WUTHERING HEIGHTS (1939)

  • Director: William Wyler
  • Writers: Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht, based on the novel by Emily Brontë
  • Starring: Laurence Olivier, Merle Oberon, David Niven, Flora Robson, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Hugh Williams, Donald Crisp, Leo G. Carroll, Miles Mander, and Cecil Kellaway
  • Accolades: 1997 AFI Top 100 list (#73), 1 Oscar (Best Cinematography – Black & White), 8 additional Oscar nominations (Best Picture, Best Director – William Wyler, Best Actor – Laurence Olivier, Best Supporting Actress – Geraldine Fitzgerald, Best Screenplay, Best Original Score, and Best Art Direction)
  • Where to Watch: Free streaming on Kanopy (library app), stream with subscription on Amazon Prime, buy or rent of Amazon Video or Apple TV

1939, the year of Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and Stagecoach, is sometimes called “Hollywood’s Greatest Year,” the height of the studio system that could produce these huge movies one after the other. That same year, 20th Century Fox produced the first feature film version of the classic English novel Wuthering Heights, which today is probably less seen than all of those other movies I just listed. However, it was considered a major success at the time, and as recently as the 90s made the AFIs list of the Top 100 American movies (a list that also included all those movies I mentioned). It lacks much of the gothic sweep and weird romantic-relationships-as-grudges dynamic that originally attracted me to Emily Brontë’s novel. But it does capture the deep, depressive weirdness that pervades the book, which I don’t think I’ve quite seen duplicated in any other movie of this period. There are lots of lines like: “My tears don’t love you, Cathy, they blight and curse and damn you,” or, “If everything else in the world were to die, it wouldn’t feel empty to me, were Heathcliff in it.” A great movie? I dunno, but I was here for it.

The novel is a thick one, and was originally in two volumes, a fact that 1930s Hollywood dealt with by basically ignoring the second half of the story. For those who were not made to read it in English class at some point, Wuthering Heights is set on the blustery, barren Yorkshire moors (originally in the late-18th/early-19th century, this movie is ostensibly set in the mid-1800s, supposedly because the studio had left over costumes from a Civil War movie that it wanted to re-use). It follows the twisted love story of headstrong Cathy (Merle Oberon) and the low-born Heathcliff (the great Laurence Olivier), who in the novel supposedly has swarthier skin than everyone else and an unknown background, though 1930s Hollywood elides these differences to just calling him a “Gypsy” a few times. As they grow up, Cathy marries the foppish rich guy up the road, Edgar Linton (played here by David Niven, very early in his American career).

Heathcliff storms off in a huff after hearing Cathy is getting married, returning years later from America with a bunch of money (we never find out where from) and wanting to “take his revenge” for a long series of perceived wrongs. He ends up romancing and then marrying Edgar’s younger sister Isabella (Geraldine Fitzgerald), who falls hard for him at first sight, but soon realizes she will never replace Cathy. The climax of the movie is Cathy’s sudden illness and death, in Heathcliff’s arms, not her husband’s. She finally dies as he helps her to look out the window, suddenly slumping over sideways while he holds her up. It’s funny if you’re in the right mood, I’m sure very sad if you’re in a different mood. The movie then cuts back to a framing device, lifted from the novel, (the whole movie is being narrated by a loyal servant (Flora Robson), telling the story to a stranger (Miles Mander)) where Heathcliff encounters Cathy’s ghost and dies out on the moors.

While basically every version of Wuthering Heights since has been very British, this one was very much a Hollywood production, in some ways 20th Century Fox’s weird, goth answer to Gone With the Wind, hoop-skirts and all. It was directed by William Wyler, who received the second of his record 12 Best Director Oscar nominations for his work here. This included his collaboration with legendary cinematographer Gregg Toland, who ended up winning the movie’s only Oscar. There’s one shot, when Heathcliff first returns and we stay with Cathy and Edgar as he slowly walks into this big room and comes towards them, the camera entirely still, that left me thinking specifically of the deep focus shots Toland would oversee two years later in Citizen Kane. Rather than being shot on the Yorkshire moors, the movie was actually, somehow, filmed almost entirely in Ventura County, California. Despite this, you never get the sense of anything being out of place. Something tells me that this was a lot easier to pull off in black and white than it would have been in color.

The cast, however, mostly consisted of British actors, including perhaps the definitive British actor, Laurence Olivier, as Heathcliff. I find more interesting the casting of Merle Oberon as Cathy. Olivier had tried to get the studio to hire his girlfriend at the time, Vivien Leigh, but this was turned down as she wasn’t considered a big enough name. This freed Leigh up to win the lead role in Gone With the Wind. Oberon was a known star, first gaining notice for playing Anne Boleyn in The Private Life of Henry VIII, and having recently received an Oscar nomination for her performance in The Dark Angel. She is really good in this movie (I would say moreso than Olivier, really), but today she may be more known for her personal story.

Oberon was born in British India, the daughter of an English father and a half-European/half-East Asian mother. When she was three, her father died in World War I. After doing some local acting and dating a more prominent actor, she ended up moving first to France and then to England in order to further her acting career. This whole time, she lied about her background, because she would never have been accepted as a “mainstream” actress in the West if it was known she was part-Asian. She eventually came up with a story about having been born and raised in Tasmania, which she stuck to all her life, to the point where she was honored by the local government and to this day has a theater named after her in the Tasmanian capital, Hobart. The thing is, looking at her with modern eyes, she looks basically like a beautiful East Asian woman. The fact that everyone apparently believed that she was just from Australia shows you what a different time it was. Today, it gives Wuthering Heights an interesting twist, as if this was from the same headspace as Bridgerton and we were doing race-blind casting.

One thing that I think has caused this movie’s significance to wane is simply that, over time, we have gotten more adaptations of this story, ones that likely do more to appeal to modern audiences than this, admittedly modern-for-its-time, film from 1939. There have been several TV versions, including a BBC mini-series from the 1960s with a young Ian McShane as Heathcliff. Honestly you have to do multiple episodes just to get the whole novel in. In 1970 Timothy Dalton was the first color Heathcliff, in a roundly-panned version. In 1992 came the first movie version that comes up today when you google “Wuthering Heights movie,” starring Ralph Fiennes and Juliette Binoche. The story has also been adapted to numerous other cultures and locations, from Luis Buñuel’s Abismos de Pasion, set in 1950s Mexico, to a 1980s version, still called Wuthering Heights, set in Medieval Japan. All this is to say, if you’re interested in just the novel or the story, there are probably more interesting, or at least more complete, movie or TV takes on it (not to mention, if you’re a teenager, versions that hew close enough to the original novel to keep you from failing your English test). But this is an interesting movie in its time, nonetheless, if you’re up for some gothic, depressive melodrama. And who isn’t?

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