In January, 1948, New York playwrights Ruth and Augustus Goetz received one of those rare and tantalizing calls from their agent: A Hollywood director wanted to meet them.
The couple met with Wyler for about three hours to discuss their successful stage play, The Heiress. Wyler was surprised the film rights were still available, and he wanted a Piece of the Action. “By the time we left him that day,” she said, “we knew he wanted us. I thought he was first rate.”2
The play, which opened in September, 1947, is a drawing room drama with a vicious twist. It’s an unflinching character study of a young woman named Catherine who realizes her nineteenth-century world is Not what she Thought It Was.
“We found the key to the story,” said Ruth, “the cruel fact that Catherine is a child her father didn’t love. It was brutal stuff, and nobody had put that in the theater before.”3
Through Paramount Studios, Wyler acquired the films rights and hired the Goetzes as screenwriters. The couple wanted a share of gross ticket sales, to which Paramount reluctantly agreed.
The final deal was this: Screen rights for $250,000, plus the Goetzes were to receive an open-ended salary of $10,000 per week to write the screenplay.
What else could they do? They Packed Their Bags and went to Hollywood.
It was Hollywood actress Olivia de Havilland, apparently, who first thought of adapting The Heiress to the big screen. She saw the play in New York, called her pal Wyler, and persuaded him to see the production. She also told him she Must Must play the part of Catherine.
Wyler and Paramount recruited an outstanding cast. Esteemed British actor Ralph Richardson was cast as the father, the fab Miriam Hopkins signed on to play Aunt Lavinia, and a young Montgomery Clift was cast as the fortune hunter Morris Townsend.
Ruth was, at first, unimpressed with Clift. “He slouched around in shoes with no backs,” she said. “He scuffed his feet as he walked just like a little boy…. I went to [Wyler] and told him, ‘He’s not serious. He looks like a bum… I want him to at least try to have the air of a man in the nineteenth century.'”4
Wyler’s answer was to enrol Clift in dance lessons, courtesy of a Paramount dance instructor. For three weeks, he took dance lessons every afternoon.
Ruth had observations of de Havilland, too. “She got a lot of attention from [Wyler] because he knew…she was no heavyweight,” she said. “[Wyler] believed he could get a good performance…if he kept at her.”5
(Note: de Havilland did win an Oscar for her performance, thanks in part to Wyler’s attention, which proves she was no idiot.)
The Heiress opened to good reviews in New York in 1949, but sales were disappointing in other areas of the U.S.; it took about six months for the film to break even. However, box office receipts were much better overseas, and helped the film eventually turn a profit.
The film won four Oscars, including de Havilland’s, and was nominated for four more, including Best Picture and Best Director.
As for the play, it has seen four more Broadway revivals to date. The 1995 revival won four Tony awards, and the 2012 version won another.
The Goetzes would continue to collaborate on plays and films until Augustus’s death in 1957. Ruth remained active in the NYC arts scene until her death in 2001.
The Heiress is a stunning film, with what film historian Pamela Hutchinson calls “one of the starkest endings in golden-age Hollywood, a caustic and complete act of revenge that reveals Catherine’s inner steeliness.”6
If you haven’t seen this film, we urge you to do so. It is a quality production in Every Way.
This post is part of The Fourth Broadway Bound Blogathon, Tony Edition, hosted by Taking Up Room.
¹Herman, Jan. (1995) A Talent for Trouble: The Life of Hollywood’s Most Acclaimed Director, William Wyler. New York, NY: G.P. Punam’s Sons, p. 307.
2Ibid., p. 307.
3Ibid., p. 307.
4Ibid., p. 309.
5Ibid., p. 310.
6Hutchinson, Pamela. (2019) A Cruel Inheritance. Criterion Collection.
The Heiress starring Olivia de Havilland, Montgomery Clift, Ralph Richardson. Directed by William Wyler. Written by Ruth Goetz & Augustus Goetz. Paramount Studios, 1949, B&W, 115 mins.