#188) Wuthering Heights (1939)

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#188) Wuthering Heights (1939)

OR “Moor to Love”

Directed by William Wyler

Written by Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht. Based on the novel by Emily Brontë.

Class of 2007

The Plot: Wuthering Heights is the gothic farmhouse near the moors of Yorkshire where Cathy Earnshaw (Merle Oberon) lives. Her father (Cecil Kellaway) brings home an orphan boy named Heathcliff (Laurence Oliver), who soon becomes close with Cathy. As they grow up their love for each other blossoms into passion, but ultimately drives them apart. Cathy weds the wealthy Edgar Linton (David Niven), while Heathcliff starts to court Edgar’s sister Isabella (Geraldine Fitzgerald) out of spite. And the healthy little relationship between Cathy and Heathcliff just gets more distressing from there.

Why It Matters: The NFR calls it “one of cinema’s great romances”, praises Gregg Toland’s cinematography, and points out the heated collaboration between director William Wyler and producer Sam Goldwyn.

But Does It Really?: Meh. “Wuthering Heights” is certainly not one of the greatest films (romantic or otherwise) ever made, but another one of those films whose lasting reputation would get it on this list sooner or later. This film is by no means a bad movie, it’s just not as incredible as I’ve been led to believe. Part of the problem is that the main love story isn’t romantic, despite what the score and the performances are telling you. I suspect this is as close to a good film adaptation of the novel as we’ll ever get, so I’ll shrug my shoulders, give “Wuthering Heights” a pass for its legacy, and move on with my life.

Everybody Gets One: Leading lady Merle Oberon, and Flora Robson, my pick for the definitive Queen of Hearts.

Wow, That’s Dated: The term “gypsy” doesn’t fly today, unless you’re talking about the musical. On the same page, Laurence Olivier is definitely not Romani.

Take a Shot: Like most movies where the title is a location rather than the main character, the estate of Wuthering Heights gets mentioned often enough to make a good drinking game.

Seriously, Oscars?: “Wuthering Heights” garnered eight Oscar nominations, third behind “Gone with the Wind” and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”. The former dominated the ceremony, but “Wuthering” managed one win: Best Black-and-White Cinematography for Gregg Toland. Toland has a lot of classic films on his resume, but it’s a shame he won for good work on this film compared to his great work on “Citizen Kane” or “The Best Years of Our Lives”. Olivier received his first of 13 nominations with this film, while Oberon missed out on a Best Actress nod.

Other notes

  • The film is actually an adaptation of the first half of the novel. The second half involves the children of Heathcliff, Catherine and Hindley, who were written out of this film. Professional screenwriters know this adaptation process as the “Reverse ‘East of Eden’”.
  • If you’re like me, you’ve never heard the word “wuthering” without it being immediately followed by “heights”. By itself, “wuthering” describes a strong, roaring wind, but “Windy Heights” just doesn’t have the epic romanticism you’re looking for.
  • This adaptation transposes the time period from the late 1700s to the mid 1800s, simply because Sam Goldwyn liked that era’s costumes better. This infuriates my girlfriend/personal Regency expert to no end.
  • Heathcliff and Cathy are names I forever associate with comic strip characters.
  • Shout-out to Sarita Wooton and Rex Downing as Young Cathy and Young Heathcliff. They didn’t have much of a career outside of this film, but they are perfectly cast.
  • The romantic tension between Merle Oberon and Laurence Olivier is palpable, which is incredible considering their well-documented dislike for each other during filming.
  • Merle Oberon looks like the lost Tilly sister.
  • I will never see David Niven in a movie without thinking of his line from “Murder by Death”: “Saved only by the fact that I am enormously well-bred.”
  • This is the film where Geraldine Fitzgerald runs over a peacock.
  • That’s Mozart’s “Rondo alla Turca” being played on the harpsichord. Given the original novel’s time period, this would have been a Top 40 hit.
  • Everybody in this film slaps people on the chin. Not very convincing, but I suppose no one wanted to go full “Chinatown” on this one.
  • I try not to spoil movies in these posts, but it’s a 79-year-old film based on a 171-year-old novel. You’ve been warned. Cathy’s death takes for-ev-er. This is very much the “dying in a key light” cliché most movies make fun of. Francisco Franco died faster.

Legacy

  • There have been many film adaptations over the years, most eliminating the second half of the book as well. The rare exception is the 1992 version with Ralph Fiennes and Juliette Binoche.
  • The best adaptation, however, is this 1970 version that translates the dialogue into semaphore.
  • Perhaps the film’s largest impact is the ending, tacked on at the insistence of Sam Goldwyn and the extreme reluctance of William Wyler. The new scene gives the film a happier ending, and has led most people to think that the novel is more romantic than Brontë intended.
  • Laurence Olivier and Flora Robson would reunite years later for… “Clash of the Titans”?
  • “Wuthering Heights” was referenced occasionally on “Frasier”. Yeah, that scans.
  • And of course, Kate Bush.

4 thoughts on “#188) Wuthering Heights (1939)”

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