Wuthering Heights (1939) / Romance-Drama
MPAA rated: Not rated, but probably G, suitable for all audiences
Length: 104 min.
Cast: Laurence Olivier, Merle Oberon, David Niven, Flora Robson, Donald Crisp, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Hugh Williams, Leo G. Carroll, Miles Mander, Cecil Kellaway
Director: William Wyler
Screenplay: Charles MacArthur, Ben Hecht (based on the novel by Emily Bronte)
Review published March 9, 2013
One of the first, yet still the best of the film adaptations of Emily Bronte's classic brooding romance masterpiece, Wuthering Heights. Directed by the great William Wyler (Roman Holiday, Ben-Hur), the script actually doesn't adapt the entire book, instead only concentrating on the first sixteen of the book's thirty-four chapters (basically eliminating any reference of character offspring), and the script by the team of Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht (Twentieth Century, Barbary Coast) make a few liberal changes, including the time of the story's setting, which will make this a tough sell for those misguided high school and college students looking to skip out on reading the book by watching this movie adaptation instead.
Much of the story is told in flashback by the housekeeper of the estate called Wuthering Heights, on the moors of Yorkshire, England, now dilapidated and full of unhappy people, especially Heathcliff (Olivier, Rebecca), the owner. He wasn't always the owner, though. He was brought to the estate as an gypsy orphan by a previous owner, Mr. Earnshaw (Kellaway, Harvey) , whose son Hindley (Williams, Khartoum) takes to ridiculing, while his daughter Catherine (Oberon, The Scarlet Pimpernel) develops strong feelings for the swarthy lad. After Mr. Earnshaw expires, Hindley is in charge and immediately uses his right as the new master of the household to stick Heathcliffe to work the stables as a form of humiliation.
Though Catherine still has strong feelings for Heathcliffe, the disparity between their stations in life makes her urge him to go out and find his place in the world, come back a wealthy man and take her away. Heathcliffe is loathe to leave, but eventually does so out of blind jealousy when a rich and handsome man (Niven, Please Don't Eat the Daisies) from a neighboring estate comes calling and courts Catherine. Heathcliffe is hell-bent on getting his Cathy back, and if it takes becoming an equal in riches to do it, he's going to find his way, even if it kills him.
Wuthering Heights, though quite well known, has forever been overshadowed by another great, sweeping romance released in the same year, Gone with the Wind, the film it would lost most of its eight Academy Award nominations to. It's a shame really, as I do believe this film to be as good, if not better, than the film with the much higher budget and wider appeal. Both movies show the dark side of love, though Wuthering Heights goes darker, to show the effect of bald-faced jealousy, possessiveness, and selfishness, and how those that love each other can truly hurt one another, sometimes unintentionally, and other times with determined, vicious intensity.
Much has been made of Laurence Olivier's dissatisfaction in future wife Vivian Leigh, who had been busy with Gone with the Wind, not getting the role of Catherine, giving way to the bigger name at the time, Merle Oberon. The tension between Olivier and Oberon is the stuff of movie legend, though it no doubt works for the purpose of the latter half of the film when their characters become purposefully mean-spirited. The turn as Heathcliffe would turn Olivier from successful British theater actor to a respected Hollywood leading man, garnering his first Academy Award nomination. The acting in the film is rather stagy, and some may think it a tad over-the-top in its melodramatic aspects, though the film eventually settles in once the table is set for the drama of the second half of the film.
The ending, a post-primary filming add-in using stand-ins filmed by a second director, does depart of the Bronte story somewhat in a studio-fed effort to give audiences something to feel content with in the face of a heartbreaking romance, and Wyler had staunchly tried to prevent it from occurring to preserve the story's artistic integrity. Nevertheless, it's a small sacrifice for the larger story, well-directed and marvelously shot by Oscar-winner Gregg Toland (Citizen Kane, The Grapes of Wrath), with strong, iconic performances, lush score, and haunting imagery that linger in the memory long after the experience is over.
©2013 Vince Leo