DVD Reviews for 2/9: Mr.Sloper, You've Got A Lovely Daughter
By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 02/09/07 18:04:40
After experiencing both the fourth-quarter Super Bowl meltdown of the Chicago Bears and "Norbit" in one 18-hour period, your faithful critic still hasn't recovered enough to come up with his usually pithy opening wisecracks.
It is a commonly-held truism that great books rarely make for great films–the amount of material that needs to be removed in order to tell the story in under two hours of screen time tends to result in the films being little more than a collection of the best-known moments haphazardly strung together. This is especially true when the strength of the book lies as much with the voice of the author as it does with the story being told. Ever once in a while, though, there will be an exception to the rule and a great book will serve as the inspiration for an equally great film and one of the best is William Wyler’s “The Heiress,” an electrifying 1949 adaptation of Henry James’s acclaimed novella “Washington Square.” It isn’t just a great film version of a highly respected literary work–it is one of the great works of the Golden Age of Hollywood and one that continues to be hailed by buffs like Martin Scorsese (who used it as a source of inspiration for his own period drama. “The Age of Innocence”) as a landmark cinematic work.
Olivia de Havilland stars as Catherine Sloper, a shy and plain woman who is the daughter of a bright, charming and vivacious mother that she never knew as she died giving birth to her. However, she is constantly reminded of how wonderful her mother was and how she fails to compare by her hard-hearted father, Dr. Sloper (Ralph Richardson). One day, Catherine meets the poor-but-handsome Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift) and is stunned to find that he is preparing to court her. For the first time in her life, Catherine is in love and is crushed when her father cruelly tells her that Morris is presumably nothing more than a gold digger after the money that she inherited from her mother and will eventually inherit from him–after all, why else would he profess to be in love with someone as drab and dowdy as her? Of course, Catherine is devastated by her father’s words and finds herself even more determined to go off with Morris, even if it means being disinherited by Dad. When Morris learns about this, he suddenly disappears–either because Catherine’s father was right or because he truly loved her and didn’t want her to sacrifice her fortune for him–and Catherine is crushed. Before long, however, she recovers and when Morris returns after a time, it leads to one of the most powerful final scenes ever filmed.
In bringing “Washington Square” to the screen, Wyler made a smart decision in focusing less on the book and more on the stage adaptation written by Augustus & Ruth Goetz. Granted, it does diverge from the original book in many ways (especially in the ending) and while some purists may have howled, it maintains a fidelity to the theme and emotions of James’s original work that is, in my opinion, far more important than getting every line from the book down exactly as they were on the page. For proof of this, check out Agnesika Holland’s 1997 adaptation “Washington Square”–it hews far closer to the original book but despite good performances from Jennifer Jason Leigh and Albert Finney in the leads, it just doesn’t come alive in the same way that Wyler’s film does. Of course, much of the success of the film is due to the perfect casting of the lead characters. Olivia de Havilland (who won an Oscar for the role) turned in the best work of her entire career as Catherine–watching her effortlessly glide from dowdy to cheerful to despondent to cruel is like watching a master class in the art of screen acting. Ralph Richardson is equally strong as Catherine’s father, a man who is determined to tell the truth at all times, no matter how cruelly it may seem–to him, he is simply helping others instead of hurting them and that is what gives his comments their extra sting. And while he is usually overlooked in discussions of the film in order to focus on de Havilland, Montgomery Clift is also surprisingly strong and effective as Morris in the way that he captures the quicksilver slipperiness of the character–even in its final moments, we still aren’t entirely sure if he is just a common fortune hunter or a man in love who act of genuine sacrifice has been horribly misinterpreted by people who have grown too embittered to recognize genuine love when it is staring them right in the face.
“The Heiress” has been atop DVD most-wanted lists for years now and fans of the film are liable to be overjoyed that they can finally retire their muddy VHS tapes. Beyond that, however, it is hard to come away from this disc feeling anything other than a little disappointed. Although it has been released under the “Universal Cinema Classics” banner, there are no features to be had on the disc other than a brief introduction from TCM’s Robert Osborne and a copy of the theatrical trailer. This isn’t bad but when you compare it to something like Universal lavish 2-disc treatment for something like “Double Indemnity,” you may wish that the studio could have at least provided a commentary from someone–a Wyler expert, perhaps, or even Scorsese–to discuss the film and the impact that it still has on viewers nearly 60 years after its release. Although the film proper looks nice, this is a bare-bones treatment of a film that deserves a full-blown special edition and I can only hope that Universal has not bolted the door on such a possibility somewhere down the road.
Written by Augustus & Ruth Goetz. Directed by William Wyler. Starring Olivia de Havilland, Montgomery Clift and Ralph Richardson. 1949. 115 minutes. Unrated. A Universal Home Video release. $14.98.
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