WUTHERING HEIGHTS ( 1939 )

“Catherine Earnshaw, may you not rest so long as I live on! I killed you. Haunt me, then! Haunt your murderer! I know that ghosts have wandered on the Earth. Be with me always. Take any form, drive me mad, only do not leave me in this dark alone where I cannot find you. I cannot live without my life! I cannot die without my soul.”

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There is something special about classic films. They not only contain charm and a high absorption level, they have an alluring mystery, and the power to attract a whole new generation of fans who will continue to marvel over a masterful, nostalgic creation that adorned cinema screens decades ago. These films define and epitomize magic in every sense of the word.

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Almost half of today’s generation wouldn’t understand the historical importance of classic film. Many people believe that movies are just a form of entertainment. What they don’t know is that these films have a cultural impact on society, and its because of this that audiences are shaping their lives and strengthening their moral fiber according to the movies.

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Many of Hollywood’s spectacular motion pictures that continue to stand in a pivotal position in the history of cinema have been adapted from famous novels. A large majority of these novels were published more than a century ago, but to the movie industry they are a great source of inspiration that they draw upon for success.

Probably the most famous of these novels is Emily Bronte’s, Wuthering Heights. Published in 1847, the book was first adapted to the screen in 1920 by A.V. Bramble. Since its initial release the film has endured several remakes, and dramatizations, but none of these were as commercially successful as the distinguishable 1939, version starring, Laurence Olivier, and Merle Oberon.

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From the moment that Wuthering Heights became a proposed assignment on the horizon, Samual Goldwyn Productions started canvassing heavily for a prestige cast who had an illustrious resume of films to their credits. For many this may seem like an arduous task, but the studio executives accomplished their mission when the characters of Heathcliff and Cathy presented themselves in the form of Laurence Olivier, and Merle Oberon, two highly extolled individuals whose immense talent proved that they embodied all the essential characteristics of the doomed couple.

What the studio executives didn’t know is that their decision ensued a few obstacles that would disrupt their goal if things didn’t pan out. They had their mind set on Laurence Olivier playing the dark and brooding, Heathcliff. This was the ideal part for the British born star, and there was absolutely no reason why an actor of his caliber would turn it down, but Olivier had different opinions. At the time his main focus was on his blossoming romance with Vivien Leigh, and he certainly didn’t want to leave Leigh when they were at the height of their love affair.

“No matter what I ever do or say, Heathcliff, this is me – now – standing on this hill with you. This is me, forever.”

The only way to resolve the situation was to extend their search for another actor to play Heathcliff, or accept Olivier’s request and cast Vivien Leigh in the role of Cathy, which was highly impossible as Merle Oberon was already selected for the part, and for the reason that Leigh was still relatively unknown in the United States. The next best thing to do was offer Leigh the role of Isabella Linton, but Leigh declined, stating, “I’ll play Cathy or I’ll playing nothing.”. Fortunately, Olivier eventually wavered, and agreed to take on the role. On the other hand, Vivien Leigh made the best decision. She went on to attain the coveted role of Scarlett O’Hara in the endearing masterpiece, Gone With The Wind.

Hollywood's Greatest Year: The Best Picture Nominees of 1939

The real life connection between Laurence Olivier, and Merle Oberon was a lot different then their relationship that was depicted in the film. On-screen, Cathy and Heathcliff were sometimes inseparable despite their complexities, and their turbulent romance, but off-screen, they barely tolerated each other. Incensed with anger over the dismissal of Vivien Leigh, Laurence Olivier unleashed his temper on Merle Oberon, and director, William Wyler, who allegedly stated that Olivier’s harsh treatment on the set resulted in many violent-fueled altercations that would lead to Oberon running off the set crying.

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William Wyler also caught the brunt of Olivier’s anger. Forever dismayed with Wyler’s exhausting and uncommunicative style of film-making, Olivier often verbally abused Wyler because of his directing technique, and on one occasion when Wyler demanded that a certain scene be shot seventy two times, Olivier remarked, “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?”. In later years however, Laurence Olivier had a different opinion on William Wyler, and credited him for teaching him how to act in films, as opposed to on the stage.

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To add to the tension on the set, both stars had their minds preoccupied on their loved ones, who they left behind in the United Kingdom. Prior to the commencement of the film, Merle Oberon had embarked on a passionate romance with the renowned producer, Alexander Korda, whom she would marry in 1939, and Laurence Olivier was deeply in love with Vivien Leigh, who later flew to the United States to start work on Gone With The Wind.

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Wuthering Heights is a powerful film that required a crew of consummate professionals. The screenplay was written by Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht, whose work has greatly impacted American cinema. William Wyler, the prolific director helmed the production, while Gregg Toland, and Alfred Newman were in charge of the cinematography and the music, which help make Wuthering Heights the beloved classic that it is today.

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On its release, Wuthering Heights garnered an array of positive reviews. Frank S. Nugent from the New York Times described the film as being, “A strong and somber film, poetically written as the novel not always was, sinister and wild as it was meant to be, far more compact dramatically than what Miss Bronte had made it… It is, unquestionably one of the most distinguished pictures of the year, one of the finest ever produced by Mr. Goldwyn, and one you should decide to see.” . On the other hand, Variety gave a less than impressive statement by claiming that the films slow pace would make for rather dull material. However, Wuthering Heights sure made up for any flawed remarks when Film Daily wrote, “Brilliant screen version of Bronte novel. William Wyler has given the love story warm, sympathetic direction, gaining fine performances from his cast.”

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PROLOGUE

On the barren Yorkshire moors in England, a hundred years ago, stood a house as bleak and desolate as the wastes around it. Only a stranger lost in a storm would have dared to knock at the door of Wuthering Heights.

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Wuthering Heights is a haunting and atmospheric production that tells the story of Heathcliff ( Laurence Olivier ) and Cathy ( Merle Oberon ), two lovers who are first brought together as children by unforeseen circumstances. Years later the two embark on a passionate but stormy romance that proves to be doomed once Cathy decides she can’t marry him due to societal wrongs that ultimately tears them apart. Will Cathy and Heathcliff meet again? or will Heathcliff’s consumed hatred take revenge on their relationship? Watch the movie and find out.

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Even though Wuthering Heights is masterfully crafted with splendid cinematography that garnered Gregg Toland an Academy Award, it would have been interesting, and a lot more captivating if the film closely followed the novel. Instead the second half of the famous book was eliminated, and what we are given is Hollywood’s fictionalized account of a fictionalized novel.

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In the latter part of the story readers are introduced to Cathy and Heathcliff’s children, but in the film adaptation the kids are non existent. The absence of the children fueled many altercations with fans of the novel, who dismissed the film version of Wuthering Heights by claiming that its a poor adaptation when an array of prominent characters have been eliminated. That being said, the movie did make up for its non appearance of characters by the bitterness and self destruction of Hindley, the intoxicated brother of Cathy, whose tyrannical nature towards Heathcliff and other individuals darkens the mood of the picture.

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One of the major highlights of Wuthering Heights is the assembled cast of stellar players. Laurence Olivier was perfectly cast as the dark and gloomy Heathcliff, and Merle Oberon was certainly well suited for the role of Cathy, a tragic figure, who will always remain the light of Heathcliff’s life, no matter what obstacles comes between them. The supporting cast are also worthy of note. David Niven plays an important role as Edgar Linton, a rich man from upper society, who falls in love with Cathy, and eventually marries her despite her romance with Heathcliff. Geraldine Fitzgerald, who previously made her American film debut that same year in the Bette Davis film, Dark Victory, attained an Academy Award nomination for her role as Isabella Linton, Edgar’s naive sister, who much to the chagrin of Cathy gets swept into the destructive lifestyle when she marries Heathcliff.

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Despite the dramatic changes, and the detouring away from the original story line in Emily Bronte’s novel, the film was an overall success. A large portion of the cruelty and brutality that was depicted in their relationship in the novel was eclipsed by Heathcliff’s humanity and kindness in the film. A lot of this has probably got to do with the escapism in movies that was largely dominant at the time. Audiences would much rather see a passionate love affair being portrayed on-screen rather than one that sometimes represented a combination of fondness, devotion, enmity, and mutual hatred.

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The vision of Cathy and Heathcliff standing on top of the Yorkshire Moors. The tumultuous romance of these two powerful fictional figures, and the magnetic chemistry of the couple whose relationship was doomed from the start is what makes Wuthering Heights a cinematic attraction for movie enthusiasts worldwide.

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TRIVIA:

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.

Ronald Colman, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., James Mason and Robert Newton were all considered for the part of Heathcliff. Charles Boyer’s biography, “The Reluctant Lover” claims he turned down the role also.

David Niven dreaded the film not only because he was playing a thankless, secondary role, but because he dreaded working with William Wyler again. Merle Oberon was uncomfortable working with Niven after their year long love affair ended in 1936.

In a departure from the novel, there is an afterlife scene in which we see Heathcliff and Cathy walking hand in hand, visiting their favourite place, Penistone Crag. Wyler hated the scene and didn’t want to do it, but Samuel Goldwyn vetoed him on that score. Goldwyn subsequently claimed, “I made “Wuthering Heights”, Wyler only directed it.”

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CAST:

Laurence Olivier: Born, Laurence Kerr Olivier, Baron Olivier on May 22nd, 1907 in Dorking, Surrey, United Kingdom. Died: July 11, 1989 in Steyning, West Sussex, United Kingdom. Age: 82. Cause of death: Renal failure.

Merle Oberon: Born, Estelle Merle Oberon Thompson on February 19th, 1911 in Bombay, Bombay Presidency British India. Died: November 23rd, 1979 in Malibu, California. Age: 68. Cause of death: Complications from a stroke.

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The following was my entry for the Second Annual Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier Blogathon, which was hosted by Joseph at Wolffian Classics Movies Digest. Click here to view the other entries being exhibited in this blogathon.

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3 thoughts on “WUTHERING HEIGHTS ( 1939 )

  1. Phyl says:

    Great post!! Sounds like Olivier was just difficult to work with on any movie made during that time (Rebecca)!! This is one of those movies I’ve been meaning to watch for a long time but whenever it comes on I’m not in the mood for that kind of movie or there’s no room on the dvr :/

    Like

  2. Mike Noonan says:

    Another splendid review, Crystal!! I was unaware of all the background material that you provided to us. Very informative, makes me want to revisit it!! You’re right, Vivien Leigh got the better deal with GWTW.

    Like

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