As yet another representative of Hollywood's golden year of 1939, when so many American films of high quality and popularity were produced, Wuthering Heights ranks in the upper echelons of that illustrious year. One of the fine productions of the late 30's by producer Samuel Goldwyn and director William Wyler, theirs was a superb match for quality artistic filmmaking, as was shown in their earlier collaborations, Dodsworth (1936), These Three (1936) and Dead End (1937).
Wuthering Heights is considered one of the great romantic films of classic Hollywood. Based on the 1847 novel by Emily Bronte, its literary roots were transferred to the screen by way of famed writing team Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht with pre-directing days John Huston along for the screenwriting ride. The film only covers half of Bronte's book, leaving out the second generation's story completely. None the worse for the omission, Heights is a masterpiece of movie making and the winner of the New York Film Critics Circle for Best Film of 1939 ~ beating out Gone with the Wind and all the other timeless classics of that year.
With so many good aspects to the movie, one to note is the performance of Laurence Olivier. Years after the film was released, the actor credited William Wyler for helping him with his performance by reining in his stage method and taking a more subtle approach on film. It wasn't easy though and there were tensions on the set, both with Olivier and Wyler, as well as co-star Merle Oberon. Although Olivier's Heathcliff isn't an outstanding performance, it is his presence that so defines Wyler's variation of the role, not Bronte's. The film created a Gothic heartthrob, not necessarily a gypsy devil of the moors, as depicted by Bronte's book. It certainly created a star in Laurence Olivier, who followed his Heathcliff role up with yet another famous literary character, Maxim deWinter in Hitchcock's Rebecca the following year. He and Oberon are the definitive Heathcliff and Cathy, as this film is the definitive cinematic version.
The classic tale is set in 19th century England. It relates the story of Heathcliff, a dark and brooding gypsy boy, found starving in Liverpool by wealthy and kind hearted Mr. Earnshaw and brought to live with he and his children, Hindley and Cathy. Hindley, jealous of his father's love for the orphan, despises Heathcliff, while young Cathy loves the wild boy, and he in turn loves her. As they grow, the hate between Hindley and Heathcliff also grows, as does the love between Heathcliff and Cathy. Torn between her love for Heathcliff and the material pleasures offered to her through a marriage with a neighboring aristocrat, Edgar Linton (David Niven), Cathy confides to her housekeeper Ellen (Flora Robson) that it would degrade her to marry her low born lover, unaware that he is listening at the door. When Heathcliff runs away after this revelation, Cathy, realizing the mistake she has made, marries Linton and resides in comfort and luxury at the neighboring estate with her husband and his young sister Isabella (Geraldine Fitzgerald). After a significant time, the brooding and vengeful anti-hero returns, affluent and refined and ready to repay old grudges with blackhearted vengeance. After paying the mounted gambling debts accrued by the constantly drunken Hindley, Heathcliff buys his estate, Wuthering Heights, out from under him and allows him to remain there to be tormented. When he is rebuffed by the now married Cathy, even though she still loves him, he woos and marries young Isabella, only to make her and the rest of the complicated melange miserable.
British stage star Olivier wasn't so keen to play the role initially. Earlier experiences in Hollywood hadn't been particularly pleasant ones and even more, his then lover, Vivien Leigh, had been rejected for the role of Cathy in favor of Oberon, who was under contract to producer Goldwyn. Leigh was offered the lesser role of Isabella but rejected it as too dull (she went on later that year to play the greatest role Hollywood had to offer...Scarlett O'Hara). However, after re-reading the quality script and with encouragement from Leigh, Olivier accepted.
Famed cinematographer Gregg Toland's camera work takes a prominent place in the film's success. Deeply focus and expertly lit, this film was the precursor to his masterful work in 1941's Citizen Kane. Of his numerous Oscar nominations, including Kane, Toland's only win would come from Wuthering Heights. It was the first year the Academy divided the prize for both black and white and color work ~ Gone with the Wind won the color honor. Toland's cinematography was actually the only Academy Award won for the film, although it was nominated for a total of eight, including Best Picture, Best Director and the performances of Olivier and Fitzgerald.
Other versions of the famed novel have been filmed but none have come close to capturing the romance or aesthetic detail that the 1939 installment did. It made stars of its leads, increased the fine reputation of its creators and was wildly popular at the box office. In any other year, Wuthering Heights may well have been the picture of the season. Nonetheless, it is a classic to be revisited and enjoyed.