Catherine Earnshaw, a headstrong young woman whose home is the isolated manor, Wuthering Heights, situated on the Yorkshire moors, is torn by her passionate love for Heathcliff, a gypsy orphan brought home by her father when they were both children, and her desire for a respectable life of upper class comfort which her neighbour, Edgar Linton offers her. Catherine decides to marry Edgar and Heathcliff disappears from Yorkshire only to return years later, now an independently wealthy man who has made himself the new master of Wuthering Heights. Despite their outwardly settled lives, Catherine and Heathcliff’s consuming love for one another continues to have violent emotional repercussions, not only for them, but for all around them.
OSCAR WINNER for Best Cinematography
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Samuel Goldwyn’s production of “Wuthering Heights”, directed by William Wyler, was not initially popular upon its release in Hollywood’s golden year of 1939. Perhaps the source material was too dark. Emily Brontë’s brooding gothic romanticism was softened for its screen adaptation into a gentler, lush
Wyler and his team succeeded in their adaptation despite Goldwyn’s sometimes frustrating demands. The producer, for instance, insisted on a happy ending which was not compatible with Emily Brontë’s vision for these characters at all. Wyler refused to do it. Not to be deterred, after principal photography was over, Goldwyn brought in another director and two actors, not Oberon or Olivier, to shoot the final glimpse of the ghostly Cathy and Heathcliff walking away hand in hand together. The scene laughably violates the spirit of the novel, and yet maddeningly, it works in a Hollywood sort of way, and thankfully does not ruin the experience of watching the film.
The cast is almost uniformly excellent as well. The one weak link, watching the film now, seems to be Merle Oberon. Goldwyn had her under contract and insisted she be used. However, the emotional depth of the material seems to elude her. Catherine’s great conflict - her passionate love for the outcast Heathcliff versus her overwhelming desire for respectability and a life of ease - never seems to be fully internalized and therefore realized by Oberon. When she talks to Heathcliff about her love of parties and clothes, she sounds more like a petulant school girl rather than the torn young woman she is supposed to embody. The young actress who plays Cathy as a child, Sarita Wooton, actually seems to capture more of the fierceness of the character.
A young and very handsome Laurence Olivier is the epitome of the romantic hero. This is the part that made him a movie star. It was a painful transition for Olivier, by all accounts, from revered stage actor to a film actor and Olivier credited William Wyler, who was famously demanding of his actors, for teaching him how to act in front of a camera. As Heathcliff, he handles the transformation from besotted gypsy stable boy to the taciturn master of Wuthering Heights with authority and skill. There are moments when he retreats back into stage mannerisms, but these are small lapses, and his characterization overall is a success.
The rest of the cast is superb. David Niven, as Cathy’s conventional suitor Edgar Linton, gives a sensitive and intelligent performance. Flora Robson as Ellen, the housekeeper who has been a witness to Heathcliff and Cathy’s grand passion from the beginning, is quietly wise; an observer and a chronicler, as all servants must be of their masters’ moods and behaviour. Geraldine Fitzgerald as the hapless Isabella Linton, who marries Heathcliff in ignorance of his real character, offers a plaintive portrait of an abused woman.
“Wuthering Heights” is an example of Hollywood filmmaking that has mixed elements of brilliance and some lapses in judgement and yet the overall experience of watching the film is still one of satisfaction and appreciation for the thought and skill put into the work. The 1992 version of “Wuthering Heights” starring Ralph Fiennes and Juliette Binoche which does attempt the whole novel, makes for an interesting comparison. Although it is technically more faithful, it never really catches fire the way the 1939 version does. Wyler’s version ultimately is a successful adaptation of Emily Brontë’s book, even if, in some ways, it is quite different from its source. There is still a beating heart to this film that makes it work.