I would to thank Kristina (Speakeasy) and Ruth (Sliver Screenings) for hosting this blogathon: Things I Learned at the Movies. I really enjoyed writing on this topic
To say movies can make an impression or can teach people life lessons is an understatement, especially for an adolescent. Many describe a youth’s ability to absorb knowledge to that of a sponge since they are always looking for information in order to understand the world around them. The prime problem is they used flawed judgement and logic. This frontal part of the brain does not completely develop until they are well through their teens. That is probably why the movie, The Heiress (1949) haunted me for most of my life while it taught me a few important lessons about the complexities of human relationships and a woman’s role in relation to her power.
In 1969, my perception of a woman’s role was heavily influenced as I read and viewed two wonderful classics at the tender age of 14. Like most of my peers, I avoided watching anything in black and white; unless, it was a featurette like Our Gang, The Three Stooges, Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello or Charlie Chaplin movie clips. In other words, I only watched the slap stick comedies. The Heiress was the first drama I watched on the sliver screen, at least from beginning to end. It was during the time that I daydreamed of what it would be like to be an adult. How easy life would be when I became independent and make my own decisions. What little did I know then.
If you have not seen the movie, The Heiress, I warn you; there are spoilers ahead. If you have not seen it, I urge any movie lover to watch it. This movie was nominated for eight Academy Awards. It won four: Best Actress in a Drama (second Oscar for Olivia de Havilland) Best Original score by Alan Copeland, Best Art Direction and Best Costume Design.
It was directed by William Wyler (Little Foxes, 1941 and The Best Years of Our Lives, 1946). Wyler is considered one of greatest directors even today. Besides Olivia de Hallivand’s Oscar winning performance, it also included the third film for newcomer and hottie, Montgomery Clift. He was cast as the fortune hunter. He is the charming and dashing, Morris Townsend. It was adapted to screen by married couple, Augustus and Ruth Goetz. Their play, then screen play, was adapted from a magazine article, later a book, by Henry James: Washington Square. James claimed it was based on a true story told to him by a friend. Enough said, if you haven’t seen, please do.
So, in the late 60s, I was home trying ok to read the “boring” Odyssey by Homer. It was a Freshman English assignment. Poor Penelope, weaving that tapestry by day and taking it apart at night. While these horrible men, suitors who took over her home, are destroying her property during their drunken partying. They demanded, by ancient Greek law, for her to choose a new husband. Once she is married, her new husband would possess and own all her property and titles and even her, herself. Women were considered the property of their fathers or husbands. I was so happy to be living in modern times in the southern state of Florida. Women even had the right to vote, though it was not encouraged. Yet, even in the 60s a woman still needed the signature of her father or husband to open a checking account.
Lesson One: Nothing is written in stone that cannot be changed; no matter how long it’s been done or how splendidly advanced the item or thinking.
Penelope was compelled to promised to choose one of the invading house guests as a husband. She had only one small request: She would be allowed to complete a tapestry before she had to choose. She successfully bought time to think and find a solution. To increase her time and advantage, every night, she would secretly unravel the work she did during the day. She was Odysseus’ widow. A widow with no proof her husband, King of Ithaca, was dead. A widow who still loved her husband very much but has not seen him for twenty years due to the Trojan War. To a teenager in angst, this is the ultimate romance. So, for any Outlander fans who happened upon this blog, I want you to know that I really “get” Jamie and Claire who are still madly in love after twenty years and two centuries apart.
Lesson Two: Real heroes are regular people who do miraculous things during desperate times.
Since this Blogathon is about what we learned through the movies, I have to explain why I even watched a black and white movie at fourteen. Although Penelope’s challenges intrigued me at the time, I still would rather do anything then keep reading that archaic story. With decision-making skill on target, I turned on the television
There she was: a plain Jane with no self-confidence but possibly intelligence and a seemingly broken spirit. Yes, I identified with Catherine Sloper (Olivia de Havilland) immediately. In just a few minutes, I understood her and her predicament with a domineering parent. Unlike me, she was an only child. She carried the guilt of her mother dying due to her birth. Catherine’s father, Doctor Austin Sloper (Ralph Richardson), will not let her forget that his beautiful and talented wife is no more because of this girl. I certainly understood guilt, whether real or imagined, of a disappointed parent. Doctor Sloper complains to his sister and Catherine’s aunts how disappointed he is with his daughter. He has spent a fortune on schools of music, dance, and social graces; and, none of them improved Catherine in his eyes. She will never measure up to her beautiful and lovely mother. Yes, as a teenager, I really felt her pain, her guilt and even her uncomfortable shyness around everyone, especially her only parent.
Lesson Three: Never let your children feel unloved or not valued for who they are really are, flawed and human.
Catherine’s aunt, Lavinia (Miriam Hopkins) is a widow who the Doctor invited to live with them as a chaperone and guide for Catherine. He hoped she could help Catherine with her awkward and at times her nonexistence conversation with others outside of the home. From the Doctor and Lavinia’s discussion, we learn that Catherine usually hides in a corner to avoid people and embarrassment during social events. As a matter of fact, when the Doctor asks his daughter about an Engagement Ball for his niece, she explains that she cannot go since she is working on her embroidery. Wait a minute, this sounds like a Penelope excuse. From ancient Greece to New York in the late 1800s, women’s roles have not changed much if we are still using the sewing excuse to get out of doing what a male in authority wants her to do. Oh yeah, I get Catherine.
At the ball, Catherine is forced upon an eligible bachelor who has no interest in her at all. He begrudgingly dances the steps and afterwards, hurriedly places Catherine on a garden bench. He asks if she would like a drink with no intention of bringing it back to her. He has successfully escaped. Sadly, Catherine realizes she has been disposed of again. After Aunt Lavinia sits with her to console her hurt feelings, an extremely handsome Morris Townsend introduces himself and asks Catherine for a dance. Frighten Catherine appears to nearly jumps out of her own skin. She has a hard time looking in his eyes. She apologizes and tells a lie that she is booked until the fifth dance. At this point, her aunt seizes the opportunity to leave them alone. Morris sits next to her and informs her that his dance card is full too. He shows her his blank dance card. Then, Catherine laughs and shows Morris her blank dance card.
Lesson Four: If you want to put people at ease, be willing to laugh at yourself.
Morris sweet talks Catherine into a dance. While they are awkwardly dancing, he stops and politely asks for an arrangement: I will not kick you while we dance, if you will not kick me. Catherine laughs again. They begin the dance again. This time he instructs her to look at him as he counts the beats. Before, you know it, Catherine is no longer self-conscious; and, you can see her actually enjoying herself. To the point, where she even dances a bit without a partner. The couple go back to the bench, where Catherine nervously fans herself. Thinking she might need a drink to cool down, Morris asks if she would like a drink. She adamantly refuses. You can actually see the fear in her eyes at the though of Morris’ abandonment. Not understanding her strong objection to the refreshment, he asks if she is a member of the Temperance Movement. She replies that she thinks she is. Morris laughs, not believing her, and says he is not. He leaves to get them both a drink.
While Morris is away, aunt Lavinia returns with an overly enthusiastic dancer that she graciously dumps on poor Catherine. While Catherine is trying to keep up with the dancing fool, Morris returns with the drinks. He is very disappointed that Catherine had not waited for him. Aunt Lavinia sees this disappointment and tries to soothe his hurt ego . During this exchange, the Doctor finds Lavinia talking to Morris and informs her they should go. Morris pleas with the Doctor to stay. You can almost see the disdain on his face for this young upstart, a stranger, trying to tell him what to do. It is obvious to the Doctor Morris, without proper introductions, is a fortune hunter, especially since he is interested in Catherine. Once Catherine returns, she apologizes for being detained withthe dance trap. Morris laughs and says he is glad she did not intend to dance with him; or, he may have been forced to call him out to fight with sabers. Again, Catherine laughs. Morris then asks what her what her father’s office hours were. Innocently, Catherine asks if he is ill. Again, Morris laughs. No he says, to a shocked Catherine, I want to call on you.
Aunt Lavinia is enchanted with the handsome Morris too; and, she encourages him to pay a call on them when doctor daddy is not home. I think to myself, great idea. This will keep the Doctor from spoiling their developing relationship. Everyone knows Catherine has zero chance of not falling in love with the charismatic, kind, and doting Morris. Poor girl is starved for positive male attention. Of course, Morris is a perfect Prince Charming. You know she is in over her head when he brings sheet music to the house to play on the piano. Morris plays and sings, in French…the language of love, a 18th century French love song, Plaisir D’Amor. If you are unfamiliar with this song, the melody of the song reminds me of a love song covered by Elvis: I Can’t Help Falling in Love. Morris asks Catherine if she knew what the words meant. She does not. Morris plays the melody again but speaks the words in English:
The joys of love lasts but a short time while…the pain of love lasts all your life.
Of course, once the father is made aware of his daughter’s deceitful relationship, aided and encouraged by her chaperone, aunt Lavinia, he decides to put an end to their courtship. For years, I often wondered why he reacted this way. He obviously viewed Catherine as a burden. He believed his money would be the only thing that would attract any suitors. So, why, did he take such an offend to Morris? I had to wait until I was older to understand that there may have been many reasons. One reasons might have been that he considered Catherine as his property, to marry off to a man of his choosing and not hers. Let’s face it, Morris did not ask her father if he could court her. He was smart enough to know that Doctor Sloper had an instant dislike for him. Hence, the sneaking around to see her when the Doctor was at work.
Another reason could have been that he saw that Morris was as beautiful as his late wife. Some part of him wanted to punish his daughter for keeping him from his beloved. She didn’t deserve the handsome Morris. At least, that’s one of my the thought that satisfied my confusion of his particular hostile reaction to Morris. In the play, the character of Morris was definitely a rake. No one doubted he did not love Catherine. In the movie, the character was purposefully played ambiguously. The audience thought he might be greedy and wanted the money; but, he could have fallen in love with Catherine too. The reason was too not present newbie Montgomery Clift, future heart-throb, as a villain. What it really did was allow the audience to believe as Catherine that he was capable of love; and therefore, he might love her.
Lesson Five: People who claim to love us are still capable of doing cruel things to us too.
Well if you want to know or come up with your own thoughts to what happens in this wonderful story, you have to watch the movie. I never spoil the best part or parts of anything. I wish I could sometimes…espicially with the turn of events in this particular movie. Just like Homer in his tales of story weaving, more contemporary stories weave theirs too with as many twists and turns to make all of us think and hopefully understand our own life through the Arts.
Lesson Six: Stories of women throughout time have a common thread, sometimes literally, it is a story of struggle, to embrace their power.