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.
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.
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.”
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.