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The Beyond the Cover Blogathon: «Wuthering Heights» (1939)

Directed by William Wyler, Wuthering Heights (1939) begins when a traveller named Mr. Lockwood (Miles Mander) gets caught in a snowstorm and ends up at Wuthering Heights, an old house on the barren moors of Yorkshire, England, owned by the dour Heathcliff (Laurence Olivier). Lockwood asks for a guide to take him to his place at The Grange, but Heathcliff refuses and reluctantly allows him to stay the night. Later that night, Lockwood is awaken by a noisy window shutter. As he closes it, he hears a woman outside calling, «Heathcliff, let me in! I'm out on the moors. It's Cathy!» and then feels an icy hand touching his. When Lockwood relates the disturbance to Heathcliff, he frantically runs into the blizzard, calling out to Cathy.

Ellen Dean (Flora Robson), the housekeeper, tells a perplexed Lockwood that he has seen the ghost of Catherine Earnshaw, Heathcliff's great love, and proceeds to tell him their story. Forty years previously, an orphan boy named Heathcliff is found on the streets of Liverpool by Mr. Earnshaw (Cecil Kellaway), who brings him home to Wuthering Heights to live with his two children, Cathy and Hindley. Years later, the now-grown Heathcliff and Cathy (Merle Oberon) have fallen in love and are secretly meeting on Peniston Crag. Hindley (Hugh Williams) has become a tyrannical drunk and forces Heathcliff to be his stableboy. One night, Cathy becomes acquainted with Edgar Linton (David Niven), by whose glamor and wealth she is deeply entranced. Edgar falls for Cathy and soon proposes. Heathcliff disappears, but returns years later, now a wealthy and distinguished gentleman. He secretly buys Wuthering Heights and takes revenge on Cathy by marrying her lonely sister-in-law, Isabella (Geraldine Fitzgerald). The heartbroken Cathy soon falls gravely ill and eventually dies in Heathcliff's arms, as she takes one last look at Peniston Crag. As Ellen concludes her story, the family doctor, Dr. Kenneth (Donald Crisp), enters the house saying that he has just seen Heathcliff on the moors with a woman, but when he approaches them, found only Heathcliff's dead body. In the distance, Heathcliff and Cathy's spirits ascend the Peniston Crag.

Heathcliff: 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.

Born in the village of Thornton in Yorkshire in 1818, Emily Brontë was the fifth of six children of Maria Branwell and Patrick Brontë, an Irish clergyman. After the death of her mother three years later, she was brought up in the bleak moorland parsonage of Haworth by her aunt Elizabeth, along with her surviving sisters Charlotte and Anne, and brother Branwell. Immersed in reading and writing throughout her life, Emily joined her siblings in writing tales, fantasies, poems, journals and serial stories. Her poetry was included in the Brontë sisters' joint publication Poems, which they released under their pseudonym of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell in 1846. But it is for her novel Wuthering Heights that Emily is best known. A passionate account of self-destructive love, it was published together with Anne's Agnes Grey almost exactly a year before her death from tuberculosis at the age of thirty. Although the novel is highly regarded today, it did not fare well with critics at the time; they called it "coarse and loathsome," showing the "brutalizing influence of unchecked passion" and "there is such a general roughness and savageness [...] as never be found in a work of art."

The earliest screen version of Wuthering Heights was produced in England in 1920, but it is now considered a lost film. Directed by A. V. Bramble, it starred Milton Rosmer as Heathcliff and Ann Trevor as Catherine Earnshaw. While vacationing in Vermont in 1936, writers Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur decided to adapt Wuthering Heights on speculation. Their script extracted the second half of the novel's complex plot to focus on the romance between Heathcliff and Cathy. In stripping away many of the secondary characters including Cathy's daughter and Heathcliff's son, both of whom play a major role in the last portion of the book and telescoping the passage of time, the screenwriters concentrated exclusively on the "twisted, passionate love" of the two protagonists.

Merle Oberon and Laurence Olivier
Hecht and MacArthur's screenplay made the studio rounds for months, before independent producer Walter Wanger purchased it for his two romantic leads, Charles Boyer and Sylvia Sidney. But first Wanger wanted the pair to appear in Algiers (1938), with Sidney supporting newcomer Hedy Lamarr, in her American film debut. Already studying a Yorkshire accent for her part in Wuthering Heights, Sidney refused to do Algiers. She and Wanger had a violent argument, after which he decided not to cast her as Cathy. Wanger's second choice for the role, Katharine Hepburn, was labeled "box-office poison" by the Independent Theatre Owners of America and he lost interest in the project. When Wanger muttered that he wanted "to put laughs in the picture," Hecht and MacArthur asked another independent producer, Samuel Goldwyn, to buy the script from him. 

Goldwyn, however, was not sure he wanted take on the project. The flashback structure of the "relentlessly grim" screenplay confused and he thought the lovers were too "unattractive" Heathcliff "hate-filled" and vengeful, Cathy a "capricious, irresponsible girl" to appeal to audiences. Looking for a second opinion, Goldwyn sent the script to director William Wyler, who urgently recommended that he purchase it. To ensure that Goldwyn did so, Wyler showed the script to Bette Davis, whom he had just directed in Jezebel (1938), made on loan-out to Warner Bros., and was eager to work with again. Davis then took the script to studio chief Jack Warner and asked him to buy it for her. When Goldwyn learned of this possibility, he immediately acquired the script from Wanger. However, knowing that Warner would never hand over his biggest star, he asked Wyler if he thought Merle Oberon, who was under contract to Goldwyn at the time, could play the part of Catherine Earnshaw. Wyler said that she could and the deal was set.

Merle Oberon as Catherine Earnshaw
When Goldwyn's sales department announced that they did not like the title Wuthering Heights, the producer instructed his story department to find a better one. Wyler immediately said that such an idea was "crazy." Goldwyn's assistant, Jock Lawrence, who was soon to become director of public relations for the Motion Picture Producers Association, suggested "The Wild Heart," "Dark Laughter" and "Bring Me the World." He did, however, told Goldwyn that he would "be in for very bad condemnation if this title is changed because it is a classic. It is exactly as if Selznick would have dared to change 'David Copperfield' to 'A Little Boy in England' or 'Little Women' to 'Katy Gets Her Man.'" Goldwyn ultimately decided to maintain Brontë's original title, but because he tended to pronounce words in ways that sound more familiar, he always referred to the film as "Withering Heights" One major change Goldwyn did to the novel was update the its time period the mid-18th century by several decades to about 1841, because Regency costumes would not show off Oberon's shoulders to their best advantages.

Goldwyn's first choice for Heathcliff was Ronald Colman, but he was unavailable at the time. Oberon next suggested Douglas Fairbanks Jr., who tested badly. Meanwhile, Hecht saw Laurence Olivier in a film and brought him to Goldwyn's attention, saying that he was "one of the most magnificent actors I have ever seen. He could recite Heathcliff sitting on a barrel of herring and break your heart." Goldwyn dispatched Wyler to England to look at the actor, but Olivier hesitated. His last visit to Hollywood ended when Greta Garbo herself fired him from the cast of Queen Christina (1933). Olivier had "despised" the notion of acting in motion pictures ever since and, having recently won high praise performing in several William Shakespeare plays at the Old Vic, he believed that the London stage was where he belonged. In addition, he was engaged in a love affair with Vivien Leigh, his co-star in three films, and did not want to be separated from her.

Merle Oberon and Laurence Olivier
While trying to convince Olivier to take on the role of Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, Wyler came across Robert Newton, who had appeared with Laurence in Hamlet, as well as the films Fire Over England (1937) and 21 Days Together (1940). Impressed by the rugged actor, Wyler wired Goldwyn: "Have found Healthcliff. Amazing young English actor. [...] Much better than Olivier." After seeing a screen test, however, Goldwyn thought Newton was "ugly."

In an attempt to lure Olivier into the project, Wyler offered Leigh the role of Isabella Linton, but she was only interested in playing Cathy. Finally, it was Leigh managed to convince Olivier that he could not pass up the oportunity of starring in Wuthering Heights and he agreed to play Heathcliff. Months later, during a trip to the United States to visit Olivier, Leigh was introduced to independent producer David O. Selznick, who subsequently signed her to portray the indomitable Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind (1939), for which she eventually won her first Oscar for Best Actress.

The colony of British actors living in Hollywood, which had grown exponentially since the dawn of talking picture, filled the rest of the cast of Wuthering Heights. Leo G. Carroll, Cecil Kellaway, Cecil Humphreys and Miles Mander took the supporting roles of Joseph (a servant at Wuthering Heights), Mr. Earnshaw (Cathy's father), Mr. Linton (Edgar and Isabella's father) and Mr. Lockwood (the traveller), respectively. Jack Warner loaned out Irish-born Geraldine Fitzgerald, newly arrived in California, to play Isabella Linton and Donald Crisp as Dr. Kenneth, the local physician. Wyler imported Flora Robson from England to play the story's narrator, Ellen Dean, in her American film debut. That left uncast the role of Edgar Linton, Cathy's weak husband, which Goldwyn thought called for a "sympathetic, charming and fine actor." After three years of grooming, he believed that David Niven had finally became worthy of such a break.

David Niven and Merle Oberon
Niven, however, was not interested. "It's the most awful part ever written, and one of the most difficult. Please don't make me do it," he told Goldwyn. Additionally, Niven was not looking forward to reuniting with Wyler, who was notorious for tormenting actors and insisting on dozen of takes. After the humilliation he had suffered at the director's hands on Dodsworth (1936), Niven chose to refuse the role and go on suspension. At Goldwyn's request, Wyler invited Niven to dinner and assured him he was no longer "a son of a bitch to work with," adding "It'll be a great picture and I'll make you great in it." Niven finally, but reluctantly, agreed.

With cast and crew in place, Wuthering Heights began shooting on December 5, 1938, near Chatsworth, California. Goldwyn had sent a crew to Yorkshire to capture footage of the moors, which the prop department then matched on the "craggy barrens" of Ventura County. Wuthering Heights, the remote moorland farmhouse that gives its name to the novel and film, was constructed atop one of the rolling hills, complete with hundreds of windowpanes made with hand-blown glass. A thousand real heather plants were imported from northern England and replanted on location, among four-foot-high shoots of broom.

By all accounts, Wuthering Heights was a tense, unhappy film to make. Wyler turned out to be as tyrannical as ever, reducing Oberon and the other women in the cast to tears and unsettling even Olivier, who came to the set armed with what he later admitted was "an abominable pomposity and conceit." After shooting and reshooting one scene over and over again, Olivier turned to Wyler and said in despair, "Look, Willie, I've done it thirty times. I've done it differently thirty times. Just tell me, that's all: What do you want me to do?" Wyler gazed at him and replied, "Just be better." Furious, Olivier sneered, "I supposed this anemic little medium can't take great acting." He was humbled when the entire cast and crew, including the director, burst out laughing. 

Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon
Finally, Wyler pulled Olivier aside one day and convinced him that movies were a medium potentially as important as the stage. That conversation changed Olivier's outlook considerably. "If any film actor is having trouble with his career, can't master the medium and, anyway, wonders whether it's worth it, let him pray to meet a man like Wyler," he later said. Olivier eventually made his peace with Wyler and even asked him to direct him in Henry V (1944). Wyler was unavailable at the time (Olivier directed himself), but they would work together again on Carrie (1952).

Olivier also had a heated on-set confrontation with Oberon. Although they had worked together happily in The Divorce of Lady X (1938), a British film produced by Alexander Korda, Olivier now resented that Oberon had the role he felt should have gone to his beloved Vivien Leigh. He sneered that Oberon was just "a little pick-up by Korda" and taunted her about some pockmarks she had on her face after she had contracted a mild case of smallpox as a child in India. She in turn complained several times in front of the crew that Olivier kept spitting in her face during their love scenes. Eventually, he shouted at her, "Why, you amateur little bitch! What's a spit for Christsake between actors, you bloody little idiot? How dare you speak to me like that?" Oberon stormed off the set in tears and Wyler then forced Olivier to apologize.

In addition, Goldwyn and Wyler were constantly at each other's throats. Apparently, Wyler had nightmares about his producer, while Goldwyn insisted the director was "trying to kill me." Goldwyn accused Wyler of overdirecting and was especially enraged at the number of camera angles he used to film even the simpliest sequences. The biggest issue was Oberon's deathbed scene. Because it was such a somber moment, Goldwyn wanted Oberon to be showed in a sophisticated gown and glamorous close-ups. Fortunately, Wyler managed to convince Wyler that "when beautiful movie stars allow themselves to look terrible, people think they're really acting." However, Wyler did lose the battle concerning the ending of Wuthering Heights. Goldwyn insisted on a happier, more romantic conclusion by having the ghosts of Heathcliff and Cathy walking off hand-in-hand towards Peniston Crag, but Wyler refused to shoot it, saying it violated the nature of the film. After principal photography finished, Goldwyn brought in another director, Henry Potter, and body doubles for Olivier and Oberon to do the scene as he wanted.

Flora Robson and Merle Oberon
The only happy relationship on the set seemed to be the one between Wyler and cinematographer Gregg Toland. The two had worked together successfully on three other pictures before Wuthering Heights and would collaborate on three more after it, including the Best Picture winner The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) and respected each other mutually. Toland rejected the typical Hollywood soft-focus, one-plane depth; instead, he preferred deep-focus photography that would reveal backgrounds as clearly as characters and images close to the camera. What fascinated Wyler about Wuthering Heights were its shadows; in discussing with Toland how they might capture the "moodiness" of piece, the cinematography suggested they use candlelike effects, keeping the characters in partial darkness before coming fully into the light at climatic moments. Toland also recommended low camera angles to capture the ceilings of the sets, thereby emphasizing the "stifling confines and dour loneliness" of Wuthering Heights.

Much to Goldwyn's irritation, Wyler finished Wuthering Heights thirteen days over schedule and more than $100,000 over budget. The film premiered in Hollywood on March 24, before opening at the Rivoli Theatre in New York on April 13, 1939. Critical reviews were generally positive. Frank S. Nugent of The New York Times called it "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 Miss Brontë 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." Similarly, The Film Daily considered that "Emily Brontë's classic novel had been picturized with telling effect and should have special appeal to femme fans. William Wyler had given the love story warm, sympathetic direction, gaining fine performances from his cast."

Geraldine Fitzgerald as Isabella Linton
Variety wrote that the film "retains all of the grim drama to the book," but noted that "its general sombreness and psychological trade is too heavy for general appeal." Nevertheless, the reviewer praised Laurence Olivier's "fine portrayal" of Heathcliff, called Merle Oberon "excellent throughout" and Geraldine Fitzgerald "impressive." Harrison's Reports offered a similar opinion: "From the production point of view, [Wuthering Heights] is a fine artistic achievement. As entertainment, however, its appeal will be limited to class audiences. The acting, direction, and production are all excellent; but the story is so sombre and cheerless, that most people will leave the theatre depressed." As it turned out, Wuthering Heights was not in fact popular at the box-office upon its initial release; with a reissue in the 1950s, however, Goldwyn did manage to get his money back and even make a slight profit.

At the 12th Academy Awards held at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles in February 1940, Gregg Toland received the Oscar for Best Cinematography (Black and White), while the film garnered seven additional nominations Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Olivier), Best Supporting Actress (Fitzgerald), Best Screenplay, Best Original Score and Best Art Direction. Gone with the Wind won in every category except in Best Actor, which was awared to Robert Donat for his performance Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939), and Best Original Score, which went to The Wizard of Oz (1939). In what has been considered as the finest year in Hollywood history, Wuthering Heights turned out to be one of the greatest productions of 1939. Even Goldwyn later said that this was his favorite film and proudest achievement.

Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon

Filmmakers have been adapting well-known books to the screen since the dawn of cinema. Most of the times, the book is better than the film; sometimes, one is equally as good as the other; but on a few rare occasions, the film turns out to be better than the book it was based upon. In my very humble opinion, that is exactly the case with Wuthering Heights William Wyler's film is better than Emily Brontë's novel, even if just slightly. Let me to explain why. Whenever there is a film that I want to see that is based on a famous novel, I always like to read the book first, if I haven't already. As far as Wuthering Heights is concerned, however, that was the worst decision I could have made. I hated the book and the whole process of reading it was borderline traumatizing. I read it about a year ago and it gives me the heebie jeebies. The main reason for that is that I could not empathize with the two lead characters, Heathcliff and Cathy, or any of the other characters for that matter. Heathcliff is an arrogant bastard and Cathy is, in plain English, a bitch. Honestly, I could not find a single redeeming quality in either one of them. So because I was not able to create that empathy with the characters, it was really difficult for me to read the book; halfway through, I just wanted to throw it of the window and never see it again.

 A few days after I managed to finish Wuthering Heights, I decided to watch Wyler's film. Being a huge fan of Laurence Olivier, I hoped that his glorious, flamboyant persona would somehow soften Heathcliff's dour nature. It did, to an extent; but not in a way that me like the character and feel for him. However, I did feel that Olivier's Heathcliff truly loved Cathy, whereas Brontë's Heathcliff did not. Whether that was because Hecht and MacArthur wrote the film to make it seem so, or because Olivier himself interpreted it that way, I could not say. Regardless of my opinion on the character, I must admit that Larry was quite flawless as Heathcliff. He could absolutely recite Heathcliff sitting on a barrel of herring or any other fish, really and break your heart. 

This is my contribution to The Beyond the Cover Blogathon hosted by Now Voyaging and Speakeasy. To view all entries, click the links below.

DAY 1 | DAY 2 | DAY 3

Goldwyn: A Biography by A. Scott Berg (1989) | Niv: The Authorized Biography of David Niven by Graham Lord (2013) | The Brontës by Juliet Barker (1994) | William Wyler: The Authorized Biography by Axel Madsen (2015) | William Wyler: The Life and Films of Hollywood's Most Celebrated Director by Gabriel Miller (2013) | TCMDb (Articles) | Harrison's Reports review | The Film Daily review | The New York Times review | Variety review


  1. A really detailed post. I had no idea about all the behind the scenes drama that transpired. Wuthering Heights has always been one of my favorite films, and I'd like to rewatch it. I'm in the process of rereading the book. I remember enjoying it in high school, but I'd like to read it with fresh eyes.

    I also nominated you for a Liebster Award. :)

    1. I was not aware about all the drama that went on behind the scenes either, but it was actually rather fascinating to learn about it.

      Oh my, thank you so much! I'll get on it as soon as I can. :)

  2. Whoa That's a lot of goings-on behind the scenes. The filming experience sounds like a nightmare.

    I have to say I'm not a huge fan of either the book or the film, but your post has given me lots to think about. I'm going to watch the film again, with all the behind-the-scenes rigamarole because I think it's given me a new appreciation.

    1. I'm decisively not a fan of the book, I didn't particularly enjoyed the film either, but Laurence Olivier is quite extraordinary.

      Thank you for reading.

  3. Wonderful review and discussion! I really appreciated how detailed you were! Thank you so much for joining us!


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