Wuthering Heights (1939)

Jump–and get it over with

WUTHERING HEIGHTS, or “My Love Is So Pure That To Prove It I Must Destroy You And Everyone Within Cannon Range”. The romanticus/Gothicus opus set to pen by Emily Brontë in 1847 has swooned generations of readers, authors, teachers, lit critics and moviegoers, with this much-praised 1939 telling regarded as the best of the numerous screen versions. That’s a prole’s polite way of acknowledging the historical perch of the piece without abjectly surrendering to arm-twists over its presumed greatness. Yeah, right, back to the stable; you don’t have to boot me…

Northern England in the 1800’s, the windswept Yorkshire moors. At the forbidding estate of ‘Wuthering Heights’, a storm-stranded traveler is told the story of the infelicitous place and its accursed inhabitants, present and past. Many years before, the beneficent paterfamilia of the ‘Earnshaw’ family had taken in an urchin to live with his two children, ‘Hindley’ and ‘Cathy’. Eventually the father is gone, the found boy ‘Heathcliff’ has become a man (Laurence Olivier), relegated to servant status, scorned by Hindley who’s taken the reins. Cathy (Merle Oberon, 27) has kinship with Heathcliff since childhood, affection that will turn into obsession for both, played out to tragic effect as time goes on.

Charles MacArthur, Ben Hecht and (uncredited) John Huston toiled over the script, emerging with an adaptation that pared the plot down to less than half of the novel’s storyline. William Wyler directed for producer Samuel Goldwyn, with 500 replanted acres in Chatsworth, California subbing for Yorkshire’s heather (minus the weather). The shoot was no bed of English roses, with Wyler’s exacting penchant for endless takes (Olivier enduring seventy-two in one instance), and the less-than-smitten working relationship between the egotistical stars. *

The painstaking paid off. Critics clapped, the $6,600,000 gross seized 15th among ’39’s magic crop and Gregg Toland’s cinematography took an Oscar: nominations went for Best Picture, Actor (Olivier), Director, Supporting Actress (Geraldine Fitzgerald), Screenplay, Interior (Art) Direction, and Music Score. *

The scenario has a lot of grim drama to chew over. It starts to good effect with the atmospheric introduction of the place, unsettling otherworldliness that sets the melancholy tone for what follows. Then it takes a dip when presenting three of the main characters in their formative youth, via child actors who—in the fashion of 95% of their peers at the time—are a horse pill to swallow.The first half is rather a chore, some good scenes alternating with others that are overwrought: the ‘passion’ too often feels forced. Throughout the art direction is well done, and likewise throughout Alfred Newman’s syrupy scoring is ceaseless: an unusual debit for one of the greatest film composers. The second half gets better and better, with the cruel machinations of Heathcliff registering in the improved performances of Olivier (much stronger being nasty than soulful) and Oberon (she has one look of dawning recognition that’s the highlight of her career) and particularly with the entrance of ‘Isabella’, the most sympathetic character, beautifully played by Geraldine Fitzgerald, 25: the best acting in the film.

With David Niven (not happily camping after a miserable time on Wyler’s Dodsworth), Flora Robson, Donald Crisp, Hugh Williams (brutish Hindley, getting his due; add to the plus column), Leo G. Carroll, Miles Mander, Cecil Kellaway, Rex Downing (Heathcliff as a child), Sarita Wooten (Cathy as a child), Douglas Scott (Hindley as a child). 103 minutes.

Great line for a first date

* Full disclosure to those enraptured by all things that wuther—With a few exceptions—the wonderful 2020 version of Emma being onethis rough-hewn stable boy, Yankee version—lord of my keyboard and little else—is rarely bowled over by these repressed-yearnings-in-frilly-frocks affairs: I tend to suffer through them hoping in vain for French cavalry to show up. Some of this anointed classic impresses me, a good deal leaves me as cold as its geography.

At 32, Lord Larry’s vaunt to international movie stardom was harsh learning curve for someone who knew the stage like the back of Vivien’s, well, back, but had to have his attitude and ego whittled down by the difficult-in-another-way Wyler: the shoot was about as happy as the story they were telling. Olivier and Oberon clashed bitterly. Quoted in “A Talent For Trouble”, Jan Herman’s excellent bio of Wyler, Olivier later fessed “I was abominably pompous with Wyler, who detested me quite rightly. I was so goddamned conceited. I thought I was the cat’s whiskers. I thought I knew all about acting. I thought I knew all about films. I thought I knew all about the stage. I thought I knew all about everything to do with the art or the craft. Well, I didn’t. But it didn’t stop me thinking so, and it took Wyler to bully that out of me.” At length, they became good friends and later re-teamed for 1952’s Carrie.

As for those pesky young’uns: unlike the adults in the cast, they’re all too obviously not British, and are the typically stiff squeakers of the era: the reason we remember fine child actors like Freddie Bartholomew, Margaret O’Brien or Dean Stockwell is because most of the recruited brood were frankly awful. Then again, to be fair, we ought to recognize that the craft of acting, and all other cinema crafts, were and are ongoing works in progress, and what may look quaint to our jaded eyes (just more ignorance, refined) was fresh and truthful when it was done.

Finally (no, haven’t read the book, so horsewhip me)—okay, so Heathcliff has made a lot of money, but how exactly did this lout also become so fashionably articulate? We just have to accept that his piercing iceness is so magnetic that Isabella falls like a petal in a hurricane. Why are so many people seduced by a story about someone who today would be considered a stalker who ought to be shot if he steps on your street?  It’s all such a bother…where’s the scotch?

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