Wuthering Heights (William Wyler, 1939)

This posting is my contribution to the William Wyler blogathon at R.D. Finch’s blog The Movie Projector, running from June 24 to 29. Please do visit and take a look at the other postings, which are covering the whole of Wyler’s career and a lot of great movies.

 There have been many film and TV adaptations of Wuthering Heights over the years. But I think it’s true to say that the first one most people think of is still William Wyler’s black-and-white classic from the great Hollywood year of  1939, starring Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon. This adaptation is not especially faithful to the book, and indeed cuts out the whole second generation, who take up nearly half the novel. However, its wild, rain-lashed melodrama does come close to the spirit of Emily Brontë’s troubling masterpiece, and is something which modern versions, even if closer to the book on the surface, struggle to match.

Wuthering Heights is a great Gothic novel, but the film version starts with more of a flavour of Gothic horror movies, as the new tenant Lockwood (Miles Mander) makes the mistake of reaching a crumbling mansion in the middle of a storm. He then has to stay the night in the bridal chamber, which hasn’t been used for years, and which has a broken window for the wind and rain to whirl in through. All this would of course have been fresher and less clichéd in the 1930s than it is now, but, in any case, Alfred Newman’s music and Greg Toland’s amazing moody cinematography build the tension to fever pitch before Cathy’s ghost is heard wailing in the distance, followed by the unforgettable scene of Laurence Olivier as Heathcliff reaching out of the window in hopeless pursuit of a ghost, crying out: “Cathy! Come to me, oh do, once more!” This is one of the film’s key scenes, along with the moment where Merle Oberon, as Cathy, confesses: “Nelly, I am Heathcliff”.  It seems the most passionate moments in this movie  come when the lovers are apart – and yearning for what they have thrown away.

Laurence Olivier, Merle Oberon and Donald Crisp

After its powerful opening, the film soon moves into flashback, as housekeeper Ellen (Flora Robson) recalls Cathy and Heathcliff’s story. The main characters are shown as children, tracing how Mr Earnshaw (Cecil Kellaway) finds the young Heathcliff ragged and starving on the streets of Liverpool, brings him home and adopts him, to the delight of his daughter, Cathy, but the dismay of his resentful son, Hindley. The childhood is made rather happier than it is in the novel, with a scene where the young Cathy and Heathcliff play a game of chivalry on the moors and she knights him – but the violent hatred between Heathcliff and Hindley is also built up in this early section, setting the scene for the later bitter power struggle between them.

The film was made in California, where a patch of heather sown specially on a hillside grew far higher in the sunshine than it would do in Yorkshire – but the darkness and rain still give a feeling of northern England.  The setting has been moved from the novel’s late 18th/early 19th century to a later period of the 19th century. This was either because Wyler or producer Samuel Goldwyn preferred the fashions of this era, or, as some commentators claim, because the studio had some outfits left over from a Civil War production. (Wyler had directed Jezebel, set in that era, the previous year,  and there are some similarities, as both have headstrong but vulnerable heroines, hemmed in by the small world where they find themselves.) Whatever the reason, this change of period contributes to a smoothing over of some of the story’s rough edges, with a formal dance in one scene and a lot of icy indoor politeness rather than the outright rudeness of the novel’s dialogue.

The characters are also made smoother. In the book, Heathcliff is physically violent to those around him, and even hangs dogs for good measure. In the film, as played by Olivier, he is no thug, but a lonely figure with layers of wounded sensitivity beneath his haughtiness. (I found myself reminded of Hamlet in some scenes, so was interested to learn that this was the part Olivier had just been playing on stage). Cathy, too, as played by Merle Oberon, is inevitably far more glamorous and assured than the demanding, temperamental heroine of the novel. Bearing all this in mind, I can understand why David Thomson comments of Wuthering Heights in his book Have You Seen…? “It is a terrible film (genteel and restrained) that seems to have no idea what the book is, how it works, or where its greatness lies”. I have to disagree with this, however, because, although I can see that the gentility and restraint are there on the surface, Toland’s looming dark shadows and the driving wind and rain are there too, dramatising the emotions which lie just beneath.

Hugh Williams as Hindley

Much of the novel’s darkness centres on Hindley’s drunken self-destruction, and his portrait is not much softened in the film from the character in the book. He is still a domineering brother who delights in humiliating both Cathy and Heathcliff, and, although Hugh Williams doesn’t really have enough screen time, he makes it tell. While his character is slightly squeezed into the margins, by contrast, the Lintons, Edgar (David Niven) and his sister Isabella (Geraldine Fitzgerald) are built up more. In the novel I think Emily Brontë is rather dismissive of both of them as “weak” and somehow not as alive as the central star-crossed lovers. However, in the film Niven brings all his warmth and sweetness to the character of Edgar, making his years of domestic happiness with Cathy, while her great passion is in abeyance, seem believable. Oberon and Niven had been involved in real life, so there is quite a lot of chemistry between them, which helps. And Fitzgerald makes Isabella into a potentially tragic figure, another wilful beauty trapped in Catherine’s shadow, and yet another character pining for love she can’t have.

As with many classics from the 1930s, this film has a fascinating back story of its own and there were many changes of casting before it finally made it to the screen. I’ve read various accounts which often contradict one another, but it seems most people agree that the script, by masters of dialogue Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht, was written first and originally intended for a film starring Sylvia Sidney and Charles Boyer. I can definitely see Sidney as Cathy (she said she would have loved to play the part), but can’t quite imagine Boyer as Heathcliff. Anyway, the script was then bought by Samuel Goldwyn, who decided he wanted to cast Merle Oberon, an actress he had under contract. There are different accounts about the casting of Heathcliff, and it is said Robert Newton was considered at one point, but rejected as not handsome enough. Olivier is thought always to have been the first choice, though Wyler possibly thought he was too handsome, and, according to one anecdote, Goldwyn claimed he was too ugly! In any case, he was reluctant to sign up because he really wanted Vivien Leigh to play opposite him as Cathy, and she was only offered the part of Isabella, which she turned down. Wyler suggested to her that she couldn’t realistically expect a bigger part as her first in Hollywood – but she famously proved him wrong by winning the role of Scarlett O’Hara.

Wyler was keen to sign Niven because he felt the role of Edgar needed an actor with his charm, but Niven was not keen to work with him again after  conflicts between them over the endless retakes in Dodsworth, and at first refused. He agreed when Wyler assured him that he had changed – but, once filming started, Niven soon discovered he was still working for “50-take Wyler”.  Emotions often ran high on the set, with Niven and Olivier both falling out with Wyler over his insistence on retakes. Olivier loathed Wyler at first, but eventually came to see him as a genius, and later always said that he had helped him to act more naturally/less stagily on film, and also shown him the possibilities of film as a medium. According to an account in Jan Brinks Herman’s biography of Wyler, A Talent for Trouble, one one occasion Olivier snapped after multiple retakes, and confronted Wyler, saying:

‘ “For God’s sake, I did it standing up. I did it sitting down.  I did it fast. I did it slow. I did it with a smile. I did it with a smirk. I did it scratching my ear. I did it with my back to the camera. How do you want me to do it?”

Wyler stared at him, bemused.

“I want it better.” ‘

There was also conflict between Olivier and Oberon, although they had worked together well in The Divorce of Lady X. This time Olivier was in a ragged emotional state over his affair with Leigh, and flew off the handle when Oberon accused him of spitting  during their romantic scenes together. Oberon was also under strain, nervous about working with old flame Niven while she had just embarked on her relationship with Alexander Korda. Wyler used the central couple’s anger with one another to build up the emotion of the film.  Olivier later recalled (from an interview quoted in Terry Coleman’s biography Olivier):

“Daggers drawn… We spat at each other, we hated each other, and after one appalling row in which we were both trembling and tears were streaming down, and we were absolutely trembling with rage, Willy said ‘Roll them,’ and it was the most heavy making love scene we’d done and we did it  hating each other, but it was one of the top scenes in the film as it turned out. That was Willy, very bright, very clever.”

David Niven and Merle Oberon

Goldwyn was well-known for being a producer who interfered at every stage of a film’s production, and he had a number of battles with Wyler over Wuthering Heights, involving everything from the title (Goldwyn wanted to change it!) to Olivier’s heavy make-up. Goldwyn subsequently claimed: “I made Wuthering Heights; Wyler only directed it.” One battle which Wyler lost was over the film’s ending. Goldwyn was uneasy about a story where the two lovers both died, and wanted to give them a ghostly happy ending by their phantoms being glimpsed disappearing over the moors at the end – rather as Douglas Fairbanks rejoins his ghostly friends at the end of The Iron Mask. Wyler strongly objected and refused to direct this sequence, so Goldwyn ordered another director, H.C. Potter, to shoot the scene, using a pair of doubles for Olivier and Oberon. You can see why Wyler refused to do it, as the scene is sentimental and softens the tragedy of the wasted lives. Yet it  is so well-known now that it is hard to imagine the film without it – and it does tie back to the beginning, with Olivier reaching out of the window for the cold hand which always slips his grasp.

Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon

Laurence Olivier and Geraldine Fitzgerald

48 thoughts on “Wuthering Heights (William Wyler, 1939)

  1. R. D. Finch

    Judy, a thoughtful and informative post about a film which is beloved of many classic movie fans. In a lot of ways it’s the archetypal romantic/tragic period picture. Your comparisons to the novel it’s based on were quite interesting, especially the slight change in period to give a bit more glamor. I read the novel after seeing the movie and was surprised by how different it was. However, I must say that although the novel would make a good multi-episode mini-series, I think the writers made the right decision in editing and compressing the story for this film version.

    Merle Oberon isn’t a particular favorite of mine, but I think she’s good here, although I can’t help wondering how the intensity and passion of Viven Leigh might have made her even better at conveying the willfulness of Cathy. I can’t imagine anyone better as Heathcliff, though, than Olivier. Another standout for me was Geraldine Fitzgerald, and I can’t really see Vivien Leigh putting across the sad vulnerability of the character the way Fitzgerald did. If the film has a weakness, for me it’s the first section when Heathcliff, Cathy, and Hindley are children. It’s probably largely that the adult actors are so much more interesting than the child actors, but I don’t find the first half-hour as compelling as the rest of the picture.

    All in all, you combined your expertise in a number of areas to produce a very accomplished piece of writing that’s an important contribution to the blogathon, on one of Wyler’s key films and one of his most popular.

    Reply
    1. Judy Post author

      Thanks very much for the kind words, R.D., and for organising the blogathon, which is proving a big success – it is so interesting to get more deeply into the work of this great director. I do agree it was the right decision to cut out the second generation here. To be honest, I’m not sure it works well to include these characters even in a mini-series – the recent two-part ITV adaptation, which I thought was pretty good in general, did have the second generation included, but I found it hard to care about them much, as indeed I do when reading the novel.

      I agree that Merle Oberon is good in this, although it is interesting to wonder what Vivien Leigh or indeed Sylvia Sidney would have done with the role. Also agree on Olivier – he is really too handsome for Heathcliff and makes a haughty stable boy, but none of that matters given the passion he brings to the role. (Though I like him even better in ‘Carrie’.) I do like Geraldine Fitzgerald too – and would like to see more of her work. Agreed on the childhood section not being as good as the rest, but to be honest this is often a problem for me with films and TV shows in general, as it is hard for most child actors to match the older ones – for instance, with ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’ I’m always tempted to skip the first half hour and get straight to Cagney!

  2. Kendra

    My favourite film and definitely one of Olivier’s best performances. I think he and Vivien would have smouldered on screen with a bit more chemistry than he and Merle had (although they were good together in The Divorce of Lady X)–Vivien said she’d play Cathy, or she’d play nothing. But then again, if Vivien had done Wuthering Heights, she wouldn’t have been in Gone with the Wind…

    Reply
    1. Judy Post author

      Kendra, thanks for this – I think Olivier and Oberon managed to work up quite a bit of chemistry even though they didn’t get on (or maybe because they didn’t, as Olivier’s memory of them filming after a big row suggests!) But it is interesting to wonder how he and Vivien Leigh would have worked together on this. I haven’t seen ‘The Divorce of Lady X’ yet, must put that right soon!

  3. FlickChick

    Love this post and love this movie. Since first seeing it as a teenager (the proper age for develpong crushes and romantic longings), it was been a favorite. Of course, Olivier is tremendous, Another favorite component is the music. However, Merle Oberon just about ruins it for me every time (but not enough to make me stop watching). Of course, as a teen, I never one thought about the director, which is exactly how Wyler would have liked it!

    Reply
    1. Judy Post author

      Must agree that Olivier and the music are both wonderful, but sorry to hear you don’t like Merle Oberon in this – her performance has definitely grown on me with repeat viewings. I also first saw this as a teenager, many years ago, and have loved it ever since, and am sure I never thought about the director then either. Thanks very much for the nice comment, FlickChick.

  4. Sam Juliano

    This is an absolutely stupendous post Judy, and it considers a film I have maintained an abiding affection for over decades. By just about any barometer of measurement it’s one of Wyler’s supreme masterpieces, the pinnacle of romance cinema, and a showcase for some of the most extraordinary performances ever committed to film, especially Olivier in peak form. As you astutely note in a fascinating discussion, the changes informed on the film by Wyler did not desecrate the material, but rather accentuated what mattered most to most audiences and maintained an icy emotional grip on viewers. The film was a huge hit with the critics as well, winning the 1939 New York Film Critics prize in the most competitive year in film history. In his long and storied career, I must say there is not another Alfred Newman score I love more than this one. It’s imbued with melodic richness, soaring lyricism, and is perfectly attuned to the Gothic atmospheres that Wyler and Toland successfully achieved. As a potent underpinning to Lord Larry’s most dramatic moments (his monologue at Cathy’s bedside comes powerfully into view) Newman’s work here reaches extraordinary aural heights, bringing Bronte’s passion to bare with operatic intensity. Olivier has given no less than half a dozen master class performances in his screen career, and arguably this is his greatest hour. As to Oberon, I think she’s terrific as well, beautifully negotiating the contradictions, and instilling a haunting essence to her role. The chemistry between her and Olivier is undeniable. The supporting cast too contribute mightily to this screen masterwork.

    Congratulations on this fantastic essay Judy, it’s one of your very best, methinks, and all things considered that’s quite an achievement! It’s a crowning jewel for this great blogothon.

    Reply
    1. Judy Post author

      Sam, thank you so much for the encouragement and over-the-top praise, which are very much appreciated. I agree with you that Newman’s score is great and “perfectly attuned to the Gothic atmospheres” as you say – “operatic intensity” is the perfect phrase for this. I see we agree that the music and cinematography do bring out the underlying passions in this film. I’m not sure which I think is Olivier’s greatest hour – at the moment I’m still overwhelmed by watching ‘Carrie’ yesterday, with its devastating ending, so I think that might be his best, but then there are his Shakespeare films, of course, and there are also still quite a lot I haven’t seen. A shame that Oberon’s career didn’t take off even more than it did – I suppose if von Sternberg’s ‘I Claudius’ had been completed then it could all have worked out differently for her. Anyway, thank you very much for this comment, my friend, and for everything.

  5. John Greco

    Judy,

    This is one of your best posts! Excellent details and comparisons between the novel and the film. It’s been a long time since I watched this so I really need to give it another go. Olivier was such a brilliant actor, always fascinating to watch. A great contribution to the blogathon.

    Reply
    1. Judy Post author

      Thanks very much, John – I’ve just been thinking that I really enjoy writing about adaptations since the differences between the novel and the screen version often offer a way in, so to speak. And I definitely agree with you on Olivier, one of the very greatest.

  6. Grand Old Movies

    You’ve written such a beautiful post about this film (and given so many fascinating details about its storm-tossed making!). David Thomson may have had it correct about Wyler’s adaptation being a far too-genteel version of the novel (in which Heathcliff and Cathy are both extraordinarily unpleasant characters), but his remark, as you note, misses something essential in the film’s dark, moody romanticism. I think this is mainly conveyed through Toland and Olivier; but Geraldine Fitzgerald is also excellent as Isabella; I find her scene when she pleads, to no avail, with Heathcliff to return her love to be hauntingly touching. Whatever its shortcomings, Wyler’s Wuthering Heights is the one that remains in the mind; it’s a touchstone for all films about doomed love and the unrestrained expression of passion. Thanks for your illuminating essay!

    Reply
    1. Judy Post author

      Thanks very much, G.O.M. – I do agree with you on that scene with Geraldine Fitzgerald being excellent, as she brings out the loneliness of her character. I especially like your phrase ‘it’s a touchstone for all films about doomed love and the unrestrained expression of passion’ . For me that really sums up the feeling of this film, despite its too-genteel aspects.

  7. Paul

    You have done such a great job with this review that I am going to have to watch this movie again! The variations from the book hard always bothered me and it made it hard for for to enjoy this movie. It’s not that I didn’t like Wuthering Heights as a movie, I just loved the book so much. After reading your post I am going to have to go back and watch this movie again and truly appreciate what Wyler made. Thanks for the post.

    Reply
    1. Judy Post author

      Paul, for whatever reason the differences from the book have never worried me very much with this particular film, but I do know what you mean because I’ve felt similarly about other classic adaptations. For instance I don’t much like the version of ‘Pride and Prejudice’ made the following year with Olivier as Darcy because it just seems so at odds with the spirit of Austen and makes some changes which set my hackles rising. Thanks very much for the kind comments and I hope you enjoy re-watching the movie. Also just took a peek at your blog and it looks great – I will be doing some exploring there.

  8. KimWilson

    Wuthering Heights is just okay to me–I much prefer the book. The best thing is Toland’s cinematography. I also like Merle. However, I really don’t like Olivier, so that brings them film down for me. Very informative review. Great read.

    Reply
    1. Judy Post author

      Kim, sorry to hear you are not really a fan of this film and don’t like Olivier, who is one of my favourite actors, but at least we can agree on Toland’s cinematography. Thanks very much for the kind comment on my review.

  9. Ken Anderson

    A wonderful post. Always nice to read about a film I haven’t seen that (or hadn’t thought I was interested in) and feel compelled to go out and rent it. Your very descriptive passages make it come alive to me. I enjoyed it very much.

    Reply
    1. Judy Post author

      Ken, thanks very much for the kind comment, and pleased to hear I’ve tempted you to see the movie! In turn, I’m looking forward to reading your review of ‘Funny Girl’ for the blogathon, as I’ll admit it is one Wyler which has left me fairly cold up to now, but I will be interested to get your take and hopefully think again.

  10. Rick29

    Wonderful review! I especially enjoyed the comparisons between film and novel. Your opening paragraph pretty much sums up my opinion of Wyler’s WUTHERING HEIGHTS. PLus, I was unaware of the replacement ending, which puts shed new light on the rest of the film and what might have been.

    Reply
    1. Judy Post author

      Rick, I’d like to know exactly how Wyler wanted the film to end – from what I’ve read so far, I’m not sure if it was supposed to end just a minute or two before the tacked-on ghostly vision, or whether something was cut. Thanks very much for the kind comments!

  11. Classicfilmboy

    Great review. I recently showed this to a class, and they were lukewarm on it while I was enthralled by it! I agree with your assessments of the film. In the case of Oberon, Wyler once again demonstrates his expert ways with actors — she was never a great actress, but Wyler got some of her best performances, in this and “These Three.” BTW, one account I read about the change in time period was that Sam Goldwyn wanted costumes that would best show off Oberon’s shoulders!

    Reply
    1. Judy Post author

      Agreed, Wyler was great at getting good performances out of actors, even if many of them disliked working with him because of all the takes. That’s interesting about the costumes – wonder if it is true. I had heard that costumes of this era are thought to be more attractive than those from a slightly earlier time period. Thanks very much, and sorry to hear that your class didn’t enjoy the film more!

  12. Patricia Nolan-Hall (Caftan Woman)

    The struggles of bringing such a popular novel to the screen fascinate me. What to use, what to leave out and who to cast are only the start. That it came together in a movie that has enthralled generations is a true testament to the craftsmanship behind the project. Loved the article.

    Reply
    1. Judy Post author

      Patricia, I agree that it must be quite a challenge to adapt a well-known novel where so many of the audience know the source material well and are busy making comparisons. Thanks very much.

  13. Kevin Deany

    Judy, an absolutely splendid article. Loved all the casting details. While I really enjoy the film, oddly, I think the supporting cast comes off best, especially Niven and Fitzgerald. I think I like Oberon more than most people, though not necessarily in this film. She’s not earthy enough for me. But Goldwyn’s impeccable production values, Alfred Newman’s finest hour, and Wyler’s intimate directing make this one a winner. His cast may have bristled under the constant re-takes, but one can’t argue with the results.

    Reply
    1. Judy Post author

      Thank you, Kevin – it’s amazing how often the cast of a film has changed several times before production, which I suppose still happens now, come to think of it. I do like both Niven and Fitzgerald and find it interesting that such attractive, warm actors were chosen for the Lintons, making it impossible to dismiss their suffering. And agreed on the way all those involved worked together to get a great result, even if there were storms on set at times.

  14. maroon5gurl88

    You did this film justice! Loved your review! I’ve seen every adaptation of Wuthering Heights and while I did complain about them taking out the entire second half…..I love this one especially because Olivier and Oberon don’t come off nearly as aggressive and mean-spirited as in other adaptations (specifically the recent PBS version with Tom Hardy which I love…but the characters are pretty abominable).

    Reply
    1. Judy Post author

      I’ve seen several versions too and did like the recent ITV/PBS one although it spent rather a lot of time on the second generation – and I do agree that the characters are much more aggressive in that adaptation. The 1939 version is still my favourite, anyway. Thanks very much!

  15. The Lady Eve

    Judy, Your piece on “Wuthering Heights” is a delight – crisp and lucid, it provides much food for thought – plus fascinating details on the film’s backstory.

    I would love to have seen Vivien Leigh as Cathy to Olivier’s Heathcliff. Merle Oberon was a stunning woman but seems to me a bit of a “frozen beauty.” That said, Cathy in “Wuthering Heights” is the high point of her career.

    I’d heard of Olivier’s difficulties with Wyler on this film and how he came around to revere the director. Considering that two greats of the age, Laurence Olivier and Bette Davis, credited Wyler as instrumental to their growth as actors, it’s obvious that he was an “actor’s director” in the truest sense.

    Reply
    1. Judy Post author

      Eve, thank you very much. I haven’t seen all that many Merle Oberon films as yet and still need to see her in Wyler’s ‘These Three’, which I’m hoping to see soon – I do like her as Cathy, though I agree it is interesting to wonder what Leigh would have done with the part. Must agree with you on Wyler being an ‘actor’s director’, as he got so many great performances out of his actors, despite all the fireworks along the way.

  16. shadowsandsatin

    I greatly enjoyed your write-up, Judy — especially the behind the scenes information and the comparisons with the novel, which I tried to read many years ago, but didn’t get very far. After reading your post, I’d like to try again.

    Reply
    1. Judy Post author

      Thank you! I hope you get on better with the novel next time round – definitely worth a second try!

  17. Jim Lane

    Absolutely first-rate post, Judy! I second everything you say, plus I think kudos are also due to Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur for their screenplay, which superbly distills the spirit of the novel (pace David Thomson) despite jettisoning so much of it. They, Wyler, and the cast made a great (albeit variant) movie out of Bronte’s novel in much the way Verdi made great operas out of OTHELLO and THE MERRY WIVES OF WINDSOR.

    You know, I’ve always suspected that a contributing factor in Olivier’s great performance — and I intend no reflection whatsoever on his prowess as an actor — was the fact that during shooting he was suffering from a particularly virulent attack of athlete’s foot (which was much harder to get rid of in those days than it is now). Of course, pro that he was, he would “work through the pain”, but I wonder if the physical agony didn’t manifest itself at least a little in his posture and gait and on his face, where it gave eloquent expression to Heathcliff’s agony of soul. Olivier always paid tribute to what Wyler taught him about film acting; perhaps a tiny part of that was the knowledge that you can’t hide things as easily from the camera as you can from a stage audience.

    Reply
    1. Judy Post author

      Jim, agreed on Hecht and MacArthur – I’ve long been a fan of their contemporary dialogue, but they equally mastered the language of this period piece. I had read about Olivier suffering from athlete’s foot and being on crutches while making this film – strange to think that it used to be such a debilitating condition when we can treat it so relatively easy now – but hadn’t thought about it being reflected in his expressions, which is an interesting thought. Thank you for the kind words.

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  19. silverscreenings

    I have never been a fan of this book and, as a result, have found the film a struggle to watch. However, your review (of the movie) has prompted me to give it another chance!

    Reply
  20. ellenandjim

    Fine blog, Judy and very rich on the actual making of the film. I loved the use of landscape in the film and how careful each shot is — sort of epitomizing the film as a whole. The scenes inside reminded me of an early Dracula film (gothic horror). I thought that the supposed happy ending for the ghosts actually rounded off the film into melancholy. Still, while I agree this film has power is still probably the most famous of the Wuthering Heights films, one I think perhaps better and very influenced by this is the 1992 Kosminsky with Fiennes as Heathcliff and Juliet Binoche as Cathy. It has the second generation and doesn’t compromise the ending. Fiennes is genuinely violent, half-crazed as Binoche is mad with love for him.

    Reply
    1. Judy Post author

      Thank you, Ellen – I do agree that the landscapes work wonderfully and that the ending with the ghosts is melancholy as well as happy. I have seen several versions of the story, but not the Kosminsky one as yet, although I will aim to do so soon. Fiennes is an actor I like very much, Binoche too, and I will be interested to see how they make the second generation work.

  21. Jason Marshall

    Judy, this is an amazing post on a film that I wished I liked more. I don’t blame Wyler, Goldwyn, or MacArthur and Hecht. I don’t blame Laurence Olivier or Merle Oberon (who I think was largely a bland actress with empty eyes, but pretty good here probably only because of Wyler’s direction). I blame Emily Bronte. I’ve never liked the book and have always been horrified when people point to it as a classic example of romance and doomed love. Heathcliff is so rotten and Catherine so stupid that I never could sympathize with either of them (though I guess I’m not really supposed to, but then what’s the point). They deserved each other and I didn’t much care if they died or lived and got together. Everyone else around them was better off without them, one way or the other.

    I love the behind the scenes stuff you write about. I read a biography of Sammuel Goldwyn a couple years ago and it had lots of great stuff about the making of this movie which, like most Goldwyn movies, wasn’t terribly harmonious.

    Reply
    1. Judy Post author

      Jason, I agree that Heathcliff and Catherine are both disturbing characters and their relationship is more horror than romance, but I still find the novel endlessly fascinating, although I prefer Charlotte Brontë to Emily. I haven’t seen enough of Merle Oberon really to comment on her work in general, but I do think she is good in this and I know it is said she is very good in the fragment of von Sternberg’s ‘I Claudius’, though I haven’t seen that as yet. Thanks very much for the kind comment – I would be interested to read a biography of Goldwyn too.

  22. Laura

    Hi Judy! I’m catching up on my blog reading after vacation and thoroughly enjoyed your post on WUTHERING HEIGHTS. This movie made quite an impression on me as a young teen, especially the moving ending. I think the four lead actors are all marvelous but have particularly come to appreciate Geraldine Fitzgerald’s tragic Isabella. Thanks for all the interesting details (Robert Newton?!).

    I like the new look of your blog, BTW!

    Best wishes,
    Laura

    Reply
    1. Judy Post author

      Thanks very much, Laura – it is quite hard to imagine Robert Newton in the role, or indeed anyone other than Olivier, but I am sure he would have done a good job. I agree that Geraldine Fitzgerald makes a strong impression. I’d been searching for a while for a theme which would suit my blog and this one seems to fit the bill!

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  24. NeveR

    Last time I watched this movie I became a convert – where previously I’d always dismissed it as too hopelessly romantic. I love the novel and am sick of its complexities and anti-romance being mushed down by moviemakers into some trite little “love story”. I never expected the 1939 version to be least guilty on this department – but almost incredibly it is. In its way it’s possibly more faithful to the spirit of Bronte’s vision than any other adaptation I’ve seen. It permits the people to be flawed, selfish, brutal and and childish – without which the entire energy of the novel is lost.

    I agree Robert Newton as Heathcliff is a terrifying prospect – almost as scary as the idea of William Powell playing Holmes instead of Basil Rathbone. And *Charles Boyer*? Excuse me? He was small and soft and pretty and French – so they cast him as a tall, hard, rugged British man. Hollywood has always been poised on the edge of insanity in its casting hasn’t it, and often only chance rescued it from the most amazing gaffs.

    Reply
    1. Judy Post author

      I like your description of the characters in this version being “flawed, selfish, brutal and childish’, Neve – that really summarises the feeling of a lot of the film. I do think, looking at Robert Newton’s performance as Sikes in ‘Oliver Twist’, he would probably have been great at showing the violent side of Heathcliff. It is harder to imagine him in the romantic moments – though I still need to see more of his work and maybe there are roles which show this side of him – but we will never know, of course. I think Charles Boyer could have got the passion and violence of Heathcliff, as he is quite scary towards the end of ‘All This and Heaven Too’, but, yes, the French accent would have been a problem… and at the end of the day it is so hard to imagine anyone other than Olivier in the role in this film. Thanks very much for your thoughts on this movie.

  25. Pingback: The Imposter, Frankenstein, Dracula, Phantom of the Opera, E.T. and The Wedding March on Monday Morning Diary (July 16) « Wonders in the Dark

  26. amandinemily

    Hello Judy !

    I’ve been reading your blog for a while now and I always like your articles :)
    Either I’m discovering new interesting movies or I read your opinions about the ones I know.

    I’ve watched Wuthering Heights at least 2 times, great movie.

    My best wiches,

    Amanda.

    Reply

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