Wuthering Heights (1939)
Release Date: April 7th, 1939 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: William Wyler Actors: Merle Oberon, Laurence Olivier, David Niven, Flora Robson, Donald Crisp, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Leo G. Carroll
939 was a great year for film, boasting the release of “Gone with the Wind,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” and “Stagecoach,” among many notable others. As one of the earlier years of the Oscar’s existence, with ten Best Picture nominations to consider, another honored epic was the steadily more overlooked “Wuthering Heights” – destined for immediate success due to a stellar cast and a powerful story based on the lauded novel. The dialogue is at turns lyrical and vicious, delivered with fervor and severity, perhaps most affecting thanks to the adaptation of such a beloved book (here, using only the first half of Emily Bronte’s masterpiece, with producer Samuel Goldwyn and director William Wyler wisely opting to exclude the second volume, during which Heathcliff becomes virtually irredeemable). Even the few alterations do not detract from the lasting appeal, despite changing the possible tone of the central characters’ relationship, as well as adjusting the ending to fortuitously generate one of the finest romantic dramas of all time.
At the Yorkshire moors in England stood a house as bleak and desolate as the wastes around it: Wuthering Heights. It is home to a most unwelcoming group of people, who don’t take kindly to strangers appearing on the property. So when Mr. Lockwood (Miles Mander), a new tenant at the grange, wanders into the home on a particularly blustery, snowy night, he’s greeted with contempt and annoyance. Grudgingly, owner Heathcliff (Laurence Olivier) puts him up in a room. Lockwood awakes in the middle of the night to hear the hushed cries of a woman on the moors, and calls out for help. Heathcliff becomes enraged when Lockwood describes the phantasm, and promptly runs out into the cold. This leads housekeeper Ellen (Flora Robson) to chronicle the story of Heathcliff and his lost love, Cathy (Merle Oberon), to the bewildered guest.
Forty years earlier, Mr. Earnshaw rescues a starving little boy from the streets of Liverpool and, unable to find the parents, brings him home to live with his two children, Hindley and Catherine. Cathy is sweet and playful, while Hindley is a bully and, bitter about sharing his possessions with the orphan, continually reminds the boy that Hindley will one day be master of the wealthy household. In short time, Earnshaw passes away, allowing Hindley to turn Heathcliff into a stable boy and continue his mistreatment of everyone in his presence – from his sister to his various employees. Heathcliff dreams of running away, but is unable to take Cathy with him. Although she loves him, she doesn’t want to be poor; she wants to sing and dance in the “pretty world,” where affluence allows for grander freedoms. They sneak away one night to spy on the lavish party of the Linton manor, where Heathcliff is attacked by guard dogs and Cathy is whisked inside by the rich and successful Edgar Linton (David Niven).
She’s immediately entranced by Edgar’s prosperity. Alternating between talking down to Heathcliff, who remains dirty and in tattered clothes as a servant, and defending his rash behavior and questionable lineage, she rapidly transforms into a fancier, more respectable woman – aided by the attentions of Linton. In moments of distress she cries for Heathcliff, but after pondering her future, she’s repeatedly drawn to social and financial security. Her wild passion for Heathcliff changes as quickly as her moods; it’s a temporary affection and devotion as she’s again and again reminded of the possibilities that Linton’s resources possess. But for Heathcliff, it’s an eternal, unwavering bond.
“Wuthering Heights” is a film of two worlds colliding from the entanglements of love, caused by irrepressible vanity and greed. Like many great tragedies (especially period pieces), it focuses on forbidden or doomed romance and the separation between classes; those compelled to be together versus those expected to be joined, with each scenario significantly governed by class and status. The concepts of haunting relationships, revenge, role reversals, and transformation also appear strongly, with Heathcliff’s scorning resulting in his ghostly return from the past, the fantastical reclamation of massive fortunes to bitterly reintegrate himself into the lives of Cathy and Edgar (not far removed from the epic avengement of “The Count of Monte Cristo”), and serving in a hostile comeuppance to the ruined Hindley.
Heathcliff is sumptuously manipulative and venomously destructive, but equally cursed. He’s designed to live out his life consumed with the desire to repay all who wronged him – even Cathy, despite – or perhaps because of – his absolute obsession with her. One of the most moving scenes demonstrates this with nothing more than a battle of nervous glances and unyielding stares, set to the rapid notes of Mozart’s Alla Turca (“Turkish Rondo”). With Olivier and Oberon’s exceptional chemistry, they’re able to convey plenty of emotions and communications, sans dialogue, utilizing their moist yet unblinking eyes alone. It’s no wonder that “Wuthering Heights,” as unnoted as it typically is amidst the competition of 1939, landed on the American Film Institute’s 100 Greatest American Movies list in 1998, and was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress in 2007 for its undeniable cinematic significance and artistry (notwithstanding its out-of-print status for more than a decade on home video).
– Mike Massie