Wuthering Heights (1939 film)

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Wuthering Heights
Wutheringheights1939.jpg
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Directed by William Wyler
Produced by Samuel Goldwyn
Written by Charles MacArthur
Ben Hecht
Based on Wuthering Heights 
by Emily Brontë
Starring Merle Oberon
Laurence Olivier
David Niven
Geraldine Fitzgerald
Music by Alfred Newman
Cinematography Gregg Toland
Edited by Daniel Mandell
Production
company
Distributed by United Artists
Release dates
  • April 13, 1939 (1939-04-13)
Running time 103 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Box office $624,643[1] (1989 re-issue)

Wuthering Heights is a 1939 American black-and-white film directed by William Wyler and produced by Samuel Goldwyn. It is based on the novel, Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë. The film depicts only sixteen of the novel's thirty-four chapters, eliminating the second generation of characters. The novel was adapted for the screen by Charles MacArthur, Ben Hecht and John Huston. The film won the 1939 New York Film Critics Award for Best Film. It earned nominations for eight Academy Awards,[2] including for Best Picture and Best Actor. The 1939 Academy Award for Best Cinematography, black-and-white category, was awarded to Gregg Toland for his work.

In 2007, Wuthering Heights was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".

Plot[edit]

A traveller named Lockwood (Miles Mander) is caught in the snow and stays at the estate of Wuthering Heights, despite the cold behaviour of his aged host, Heathcliff (Laurence Olivier). Late that night, after being shown into an upstairs room that was once a bridal chamber, Lockwood is awakened by a cold draft and finds the window shutter flapping back and forth. Just as he is about to close it, he feels an icy hand clutching his and sees a woman outside calling, "Heathcliff, let me in! I'm out on the moors. It's Cathy!" Lockwood calls Heathcliff and tells him what he saw, whereupon the enraged Heathcliff throws him out of the room. As soon as Lockwood is gone, Heathcliff frantically calls out to Cathy, runs down the stairs and out of the house, into the snowstorm.

Ellen, the housekeeper (Flora Robson), tells the amazed Lockwood that he has seen the ghost of Cathy Earnshaw, Heathcliff's great love, who died years ago. When Lockwood says that he doesn't believe in ghosts, Ellen tells him that he might if she told him the story of Cathy. And so the main plot begins as a long flashback.

The plot then flashes back forty years. As a boy, Heathcliff is found on the streets by Mr. Earnshaw (Cecil Kellaway), who brings him home to live with his two children, Cathy and Hindley. At first reluctant, Cathy eventually welcomes Heathcliff and they become very close, but Hindley treats him as an outcast, especially after Mr. Earnshaw dies. About ten years later, the now-grown Heathcliff and Cathy (Merle Oberon) have fallen in love and are meeting secretly on Peniston Crag (because of censorship, their relationship in the film is kept strictly platonic in spite of the fact that they do kiss, while in the novel it is implied that their relationship was sexual). Hindley (Hugh Williams) has become dissolute and tyrannical and hates Heathcliff. One night, as Cathy and Heathcliff are out together, they hear music and realize that their neighbors, the Lintons, are giving a party. Cathy and Heathcliff sneak to the Lintons and climb over their garden wall, but the dogs are alerted and Cathy is injured. Heathcliff is forced to leave Cathy in their care. Enraged that Cathy would be so entranced by the Linton's glamor and wealth, he blames them for her injury and curses them.

Months later, Cathy is fully recuperated but still living at the Lintons. Edgar Linton (David Niven) has fallen in love with Cathy and soon proposes, and after Edgar takes her back to Wuthering Heights, she tells Ellen what has happened. Ellen reminds her about Heathcliff, but Cathy flippantly remarks that it would degrade her to marry him. Heathcliff overhears and leaves. Cathy realizes that Heathcliff has overheard, is overcome by guilt and runs out after him into a raging storm. Edgar finds her and nurses her back to health once again, and soon he and Cathy marry.

Heathcliff was thought to have disappeared forever but returns two years later, now wealthy and elegant. He has refined his appearance and manners in order to both impress and spite Cathy and secretly buys Wuthering Heights from Hindley, who has become an alcoholic. In order to further spite Cathy, Heathcliff begins courting Edgar's naive sister, Isabella (Geraldine Fitzgerald), and eventually marries her. The brokenhearted Cathy soon falls gravely ill. Heathcliff rushes to her side against the wishes of the now disillusioned and bitter Isabella, and Cathy dies in Heathcliff's arms.

The flashback ends and we return to Ellen finishing her story. The family doctor, Dr. Kenneth (Donald Crisp), bursts in, saying that he (Dr. Kenneth) must be mad, having seen Heathcliff in the snow walking with his arm around a woman. Ellen exclaims, "It was Cathy!" and Dr. Kenneth says, "No, I don't know who it was", and tells them that he was then thrown from his horse. As he drew closer, he found Heathcliff lying in the snow. The woman had disappeared and there was no sign of her, and only Heathcliff's footprints appeared in the snow, not hers. Lockwood asks, "Is he dead?", and Dr. Kenneth nods, but Ellen says, "No, not dead, Dr. Kenneth. And not alone. He's with her. They've only just begun to live."

The last thing we see in the film are the ghosts of Heathcliff and Cathy, walking in the snow, superimposed over a shot of Peniston Crag.

Omissions from the novel[edit]

The film omitted any mention of Cathy's daughter and Heathcliff's son, both of whom play a major role in the last portion of the book. In the film, neither Heathcliff nor Cathy has any children. Isabella does not leave Heathcliff, or die, unlike in the novel where she manages to escape him and later passes away. Instead she remains his troubled, but loyal, wife even when Mr Lockwood visits.

Cast[edit]

Production[edit]

The project was initially intended as a vehicle for Merle Oberon, who was under contract with Goldwyn at the time. However, when Laurence Olivier was cast as Heathcliff, Vivien Leigh wanted to play the lead role alongside her then-lover and future husband.[3] Studio executives felt the role could not go to an actress who was largely unknown in America, but they did offer Leigh the part of Isabella Linton. She declined, and Geraldine Fitzgerald was cast. Leigh was cast in Gone with the Wind that same year, which won her an Academy Award for Best Actress; Merle Oberon did not receive a nomination for her performance.

There were clashes on the set between actors and the director. Both of the leading players began work on the film miserable at having to leave their loved ones back in the United Kingdom; Olivier missed his fiancée Vivien Leigh and Oberon had recently fallen in love with film producer Alexander Korda.[4] Merle Oberon and Laurence Olivier also apparently detested each other. Witnesses recall Oberon scolding Olivier for accidentally spitting on her during a particularly romantic balcony scene. Oberon shouted back to Wyler, "Tell him to stop spitting at me!" Olivier retorted by shouting, "What's a little spit for Chrissake, between actors? You bloody little idiot, how dare you speak to me...?" Oberon ran crying from the set after the outburst, and Wyler insisted Olivier apologize to her, which upset Olivier greatly.[5]

Olivier also found himself becoming increasingly annoyed with William Wyler's exhausting style of film-making. After countless takes of one scene, he is said to have exclaimed, "For God's sake, I did it sitting down. 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's retort was, "I want it better."[5] Olivier in later years was more kind in his opinion about Wyler. In both his autobiography and his book, On Acting, he credits William Wyler with teaching him how to act in films, as opposed to on the stage, and for giving him a new respect for films. Olivier had tended to "ham it up", as if he were playing to the second balcony, but Wyler showed him how to act more subtly.

In the final sequence of Wuthering Heights, the spirits of Heathcliff and Cathy are seen walking together hand-in-hand, obviously in love. This scene is not found in the book and, according to literary critic John Sutherland, was likely the stark opposite of what Brontë intended the reader to understand. He contends that a contemporary reader would not have seen Cathy's ghost's actions as a gesture of undying love for Heathcliff but one of towering, protective rage; Cathy haunted Heathcliff to death only to prevent him from cheating her daughter out of her inheritance.[6] Director Wyler hated the idea of the after-life scene and didn't want to do it but producer Samuel Goldwyn vetoed him, and the scene was added after primary filming was complete. As Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon had already moved on to other projects, doubles had to be used. Goldwyn subsequently claimed, "I made Wuthering Heights, Wyler only directed it." [7] Goldwyn claimed that Wuthering Heights was his favorite of all his productions.[4] Sutherland writes that this change to the ending has influenced how students view the novel and especially Cathy, who comes across as more passive and accepting of abuse than Brontë may have envisioned.[6]

David Niven remembers the filming of Merle Oberon's deathbed scenes (recorded in his bestselling book, The Moon's a Balloon) as less than romantic. After telling Wyler he didn't know how to 'sob', he had been given a menthol mist substance to help it appear as if he were crying, which instead had the effect of making "green goo" come out of his nose. Oberon immediately exited the bed after witnessing it.

Accolades[edit]

Award Category Recipients and nominees Outcome
New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Film Wuthering Heights (1939 film) Won
Academy Award Best Cinematography, Black and White Gregg Toland Won
Best Picture Wuthering Heights (1939 film) Nominated
Best Director William Wyler Nominated
Best Actor Laurence Olivier as Heathcliff Nominated
Best Supporting Actress Geraldine Fitzgerald as Isabella Linton Nominated
Best Screenplay Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur Nominated
Best Original Score Alfred Newman Nominated
Best Art Direction James Basevi Nominated

Other Honors[edit]

American Film Institute Lists

Miscellaneous[edit]

  • The Mitchell Camera Corporation selected cinematographer Gregg Toland and Wuthering Heights to be the first to use their new Mitchell BNC camera. This camera model would become the studio standard.
  • The novel takes place in the late 18th and early 19th century. However, the film places the action in the mid-19th century, around the time of the novel's publication. Sarah Berry writes that Samuel Goldwyn deliberately chose to do this because he thought "Civil War" fashions were more attractive than Regency fashions.[11] Other writers have claimed that Goldwyn was short on funds and had to recycle costumes from a Civil War drama.
  • The film is rated  G  in New Zealand.

References[edit]

  1. ^ Box Office Information for Wuthering Heights. Box Office Mojo. Retrieved April 13, 2012.
  2. ^ "NY Times: Wuthering Heights". NY Times. Retrieved 2008-12-12. 
  3. ^ Purse, Marcia (2006-06-18). "Vivien Leigh – Actress". About.com. Retrieved 2008-01-11. 
  4. ^ a b c Dirks, Tim. "Wuthering Heights (1939)". Filmsite.org. Retrieved 2008-01-11. 
  5. ^ a b Herman, Jan (1997). A Talent For Trouble: The Life of Hollywood's Most Acclaimed Director, William Wyler. Da Capo Press. ISBN 0-306-80798-X. 
  6. ^ a b Is Heathcliff a Murderer?: Great Puzzles in Nineteenth-century Literature. John Sutherland. Oxford University Press, 1996. ISBN 978-0-19-282516-2.
  7. ^ Nuggehalli, Nigam. "Wuthering Heights (1939)". CultureVulture.net. Retrieved 2008-01-11. 
  8. ^ AFI's 100 Years...100 Movie Quotes Nominees
  9. ^ AFI's 100 Years of Film Scores Nominees
  10. ^ AFI's 100 Years...100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition) Ballot
  11. ^ Screen Style: Fashion and Femininity in 1930s Hollywood. Sarah Berry. University of Minnesota Press, 2000.ISBN 978-0-8166-3312-8.

External links[edit]

Streaming audio