Wuthering Heights (1939)

One of the great things about studying 1939 is seeing how such a vast enterprise as Hollywood can, at times, seem so small.  I feel like I did a pretty good job showing how interconnected the industry was that year in my initial essay on 1939, and how that interconnectedness made Hollywood more a machine than a business.  It pumped out films at a tremendous rate—good ones, too.  Well, the smallness of Hollywood was at play in the creation of some of 1939’s finest films.

When it comes to Wuthering Heights, I have already told the story of how Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier were engaged to be married in London, only for them both to migrate to the United States to be in the film.  I have also already told the story about how Leigh refused the secondary role of Isabella which she was offered; she would be the film’s lead, Cathy, or no one else.  This decision may have been the best of her career.  She soon met David O. Selznick and was cast as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind.

What I didn’t tell you was the process it took to get Olivier and O’Hara to come to the states.  Selznick was certainly a big producer—one of the biggest—but the real production head in Hollywood was Samuel Goldwyn, who had secured the screenplay (written by Charles MacArthur and the indispensable Ben Hecht) for Wuthering Heights from Walter Wanger, another producer with some real prestige in the industry.  Wanger would go on to become president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1939.  After hiring William Wyler as director and settling on Merle Oberon for the lead role of Cathy, Wyler and Goldwyn had a very hard time finding a Heathcliff.

Upon hearing about Laurence Olivier, a stage actor in London, Goldwyn dispatched Wyler on a recruiting mission.  Wyler tried to convince Olivier to come, but Olivier would not do it.  He had a bad taste in his mouth.  Just years before, Olivier had been fired from his first attempt at Hollywood, by none other than Walter Wanger, the same producer who had sold the Wuthering Heights script to Goldwyn.  The movie from which he had been fired?  Queen Christina, where he would have starred alongside Greta Garbo.  Garbo would go on to make one of the most successful comedies of the year, Ninotchka, with Ernst Lubitsch the same year that Wuthering Heights was released.  Having just undergone a review of Ninotchka, isn’t the Hollywood world of 1939 seeming a lot smaller?

Only one person could convince Olivier to go to Hollywood and accept this role.  Vivien Leigh pressured him to go, even after saying that she would not join him in the film.  It was too great an opportunity.  And, he would not be separated from her.  She would go to Hollywood, too.  The rest, as they say, is history.

The movie, as you are probably already aware, is an adaptation of Emily Brontë’s only novel, Wuthering Heights. But, it works as a stand-alone film because of the work of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur.  In an era of great screenwriters, these are two of the best, and they do a fantastic job in making a workable and beautiful story out of only selections of the original work.

While the book goes on to follow the lives of Cathy and Heathcliff’s respective children, the movie focuses only on their relationship, and I think we are the better for it.  We are given a film that knows where it is going and establishes its own identity from the outset.  And, the mastery of Hecht’s screenplay is on display as being able to make the work his own: he is able to maintain thematic continuity and catharsis in his script so that nothing seems incomplete, and every action on screen on exchange of dialogue works in conjunction with the other film’s elements.

In particular, we are given two dynamic arcs.  The first is the arc of life and death.  The second is more of a pure character arc, and the character I have in mind is Cathy.

We watch Cathy as she grows up from young girl to beautiful woman, and we are particularly smitten by the film’s most famous scene: as she and Olivier’s Heathcliff sit atop the beautiful Peniston Crag, she speaks to him.  “No matter what I ever do or say, Heathcliff,” she says, “this is me – now – standing on this hill with you. This is me, forever.”  We then watch as their love collapses beneath the burden of her superficiality, at least, the superficiality that Heathcliff claims to see in her.  She is drawn to the lifestyles of the Linton family, drawn enough that Heathcliff becomes disillusioned and leaves her.  When he returns a rich and powerful man, she has already married Edgar Linton (played by David Niven).  Only in death, really, is Heathcliff really able to see her again as she was on Peniston Crag, the real Cathy.

Merle Oberon’s performance as Cathy is dreadfully underrated and unfortunately forgotten in today’s circles.  The film put a lot of focus on her (watch the way Gregg Toland, the legendary cinematographer, lights up her face), and that is mostly because she was a vehicle of Goldwyn’s.  It was at his insistence that she be cast instead of Wyler’s preferred Bette Davis, with whom he had previously worked in Jezebel.  While we are indebted to Goldwyn for his persistence, we were almost hurt by his focus on Oberon’s fame.  He didn’t want her to be without glamorous make-up even during the scenes where she lay dying in bed.  If not for Wyler, the more raw elements of her performance would have been sacrificed to the whims of the producer.

Also, were it not for Wyler, we would not have been given the fantastic performances we were given.  Not just Oberon, but the other two leads, Niven and Olivier, were dependent on Wyler’s ability to get the best out of his actors.

The stories surrounding his directing these actors are quite well-known.  Wyler was known as a taskmaster of sorts, and was very harsh on his performers.  Even when Oberon and Olivier were having severe issues with one another, he was able to work them down until they could do nothing but the best for his camera.  Both Olvier and Oberon had left lovers in London (Olivier had left Leigh, while Oberon was without her newfound love, the great director Alexander Korda).  Their enmity towards each other only grew during production, their bitterness compounded by the harshness of Wyler’s style.

David Niven, originally, didn’t even want to work with Wyler.  Having already worked with the director in Dodsworth three years earlier, Niven was not thrilled about the need to work with him again.  He was right to be so trepidatious.  Wyler, according to Margarita Landazuri, “made (Niven’s) life hell during production but the actor delivered a moving performance as the hapless Edgar.”

Then, there was the issue of Olivier, with or without Oberon.  He was a stage actor, and it is quite probable that his tendencies toward that were what got him fired from Queen Christina.  With a tendency to overdo his actions, Olivier found himself constantly under scrutiny from Wyler.  At one point, after over 70 takes, Olivier blew up, exclaiming that they had done the scene every possible way they could and yet nothing was good enough.  “What do you want me to do?” he, in effect, exclaimed.

“Better,” was Wyler’s response.

This may have been the worst side of William Wyler, but it was also one of his best. In Ziegler’s biography of Olivier, he makes the observation that Wyler may have had quite a few methods to his madness: he was able to get Olivier to mellow down his act by virtue of wearing him down.  The same may have gone for the rift between Oberon and Olivier.  Where at one point, they were spitting on one another, Wyler was able to get them to do exactly what needed to do by working them to their basest points.  He may have, as well, given them a common enemy.

Whatever his methods, the resulting efforts from Wyler and his actors was utter brilliance.  This may be the best acted film of all the 1939 masterpieces, and it would go on to help Olivier forge one of the finest acting (and directing) careers in all of cinema.  Where Olivier may at first have been frustrated and angry toward Wyler for his leadership style, Olivier would go on to have immense respect for the man.  He even requested Wyler directed his rendition of Henry V later on.  Even though Wyler refused the offer because he was disposed with other projects, he would work again with Olivier.

What Wyler taught to Olivier was a new style of acting better suited for film.  I discuss this evolution in a series of essays I wrote on the topic.  Where once Olivier was saying, on the set of Wuthering Heights, that “this anemic little medium can’t take great acting,” soon he was not only acting in, but directing, some of the great masterpieces of cinema.  In particular, Olivier’s adaptations of Shakespeare remain, to this day, renowned for their embrace of both cinema and theater, and are universally lauded as the finest cinematic adaptations of the Bard.

Olivier, I submit, never could have done this without Wyler. André Bazin, in his famous What is Cinema?, explained how Olivier was able to create a masterpiece with his 1948 version of Hamlet by choosing to embrace the medium of film, rather than embrace the medium of the stage by simply “recording theater”.  “Recorded theater”, according to Bazin, was one of the worst forms of filmmaking because it completely ignored the language of cinema in favor of a completely different language: the language of plays.  It is, disrespectful to both mediums to think that a simple transfer back and forth is all that it takes for them to work.  It’s a prostitution of both film and theater to record a play and call it a movie.  Olivier’s experience in Wuthering Heights prepared him not only in learning about a new style of acting, but also in learning a new style of setting, one that is focused more on lights and frames than on set pieces and staging.

The latter was certainly Wyler’s influence, too.  Surely, he showed Olivier a world of both acting and film that he had never seen before.  Equally responsible for this was Gregg Toland, the cinematographer.  That is because Olivier would only have learned this upon condition that the movie worked.  If the movie had been a failure, Olivier would have though Wyler a fool and never become the master of film that he became.  But, it did work, and one of the premier reasons for that was because of the work of Gregg Toland.

The man who may have been the best photographer in movie history won his only Academy Award for his work in Wuthering Heights.  He couldn’t have deserved it more.  As I have said, Wuthering Heights was the best photographed film of 1939, as well as (maybe) the best acted.  (Please take into consideration that I am only talking American films, or Hollywood films right now.  There was a certain French film that came out in 1939 which trumps all of these…).

What Toland invoked in his photography for this film was nothing short of spectacular.  This was a much simpler filmic experience than say, Citizen Kane, which remains his finest work.  But what Toland creates is a film with great respect not only for the mood of the images, but of their context.

Let me explain.  I once heard a professor set the mood for pre-industrial history thus: the world was defined by a close proximity to death, an intimate relationship with silence, and a relative lack of light.  When a person died, they did not do so in a nursing home or a hospital.  They did not do it in a transportation accident miles away.  They did not, often, do it under the watchful eye of a doctor and nurses, or caregivers to whom the person had no blood relation.  In the world of Wuthering Heights, death was something that happened at home, and people knew what it looked like first hand.

That world was also a world of relative silence.  Close your eyes for a moment and think about all the noises you hear.  Maybe an air conditioner, or the hum of your computer.  Maybe some unexplained ticking in the walls.  Maybe you hear a vaccuum down the hall, or a conversation next door.  Maybe you’re listening to music.  Maybe you hear a car passing by outside.  These are all sounds that those of the pre-industrial world never heard.  They lived in a world of real silence.

Not only did they live in a world of silence and death, they lived in a world of darkness.  The light of a candle or a fireplace is limited in its reach.  When the sun went down, it was time for bed, and when it rose, it was time to wake up.  Natural light was, really, the only light they had.  And, it was a non-permanent commodity.

Toland and Wyler succeeded in creating a film where these three things were palpable and engrossing.  This was a movie about silence, darkness, and death.  It was against this haunting backdrop that one of the great film romances was born.  The romance worked as a beam of light shining through dark clouds in the lives of the characters touched by it.  Toland shone that beam with his dexterity, and Wyler directed it like a master director conducting an orchestra.

Speaking of such, let me make a quick plug, because you will likely remember that directly preceding this post, I published a list of the greatest film composers.  Shortly after publishing this review, I will follow it with another list, this one featuring the great film scores.  I do this because Wuthering Heights is a worthy member of the pantheon of great movie scores out there.  The beautiful music of this movie, particularly the famous “Cathy’s Theme”, has aged well, and is one of those superb scores to which I allude in my exposition on movie music: it is one of those pieces of music that carries with it the special essence of the film it accompanies.  It invokes nostalgia and remembrance for the film.  It is one of those pieces of movie music that perfectly encapsulates the emotion of the movie for which it was made.  The movie is haunting, sad, dark, romantic, and full of hope.  The music, composed by Alfred Newman, is just the same.

Great music, great direction, great cinematography, great story, and great acting.  Is there much more I need to say?

9 thoughts on “Wuthering Heights (1939)

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