Monday, February 29, 2016

THE HEIRESS 1949

“I’m sure you recognize this lovely melody as ‘Stranger in Paradise.’ But did you know that the original theme is from the ‘Polovtsian Dance No. 2’ by Borodin? So many of the melodies of well-known popular songs were actually written by the great masters….”

Thus began the TV commercial for 120 Music Masterpieces, a four-LP set of classical music selections offered by Columbia House and Vista Marketing from 1971 to 1984. This ubiquitous and long-running commercial featured British character actor John Williams (famous for the Hitchcock films Dial M for Murder and To Catch a Thief, but known in our household as the “fake Mr. French” from the sitcom Family Affair) touting the joys of  discovering how many classical melodies were appropriated for contemporary pop songs.

This commercial and Williams’ cultured English accent unfailingly come to mind whenever I watch The Heiress. The reason being that The Heiress’ oft-repeated love theme —the 1784 Jean-Paul-Egide Martini classical composition Plaisir d’Amour (The Joys of Love)—had its melody borrowed for the popular ballad Can’t Help Falling in Love in the 1961 film Blue Hawaii. The unfortunate result of all this is that every time the melody is played in the movie (and that’s quite a lot) it evokes for me not Victorian-era romance, but Vegas-era Elvis Presley.
Ever the Method actor, Clift learned to play the piano for this scene
in which Morris sings The Joys of Love to Catherine
Others feel differently I'm sure, but this pop music cross-referencing has always only had the effect of cheapening the original compositions for me. Coming as it did a full 12-years before Elvis serenaded Joan Blackman in Blue Hawaii, it’s not The Heiress’s fault Elvis’s version (never a favorite) is so hotwired into my brain that I fairly wince every time Plaisir d’Amour swells on the soundtrack, wrenching me out of the The Heiress' scrupulously rendered 19th century New York, and thrusting me onto some kind of Gilligan’s Island vision of Hawaii. (I have a similar reaction to the now-distracting use of 1939’s Somewhere Over The Rainbow in the 1941 film noir I Wake Up Screaming.) Happily, my personal aversion to the song Plaisir d’Amour and its use in the film's score (something I might share with the film's Oscar-winning/Oscar-disowning composer Aaron Copland) is the sole complaint I have with William Wyler’s classic romantic melodrama, The Heiress.
Olivia de Havilland as Catherine Sloper
Montgomery Clift as Morris Townsend
Ralph Richardson as Dr. Austin Sloper
Miriam Hopkins as Lavinia Penniman
The Heiress is one of my favorite popcorn movies. And that’s “popcorn movie” in the old-fashioned sense: an enjoyably entertaining film, well-acted, with a good story intelligently told, no heavy message. Not the current definition signifying a check-your-brain-at-the-door exercise in sophomoric cretinism (cue my usual Adam Sandler, Fast & Furious wisecracks).
Based on the 1947 Broadway play by Ruth & Augustus Goetz, which itself was adapted from Henry James’ 1880 novel Washington Square, The Heiress is a serious drama to be sure. But anything deeper to be found in its subtext regarding the emotionally stifling social class system, or the lingering imprint of love lost (The Heiress overflows with widows and widowers who live in the memory of the departed, never entertaining the thought of finding someone new), remains in service of a not-unfamiliar “Poor Little Rich Girl” romantic melodrama.
As a motion picture adapted from an esteemed literary work, The Heiress was Paramount’s “prestige film” for the year, its pre-release publicity suggesting a Grand Romance between fated-to-be lovers kept apart by some shadowy adverse obstacle. In truth, the film is really a rather severe, withering rumination on love (familial love, romantic love, self-love) and the injurious cost of its absence.
Three is the Magic Number
The Heiress was Montgomery Clift's 3rd film, and his co-star was three years older
 
Catherine Sloper (de Havilland) is an unprepossessing, socially awkward young woman whose very existence is a source of nagging disappointment to her widowed father, physician Austin Sloper (Richardson). Dr. Sloper’s beloved wife died giving birth to Catherine, yet lives on as an idealized, phantom presence in Dr. Sloper's heart and in the household he shares with his daughter. A presence to whom Catherine, in her failure to live up to even a modicum of her mother’s beauty or social graces, is ceaselessly compared and judged. Forced to grow up in the shade of her father’s barely contained reproach and resentment, Catherine’s natural virtues (visible to us in private moments where she reveals herself to have brains and a winning sense of humor) have understandably failed to flower.

Sharing their home in Washington Square is Dr. Sloper’s sister, Lavinia (Hopkins) a somewhat frivolous but prototypical example of the kind of aimless social butterfly women were expected to be in Victorian times. Given to silly flights of romantic fantasy and hyperbole, yet well-versed in the dos and don’ts of society protocol, Lavinia is tolerated for her ability to assist Catherine in developing her social graces. Supportive of her niece and devoted to not seeing her drift heedlessly into spinsterhood with only her embroidery to keep her company; Lavinia is nevertheless one more pitying voice reminding Catherine of her lack.
Miriam Hopkins is the queen of the silly and superficial busybody.
No matter how extremely her character is written, she finds both the humor and the humanity

Although Dr. Sloper and Lavinia are both of the mind that Catherine’s failings in looks and charm are significantly mitigated by her being an heiress with a considerable fortune; Lavinia is too much of a romantic to ever admit to such base pragmatism, while Dr. Sloper regards the assessment as indisputable fact…like a medical diagnosis.

Curious then that when an outside party is suspected of appraising Catherine on much the same terms – the outside party being the dashing, obscenely handsome and penniless young suitor Morris Townsend (Clift) – it is only Dr. Sloper who objects. 

What I like about The Heiress is that it does a remarkable job of putting us in the middle of the film's dramatic/romantic conflict without specifically telling us how we should feel about it. At times it appears as though Dr. Sloper is unnecessarily brusque in his assessment of his daughter, but he isn't entirely wrong. At the same time we also see that there is more to Catherine than her retiring demeanor belies, making us hope that "someone" comes along and sees in her what those around her fail to recognize.
When that someone comes in the form of Montgomery Clift, playing a man in possession everything that Catherine lacks except money; we can't help but feel (hope) that at least in some ways, this pair is well-suited. Certainly the superficial attractions of physical beauty are no more a barrier to true love than the superficial allure of wealth?
Playboy After Dark
Does our distrust of Morris come from the reversal of the beauty ethic (women are supposed to be the pretty ones), or the reversal of the patriarchal tradition (men are expected to support women)?

The Heiress deviates from the play in that it never makes the honorableness of Morris' attentions entirely clear. At least not initially. As the film progresses we are manipulated back and forth, forced to view Morris' whirlwind courtship of Catherine through the alternating perspective of Dr. Sloper's suspicious eyes, or Lavinia’s willfully rose-colored glasses.
Provocatively, we’re placed in the position of preferring to be right rather than see Catherine happy (her father, again), or hoping…perhaps beyond reason…that Townsend is not really what he seems and merely a penniless suitor genuinely seeing in Catherine that which we ourselves have been witness to: her very real charms have just not been given the opportunity to develop in the loveless home she shares with her father in Washington Square.

The film tugs at our beauty biases, our belief in Cinderella fantasies, and our weakness for ugly duckling myths. It also, in providing an emotionally and dramatically satisfying ending which deviates from the novel, taps into the kind of visceral revenge scenario beloved of any individual who has ever felt undervalued or underestimated. 

WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS FILM
Popular Hollywood movies all tap into common fantasies. There's clearly a market out there for romantic comedies about cloddish, schlubby boy-men who win impossibly beautiful women simply because they possess an ounce of the most basic human decency. There must be. I'm just happy I don't know that market personally. 

Because of the laundry list of my adolescence: shy, one of the few African-Americans in a largely white Catholic school, gay in an all-boys high-school - I'm drawn to stories about outsiders. Those who are habitually overlooked because they don't conform to established norms.
"I'd never contradict him."
I'm afraid my attitude about those times are reflected in the brand of "outsider" films which have become my favorites over the years: Carrie (shy teen kills entire senior class), That Cold Day in the Park (shy spinster kills for and imprisons sex slave); 3 Women (shy enigma engages in personality theft - deaths to follow)...you get the picture. Revenge fantasies rate rather high among disenfranchised groups, while those high on the status quo curve seem to enjoy "Hey! I'm not a total creep so reward me with my mandatory supermodel!"
The Heiress is my kind of tragic pop fairy-tale in that it tells the story of a woman duped into believing her happiness lies in having someone (a male) deem her to be worthy of love. Though her path one both cruel and life-alteringly painful, she arrives at a place of self-discovery, self-acceptance and, ultimately strength. 
And, conforming to the ambiguous tone of all that went before it, the ending of The Heiress can be viewed as either tragic or triumphant with no loss to the film's overall effectiveness and power.
"That's right Father. You never will know, will you?"
Olivia de Havilland's thorough and complete transformation from doting daughter to embittered adversary is as chilling as it is heartbreaking.

PERFORMANCES
When writing this essay, it came as something of a surprise to me to discover that I've only seen Olivia de Havilland in six films; four of them from her less-than-stellar, post- Lady in a Cage period. But this is more a reflection of the type of movies she appeared in (westerns, period adventure films...none particular favorites) than a reaction to the actress herself, who is still with us at age 99.
The Heiress represents Olivia de Havilland's 5th (and final) Oscar nomination
and 2nd win in the Best Actress category
Within my admittedly narrow sphere of exposure, I have nothing but admiration for her work in The Heiress. It cannot be an easy feat to imbue an outwardly plain, reactive character like Catherine with as much depth and feeling as de Havilland achieves. Perhaps a flaw in the play's structure is that it is impossible to adapt it in a way in which Catherine can ever be seen in a light reflective of how her father sees her (Wyler encourages us to identify and like Catherine.
Her comic resilience in the face of humiliation after humiliation wins us over). In our being able to so readily appraise and recognize Catherine's worth, her father becomes a villain before he gets a chance to show the sympathetic side of his case.(Marginally sympathetic, anyway. One can empathize with a man missing his wife, but to withhold affection from a motherless child due to repressed resentment or blame is cruel and tragic.). But as I've stated, the narrative tipping point falls to the casting of Morris, and whether or not the actor cast in the role is able to conceivably play sincerity and knavishness with equal credibility.
Recreating the role he played on the London stage, Ralph Richardson (knighted Sir in 1947)
is remarkable as the over-assured and unyielding Austin Sloper. The sureness of his performance
serves as the virtual touchstone for everyone else in the film 

I like Montgomery Clift  great deal, but if reports are true that he was deeply dissatisfied with his performance in The Heiress, I can't say his feelings are entirely unfounded. Simply put, he seems to be outclassed and a tad out of his depth when it comes to to the performances of de Havilland, Richardson, and Hopkins. To be sure, this could merely be an instance of clashing acting styles, his co-stars representing a more formal, old-guard style of acting to his more relaxed contemporary technique, but occasionally both Clift and his line readings have a tendency to come across as stiff an uncomfortable.

However, in his defense, Clift's very "otherness" in manner and speech (whether intentional or not) works marvelously within the context of the story. He's a character of whom we know not where the real person ends and artifice begins. The purpose his character serves in the story is to introduce impulse into the world of strict formality. Clift's awkwardness adds ambiguity.
Sizing Up The Interloper
Montgomery Clift's Method-era naturalness comes from somewhere so genuine, you don't entertain for a minute that he is not as he seems. His beauty is suspicious, but his behavior is not. He seems ill-suited to a certain level of showy artifice, so his scenes with de Havilland have a warmth that has you rooting for their union even as you sense it is ultimately impossible.
I like him a great deal in the film, even while recognizing his Morris Townsend is perhaps not one of his strongest performances.
As Audrey Hepburn did in Two for the Road, Olivia de Havilland is able to convey very distinct stages in the emotional maturation of her character simply through her facial expressions, body language, and voice modulation. Here, Catherine Sloper has grown into a woman at peace with herself 

THE STUFF OF FANTASY
The Heiress garnered a whopping eight Academy Award nominations in 1949: Best Picture, Director, Supporting Actor (Richardson), Cinematography - winning in the categories of Best Actress (de Havilland), Music (Aaron Copland..a matter of contention), Art Direction (J. Meehan, H. Horner, E. Kuri), and Costume Design (Edith head, Gile Steele).
I'm particularly fond of the costume design and art direction in The Heiress, which is truly gorgeous. Even more so with today's digital restorations and HD TV screens.

THE STUFF OF DREAMS
Adapted from a Broadway production, The Heiress shows its stage roots in being a somewhat stagy and talky motion picture more reliant on dialog, performance, and characterization than action. In this instance I wouldn't have it any other way, for The Heiress has such marvelous, quotable dialog.

"No child could compete with this image you have of her mother. You've idealized that poor dead woman beyond all human recognition." 

"Headaches! They strike like a thief in the night! Permit me to retire, of course. It's not like me to give in, dear, but sometimes fortitude is folly!"

"He must come. He must take me away. He must love me. He must!...Morris will love me, for all those who didn't."

"How is it possible to protect such a willing victim?"

"Yes, I can be very cruel. I have been taught by masters."

"I can tell you now what you have done. You have cheated me. You thought that any handsome, clever man would be as bored with me as you were. It was not love that made you protect me. It was contempt."



BONUS MATERIAL
Composer Aaron Copland's original music theme for The Heiress, before it was controversially reworked by Nathan Van Cleve under director William Wyler's orders.


Washington Square (1997): Agnieszka Holland - the director of the 2014 TV-movie remake of Rosemary's Baby - helmed this impressive-looking adaptation of Henry James' short novel starring Jennifer Jason Leigh, Albert Finney, and Maggie Smith. It's truer to the book than the either the play or the 1949 film, play, so purists should be happy. But in spite of the good performances and lovely cinematography, the film failed to stay with me very long after seeing it. Some are sure to prefer it to the William Wyler film, but it reminded me of the kind of faithful movie adaptation you're required to watch in a high school English class after having read the book.

The legendary 120 Music Masterpieces  TV commercial


Copyright © Ken Anderson

43 comments:

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    1. Oh!...that line! Love it. The first time I heard it, chills.

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  2. Amazingly, I've never seen this! Will check out my bible, Netflix!

    In regard to your comment about the more faithful remake, funny how sometimes those versions aren't as entertaining or memorable! Ever see Maggie Smith in the BBC remake of "Suddenly Last Summer?" You know her Aunt Violet is crazy from the start! And I remember Rob Lowe, who played the Clift part, smugly commenting on TV how theirs wasn't a glossy Hollywood version. Oh, tell us more, Zac Efron, Sr.!
    Rick

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    1. Hi Rick
      So true what you say about the sometimes false emphasis some people put on the fidelity issue of adaptations. I'd rather have a film which captures the feel of a novel (Kubrick's The Shining) than one which follows every sentence and still misses the point (Clayton's The Great Gatsby).
      Do you remember that awful "faithful" TV version The Shining Stephen Kind wrote? Please!!

      I saw that TV "Suddenly Last Summer"...talk about more delivering less. The more repressed Liz Taylor version was ten times as dramatically and erotically charged.
      By the way, your description of Rob Lowe as Zac Efron Sr is PERFECT! What a non-entity.

      Perhaps when you check out William Wyler's film, you'll be inspired to give the "faithful" version a look. Would be interested in your thoughts. Thank you, Rick!

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  3. Although he's one of my favorite novelists, Henry James does not always adapt well to the cinema because so much of what goes on in his books is of a mental/interior nature. I like THE HEIRESS but I disassociate it from WASHINGTON SQUARE. So much more happens in a physical way in TH than in WS.

    Crazy analogy time: Catherine's situation reminds me in a way of Cristina Onassis's. Just like Catherine, Cristina Onassis was a wealthy heiress who was always told by her father that her lack of physical beauty would result in only fortune hunters being interested in her. This became a self-fulfilling prophecy with Cristina knowingly entering relationships with men who were there only for her money. In a way, Catherine makes a tougher but more self-loving decision: she may be alone, but she'll be alone on her own terms.

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    1. Hi Deb
      The Cristina Onassis analogy is really excellent, and thanks for reminding me of it. Our culture's attitude about the rich (that they are not nearly as happy as we poor folk) always seems to seek reinforcement with stories like "The Heiress" (myth) and realities like Cristina Onassis. happily the rich wind up giving us endless fodder (Trump and his grotesque brood of "The Purge" lookalikes).

      As for Henry James, I've only ever read Daisy Miller and Washington Square, but I like how the films have enriched my being able to visualize the worlds he described, which indeed are quite rich in the inner life of his characters.
      Thanks for bringing up such a vivid evocation of a real-life "Heiress" scenario, Deb!

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  4. Great post on this lovely film; you've highlighted so much of what makes this film watchable over and over--such as the hope that, in spite of all common sense, Morris really does love Catherine. As you note, audiences can see Catherine's real warmth and wit in her private moments, and have such sympathy for her. It's always, always such a bitter moment when Morris doesn't show up while she waits.

    My sense about Clift in the movie is that he looks absolutely right for the part, but that every time he speaks, his slightly slurred mid-20th-century diction rather spoils the effect (probably in contrast to the more precise, now old-fashioned diction of his co-stars). Yet he so perfectly captures the character's ambiguity, and has the remarkable effect of seeming to appear in a different light depending on the other character's point of view of him. Thus he's romantic with Catherine, weak and sly with Dr Sloper, and rather gay and heartless with the aunt; so my own point of view, watching from the audience, keeps shifting. It seems a remarkable confluence of Clift's performance and Wyler's direction.

    The film's ending gets me every time: just watching de Havilland take her time over her embroidery, and then calculatedly snip that last thread while Clift pounds at the door; there's the satisfaction of revenge, but also the regret at how this woman's life has been damaged irrevocably by the cruelty shown to her...

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    1. Hi GOM
      Well-articulated appreciation of the many ways the narrative of The Heiress engages as solid storytelling.
      We feel similary about Clift, but I like how you point out how his character seems to take on a different light depending on the other character's point of view.
      This is something I totally experience every time i see the film, yet I'm never sure if it is by design or a by product of Clift's performance and the interesting of the other players.
      Whatever it is, I think it is precisely why it works so well.
      I read the novel many years after I saw the filma nd was stunned by how the ending differs. When I saw the true ending rendered in the 1997 film Washington Square, it only solidified my appreciation for the "dramatic" ending applied to the play.
      By the way, since I know you're so knowledgeable about classic films. Do you have any idea whether or not Vincente Minnelli's "Madame Bovary" stole this film's terrific scene where Catherine waits in vain for Morris? Jennifer Jones goes through a similar ordeal over Louis Jordan in a scene which doesn't appear in the Flaubert novel. Both films came out the same year, so perhaps it was borrowed from the Broadway production of "The Heiress", but they just seem too similar to be a coincidence.
      Thanks for your insights, GOM!

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    2. I'm flattered by what you think is my knowledge of classic films, so I'm sorry to say that I don't know if there is a connection between those 2 scenes in these 2 films. Both films came out the same year, so I'm assuming that one director wasn't copying from another. It's an interesting and striking similarity; maybe Minelli says something about it in his autobiography.

      Per your mention of the Copland score, I recall a tv program once on Copland where someone on the program said that Copland's music during Catherine's waiting scene "saved" that scene; it seems that during previews audiences laughed, so Copland composed music to make it more dramatic. However, reading about the changes Wyler wanted to Copland's score (re-orchestrating it, etc), I wonder how much of the music now heard is actually Copland's.

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    3. Thanks for responding. you and your blog are a great source for classic film info (as per your comments on Copland's music above - which i hadn't known), but I think my question is more in the realm of trivia.
      Perhaps if the Madame Bovary DVD has one of those film historian commentary tracks...hmm

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  5. Good essay on a good movie. But you are right - MC was a bit out of his league. Clift has an air of indolence about him that includes his diction. Olivia is excellent in her role as the hopeful Catherine whose dreams are crushed with bitter reality.

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    1. Hi Bella
      Yes, what you speak of seems to happen a lot with period films made these days. I remember the first time I saw Scorsese's The Age of Innocence and heard Winona Ryder speak in her flat, contemporary voice. Yikes!
      Clift isn't that bad (not really bad at all) he just seems ill at ease with the more formal language.
      Had his character not been conceived as something of ambiguous personality, I think he would have come off much worse. As it is, I think he fits nicely with the way the film strikes me.
      And yes, Olivia is marvelous in her role. She does quite a remarkable job.
      I tank you for reading my post and especially for commenting!

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  6. Hi Ken,

    Terrific write-up on a movie I can honestly say I adore. It truly is a film designed for grownups, sharpening and refining the James novel, which left me rather flat at the end, and really pulls the audience in.

    Olivia’s work digs so deep into Catherine’s emotional life. She communicates everything subtlety but clearly as she reveals the many layers of Catherine during her evolution from doormat to bruised and wary but empowered woman. There’s far too many instances to mention but I think my favorite is the realization scene with her father where in one fluid moment the shell she’s build up against his scorn shatters and not only her demeanor but her voice changes as she sinks into a chair and her girlhood vanishes forever.

    She’s the engine of the piece and a fine sleek one but she is surrounded by so much quality that it heightens rather than distracts from her work. Ralph Richardson is simply great as her thoughtlessly cruel father, hinting that in his own obtuse way he has no understanding of what he thinks of as protecting his daughter is actually crippling her and his malice towards her something he doesn't comprehend. It’s a tricky line that he traverses expertly, to the viewer it’s apparent he finds her a maladroit simp but it you were to confront him he would surely say he merely is looking for the best for her and in his bizarre, twisted and wholly inefficient way he does care for her.

    Miriam Hopkins is perfectly cast as the flighty Aunt Lavinia Penniman, her fluttery gestures making her seem more vapid than she really is. There’s that fantastic scene between Dr. Sloper, Lavinia and their other sister Elizabeth, Selena Royale does a lot with her small role, where the sisters see the opportunity that Morris provides for Catherine but he refuses to, that clarifies the relationship of the entire family and his inability to see beyond his own view point no matter the cost. The sad truth is that Morris would probably have made Catherine a good husband, content as he would be living the rich life her money would provide, and she a good wife to him since her love at that point is so complete.

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    1. Hi Joel
      Nice to read your thoughts on this film I've enjoyed for many years. Olivia de Havilland does have so many memorable moments.Repeat viewings reveal just how accomplished her performance is.
      You've provided a lot of great examples, each helpfully highlighting the moments in the film to watch out for.
      (I too had the experience of the novel's ending leaving me flat). Movies like "The Heiress" exemplify for me the art of adaptation: the original work and the collaborative artistry of the filmmakers should produce a third, equally valid artistic work. What's the point of a doggedly faithful copy? That's what I use my imagination for when I read.
      Thank you, Joel!

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  7. If there is a weaker link it is Montgomery Clift. He gives a sly performance, his natural beauty aiding in the belief that he could be a rake living off his looks, but his work just isn’t as complex as the rest. I’ve read that he didn’t like the character of Morris and only accepted grudgingly recognizing the quality of the project. He also didn’t get on with either Olivia or Richardson often behaving like a moody brat. He was at least enough of a pro though to give an efficient performance and he’s so physically suited to the part that he fits well in the overall fabric of the story.

    It is very much a performance piece but all this superior work would be for naught were it not for Wyler’s sure handed direction that keeps the sometimes heavy dramatics feeling personal and involving. He knows just where to place the camera for maximum effect. If we didn’t see Catherine’s face as the door is bolted for instance the import of the scene would be lost.

    But really without Olivia’s central performance the film would be so much less, to me it’s one of the best Oscar winning performances man or woman in the academy’s long history. I’m somewhat shocked that you’ve only seen six of her films! I’m guessing that three of the others beside this are Gone with the Wind, Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte and Lady in a Cage but I’m curious what the other two would be? Perhaps one of her TV movies “The Screaming Woman” or “Murder is Easy” when her speech pattern had altered so that you hear violins whenever she talks.

    Since you don’t care for Westerns or period adventures you might want to check out Four’s a Crowd, The Strawberry Blonde, Hold Back the Dawn, To Each His Own (if you can find it!!) or the wildly bizarre, and in parts borderline icky, In This Our Life where she and Bette Davis play sisters Roy and Stanley Timberlake of her films. There’s also Light in the Piazza from her later period which isn’t bad and The Snake Pit which is terribly dated but she gives a strong performance.

    I’ve never noticed the music you mention somehow, I hope it won’t haunt me now whenever I watch!!

    I’ve avoided Washington Square for years despite the presence of Maggie Smith in the film because of my great indifference to Jennifer Jason Leigh. I know that many cineastes think she’s amazing but frankly I’m baffled by that finding her dreary and one-note almost without exception.

    Glad you turned you eye on one of my favorite films anxious to see what will pop up next!

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    1. The other two de Havilland films are "Thank your Lucky Stars" where she is just a cameo guest star (performing a jitterbug tune), and "The Swarm" in which she gives one of the worst performances I've ever seen anyone give...and so I love it.

      I can't imagine you enjoying the Jennifer Jason Leigh "Washington Square" except academically, merely to examine the differences in focus and choices. As I said, I struggled to remember parts of it not long after I saw it (I had a similar experience with the forgettable recent Madame Bovary with Mia Wasikowska. As talented as she is, she was no woman...she looked like a little girl playing dress up).
      Thanks for the de Havilland recommendations which I hope to someday check out.
      A pleasure as always, Joel! Thanks!

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    2. "Light in the Piazza" is one of my favorites among DeHavilland's films. She is touching and intelligent in it, and shows her knack for light comedy as well. Although some quibble with the resolution to the film, its tackling of the question of rights for the mentally handicapped was ahead of its time.

      "In This Our Life" is great fun. DeHavilland has some wonderful moments in it and her warm, steadfast performance is a great counterweight to Bette Davis is highflung, super bitch mode. Plus you get Frank Craven, Billie Burke and Charles Coburn, all superb character actors, adding to the texture.

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    3. Thanks for sharing your favorites, Shawn. I keep hearing so much good about "Piazza" I really got to check it out someday.

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  8. Hi Ken - thank you for covering one of my all-time favorite films; it's one of Wyler's very best. I am so sorry to hear that you do not care for either Elvis's Can't Help Falling in Love or The Joy Of Love...there's no accounting for taste and I love you anyway ;-)

    I do agree though that Clift is a tad too modern and "new breed" for the role of Morris, and his vibe is out of step with the classic stars he's surrounded with...but maybe that adds to the subtext.

    I did not realize that de Havilland was only three years older than Clift...the way she is made up, she seems much, much older, which I think works very well for the story. They truly are such an odd couple that it is hard to believe that he really loves her. Yet Catherine's aunt and others want desperately to believe that she can find happiness. And though Olivia and Monty's styles are very different, they have a real chemistry in their scenes together, I believe--to me, it works. (And I always want Catherine to open the door at the end and let Morris in, and am heartbroken when she hardens her heart.)

    Another brilliant essay, Ken, on one of my most beloved favorites. Visiting your blog ALWAYS makes me feel like a Stranger in Paradise...and I have not thought of that commercial in years, but of course I remember!
    Best as always,
    Chris

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    1. Ha! "There's no accounting for taste..."? - don't be so hard on yourself, Chris - Elvis' song isn't THAT bad! ;-)

      Yes, I think this movie is one of Wyler's best, too. So well-constructed and cast that even the small complaints that seem to be piling up about Mr. Clift still manage to work in the film's favor.
      In all likelihood, with a more formal kind of actor in the role (like onetime de Havilland co-star Errol Flynn, who was a consideration for a time) "The Heiress" may have lost a bit of its character complexity and ambiguity. In some ways Clift's ill-fit (ironically) might have been just the thing to rescue "The Heiress" from the routine.

      Thanks very much for the kind words, Chris. And though we joke with one another, I want to clarify for others and new visitors to this blog that a cornerstone of my site is my belief that all of our film tastes are merely different – not better or worse.
      Unlike IMDB where everyone spends more time expressing what they think of someone else’s tastes than merely sharing their own; I like to think of the comment section here as a safety zone where “film criticism” is demystified. It’s subjective opinion, no more, no less. No one person’s tastes, preferences, or opinions are better, or more cultured than another. They are just different.
      “No accounting for taste” can sound patronizing; being “sorry” someone doesn’t see eye to eye with us can come off presumptuous, etc.
      I enjoy when people talk about their experience of a film, not expressing a value judgment about someone else’s.

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    2. Thanks, Ken, I meant that comment to be playful and humorous...and I too love the diversity of opinion and feelings about our shared pop culture experience.

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    3. I understood, Chris. That's why I felt safe teasing you a bit with the opening. But I didn't want anyone unfamiliar with how far we go back to misunderstand.
      You all have done so much to make the comments section the aspect of the blog I get the most complimentary personal emails about. Everyone loves how well-informed, respectful, and open with one another you are. I do too!
      Thank you, Chris.

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  9. Can I confess that I can never hear "Stranger in Paradise" without thinking of that commercial? At the time that commercial was on the air, I don't think I'd sen DIAL M FOR MURDER, so I knew that actor solely from those commercials. Remember the old joke--the definition of "class" is hearing the William Tell Overture and not immediately thinking of the Lone Ranger?

    I was watching a very obscure (to me at least) Myrna Loy movie on TCM called THIRD FINGER LEFT HAND and at several points in the movie the music to "Over the Rainbow" could be heard, in fact Myrna even hums along at one point. It's interesting to see how what we now regard as "iconic" music went through various iterations before acquiring classic status.

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    1. I love that "Lone Ranger" remark! it hits right to the core of those public domain classic songs. Judge Judy's use of Beethoven's Fifth has done a similar number on me.
      I was telling a friend recently that I don't know who to blame- Carly Simon or the ketchup company - but I can't hear the song "Anticipation" without thinking of that Heinz ketchup commercial. Nearly ruined the song for me (like Bowie's "Changes" being used in that diaper commercial...c'mon! what Mad Ave. madman thought of that?)
      In a vein similar to your Myrna Loy reference, there's this Albert Finney movie called "Gumshoe" from 1971 that Andrew Lloyd Webber wrote the score for. Virtually no one saw it. Almost 20 years later he uses the main theme for the title tune of his musical "Sunset Blvd".
      I hear the tune now and ONLY think of Sunset Blvd although I saw the film long before. Strange, that.

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  10. Whenever I think of "The Heiress," I think of the three-cornered aggravation that they stars had with one another. Clift thinking so little of de Havilland as an actress, Richardson doing everything he could think of when not speaking to distract from his young costars, de Havilland feeling thwarted by Richardson and shut out completely by Clift and his Method experimentation. (Then throw in the built-in scene-stealer Miriam Hopkins!) Fortunately, Clift's veil of dismissal towards de Havilland helped to steel her own performance as an unloved woman on the cusp of spinsterhood and Wyler cut Richardson out of the frame during many of his improvisational fiddlings on the sidelines. It's like these people were all at cross purposes, sometimes indulgently, but it came together on screen in a sterling, classic way! Interesting to note, also, that the movie was not a success at the box office upon first release. It was ahead of its time in many ways (including the score, pre-butchering.) I enjoy Olivia in most of the things she did be it her Errol Flynn romps (he was an early choice for the Clift role with Basil Rathbone also in contention for Richardson's part, which would have made for a "Robin Hood" reunion!) or her 1940s melodramas right through her later days in all sorts of campy or gently sleazy fluff. And I could spend hours listening to her talk about her career. Her hilarious delivery - still sharp as a tack - with raised eyebrow never fails to delight!

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    1. Hi Poseidon
      thanks for sharing with everyone the behind-the-scenes acrimony that went into the making of this outwardly serene classic. i've loved this film for years, but only when researching this piece (thanks, internet) did I learn of all that went on. You'd never guess!
      There's that old axiom though, when people have a great time making a movie, the fun almost never shows up on scree; when there is some behind the scenes tension, sometimes the actors use it and the result is dynamite.
      Perhaps that doesn't work with a lot of movies, but in "The Heiress" the characters are love starved, avaricious, cold, and flighty...perhaps those cross purposes delivered the goods. Such an assemblage of talent!
      I remember seeing clips of de Havilland on TCM talking about her films. She does does come across as a rather delightful ol' gal. Very likable. Thanks for all the info, Poseidon. I know readers visitors to the site love what they learn in the comments section.

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  11. Argyle here. Yes! Your analysis is so good. For me, there’s the sense that Catherine has this practically invisible “damage” that has been nurtured in this hothouse on Washington Square. It’s kind of hard to understand and buy (she’s rich, not bad looking, well positioned, well dressed) but I guess we’re all prisoners to our own self-perception. Some can shake it off (sorry to use that phrase) but others have a much harder time. As I get older, I see that in myself and in some other people, too. And then other people seem so free - or is it obliviousness? So she ends up trapped in the house; she wins - but.

    As we’ve discussed before, Miriam Hopkins is remarkable. Performances like that seem so modern to me. I think I first became aware of Ralph Richardson in “Greystoke” and from then on if he was in something, I watched. I can’t define what he achieves, I just want to see it. “The Fallen Idol” from around the same time is also great.

    I have seen the Agnieszka Holland/Jennifer Jason Leigh version and think it’s worth it. There are moments when JJL makes Catherine seem like a total doofus and it’s shocking (how did this get on film?!) But for me it works. No studio smoothing here. And you understand the heavy burden of having Anthony Hopkins as a father. There was no point in doing it beautifully again. Oddly, I barely remember Maggie Smith, but Judith Ivey makes an impression. It’s an odd film. One moment that has always stuck with me (I think it’s from the JJL version but I sort of transpose it into the Wyler version) is when Doctor Sloper is sick, in bed, someone spreads straw on the pavement out in front of the house presumably to dampen the sound of carriages going by. Maybe that’s in the book or maybe the production designer was really on their game, maybe it’s not even historically accurate. For me it’s such an evocative and engrossing detail. I want straw spread on the street when I’m on my way out!!

    Thank you, Ken!

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    1. Hello Argyle
      Such an interesting point you make about Catherine's self-perception. I've known several people in my life (either women or gay men) who are physically attractive, kind and caring people of wit and intelligence- but because they grew up in environments where they were not valued, they internalized other's perceptions of them (usually parents). No matter what the mirror reflected, they always saw themselves through their parent's disappointed eyes.
      The conveyance of this is an area where I really think de Havilland shines. She has the look of an eager to please puppy whenever she's around her father (watch how she practically glows at the party when the father of (her cousin?) compliments his soon-to-wed daughter.
      You know in an instant these are words she's never heard her father utter.
      I've hardly seen any Ralph Richardson films, I sense I'm missing something.

      Nice to hear you think fondly of the 1997 film. Perhaps you'll encourage some others to check it out, as my dim memory has not been helpful.
      I know in "The Heiress" film Dr. Sloper makes mention of wanting straw to be laid down if the street noises grow to loud when he's ill, but it's never shown. It's mentioned in the book as well, Perhaps the only time it's actually shown is in the Jennifer Jason Leigh version. In which case, I'm with you. I wouldn't mind the whole street "softened" for my benefit when i'm on my way out!
      Thanks, Argyle!

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  12. If I'm slightly baffled by the comments about Monty it's only because a) I am a huge fan of his without reservations and b) it's been years since I saw The Heiress. But overall I'm echoing your sentiments about the movie and Olivia de Havilland's performance. I most of all remember the feeling the ending gave me, it seemed so empowering and made me want to do a fist pump out of the jubilation I felt about Catherine's coming to her own.

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    1. Hi Sandra
      So sorry that your first comment on this blog is attendant to a Montgomery Clift bashing, but if you'll look below, you'll see a slight shift in the tide.
      The first time I saw "The Heiress" I had a similar response as you to the film's ending. In fact I really relish all the scenes where Catherine shows her hardened side. It is such a departure from what we've been exposed to, it proves to be the most fascinating transformation.
      Perhaps you'll give this film another look-see in the future and let us know if your memories do it justice. Wonderful to hear from you and have you as part of "the group"! Thanks!

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  13. Every frame of The Heiress commands respect. Everyone from the hair dresser on up (down?), except possibly Clift, seems to have hit the top of their game when they walked onto this set.

    I came to it very late. In 1995, Lincoln Center revived the play, directed by the late (GREAT) Gerald Gutierrez and starring Cherry Jones as Catherine Sloper. This was the role that lifted her up from supporting roles and replacements and made her a bona fide Broadway star. Gutierrez was a master and he and Jones created so many memorable moments - with the help of the one and only Frances Sternhagen as Lavinia. I had not seen the film and after seeing this splendid production, I did not want to. Only last year, I found a DVD at a thrift shop for a buck. What the hell, right? And it turns out that the film, too, is memorably good.

    It is always argued that film is a director's medium. I'll not discount the importance of the director's contribution, but being a contrarian, I am certain that every performing art is inevitably the author's medium. Otherwise, after Giselle or Carmen come onto the stage... what? It all goes back to the author. Everyone else in the author's service. This property is so well written it will be revisited, successfully, for years to come. It's a wonderful thing that Hollywood rose to the occasion when a really outstanding and theatrical script came its way. Olivia de Havilland can proud of her work in this film until the day she dies. It's just as fresh as ever.

    Thanks for making me think about it again. So much there to respect.

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    1. Hi George
      Although I didn't have the opportunity to see it, I remember well the Cherry Jones production you speak of. Kind of marvelous for you to have come to see the film adaptation the way many did in 1949 - AFTER having seen it on the stage.
      I've never seen any stage production of "The Heiress", but every review states that the play makes obvious (like the book) that Morris is a cad from the outset.
      I've often wondered how that foreknowledge would play for me.
      Like the point you make about the often-neglected author's contribution. "The Heiress" is very well written, but like you say, everyone assembled seemed to be at the top of their game on this one.
      Thanks for sharing your memory of seeing the Broadway revival. It must have been incredible.

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  14. Dear Ken: Posts like this are why I absolutely love your blog! To frame your observations about this sterling drama within a memory of that "Musical Masterpieces" commercial--brilliant!

    (I remember that commercial so well. I know at least two of the other excerpted melodies in it were "Tonight We Love," taken from Tchaikovsky and "Full Moon and Empty Arms" from Rachmaninoff.)

    Earlier commenters have done an excellent job explaining why "The Heiress" is so brilliant. But for me, the movie kind of snuck up on me. I've seen it just three times: once when I was in college, when it didn't make much of an impression; once about 15 years ago with my parents, when I thought, "You know, that movie isn't bad at all"; and then about two years ago, when my husband and I decided it was a "keeper" for our DVD collection.

    One thing the movie really gets right for me (apart from the superb performances) is the meticulous period recreation. If the 1850s weren't like they are depicted in the movie, they SHOULD have been! The attention to detail in the film is wonderful--look at that needlepoint under the opening credits--perfect!

    Odd, though, that Wyler asked for Copland's music for the film score to be re-worked. Two years later in Wyler's "Carrie," composer David Raksin did a score in exactly the same style as Copland's rejected one. (Raksin's "Carrie" score is one of my favorite film scores ever.)

    Despite the disagreement about the quality of Clift's performance, this was the film that really made him a big star. Dreamy high school girls absolutely swooned when they saw him on the screen. I should know--my late mother was one of those girls, and she told me about it (years later, of course!). My mom had quite the knack for running into celebrities whenever she was in a large city, and her prize "running into" memory was the time she saw Montgomery Clift. She was in Los Angeles in the mid-1950s and she and her college friend were trying to hail a cab after a day of sight-seeing. They flagged one down, and a dark-haired man who apparently hadn't seen them got into the cab first. Then he turned and saw them, and she realized it was Clift. He apologized and asked if they wanted to share the cab ride with him. My mother was so dumb-founded--Clift was absolutely her favorite actor--that she just stood there with mouth agape. So he closed the cab door and it drove away. Later, in one of the Clift biographies, I read that he had a habit of imitating for friends the dopey women fans who would just stare at him with their mouths open. I had to take umbrage at that story; after all, one of those women was my mother!

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    1. Hey David
      What an absolutely adorable story about your mom! And you tell it so beautifully- bringing the event to vivid life for us all, topping it off with a sweetly comic coda at the end.
      There's something so endearing in a parent sharing a memory of their youth with their child (just mention the name Billy Eckstein and my mom would instantly morph into her teenage self right before my eyes.)

      Montgomery Clift definitely makes for a very swoon-worthy suitor in "The Heiress," so beyond the pale in the looks department that no one ever questions the swiftness with which Catherine is swept off of her feet.
      i think I've only really come to appreciate the look of "The Heiress" with the advent of HD TV. It always seemed a handsome film, but with all the detail rendered today in the costumes and art direction, a since of time of place is impressively rendered.

      I have a DVD copy of Wyler's "Carrie"...I've never noted the music score Now you've peaked my interest in seeing it again.
      Lastly, thanks for the kind words about the blog, and I laughed at your being able to remember that commercial (and those classic songs) as well! Thank you, David!

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  15. I grew up listening to those albums! My parents had them, and for all I know, they might might be still stored inside their huge 1970's stereo (which has been inoperable for decades and I long to get repaired). Congratulations, you've found the soundtrack to my childhood! Albeit interspersed with Schoolhouse Rock songs and various odd noises off the Krofft Supershow. As my Tumblr tag goes, "if you want to know why I am the way I am, just remember that I am the product of a 1970's childhood." Speaking of Tumblr, are you guywoodhouse there? Because I've been thinking I need to send that person a thank-you for introducing me to your blog!

    When "Can't Help Falling in Love" is referenced, the version instantly playing in my head is Klaus Nomi's! Not one of his better covers, IMO, but given the heartbreakingly minimal state of his catalog, I treasure every song that he gave us. If Klaus can dislodge Elvis out of my head, maybe he can do the same for you?

    I completely concur with all the comments here about Montgomery Clift's performance. I never found him convincing in any period role precisely because of his mid-twentieth-century diction (and had the same problem with Winona Ryder, too!). But then again, I'm the kind of shallow person who watches Raintree County just to compare which scenes were shot before and after the accident, so... ;)

    Before the Oscars the other night, a friend and I were discussing career/"paid yer dues" Oscars, like the one we thought Sylvester Stallone might win. My final assertion was that if they are giving Oscars for longevity, then Olivia de Havilland should get another one simply for still being with us here in 2016!

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    1. Hello Lila
      Yes, I'm guyWoodhouse on Tumblr. I only wish there were a stranger willing to plug my blog as aggressively in that forum. I didn't know that's how you came to find me here, so it's nice to know all those posts paid off in this case!
      You're right in designating this commercial the soundtrack to your childhood, for few others can relate to how odd it is to have the memory of the SAME commercial playing on television from freshman year in high school all the way through college and moving out of the house. They sure got their money's worth from that initial shooting session with John Williams.

      No wonder those songs are somewhat hotwired into my head (and I'd have to add Joe Raposo's "The Electric Company" songs to our shared memory of Kroft and Schoolhouse Rock) and I too believe my parents owned a copy of the classical collection. The LP covers were of surprisingly low-grade cardboard, and listening to the albums left one with the distinct feeling of being given condensed, Readers Digest versions of the actual compositions.
      I've never hear Klaus Nomi's version of "Can't Help Falling in Love" so I'll give it a listen on YouTube. However, I don't hold out much hope. Even the A-Teens cover of the song didn't dislodge Elvis from my head during my aerobic instructor days. And I heard that version nearly every day for a year.

      You made me laugh with your "Raintree County" comment because I am guilty of the same thing! I'm glad you mentioned that film because Clift doesn't bother me at all in that period film. Perhaps in part because everyone from Robert Taylor to Eva Marie Saint (and of course, La Liz) feels so contemporary. There's an old studio-system style to the action in "The Heiress" that just feels right in everybody but the gorgeous Clift.

      And yes, stars like Olivia de Havilland deserve some kind of "I'm still here!" survival Oscar.
      Thanks, Lila!

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  16. Hi Ken,

    My guy and I watched "The Heiress" this weekend. We both had tears in our eyes when it was over! Olivia was terrific and richly deserved that second Oscar.

    One thing that impresses me about William Wyler is how straightforward and economical he was in his directing: the story is the star, his stars don't go over the top, etc. I think that's why Wyler's best, like "The Heiress" and "The Best Years of Our Lives" still hold up and don't seem dated.

    My fella is a good bit younger than me and he's lovin' and learning about classic Hollywood films. After remarking how good Olivia was as Catherine, he said the only other actress he could think of who could play the role was Bette Davis. I filled him in on why Wyler finally had enough of rangling and reining Queen Bette in after 3 films, especially after their famous falling out over "The Little Foxes."

    But you know what? In a parallel universe, where Bette didn't become a big hambone, I think Davis might have made a divine Catherine Sloper!

    Cheers, and thank you for reminding me of this movie!

    Rick

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  17. Another terrific thoughtful essay. Regarding the infusion of classical music into popular entertainment, I had a similar experience recently when I checked out a Chopin cd from the public library. I was listening to a selection called "Fantaisie-Impromptu" when about a third of the way through I started hearing the melody of "I'm Always Chasing Rainbows", a song Judy Garland sings in "Ziegfeld Girl". I'm pretty sure there are strains of the same melody during one of the driving scenes in "Detour" as well, but I'd have to watch it again to be sure. In the same vein, I was also reminded of the song "Aura Lee" that Frances Farmer sings in "Come and Get It", which was worked into "Love Me Tender" many years later. Anyway, just thought I'd share that with you. Keep up the good work.

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    1. Hi Rich
      Glad you enjoyed the essay! I'm so glad you mentioned "Come and Get It", a favorite film of mine I haven't seen in some time, but in this context (classical music themes in pop culture) I'm surprised it hadn't come to mind sooner.
      "Aura Lee" has the exact same effect on me in that film that "The Joys of Love" has on me in this; the Elvis connection in my mind throws me right out of the era.
      I doubt if young people would have the same problem, but I'm old enough for the Elvis songs to have been part of my childhood soundtrack far longer than I acquaintance with these marvelous films.
      You have a good memory in this area, because I think you're right about "Detour" as well...and again, you gave provided an excellent example of this phenomenon.

      This leads me to thinking of how TV commercials sometimes cheapen pop songs that have become classics. It took ages for me to be able to listen to Carly Simon's "Anticipation" without thinking of those damn ketchup commercials from the 70s.
      Thank you very much for your thoughtful and engaging comment!

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    2. Thanks for the nice response. I have only been reading your blog for a short while but I noticed right away how nice you are in responding to comments. You treat the people that comment like they are contributors and it's very commendable. Yes, I remember that "Anticipation" commercial so well and like you it took many years to hear the song without connecting the two. I remember another commercial, this one from the early 80's I think, that used a notable song--it was an ad for Murphy's Oil Soap set to the tune of that old fiddle tune "Turkey in the Straw". More than thirty years later I can sing most of the lyrics. "I've been using Murphy's oil soap on cedar oak and pine, now the dirt is finished but the finish is fine!" Because it was set to a song I knew as a kid that jingle burrowed into my brain like the "Night Gallery" earwig. Anyway, looking forward to reading more of your essays in the future as I enjoy your insight.

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    3. That's awfully kind of you to notice, Rich. Thank you. I genuinely feel (and know from feedback) that the comments section is very enjoyable to a great many readers because everybody seems to be so knowledgeable and/or so in love with film. Aside from being grateful anyone takes the time, I do see the comments as contributing to the whole.

      Now as for that "Murphy's Oil Soap" ad...I hadn't thought of that for ages, and, of course, the memory of it got stuck in my head! Happily, nobody seems to write catchy jungles anymore...I don't have as much time to forget them as I used to. Thanks again, Rich!

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  18. never thought anyone loved the heiress as much as i. i could watch it everyday and twice on sunday? what's not to love? olivia de haviland is superb and this is truly my favorite movie with her and she gets a brighter spotlight than she had in her oscar winning role in gone with the wind. montgomery clift. what can i say about montgomery clift except that i love him radically and i have always loved him. i often believe that he was cad in the movie because the script said he was a cad. what he told catherine about not wanting to cost her fortune and inheritance makes perfect sense. it's not like he left her and found another other duckling heiress. he became an unglamorous merchant marine for christ's sake. $10,000 a year during the turn of the century was the equivalent of $100,000 a year today. he still would have had more money as her husband than he did as a merchant marine. i believe catherine made a huge mistake not forgiving him for his human frailty. everybody natters on about her victory at the end of the movie. what victory praytell? she ended up alone and unloved just like her spiteful father predicted for her at the beginning of the movie. thanks again for sharing your thoughts. a kindred spirit is always a joy to behold.

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    1. Hello!
      It's a real kick to read about your enthusiasm for this movie, and I thank you for sharing your thoughts with us here.
      It really IS one of the most watchable films, isn't it? And your feelings about its denouement point to the wise choice the filmmakers made in not making the motivations of Clift's character not as explicit as they are in the novel.
      I think the film works and endures because it works its magic on each of us in different ways: allowing us to hiss him as a villain if we like, or respond to the emotions of the story and charm of the cast and arrive at a different conclusion.
      Thank you you reading this post and for your insights born of seeing this film so often and harboring such a fondness for it.

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