Vanessa Brown

The Heiress (1949, William Wyler)

My favorite moment in The Heiress is when Olivia de Havilland has a slight tremor, watching someone walk away after she’s just told them off. It’s this fantastic glimpse into her character. The film has something of a double twist ending, so it’s going to be hard to talk around various spoilers but suffice it to say de Havilland’s always got her guard up. You just don’t realize how guarded—shielded might be the better term—until later in the film. de Havilland goes through the film without a real confidant; there’s no opportunity to address de Havilland’s perception of the events. There are the occasional minor reveals in dialogue to provide character texture, nothing more. Otherwise, you’ve just got to trust de Havilland and director Wyler, without much to go on in the former’s case.

Wyler’s visibly breaking his ass from the start to do everything just right, however. Heiress is a play adaptation (of a novel) and de Havilland’s home is the main setting—with some big field trips away—but the house is the thing. Wyler and cinematographer Leo Tover compose these constrained, framed shots, which can’t be claustrophobic because de Havilland’s doesn’t feel trapped in the house. Quite the opposite, but Wyler and Tover still have to contend with the physical realities. Luckily the house is big enough and the floor plan’s right they can use tilts, drawing the audience’s attention to the importance of the passive information those shots cover.

It’s important later when characters are being (possibly) duplicitous and their body language is important. Heiress could open with a disclaimer informing the audience to watch people’s hands or they’re going to miss big plot moments.

Heiress runs almost two hours and the first ninety minutes or so has its own three act structure, based on the characters’ expectations. It starts with de Havilland getting ready for a party. It’s 1850, she’s the unmarried daughter of wealthy doctor Ralph Richardson, her mother is long dead and Richardson has done a crap job raising de Havilland for a combination of reasons but they mostly boil down, generally, to men are trash and, specifically, Richardson is an egomaniac. So his devil goatee is perfect. His sister, Miriam Hopkins, is a recent widow and has come to live with them, giving de Havilland a friend (though not confidant). Hopkins encourages de Havilland, something Richardson never does.

de Havilland’s shy, socially awkward, funny, smart, thoughtful, and kind. No one cares about those things in 1850, unfortunately; she’s supposed to be glamorous and sharp-witted. There’s some suggestion de Havilland’s the ugly duckling daughter of a famed beauty (who Richardson still blathers about), but basically she’s a “plain Jane” because she doesn’t pluck her eyebrows.

Enter Montgomery Clift, charming, well-spoken, and broke. It’s 1850 so it’s still possible to turn your blood blue in a single generation but Clift is more interested in enjoying life then working. He starts courting de Havilland, who’s immediately enamored because Clift’s a stone fox, but Richardson thinks he’s a gold digger. Clift’s interiority gets just as little reveal as de Havilland’s, which is important later on. Hopkins is on Clift’s side, which encourages de Havilland. For ninety minutes, Heiress is mostly about their courtship and its result. The last thirty isn’t epilogue but a complete readjustment of the narrative structure. The characters (and audience) thought the story was one thing, but it’s really another. Great work from Wyler on making that transition successful. Subtle and nimble.

Great performances from the four principals. The characters are constrained by “society” decorum, affecting options, decisions, reactions. Outside the box thinking is never an actual possibility so it’s never discussed but it’s considered and only in the actors’ expressions (or body language). Heiress is never a stagy play adaptation, but it’s still very much a stage adaptation. Wyler showcases the actors’ essaying of the roles, getting into the minutiae of the performances.

So they’ve got to be great.

And they are. de Havilland’s the best. She’s got an exceptionally difficult arc. Clift’s excellent, Richardson’s excellent, Hopkins is excellent. Even though it’s prime showcase for Clift, he doesn’t get the range of material as Richardson. And Hopkins gets all the subtly, because she’s all in on 1850s society thinking and she needs the world to make sense in those constraints.

Great photography from Tover, nice cutting from William Hornbeck; Harry Horner’s production design is key. And the Aaron Copland score is wonderful. Even if he didn’t really do all of it (Heiress had some behind-the-scenes turmoil). The screenplay, by Ruth Goetz and Augustus Goetz (who also wrote the source play), is excellent. Wyler, obviously, does superb work.

The Heiress is outstanding.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Produced and directed by William Wyler; screenplay by Ruth Goetz and Augustus Goetz, based on their play and a novel by Henry James; director of photography, Leo Tover; edited by William Hornbeck; music by Aaron Copland; production designer, Harry Horner; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Olivia de Havilland (Catherine Sloper), Montgomery Clift (Morris Townsend), Ralph Richardson (Dr. Austin Sloper), Miriam Hopkins (Lavinia Penniman), Vanessa Brown (Maria), and Betty Linley (Mrs. Montgomery).



Youth Runs Wild (1944, Mark Robson)

It’s hard to know how Youth Runs Wild was supposed to turn out. RKO took it away from producer Val Lewton–the State Department was concerned the film would be detrimental to morale–but they were over his shoulder the entire time. The question is whether Youth Runs Wild was ever anything but silly propaganda. It’s a different kind of propaganda than the norm, sort of a home front, pro-community action propaganda… but it’s just as artistically minded as any of the more famous examples of the era.

The movie only runs sixty-seven minutes and is (passably) okay for the first three-quarters. There’s some bad acting–Vanessa Brown is particularly annoying, but her romantic interest, Glen Vernon, isn’t much better–but there’s also some good. Lawrence Tierney’s decent, Jean Brooks is fine (even if her role is useless) and Kent Smith’s good when he first comes in. As Youth Runs Wild becomes all about the propaganda, which I guess doesn’t take it long, since Brooks and Smith’s reunion (they’re a separated-by-war couple) only serves to further the propaganda angle, Smith gets progressively worse. By the end, it’s like a television commercial… or maybe an educational film strip.

Bonita Granville gives the film’s best performance after being deceptively poorly used in the beginning. The script betrays her at the end too, but she’s got some great moments in between.

The film’s particularly strange because it doesn’t look like other B movies of the period. It’s cheap–Mark Robson gets some good shots in when it’s people exciting their houses, but when he’s doing close-ups on people inside, the backgrounds betray the budget–but there is some location shooting and there’s some nice backdrop work at one point. The cheapness is in the story. There’s never an honest moment in the entire film. Everything’s geared toward that goofy, inspiring, nonsensical conclusion, which suggests Lewton’s version wouldn’t have been much better than RKO’s.

It is mildly okay, like I said before, throughout. The romance between Vernon and Brown isn’t particularly compelling, but it always seems like Smith’s eventually going to do something–or Tiernery might come back, especially since he’s got an almost monologue about his friendship with Smith. Or Granville will get some great scene or Brooks will get useful. Or the parents–played by Art Smith and Mary Servoss, in a couple of the film’s best performances–will actually get a real scene.

But it never pays off. Lots of the scenes are poorly edited to the point they’re just celluloid in the can (there’s one particularly strange scene involving a car careening into a bunch of playing kids). And then it has a bad ending, a cop-out ending. But that cop-out ending is before the big inspirational ending, which really does the picture in.

The movie’s just got way too big of a cast–especially for a B movie with limited locations and a quiet story; I rarely ever got anyone’s name on his or her first scene and acknowledged I didn’t catch the name, but never got worried about not knowing it. They’re only playing stereotypes anyway.

Though… the film does get in some material I didn’t expect to see in a picture from 1944.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Mark Robson; screenplay by John Fante and Ardel Wray, based on a story by Fante and Herbert Kline; director of photography, John J. Mescall; edited by John Lockert; music by Paul Sawtell; produced by Val Lewton; released by RKO Radio Pictures.

Starring Bonita Granville (Toddy), Kent Smith (Danny Coates), Jean Brooks (Mary Hauser Coates), Glen Vernon (Frank Hauser), Vanessa Brown (Sarah Taylor), Ben Bard (Mr. Taylor), Mary Servoss (Mrs. Cora Hauser), Dickie Moore (George), Lawrence Tierney (Larry Duncan), Johnny Walsh (Herb Vigero), Rod Rodgers (Rocky) and Elizabeth Russell (Mrs. Mabel Taylor).


The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947, Joseph L. Mankiewicz)

I’ve only seen The Ghost and Mrs. Muir once before, but I remembered the resolution, so I’m thinking it probably made the entire experience unenjoyable this time through. There are only a handful of similar films and usually it’s a gimmick ending, but with The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, the storytelling falls apart. The film forcibly rips Gene Tierney’s character from the audience’s regard and then only band-aids that wound for the rest of the picture–it’s only twenty minutes or so, but that band-aid covers forty years of story time.

This band-aid doesn’t involve Rex Harrison’s grizzled ghost of a sea captain, which is probably its greatest fault. The Ghost and Mrs. Muir is about just that relationship and–first with the introduction of George Sanders as a living suitor for Tierney, then Harrison’s absence from both the screen and the story itself–the film fails without it. The fault is all the script’s, though Joseph L. Mankiewicz–as director and an excellent writer–should have done something to fix this film. The scenes between Harrison and Tierney are uniformly wonderful, but watching it with the conclusion in mind, I couldn’t even enjoy them to the fullest. Harrison has so much fun with the role, at many times he appears to be struggling to keep a straight face. George Sanders plays a standard George Sanders cad and he’s hardly in the film, showing up when it accelerates, no longer happy with a reasonable situation. It’s a lame way out of the exceptional situation (the ghost and the widow), which the film sells immediately, making a “way out” unnecessary. Many of this period’s “fantasy romance” films are similarly flawed. Actually, I can’t think of any member providing a reasonable conclusion. I just didn’t remember The Ghost and Mrs. Muir’s ending to be so bad. I knew it was bad, I just didn’t know it was so bad. The film’s already intentionally negated its emotional effect for the characters (and the audience), so I guess it’s actually a real trick to go ahead and make it more trifling and useless, which is a singular compliment and probably the only one I have in regards to the film’s production.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz; written by Philip Dunne, based on the novel by R.A. Dick; director of photography, Charles Lang; edited by Dorothy Spencer; music by Bernard Herrmann; produced by Fred Kohlmar; released by 20th Century Fox.

Starring Gene Tierney (Lucy Muir), Rex Harrison (Ghost of Capt. Daniel Gregg), George Sanders (Miles Fairley), Edna Best (Martha Huggins), Isobel Elsom (Angelica), Helen Freeman (Author), Natalie Wood (Anna, as a child), Vanessa Brown (Anna, as an adult) and Robert Coote (Coombe).


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