The Heiress

10 Feb

ImageIt’s coming around again – spring semester at the college where I teach will begin on February 29.  It’s my fifth semester of teaching Screenplay Writing there.  And though I worked in entertainment for most of my professional life, where writing was basically what I did, let me tell you – you don’t know a subject well until you’ve taught it. 

“We teach what we need to know,” goes the old saying, and I don’t think there is a truer one.

As a result, I’ve been thinking about movies a lot lately.  The films I show in class are mainly the old classics.  I do this because my job, as Miss Jean Brodie says in the 1969 film, is “to put old heads on young shoulders.”  And it’s consistently surprising how many of my students – born in the early 90s, for the most part – have never seen a movie made before 1995.  Their idea of a fabulous old chestnut is “Titanic” (not the one starring Barbara Stanwyck, mind you, but the one with Leonardo and Kate!)  When I showed them “Some Like It Hot” last semester, when we were discussing comedy, I was shocked to learn that only two students out of twenty-five had ever seen a Marilyn Monroe film.   Most depressingly, they adore slasher, zombie and teenage romance movies.  (In fairness’ sake I must admit that when they ask me if I’ve seen whatever pimply romance is currently playing at the Cineplex, or the latest film displaying the latest medical pornographic effect that is currently demeaning our culture, my face becomes as blank as theirs.)    

And though they aspire to write, only a few of them read for pleasure.  Now I ask you – if they don’t read – if they don’t know literature – what are they going to steal from?  From what sources are they going to fill up their proverbial “tanks”?  When I tell them that Homer probably solved their problems three thousand years ago, they tell me they didn’t know that “The Simpsons” had run for that long.

(You can always tell who the teacher is in class these days – s/he’s the old gray haired figure quietly weeping in the corner.)

Therefore, the films I show them in class make up a pretty eclectic list, not at all drawn from the well-known classics of screen art.  Instead, I try to pick films that were based on great plays or great books, so that at least they’ll be exposed to the books or plays in some way.  I start first with “The Heiress”, which covers both books and plays; it began as Henry James’ “Washington Square”, then became a play on Broadway, and then went to the screen directed by the sublime William Wyler and starring Olivia de Havilland, a role for which she won a very deserved Oscar for Best Actress. 

An interesting story about “The Heiress” was that it was supposedly the film that inspired a young Martin Scorsese to become a film maker.  It seems that he went to see the companion feature at the neighborhood theater, a Western, but became so mesmerized by Wyler’s film that he stayed until its last performance of the day.  He had never seen a film so violent, he said. 

For the first couple of semesters I taught, I introduced the film with this story.  But then I had to explain who Martin Scorsese was and it ended with me weeping in the corner again.  Now I use “The Heiress” to introduce the concept of “conflict”, which is, of course, the essence of storytelling.  I tell them that you don’t need yellow explosions, or guns, or knives, or flesh-eating zombies to create conflict – that Martin Scorsese was just as enthralled by the emotional violence exhibited by the characters inhabiting “The Heiress”. 

And then I start the film.

It already has several strikes against it in my students’ eyes – the first is that it’s black-and-white and they don’t like that; the second is that it’s a costume drama, and that bores them; the third is that they know none of the actors. 

But by the end of the film they are standing up and shouting at the screen when Catherine Sloper jilts her faithless lover, played by Montgomery Clift in his very first role.  For many of them, “The Heiress” is the story of love betrayed that hooks them.  For others, it is about the derision and coldness displayed to Catherine by her cold-blooded father, who humiliates and debases her at every turn.  For the rest, it’s the revenge taken by Catherine against both her father and her lover that most excites them.

But the point is – it excites them!  

And my job is a piece of cake after that.      


24 Responses to “The Heiress”

  1. Shannon Howell February 10, 2012 at 11:39 am #

    So, I know there are lots of “classics” out there that I haven’t seen. The problem is, the generation ahead of me (where I was anyway) just assumed everyone had seen them. I’ve NO IDEA what they are, so I can’t go about watching them, now can I??? (Of course, I haven’t seen movies that “everyone” my age has seen. Apollo 13 & Forest Gump to name a few.)

    For some reason, this only half happened with books. I’m sure there are plenty I didn’t read, and probably a few I don’t know about, but they always manage to “come up” during class (history, literature, whatever).

    So, are you willing to post a list for those of us who’d like a good movie but are too young to know what they are?

    • Dawn Pisturino February 10, 2012 at 12:05 pm #

      Join Netflix and you can find all sorts of classic movies and TV shows.

      • Shannon Howell February 10, 2012 at 2:19 pm #

        Yeah, I’ve got Netflix. I’m just not sure I trust their algorithms…

    • Brad Geagley February 10, 2012 at 12:14 pm #

      If you want, I can send you my list of recommended movies from 8 decades of American studio film making. As I say – it’s an ECLECTIC list.

      • Brad Geagley February 10, 2012 at 12:15 pm #

        Just let me know your email – it’s too long to post here.

      • Shannon Howell February 10, 2012 at 2:20 pm #

        That would be great. I’m always looking for interesting movies. 🙂

        As a bonus, I’ll tell you how many I’ve seen already.

      • Shannon Howell February 14, 2012 at 3:12 am #


  2. Colin February 10, 2012 at 1:42 pm #

    Well done Brad. As a teacher myself, I fully understand the difficulty of engaging kids when it comes to anything off their cultural radar. When it does happen though, it’s extremely satisfying.

    • Dawn Pisturino February 10, 2012 at 5:29 pm #

      I’ve had the opportunity lately to interact with some young, aspiring writers. This is what they do. They see something on TV or in the movies, and they rewrite what somebody else already wrote. There’s no originality or creativity, it’s all derivative stuff. And most of the stuff kids are exposed to nowadays does not reach the caliber of classic movies, TV, or literature. It’s a shame, because we need creative young people to keep this country going.

    • Brad Geagley February 11, 2012 at 8:02 am #

      Actually, I love teaching them. I get as much from them as (I hope) they do from me.

    • Brad Geagley February 11, 2012 at 8:03 am #

      Actually, I love teaching them. I get as much from them as (I hope) they do from me. Sometimes I feel a little like a vampire, because I get so energized from them.

      • Brad Geagley February 11, 2012 at 8:09 am #

        I don’t know how to work this thing – I thought I was amending the first comment above, and it was supposed to be a reply to Colin – it didn’t come out that way!

        As to Dawn’s comment, I think back to when I began writing and it was all rewriting off stuff I’d seen and read that excited e. I don’t think this is bad – BECAUSE AT LEAST YOU’RE WRITING. I always tell my kids a variation of Picasso’s comment that great artists don’t copy – they steal! But as long as you can transform it and make it your own, I think it’s fine. If it’s recognizable, then it’s copying. Often when I’m writing and I come across a problem, I think how would Mr or Ms Famous Writer solve it? I check – and voila! Problem solved.

  3. MOL February 11, 2012 at 4:41 pm #

    Gosh, Brad. I’d be weeping with you in the corner. I grew up in a home where my father revered Opera, classical music, and jazz. With regards film, we had to see the classics with him and without him. Yes, I’d love to have your list of recommended greats. It will be interesting to see what I’ve already seen or seen several times. Yes, I do tend to have favorites. And if there is a remake screening, I go foraging for the original version.

    I think if not for my parents, I’d be one of those who would not know movies nor music before the mid-60’s.

    I can’t bring myself to watch the zombie-vampire but can’t act-exploding with people running and screaming types either. Even when it’s already free on TV. I recently watched “The Artist” in the theaters. Very amusing!

    • Brad Geagley February 12, 2012 at 8:38 am #

      Good for you dad! I think it’s a parent’s duty to expose their children to the greater world. I lament that the humanities is being lost in our race to turn the next generation into “consumers.” Every college is being turned into a technical school. It will destroy us as a culture, I’m afraid.

      • Shannon Howell February 14, 2012 at 3:18 am #

        That’s an interesting comment about the “technical school” thing. I would argue (and have) that making all colleges into technical schools would be an improvement because it seems that one has to fight to get any solid skills (besides divining what side of a topic a professor is on or whether you can disagree and still pass).

        I took a minor in Latin translation (which I can do VERY VERY slowly – with a big dictionary), and was exposed to more art and culture there than in my English courses, my Russian Civ course, and pretty much everything else.

        At least my statistics courses left me with a definable skill set!

        So, this begs the question, (and I agree about humanities being lost because I certainly didn’t find them easily), what would you say they are teaching in these “technical schools,” if anything, outside of things like engineering?

  4. maroon5gurl88 February 11, 2012 at 9:57 pm #

    I see this on a daily basis. I’m 23 and have seen more classic film than many of my peers. I took a film class in high school and was horrified when my friends complained we had to watch black and white films and “Charlie Chaplin isn’t funny.” Old movies made me want to be a film writer and it saddens me when my 14-year-old brother thinks movies from 1994 are ‘old.’ I started my film blog and older readers are shocked when they find out how old I am because “kids your age don’t appreciate the classics.”

    • Dawn Pisturino February 12, 2012 at 11:04 am #

      I say, Bravo!!!!!!!

    • manymediamusings February 12, 2012 at 5:27 pm #

      I’m also a twentysomething classic film fan, and it’s amazing how many people my age I know won’t watch a film simply because it was made before they were born. On the flipside, though, I once managed to convince a friend to come with me to see screenings of It Happened One Night and His Girl Friday, and she enjoyed them more than she expected to. I guess people can be won over.

  5. Samir February 12, 2012 at 12:12 am #

    The Homer / Simpsons analogy was brilliant LOL

    I do agree that the younger generation needs to be exposed to the classics – both film and literature. Modern movies are nothing but theatrics to entertain. There is hardly any substance for the brain. Not to mention the amount of violence that children and young adults are conditioned to experience as fun and exciting. What a shame…

  6. Brad Geagley February 12, 2012 at 8:36 am #

    Old movies made me want to be a writer, too! I know exactly what you mean. They were as well-constructed as great literature and I got to know how the rhythms of words and flow of story not only from books (I read a lot, too, as a kid) but from films. I’m simply appalled that most kids don’t have a curiosity about what preceded them. I try to rectify that in my class.

  7. manymediamusings February 12, 2012 at 5:27 pm #

    Great post, Brad! It’s great than once you get your students to watch The Heiress, they actually appreciate it and react strongly to the ending. That demonstrates the power of good storytelling.

  8. Shannon Howell February 14, 2012 at 3:19 am #

    So, the one question I have remaining is, how old are your students usually?

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