Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Wuthering Heights (1939)

Director: William Wyler


It is a movie about love, loss, regret, and loathing. All that comes in the package in Wuthering Heights based on the novel of the same. Produced by the small, but high quality based Samuel Goldwyn Production, Wuthering Heights is an emotionally intense love story filled with passion and hate. Starring a talented cast of foreign actors all making large impacts on the American cinema, the film would become one of the very highest praised productions of the year.

Wuthering Heights is a drama of a man and woman born into different circumstance brought together, their long and complicated love affair, and how social standards keep them apart until the bitter end. The picture is told in one large flashback to a weary traveler named Lockwood (Miles Mander) as he stumbles upon Wuthering Heights and its eerie owner Heathcliff (Laurence Olivier). After experiencing a supernatural event in the night the tale is told of the love affair of Heathcliff and supposed specter Lockwood saw, Heathcliff’s lover Cathy (Merle Oberon).

Heathcliff and Cathy meet as children, Heathcliff being brought in by Cathy’s father as a roaming homeless child. Through the years their friendship grows to a passion, but Heathcliff is constantly reminded he is only a stable boy. Cathy dreams of wealth and high society with Heathcliff in the future, but gets caught up with a wealthy neighbor Edgar Linton (David Niven) that leads to her marriage with  the dignified gentleman, leaving Heathcliff with the drive to remind Cathy that she is really in love with him. To make her jealous Heathcliff marries Edgar’s naïve sister, which works, but only fans the flames of hate as well as passion between the two. Broken by his loathing actions Cathy falls ill. Heathcliff rushes to be by her side as she passes away declaring that she always loved him the most in her life. Broken Heathcliff lived in the now somber Wuthering Heights until the night Lockwood hears Cathy’s voice. He goes to his lost love and dies in a winter storm to be reunited as soulmates.

In the length of this feature film the audience lives a lifetime of passion between these two characters. Wrapped in the emotion of these two whom you know love each other, but are somehow kept apart makes for a heart wrenching picture. With brilliant cinematography that seems to add dimensionality to the story, pulling you further into the world of Heathcliff and Cathy it is easy to see why Wuthering Heights would be one of the highest praised pictures in 1939, a year thought to perhaps be the greatest in Hollywood’s history.

The direction of William Wyler is very close, if not actually perfect. He really explores the space in the world around Wuthering Heights. Shots and angles are made to harken back to moments seen earlier in the film and Wyler cleverly masks them in a way that makes one realize emotional connections of the past, furthering the expressive meaning of moments in the picture. An example is when Heathcliff visits the now married Cathy. While they share a scene where both remain cordial, their hangs an unspoken emotional cloud over the entirety of the scene. It is only until a little later when Heathcliff leaves does Wyler push back the camera to reveal an angle that reminds the audience of an earlier scene where Heathcliff and Cathy where madly in love and dreamt of a future together, but now only Cathy is their alone far from happy. It is great staging such as this that makes good movies great.

Wyler was a notorious perfectionist when it came to his productions and Wuthering Heights was no different. This led to quarrels with his cast. Merle Oberon was an established star in American already with Laurence Olivier was working in America for the first time. Both did not care for the dozens and dozens of takes Wyler would put them through until he got what he wanted. Each had their bouts with the director while at the same time the stars did not care for each other. Olivier still considered himself a stage actor, seeing film as being  well below in art to him. Olivier would have shouting matches with Wyler and Oberon. With Wyler he detested the process of take after take, feeling Wyler was one never to be pleased. With Oberon Olivier he grew to despise just working on stage with her. They would fight about everything from acting style to spit that flew out of their mouths when they spoke during love scenes. Wyler would remind Olivier that Oberon was the star and he was a nobody in America.

Through all the childishness came Olivier first major hit in America and his first Oscar nomination for acting. Years later Olivier would write how Wyler was the man that helped make him a better actor and who taught him how to appreciate motion pictures. Wuthering Heights was a major step for Olivier as he became a huge international star in Hollywood in the coming decades.

The film adaptation would omit several key points in the novel, including the omission of over half of the books chapters and many characters. The novel contained a multi-generational tale as Heathcliff and Cathy each had a child with their respective others. These children would continue the story, but the movie would cut them out focusing on the singular drama.

It was producer Samuel Goldwyn that fought director William Wyler so very hard to produce the ending we see in the finished film with the ghosts of Heathcliff and Cathy walking with each other into eternity. Being that this moment was  against the story of the novel and there were heavy  protests from Wyler about this ending the scene was shot well after production. In fact Oberon and Olivier were not even able to film the shot, filling the lovers’ roles with body doubles. Goldwyn would later praise the film as his favorite picture he ever  produced.

Characters played by David Nevin and Geraldine Fitzgerald would be paired as Cathy’s husband and Heathcliff’s wife. Fitzgerald’s performance might have been significantly changed and shortened from the novel’s original character, but her performance would make up for it. Playing the naïve sister to David Nevin’s character, Heathcliff uses her character, named Isabella, to make Cathy jealous. At first she is a love sick young lady, but she would turn into the broken wife of Heathcliff, a mess of a woman that knows she is not the love or focus of his life. Fitzgerald’s performance would earn her a nomination for best supporting actress.

Wuthering Heights would be one of the highest praised films of the year that saw more than its share of highly thought of pictures. With its deeply emotion story and terrific cast and director the film would gain praise by many and for an extended period of time. In the highly contested Academy Awards Wuthering Heights was up for eight awards including categories of best art direction, best score, best screenplay, best supporting actress, best actor, best director, and best picture. Its lone Oscar that it took home was for best black and white cinematography. Cinematography Gregg Toland ‘s craft would continue to be demonstrated as one of the industry’s finest as he would work on Orson Welles’ masterpiece Citizen Kane. After much debate in many ballots The New York Film Critics would name Wuthering Heights the best film of 1939, primarily because voters could not choose between Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Gone with the Wind, settling on this picture instead.
The picture would continue to receive praise from critics in years to come. The American Film Institute listed Wuthering Heights the 73rd greatest American film in its 1998 poll, and 15th romantic film on its 2002 poll. In 2007 the picture was named to the National Film Registry as culturally significant to preserve in the Library of Congress.

Wuthering Heights still makes an emotional love story to contemporary audiences that enjoy older pictures. Once again this is another case of a very fine film buried underneath the grander and more recognizable features that transcend the decades from 1939. It marks a turning point in the career of Laurence Olivier as he would become one of the most decorated men in cinema history. The feature stands a wonderful piece of dramatic filmmaking of the period and deserves to stand among its counterparts in a year of remarkable filmmaking.

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