REVIEW: “The Heiress”


At times William Wyler’s “The Heiress” comes across as an extravagant stage production. That makes sense since it was adapted from the popular 1947 Broadway play. But the original story actually came from the the 1880 novel “Washington Square” by Henry James. Husband and wife playwrights Augustus and Ruth Goetz brought James’ book to the stage and were later convinced to write the film’s screenplay. Their familiarity with the material and their mellifluous writing style mixed perfectly with Wyler’s perfectionism. The result was a highly acclaimed that still garnered critical praise and several Academy Awards.

In many ways the film’s star Olivia de Havilland can be thanked for making the movie happen. She went to see the play based on a recommendation and before it was even finished she was making calls. She first convinced the wonderful William Wyler to direct the film. He was instrumental in getting studio support and in convincing Augustus and Ruth Goetz to write the script. Montgomery Clift added another popular face to the production and the wonderful Ralph Richardson, who had taken part in a London stage version, was also cast.


The story is set in 19th century New York City and focuses on a plain and reserved young woman (de Havilland) from the upper-class Washington Square neighborhood. She lives with her wealthy and proper father (Richardson) who does a poor job of hiding his disappointment. Her shyness and naivety draws her father’s insults and disenchantment and her feelings of self-worth are practically nonexistent. But their relationship takes a worse turn when she starts a relationship with a charming young man named Morris (Montgomery Clift). Her father thinks Morris is after her inheritance and he certainly doesn’t believe she’s capable of attracting a decent man. This three-way conflict makes up the core of this story.

“The Heiress” is unquestionably talky, but when the script is so fluid and its placed in the hands of such great performers, it’s easy to get lost in it. The Goetzs have no problem moving the story from stage to screen and Wyler’s directorial fingerprints are everywhere. His calculated long takes and his precise attention to detail are just some of the things you’ll notice. The film moves at a wonderful pace and it always keeps its focus. It also takes some pretty heavy subjects and treats them with respect.


And then again you have the marvelous performances. Olivia de Havilland is nothing short of fabulous and she would go on to win her second Academy Award for her performance. Ralph Richardson is simply perfect as the arrogant aristocratic father. His well-spoken eloquence and tinge of snobbery is exactly what the role demanded. And then we have Montgomery Clift who I think does marvelous work. Apparently he didn’t think so. It’s said that Clift disliked his performance so much that he left the premiere before the film ended. That is definitely a case of being your own worst critic because I thought he was excellent.

“The Heiress” is a true motion picture classic and it is crafted by the talents of some of the best filmmakers and performers to ever work in the business. It has a very stagey feel and rightfully so. But it’s great drama that dissects and exposes its characters while telling a dense and emotional story. This film may not draw the attention of some modern moviegoers but it should. If you love movies, treat yourself by seeing “The Heiress”.


REVIEW: “Roman Holiday”

Classic Movie Spotlight

roman_holidayI don’t mean to be repetitive. But at the risk of sounding like a broken record, they just don’t make romantic comedies like this anymore. This 1953 classic from director William Wyler is a beautiful blueprint for a genre that seems to struggle with making quality movies these days. “Roman Holiday” brings together the always good Gregory Peck and the adorable Audrey Hepburn in a film that could almost be considered a fairy tale story. But while the film embraces some of the elements that make a good romantic comedy, it dodges a few of the conventions which have become all too familiar.

“Roman Holiday” was the star-making role for a young Audrey Hepburn. After appearing in several smaller roles this was a bigger performance that caught the world’s attention. A lot of that attention is because of Gregory Peck. Peck was instrumental in getting Hepburn’s name out there after realizing she was going to be big. Interestingly enough Peck wasn’t Wyler’s first choice. The director first sought after Cary Grant but Grant turned it down after reading the script. Peck once said that anytime he received a comedy script he knew Grant must have turned it down first. Well I don’t think anyone is griping about how things turned out. Peck and Hepburn have a charming chemistry as they explore the unique relationship between their characters.

The story for “Roman Holiday” was written by Dalton Trumbo but it was credited to Ian McClellan Hunter. Trumbo was one of the Hollywood Ten and was blacklisted for his communist ties and failure to cooperate with Congress. It was during that time that he penned the story. To make things even more interesting, “Roman Holiday” won the Academy Award for Best Story (as the category was known at the time). Hunter would accept the award but it was Trumbo who earned it. Only in 2011 was full credit given to Trumbo was his work on the film.


His story follows Ann (Hepburn), a princess of an unmentioned country who is on a European tour stop in Rome. Ann is young and adventurous and she wants to experience the life outside of her closed in ornate walls. She’s tired of the strict itineraries and stuffy hobnobbing so one night she lets out her frustrations. The royal family doctor gives her a sedative to calm her down but before it can kick in, she sneaks out of the embassy to experience the sites and sounds of Rome. An American reporter named Joe Bradley (Peck) stumbles across Ann sound asleep next to a fountain. He doesn’t recognize her at first but after a comical series of events he learns her identity and sees her as a big story that could eventually land him back in New York.

Joe doesn’t let Ann know that he recognizes her and Ann tries to keep her identity secret. He calls a photographer friend of his Irving Radovich (Eddie Albert) to secretly capture some photographs of Ann for their big story while the three of them spend a playful day exploring Rome. Of course Joe begins to have feelings for Ann. I mean who wouldn’t? This is Audrey Hepburn were talking about. He’s faced with the decision of caring for her or cashing in his feelings for a big payday. It’s such a wonderful story filled with good humor and a lovely romance. Hepburn and Peck light up Rome with Albert playing the tag-along who gets in some good laughs.

“Roman Holiday” was shot in Rome, something that you didn’t see a lot of during that time. Unlike now where on location shoots are the norm, then it was a pretty special thing to have such an extensive shoot especially I’m a city like Rome. It was a brilliant decision. The city and all its beauty is on display throughout the film and Wyler treats Rome like one of the film’s characters. But it’s a supporting character. The city shows itself often but always as a support for the bigger love story. There are several magical scenes with Ann and Joe at some of the city’s major locations. One of my favorites is a playful moment at The Mouth of Truth monument. Peck pretends as if his arm is stuck in the mouth of the monument and he lets out a scream. Hepburn new nothing of this little gag. Only Peck and Wyler were in on it. It genuinely startled Hepburn who let out a loud scream of her own. It was completely spontaneous and Wyler was able to capture it therefore requiring only one take.


“Roman Holiday” ended up with 10 Academy Award nominations. I mentioned Trumbo’s win but that wasn’t the biggest story. Audrey Hepburn, a relatively unknown actress at the time, would take home the Best Actress Oscar. This catapulted her into the spotlight and opened the door for her to star in several of my favorite classic films. Peck was right with his appraisal of the young beauty and she was always appreciative. They remained close friends for the rest of their lives. Their admiration for each other and their friendship translated into their performances and they give us a truly memorable screen couple.

I still love “Roman Holiday”. It’s a beautifully filmed movie that tells a wonderful story through some top-notch performances. The Rome locations provide such a pleasing sense of place and even in black and white Wyler gives you a very real feel for the city’s allure and vibrancy. It’s also one of those movies with several scenes that you’ll never forget. It’s easy to get lost in “Roman Holiday” and as an avid movie watcher that’s what I want. I want to be swept away by an interesting story about interesting characters. And in a romantic comedy I want to care about what I’m seeing. I want the story to be smart, the humor to be sharp, and the romance genuine. We get all of this and more in “Roman Holiday” which is one reason this great film has stood the test of time.