A POIGNANT DRAMA OF CHASTISED LOVE! RECKLESS HATE THAT MADE A FIGHTING FURY OF A STRANGER!
During the making of this classic, there was tension on set. Two of the stars, Merle Oberon and David Niven, had been dating in the past and now they were set to play a couple again. Laurence Olivier had arrived in Hollywood (together with Vivien Leigh) for his first American picture, and did not get along with Oberon as the woman he was supposed to love above all. According to Hollywood legend, Oberon interrupted one love scene and told the director, “Tell him to stop spitting at me!”, with Olivier replying, “What’s a little spit for Chrissake, between actors?” In spite of the tension, this is the finest adaptation of Emily Brontë’s novel ever made.
When a boy is found in the streets, he’s brought to Wuthering Heights, an estate owned by Mr. Earnshaw (Cecil Kellaway). His two children, Cathy and Hindley, are not thrilled about the visitor, but their father tells them sternly that it is wrong not to care for the poor. The boy, Heathcliff, becomes like a second son to Earnshaw. When Earnshaw passes away years later, Hindley inherits the estate and finally gets his way – Heathcliff is allowed to remain at Wuthering Heights, but only as a help. There’s a secret reason why Heathcliff puts up with Hindley (who’s become a mean drunk at an early age) – he and Cathy have fallen in love.
One night, when the couple is out in the moors, a party at the neighbor’s residence catches their attention. When they sneak a peek through a window, they’re surprised by dogs and Cathy is injured. The neighbors care for her, but throw Heathcliff out. Over the next few months, Cathy stays with them and falls for their glamorous lifestyle; at the same time, young Edgar (Niven) falls in love with her.
Immensely strong emotions
This wasn’t the first time the 1847 novel was filmed – and far from the last. Andrea Arnold had a go at the story in 2011, but the film joined the ranks of all the other adaptations – not necessarily bad, but always inferior to William Wyler’s version. What has lasted with readers ever since the book was printed is obviously the tragic love affair between Heathcliff and Cathy. The book had 34 chapters, but this adaptation only follows the first 16, in other words those that focus on their romance. Two immensely strong emotions, love and hatred, are skillfully balanced throughout the story, leading up to a touching climax where even the reality of Cathy’s stable relationship with Edgar has to stand back in favor of true love. Edgar may be a bigoted man, but there’s no doubt that he genuinely cares for Cathy and we end up sympathizing with him for not realizing that his love doesn’t stand a chance in comparison.
Niven plays that part well, and Oberon is a capable Cathy, even though Wyler allows her to fall for a theatrical approach in her final scenes. The best performance comes from Olivier who’s exotic and magnetic as the young man who’s trapped in (justified) hatred against those who have done him wrong, and love for a woman who doesn’t really deserve him.
Wyler and Oscar-winning cinematographer Gregg Toland create great drama in their visuals, from the opening shot of a snowstorm to romantic moments in the moor among the heather, to the last unforgettable superimposed image of love united.
“Wuthering Heights” was once a very controversial novel, depicting gender inequality and challenging the order of the social classes. This is illustrated in the movie as well, although it is never fully allowed to compete with the main objective – to portray love as an overriding force that defies all logic. Considering the results, a little spit among actors is nothing.
Wuthering Heights 1939-U.S. 103 min. B/W. Produced by Samuel Goldwyn. Directed by William Wyler. Screenplay: Charles MacArthur, Ben Hecht. Novel: Emily Brontë. Cinematography: Gregg Toland. Music: Alfred Newman. Art Direction: James Basevi. Cast: Merle Oberon (Catherine Linton), Laurence Olivier (Heathcliff), David Niven (Edgar Linton), Flora Robson, Donald Crisp, Geraldine Fitzgerald… Leo G. Carroll.
Trivia: Ronald Colman and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. were allegedly considered as Heathcliff.
Oscar: Best Cinematography.
Quote: “Catherine Earnshaw, may you not rest so long as I live on! I killed you. Haunt me, then! Haunt your murderer! I know that ghosts have wandered on the Earth. Be with me always. Take any form, drive me mad, only do not leave me in this dark alone where I cannot find you.” (Olivier)