In the late 1800’s, the wealthy Sloper family- surgeon Dr. Austin Sloper (Ralph Richardson), his daughter Catherine (Olivia de Havilland), and the doc’s recently widowed sister- Lavinia Penniman (Miriam Hopkins)- live in a spacious house at Washington Square in Manhattan. Despite lessons in various social graces, Catherine is awkward and shy; in contrast, her deceased mother had a LOT of charm and beauty, as her father and their social circle often comment. Lavinia attempts to get her niece to be more social and hopefully meet the a suitable man to marry. Enter handsome, smooth-talking Morris Townsend (Montgomery Clift), recently returned from Europe.
Morris dances w/ Catherine at a party, NOT minding her clumsy feet, and manages to put her at ease briefly. He comes to call for several days in a row; she is surprised and nervous, even skipping out one morning hoping to avoid him. In no time, Morris declares his love to Catherine and asks to for her hand in marriage. She is thrilled, b/c she NEVER expected anything like this to happen to her. The air-headed/hopeful Lavinia (who serves as chaperone) greatly approves of the man, though cold/aloof Dr. Sloper is suspicious of Morris’ motives. The young man has potential, BUT doesn’t have a job. Above all, the father can’t fathom that a man would want the daughter that he continually puts down. Dr. Sloper, after learning more re: Morris’ character, refuses to give his permission for the marriage. Catherine, angry yet determined, forms a plan to elope ASAP.
As one viewer wrote:
There are no easy answers in this movie. You can think Dr. Sloper is right about Morris and only wants to protect his daughter, or you can see his actions as those of a vindictive man who blames her for the death of his beloved wife (in childbirth). Morris could be a fortune hunter, or he could be a man who does care for Catherine, in his own way, and would make her happy. Or all of the above.
After seeing The Heiress on Broadway, de Havilland approached William Wyler about directing her in a screen adaptation (which won 4 Oscars). He agreed and encouraged Paramount execs to purchase the rights from the playwrights (Ruth and Augustus Goetz) and have them also write the screenplay. They were asked to make Morris less of a villain than in the play and the original novel (Washington Square by Henry James); the studio wanted to capitalize on Clift’s reputation as a romantic lead. Wyler’s idea was to pair de Havilland with frequent co-star Errol Flynn, but studio execs favored Clift (w/ a more subtle acting style). Though Flynn and de Havilland had great chemistry, execs felt that the actor’s real-life womanizer rep would’ve worked against him.