Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights has been a cornerstone of British literature practically ever since its publication in 1847. The novel’s gothic moodiness and grueling depictions of mental and physical cruelty found modest indifference amongst Bronte’s contemporaries. Still, the novel’s reputation has steadily grown thereafter and ever since. So, what would Bronte have made of William Wyler’s 1939 cinematic version? As scripted by Ben Hecht, Charles MacArthur and John Huston, the film basically lops off the last fifteen chapters of her book to concentrate almost exclusively on the doomed romance between a very temperamental Catherine Earnshaw (Merle Oberon) and her sinister, long suffering paramour, Heathcliff (Laurence Olivier).
Even so, Wuthering Heights is remarkably faithful to the first fifteen chapters of Bronte’s masterwork; heavily influenced by Wyler’s light touch when dealing with textually dense subject matter, and immeasurably aided by Laurence Olivier’s compelling portrait of all consuming self-loathing. Today we forget that the creative zeitgeist that was Laurence Olivier had yet to prove his metal in the movies. In fact, Olivier’s initial foray in Hollywood almost didn’t happen; his looks judged as lacking that necessary spark of rugged handsomeness that American movie audiences crave in their male stars. But Olivier had another strike against him; his extramarital relationship with the equally unknown Vivien Leigh – who would make a name for herself even greater than Olivier’s in Selznick’s Gone With The Wind this same year.
Between producers Samuel Goldwyn and David O. Selznick it was mutually decided that Olivier and Leigh could not live together during the making of either movie. The hypocriticalness of the Catholic League of Decency forbade ‘living in sin’ – at least, in theory, while all too readily turning the other cheek to Hollywood’s hedonism behind closed doors elsewhere. In truth, neither Goldwyn nor Selznick much cared what Leigh and Olivier did in private so long as they kept their liaison guarded from the press and the paying public. Then, Hollywood prided itself on perpetuating the myth of perfect people with high moral character in all things, living idyllically amongst the swaying palms. Obvious, it served a purpose – that of sweet escapism during the Great Depression.
Wyler’s Wuthering Heights lacks the gothic feel of Bronte’s novel; James Basevi’s production design owing more to the school of stark German expressionism a la Universal horror movies from this vintage. Gregg Toland’s deep focus cinematography merely hints at the pervasive cynicism that plagues the manor house, while the atmosphere at Thrushcross Grange – the adjoining property - is as warm and stately as any estate featured in Architectural Digest. For obvious reasons, this contrast between the Grange and Wuthering Heights – the ancestral home of the Earnshaw family, serves as visual counterbalance. It works. It just isn’t particularly indigenous to Bronte’s original intent.
Our tale begins with the arrival of Mr. Lockwood (Miles Mander), the new tenant of the grange, to Wuthering Heights; the bleak manor house nestled atop the craggy moors. Lockwood has lost his way in the dark and in the middle of a harrowing blizzard. He is bid entrance into the dark cavernous interior by stoic footman, Joseph (Leo G. Carroll). However, Lockwood quickly discovers a dower mood permeating the rest of the household who have assembled to warm themselves near a roaring fire. Housekeeper, Ellen (Flora Robson) and Heathcliff’s wife, Isabella (Geraldine Fitzgerald) cast careworn, bitter and accusatory glances in Lockwood’s direction, their contempt paling to the abrupt tongue-lashing that the sunken-eyed, gray haired lord of the manor, Heathcliff (Laurence Olivier) gives his guest.
Lockwood is reluctantly permitted lodgings for the night inside an abandoned bridal chamber upstairs – a desolate room with no furniture, save a very uncomfortable bed. But midway through his slumber, Lockwood is awakened by the cries of a young woman calling out to Heathcliff from Peniston Crag. Alarmed by this apparition, Lockwood shouts for Heathcliff, who burst into the room admonishing his guest, then ordering him out before rushing to the window in the hopes of seeing it with his own eyes. Hearing an all too familiar voice faintly call to him from the Crag, Heathcliff ventures into the storm shouting “Cathy!” Lockwood tells Ellen what he has seen and she confirms that the spirit at his window must have been that of Cathy Earnshaw.
We regress in flashback to the Wuthering Heights of Cathy’s youth – a rugged, but thriving estate overseen by a benevolent patriarch (Cecil Kellaway). Mr. Earnshaw has just returned from a trip to London with Heathcliff (Rex Downing); a boy he rescued from certain death in the slums. The two are met on horseback at the gate by Dr. Kenneth (Donald Crisp) and by Earnshaw’s children, Cathy (Sarita Wooten) and Hindley (Douglas Scott). Dr. Kenneth cannot understand what has prompted Earnshaw to bring this rather belligerent urchin into his home, while Hindley and Cathy are immediately insulted at the prospect of having to share what they have with Heathcliff.
While Cathy’s ignorance quickly abates, Hindley harbors resentment and jealously toward Heathcliff that will only continue to fester and ripen with time. Cathy and Heathcliff become inseparable; sharing long passionate rides on horseback to Peniston Crag. Cathy suggests the Crag for their imaginary castle and Heathcliff declares Cathy to be his queen. Upon Mr. Earnshaw’s death, Hindley immediately asserts himself as master of Wuthering Heights and relegates Heathcliff to the stables as his servant. As the years pass, Hindley’s hatred of Heathcliff consumes his every thought. Hindley (now played by Hugh Williams) becomes slovenly, ill-mannered and even more ill-tempered – wiling away the hours with petulant insults and whittling down his family’s fortunes with mounting gambling debts.
Cathy and Heathcliff take rides to Peniston Crag where Cathy confesses her undying love; yet, in the same breath she encourages Heathcliff to go away and make his fortune so that they might live together far away from Hindley’s influence and in resplendence and luxury. Hearing music coming from the grange, Cathy and Heathcliff follow the sound. The two come upon a lavish estate currently managed by Edgar Linton (David Niven) in the midst of an elegant dinner party. Cathy is immediately enamored with the courtly elegance and social graces of the guests. However, their secretive presence arouses the Linton’s Great Danes who attack and wound the pair as they attempt to flee in terror from the grounds. Cathy is carried into the parlor by Edgar, her bloody ankle immediately attended to by Dr. Kenneth. But Heathcliff, who has been bitten in the arm, is virtually ignored. Edgar and his guests are insulted by Heathcliff’s admonishment of them, even though their manners have been equally lacking toward him.
Cathy tells a very reluctant Heathcliff to return to Wuthering Heights. In the weeks that follow her recuperation, Cathy is lovingly tended to by Edgar’s sister, Isabella at the grange, while Edgar quietly becomes smitten with her – even dressing Cathy in some of Isabella’s more fashionable clothes for her return. But upon Cathy’s arrival to Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff immediately criticizes her for putting on airs. Edgar gallantly challenges Heathcliff, demanding that he apologize at once, but Cathy instead takes Heathcliff’s side against Edgar – ordering him off the estate.
Cathy’s sexual frustrations gnaw away at her and will not abate. She desperately wants to belong to Edgar’s world but will forever be a part of Heathcliff’s heart – the two apparently cut from the same fiery and very self-destructive cloth. In the novel, Cathy and Heathcliff express their love more concretely at Peniston Crag. However, under the scrutiny of the production code, no such lustful liaisons occur in the film. Nevertheless, as time passes Cathy is again lulled to pursue a relationship with Edgar; simultaneously growing wearier of Heathcliff’s lack of initiative and utter complacency to remain in service to her vial brother. Sensing that he might lose his beloved forever, Heathcliff departs for America in a rage. His intensions unknown, in a moment of weakness Cathy decides to marry Edgar instead.
The years pass. Hindley has squandered most of the family’s money on drink and gambling debts. He lives with Joseph in the squalor that once was his proud ancestral home. Ellen has since moved into the grange with her mistress. Cathy and Edgar are contented; he more so and utterly blinded to her ardor, adoring his wife completely, while tolerating her infrequent bouts of melancholia. However, with Heathcliff’s return whatever happiness Edgar and Cathy might have shared is immediately shattered. The years have been good to Heathcliff. He has amassed a small fortune with all the trappings of a gentleman, but still utterly lacking in the more gentile social graces.
Heathcliff has paid off Hindley’s mounting debts in secret. Thus, Wuthering Heights now belongs to him. Heathcliff taunts Hindley with foul insults and drink, destroying his sense of pride and his health, effectively making Hindley a servant in his own house. But Heathcliff’s wicked desire to command and/or consume those who have done him wrong will not rest. He now turns his attentions to Isabella – still a dewy-eyed green girl - who regards him as a sinfully romantic figure. Seducing Isabella for the express reason of ruining her sisterly relationship with Edgar and to stir up jealousies in Cathy’s heart, Heathcliff makes Isabella his wife. Their marriage is loveless and Isabella quickly realizes that Cathy’s previous forewarning of her looming unhappiness, should she pursue Heathcliff, has come to pass. Curiously, Isabella does not blame Heathcliff for this lack of affection, but rather Cathy, whom she believes has stolen her husband’s heart and will always remain a threat while she lives.
Cathy, who has taken off on horseback during a violent thunderstorm to console her grief, falls ill. Her unspoken confession of love for Heathcliff shatters Edgar’s faith in their marriage. Realizing that she has painted herself into an impossible corner, Cathy lays in bed, waiting to die. Learning of her grave condition, Heathcliff barges into her bedroom with Ellen’s complicity. Yet his final words to Cathy are both a conflicted confession of his own feelings and a final admonishment of her decision to forgo their obvious love in favor of living a lie with Edgar. Heathcliff carries Cathy to the window so that they can gaze out at Peniston Crag together one last time. She dies in his arms and Heathcliff declares before Edgar and Dr. Kenneth that Cathy must not ever leave him, but continue to haunt his wicked heart and soul with her enduring memory.
We return to the present with the glimmer of a new dawn cresting over the window sill. Astonished by Ellen’s story, Lockwood is even more amazed when Dr. Kenneth burst into the room to suggest that he saw a man and a woman walking hand in hand toward Peniston Crag. Yet only Heathcliff’s frozen remains have been discovered. “Is he dead?” Lockwood inquires. Dr. Kenneth nods. But Ellen reassuringly assesses that “It was Cathy! No – not dead, Dr. Kenneth. And not alone. He’s with her. They’ve only just begun to live.” The final shot in the film shows a snowy Peniston Crag with the apparitions of Cathy and Heathcliff in their prime, ascending its rocky cliffs.
Despite its lack of faithfulness to Bronte’s novel, the filmic Wuthering Heights is an enduring melodrama; the obsessiveness in the ill-fated romance so palpable and, at times terrifying, that we can almost forget the last third of the book in its entirety. In the novel, Heathcliff and Cathy both have children by their respective spouses, the offspring later pursuing their own conflicted fascinations, thus ensuring that the cyclical nature of their parent’s haunted affair has not perished. This generational renewal is absent from the movie, but it really doesn’t matter because the performances throughout are quite simply very good. Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon sell this strangely compulsive dedication of Bronte’s bitter lovers with a palpable sense of tragedy that grows ripe upon renewed viewing. We not only sense their erotic exacerbation, but can genuinely empathize with their bizarre desires to, at once, possess, consume, punish and, ultimately destroy each other.
Olivier, whom I generally have found rather stilted on film, and never much regarded as a ladies man, herein exudes a brutal manliness that is very exhilarating and sexually charged. His Heathcliff is a disturbing sadist – annihilated by some inexplicably awful passion, and yet, even more uncannily a figure worthy of our empathy, understanding and forgiveness. Merle Oberon has a much tougher hurdle to overcome. Her Cathy must go through a transformation – a greedy girl brought to heel at the rule of her own craving for Heathcliff that ultimately finishes her indomitably proud spirit. For the most part, Oberon manages this coup quite nicely – despite the fact that the film’s ultra-condensed narrative and very meager 103 min. run time often forces her to ricochet between these polar opposites from scene to scene.
William Wyler’s direction seems effortless. But it just seems that way. Behind the scenes, Wyler toiled and took great pains to handcraft his narrative into an impeccable example of the Hollywood system at its zenith with all its varied creative pistons firing at full steam. His attention is invisible to the naked eye as it should be, yet intangibly evident in every single frame of the finished film. There have been many interpretations of Bronte’s novel in film, television, radio and on the stage in the intervening decades; some far more faithful to the book – but none as poetically realized or as enduring as this 1939 five star weepy.
If only we hadn’t Warner’s abysmal DVD transfer to cry over this might have been a highly recommended video reissue. Wuthering Heights has long been absent from home video. After its initial release from HBO, the movie all but disappeared. MGM/Fox never put out a competing edition after acquiring the rights to the Samuel Goldwyn library. Only after viewing Warner Home Video’s shoddy efforts – derived from the same fundamentally flawed elements – can we perhaps truly appreciate the reason why Wuthering Heights has been MIA for so many years.
The original film elements are in a delicate state of disrepair. Age related wear and tear is present everywhere. Worse, contrast levels have been bumped up, fading fine details throughout. The mid register tonality in the gray scale is gone, leaving blooming whites and murky blacks. But the worst offender is edge enhancement, present everywhere and wreaking havoc that thoroughly distracts from one’s viewing experience. The audio is mono as originally recorded, with minute traces of hiss and pop. Very disappointing, indeed. With the acquisition of the Goldwyn library I had hoped Warner Home Video would take the high road when reissuing this long absent catalogue title. Sadly, they have not. Bottom line: not recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)