Watching 1939: Wuthering Heights (1939)

In 2011, I announced I was trying to see every film released in 1939. This new series chronicles films released in 1939 as I watch them. As we start out this blog feature, this section may become more concrete as I search for a common thread that runs throughout each film of the year. Right now, that’s difficult. 

1939 film:  Wuthering Heights (1939)

Release date:  March 24, 1939

Cast:  Merle Oberon, Laurence Olivier, David Niven, Flora Robson, Geraldine Fitzgerald, Hugh Williams, Leo G. Carroll, Cecil Kellaway, Miles Mander, Sarita Wooton, Rex Downing, Douglas Scott, Donald Crisp

Studio:  The Samuel Goldwyn Company

Director:  William Wyler

Mr. Earnshaw (Kellaway) lives with his two children Hindley (Scott) and Cathy (Wooton) at the family farmhouse, Wuthering Heights. When returning from a trip to London, Earnshaw brings home a young gypsy waif, Heathcliff (Downing). Heathcliff is raised as Earnshaw’s own with Hindley and Cathy – Hindley hates Heathcliff and Cathy befriends him, eventually falling in love with him. After Earnshaw dies the three grow up, Hindley (Williams) becomes the master of Wuthering Heights, drinks too much, and puts Heathcliff (Olivier) where he feels he belongs, as a servant. Cathy (Oberon) falls in love with Heathcliff, but he doesn’t behave in the grand manner she wants out of life and she doesn’t feel he can give her the life she wants. Their paths divide and come back together, and their mutual love destroys everything around them.

1939 Notes:
• Laurence Olivier was in two films released in 1939
• Merle Oberon was in three films released in 1939
• Flora Robson was in four films released in 1939
• Leo G. Carroll was in five films released in 1939
• Hugh Williams was in three films released in 1939

Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon in Wuthering Heights (1939)

Other trivia: 
• Based on Emily Bronté’s novel “Wuthering Heights,” though the film omits much of the story. The film only covers 16 of the 34 chapters of the book.
• Planning for this film began in 1936 and Charles Boyer and Sylvia Sidney were discussed as the leads. Later, James Mason and Tyrone Power were also considered for roles in the film.
• John Huston was an uncredited contributing writer on the film.
• Ronald Colman, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Robert Newton were considered for the role of Heathcliff.
• There are multiple versions of this story made for film and TV from 1920 to 2015, but the 1939 version is only the second film version.
• William Wyler named his daughter Cathy, who was born in 1939, after the Wuthering Heights character.
• The Mitchell Camera Corporation selected Gregg Toland and this picture to be the first to use their new Mitchell BNC camera. This camera model would become the studio standard.
• Music by Alfred Newman

Awards and Nominations
• Gregg Toland won the Academy Award for Best Cinematography, Black-and-White
• Nominated for Best Picture
• Laurence Olivier was nominated for Best Actor in a Leading Role
• William Wyler was nominated for Best Director
• Geraldine Fitzgerald was nominated for Best Actress in a Supporting Role
• Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur were nominated for Best Writing, Screenplay
• James Basevi was nominated for Best Art Direction
• Alfred Newman was nominated for Best Music, Original Score

My review: Searching for the “1939 feature”:
Film adaptations of novels can be tricky, especially for classics like Emily Bronté’s novel “Wuthering Heights.” And while the 1939 film version of the story leaves out multiple key plot points of the book, some still consider it one of the best film versions of the story.

Others also herald “Wuthering Heights” as one of the best films of 1939.

Now, I won’t pretend like I am a great scholar of literature, Bronté expert, or like I am well-versed in the novel of “Wuthering Heights.” I haven’t read the book since high school (when I was also heavily assisted by Cliff Notes) and I have only seen this film a few times, as well as one other film adaptation. I’m also not here to discuss symbolism, or other literary terms thrown around in a high school Advanced Placement class. This is strictly an assessment of the movie.

With that said, I will say that I feel this film stays relatively true to the book … the first half of the book. Without spoiling the end too much, the film only covers the first generation of characters, which are in the first half of the novel. The second half of the book with the second generation of characters is omitted.

I would be curious to read a detailed assessment of why Samuel Goldwyn made that decision. Perhaps the second portion was omitted because the story gets too complicated, dark and downright strange. I have to wonder if portions of the second half of the book would have even made it past Joseph Breen’s office. It also would have made for much longer movie.

While the romance in the book is strange and filled with revenge, the film depicts the love of Cathy and Heathcliff as a sad, tragic romance. They are almost two star-crossed lovers who were kept apart by society.

Vivien Leigh wanted the role of Cathy alongside her future husband Laurence Olivier, and I think she would have done well as the lead character. The role needed a woman so beautiful to the point of being haughty, which Leigh fits, but it also fits Merle Oberon. Admittedly, Oberon isn’t one of my favorite actresses but she plays the role of a conflicted and rather selfish woman well.

While many other actors were considered, Laurence Olivier was an excellent choice for Heathcliff, the man a soul tortured by his love and the position life dealt him. I’m not generally someone who swoons over Olivier, but my he is handsome in this film! Aside from his appearance, Olivier gives a great performance of someone who is never at peace.

Though Heathcliff and Cathy are the two central characters the audience is supposed to feel for, I feel most bad for the two people on the outside of their hurricane: Isabella, played by Geraldine Fitzgerald, and Edgar, played by David Niven. Isabella is caught in a loveless married to Heathcliff and Edgar with Cathy. David Niven said he dreaded playing a thankless role, but his character and Fitzgerald’s were the two I sympathized with most. Gerladine Fitzgerald does an excellent job in this film, particularly when she is beat down by Heathcliff’s unhappiness – much different from the vibrant and beautiful woman we saw previously.

While the lead actors are great in the film, the real star is Gregg Toland’s gorgeous, Academy Award-winning cinematography. This film is visually stunning.

If you are a literature lover, I do think you would be upset by “Wuthering Heights” since it cuts half of the story out. Perhaps separate yourself from the book while watching the movie. If you don’t like Bronté’s book, don’t stay away from the film due to that, particularly if the strange second half of the book turns you off.

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1 thought on “Watching 1939: Wuthering Heights (1939)

  1. Pingback: 1939 Films: the definition of classic movies • Brian Beholds

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