Saturday, November 22, 2014

Movie – Wuthering Heights (1939)

Wuthering Heights is based on the 1857 novel of the same name by Emily Bronte.  I have not read the book, so I cannot compare the two.  I checked and apparently this film adapts only the first half of the book.  It concentrates on Heathcliff and Cathy and removes all plot related to the second generation that followed them.  I knew none of this when I saw it so I had no expectations.  I was able to go into it not knowing what was supposed to happen and I feel that allowed me to enjoy the film more.

Actually, I did have one expectation and that was to be underwhelmed by Laurence Olivier’s performance as Heathcliff.  When I was young I had heard his name and his reputation for being one of the greatest actors of all time.  I had only seen him as an old man in a few of his latter films, though, and I didn’t get what all those people were talking about.  Wuthering Heights was the first time I saw him as a man in his prime, full of energy, and he was a commanding screen presence in it.  I finally got it.

The film opens with a traveler ending up at a desolate old house in the middle of a terrible storm.  He seeks shelter there and meets the house’s older owner, Heathcliff.  While in his room the traveler sees a woman outside the house calling for Heathcliff.  He tells the owner what he saw, Heathcliff flies into a rage, and he then runs outside into the storm calling out “Cathy!”

The housekeeper explains to the traveler that he had seen the ghost of Cathy Earnshaw (Merle Oberon), Heathcliff’s long dead love.  She proceeds to tell their story as the movie flashes back to when they were children and first met.

Cathy’s father finds the young Heathcliff as a boy on the streets, and not unlike a stray dog, he brings him home with him.  His two children, Cathy and her brother Hindley, are not happy to have this ragged urchin among them.  Cathy soon gets over it, though, and she and Heathcliff become good friends.

The movie shifts to all the characters as adults.  Heathcliff and Cathy have fallen in love.  Hindley still hates him, and when the father dies Hindley takes over the estate and treats Heathcliff about as poorly as he can. 

Heathcliff and Cathy sneak into a party their rich neighbors are having, but Cathy unfortunately gets injured.  She stays with the neighbors, the Hintons, while she recuperates.  While there she gets to know their son Edgar (David Niven).  He falls in love with her and proposes.

When Cathy returns to her home she talks with the housekeeper about all of this.  She reminds Cathy about Heathcliff and their love, but Cathy callously tosses it aside, choosing money over love.  She goes on to denigrate Heathcliff for his lack of social standing and graces.  Of course, Heathcliff overhears this.  He soon disappears.

Cathy moves into a loveless marriage with Edgar and Hindley squanders the family fortune on alcohol.  Years after disappearing Heathcliff suddenly reappears, elegantly dressed and with all the manners and social graces of someone who was born to it.  He has obviously gained a fortune somehow.  He just as obviously has an agenda that has caused him to return.  Oh yes he does.

Cathy is thrown by the now much more acceptable (in her eyes) Heathcliff, but she is married and can’t do anything about it.  And Heathcliff very deliberately starts to court Edgar’s innocent younger sister Isabella (Geraldine Fitzgerald) right in front of her.  Let’s just say that things start to go downhill from there.  I find it interesting that the original movie poster almost makes Olivier look like someone from a monster movie out to harm the innocent-appearing Oberon.

Both Heathcliff and Cathy are flawed characters.  She commits the woman’s sin of choosing social standing and money over love, while he commits the man’s sin of destroying what he cares about in order to gain revenge for his damaged ego.

As I mentioned at the top Olivier is very powerful as Heathcliff, especially when he comes back and is looking for nothing less than to bring down everyone who ever wronged him.  The film actually started out as a vehicle for Oberon, but of the two he is the one who received an Oscar nomination.

In fact, Wuthering Heights received a total of eight nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director (for William Wyler), Best Actor, Best Supporting Actress (for Fitzgerald), and Best Screenplay.  In a year filled with great movies, though, it only won once – for Best Black and White Cinematography.  The man who won was Gregg Toland who would go on to revolutionize films a couple years later with his deep focus techniques in Citizen Kane.

Olivier and Oberon had great chemistry, both as lovers and as antagonists.  Reportedly the two hated each other while the film was being made, so that probably added juice to their scenes when their characters are estranged.  Olivier apparently wanted them to cast his then lover Vivien Leigh, but producer Samuel Goldwyn refused.  Leigh then went on to work on another 1939 movie – Gone with the Wind.

One last thing: those who are old enough to remember the 1989 song No Myth from one hit wonder Michael Penn (older brother of actor Sean Penn, by the way) may have puzzled over a lyric in the chorus.  It goes: “What if I were Romeo in black jeans?  What if I was Heathcliff?  It’s no myth.  She’s just looking for someone to dance with.”  Romeo is famous for his tragic romance.  Everybody knows who he was.  Heathcliff was probably a lot less well known to the teenagers who were listening to this pop song at the end of the 80s.  It’s a reference to the character from Wuthering Heights and the towering love and hate he had for Cathy.

The 1939 version of Wuthering Heights is just one of many adaptations, but it is the one I would choose to point people towards to experience the story.  It features Laurence Olivier at the height of his powers, as well as great chemistry between the two leads.  I highly recommend this film.

Chip’s Rating: 4 out of 5 stars


  1. I don't doubt this is the best version of the story, but it's a story I don't like much. This is, like a number of other films I've come across, an excellently filmed, faithful version of a story that leaves me cold.

    I stand by my review saying that the best thing in this film is the fact that Heathcliffe is a stone-cold pimp.

    1. I love that description of Heathcliff. Thanks for reminding me of it.

      I get not liking the story. While I did like it I don't get why so many women see Heathcliff as an impossibly romantic character. He's hardly the kind of man that would make for a good companion for the rest of a woman's life.

  2. I am actually with Steve here. I disliked all the characters, and found some satisfaction in seeing them destroy each other. Part of me understand why many people are suckers for impossible love, but when the lovers are as hopelessly dysfunctional as here it just leaves me cold. My favourite impossible love movie would be Brief Encounter, which operates within the same British (post)victorian moral codex, but manages to make me like and understand the characters and why this just will not work out.
    The best thing about Wuthering Height is the cinematography. It is a beautifully made movie in a year with many remarkable films.

    1. Oh I get where you're coming from. I hated Scarlett O'Hara so much it made me dislike large parts of Gone with the Wind. I'll expand on that when I review it.

  3. Hi Chip! I feel like I haven't visited your site in a while! I hope you're doing well. This is a great review. You know I've never really quite understood 'Wuthering Heights,' but you explained it well. Happy Thanksgiving!

    1. I don't get to many sites myself these days, and I only post once or twice a week. I'm working again so that takes up most of my days.

      Thanks for stopping by. Every now and then I think about the places I used to visit and make a mental note to revisit them when I get a chance. I never seem to get that chance, though. I'll probably have to deliberately make the time.

      Happy Thanksgiving to you, too.