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.
I just wanted to mention that I’ve been asked to take part in a couple of blogathons on classic movie themes which are coming up soon, and am looking forward to both of them.
First off, KC at Classic Movies is organising the Mary Pickford Blogathon on June 1, 2 and 3 – I will be writing a posting about Pickford’s silent film Daddy Long Legs (1919). There are a lot of bloggers taking part, including some experts on Mary Pickford (I don’t know much about her, must admit!), so I’m looking forward to learning a lot more about her work and the era of silent film. I think it is still possible to sign up to take part in this blogathon if you are interested.
Then from June 24-29, R.D. Finch will be running the William Wyler Blogathon at his blog The Movie Projector, to mark the 110th anniversary of Wyler’s birth. I am going to contribute a piece about Wuthering Heights (1939), starring Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon. The line-up for this blogathon has been finalised and it has a wide range of bloggers who will be covering many different Wyler films.
I’ll mention both of these events again nearer the time, but just wanted to give a heads-up now. Please do visit both KC and R.D.’s sites to find out more about what is planned, and thanks to both of them for all their hard work in organising these events!
Films about classic cinema are proving very popular at the moment. There’s The Artist, a tribute to silent cinema – and My Week with Marilyn, starring Michelle Williams, Eddie Redmayne and Kenneth Branagh, which goes behind the scenes of the making of The Prince and the Showgirl in 1957. After watching this alternately amusing and bitter-sweet slice of nostalgia, I saw the earlier film (yes, I know it would have made more sense to do this the other way round!), and was struck not only by how well the new movie captures its mood at times, but also, to my surprise, by the similarities in theme between the two.
Each of these two movies is a period piece – with the new film being directed by Simon Curtis, who also helmed the BBC’s costume drama Cranford. (He brings the same loving attention to detail to this film as he did in that mini-series, both in re-creating the 1950s and in showing the 1950s’ version of 1911 in the restaged movie scenes.) Each is set against the background of a major event – a royal wedding in one, the making of a great film in the other. Also, each film is about a couple temporarily thrown together by circumstances, although they are from different worlds. And each shows a younger person who isn’t famous seduced by the fame and glamour surrounding an older, damaged stranger, but having to come back down to earth and return to real life at the end.
I was excited today to discover that the British Film Institute in London has a comprehensive-looking Howard Hawks season coming up in January. The list of movies is on their site with an introduction by David Thomson. It will include Hawks’ earliest surviving film, Fig Leaves (1926), and other silent rarities, as well as early talkies like The Criminal Code (1931) and many better-known films from the rest of his career. As well as the silents, I’m also extremely tempted by the thought of seeing my favourites like The Crowd Roars (1932) and Ceiling Zero (1935), both starring James Cagney, as a troubled racing driver and womanising pilot, or Twentieth Century (1934), with John Barrymore and Carole Lombard – or The Dawn Patrol (1930), starring Richard Barthelmess, on the big screen. Realistically, as it is a long way to London, I’m not likely to be able to see more than one or two of the wonderful array of films, but will report back on this blog on whatever I do manage to see, anyway!
The BFI has also got what sounds like a great Frank Capra season running at the moment. On top of its programme of showings, it has ongoing appeals to restore nine rare early Alfred Hitchcock silent films and to find 75 “most wanted” lost British films – including missing features starring Errol Flynn, Laurence Olivier, Dorothy Gish, Peter Lorre, James Mason, Phyllis Calvert and many more famous actors, and also including work by directors such as Hitchcock, again, and Michael Powell. I don’t know if they have had any luck in digging up copies of any of these missing treasures, but here’s hoping.
I’ve been meaning to write some more postings about Shakespeare films I’ve seen, but haven’t got round to it and my memories of some of them are starting to fade, so I’m going to do some brief capsule reviews instead of my usual epics – I’m looking to write more frequent and shorter postings anyway, although I’m sure I will continue to write at length occasionally!
The one I saw most recently was Orson Welles’ Macbeth (1948), which I had recorded from TV, and found much more impressive than I’d expected to after seeing some lukewarm and downright scathing reviews. Released the same year as Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet, but with a much smaller budget, this production was very much overshadowed by Olivier’s big-budget Oscar-winner – but I’d say there are a lot of similarities between the two, as they both use minimalist sets and atmospheric lighting with a lot of darkness and shadows. Welles’ production is said to be influenced by German expressionism, and also has some weird camera angles.
They also both feature towering central performances by the actor-director – Welles might have a cheap and tacky-looking costume, but his speaking of Shakespeare’s verse is still great, and he completely overshadows all the other actors, including radio actress Jeanette Nolan as Lady Macbeth.
There’s a good background account of the making of this Macbeth in Kenneth S Rothwell’s book Shakespeare on Screen, where he recounts how the Poverty Row studio which released this film, Republic Pictures, made some hefty cuts before release and also forced Welles to rerecord the dialogue, which had originally been done with Scottish accents. The film has now been restored, with the cut footage added back in and the Scottish dialogue restored – I’d have to say the Scottish accents sound a bit unconvincing, but they definitely go with the wild, dark and bleak landscapes of this version.
The real problem with the dialogue, though, is that it was recorded separately, with the actors mouthing their dialogue on camera to go with the soundtrack. Rothwell suggests this method of production shows the influence of Welles’ background in radio. In any case, it didn’t quite work and a lot of the dialogue is noticeably out of synch. I was interested to read that some elements from Welles’ earlier touring stage production of Macbeth with an all-black cast, set in Haiti, have been included, such as the voodoo doll with Macbeth’s head – there is a clip of the ending of the stage version on Youtube, which is very striking and makes me wish it was possible to watch and compare the whole production.
For further reading, here’s a link to an article at Slant magazine about the making and restoration of Welles’ Macbeth.
I’m not going to say a lot about this film, but, as part of my mini-Shakespeare season, just wanted briefly to record that I’ve re-watched the Olivier Hamlet and enjoyed it very much – it is much better than his first Shakespearean film role in As You Like It. The fact that he was director as well as the star makes a lot of difference.
One problem in looking back at this film now is that, as it was so influential, some of the decisions which Olivier made as director have now become things we take for granted, such as pointing up the Oedipal aspects of the relationship between Hamlet and Gertrude with the scene where he remonstrates with her on a bed – Kenneth S Rothwell’s book A History of Shakespeare on Screen points out that Olivier had recently played Oedipus on stage.
I’m having a short Shakespeare season on both my blogs, as I’ll soon be visiting Stratford upon Avon. And what better place to start than with Laurence Olivier? This production of As You Like It was the first time he had played a Shakespearean role on film – and it was also the first Shakespeare film to be made in Britain in the sound era, so very interesting to see from both those points of view.
Unfortunately, the DVD I picked up a while back, produced by AG Plate, isn’t of great quality – really I should have smelt a rat by spotting that the cover picture appears to be of Olivier in Hamlet, complete with blond hair. The print does not appear to be restored or remastered and there is background noise and a poor picture at the beginning, although the quality of both sound and picture improves later. However, there is now a new digitally remastered DVD in region 2, produced by Simply Media, with a lovely shot of Olivier and Elisabeth Bergner on the cover – and there is also a rather pricier region 1 version.
I just posted this to my other blog on costume dramas, but thought I’d copy it here too as the two blogs mainly have different readerships… so apologies to the couple of people seeing it twice. Shakespeare is on my mind at the moment as next month I’ll be going on holiday to the Cotswolds and visiting Stratford upon Avon – and seeing an RSC production of The Winter’s Tale while I’m there. I was supposed to see an open-air forest production of the same play last year but we couldn’t go as my husband had (suspected) swine flu, so it will be good to see it this year instead.:)
Anyway, I was just thinking it would be nice to watch some Shakespeare productions on film to get me in the mood before going and I’ll probably write (hopefully short) pieces about anything I watch. On my other blog I mentioned that I liked the recent RSC production of Hamlet starring David Tennant, but since this one is more geared to older movies I’ll mention here that I also love the classic version with Laurence Olivier. Does anyone have any other older (or new) Shakespeare productions to recommend?