more examples of this, I highly recommend 1948’s The Snake Pit.
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