Wuthering Heights Review

Gary Couzens has reviewed the Region 2 release of Wuthering Heights, William Wyler’s 1939 version starring Merle Oberon and Laurence Olivier. An epic love story and a very fine example of Hollywood craftsmanship, even if it is at some distance from Emily Brontë’s original novel, it’s presented on a bare-bones DVD from MGM.

One night. Mr Lockwood (Miles Mander) is lost on the Yorkshire Moors in a snowstorm and seeks shelter at Wuthering Heights, the home of Heathcliff (Laurence Olivier). Heathcliff and his wife Isabella (Geraldine Fitzgerald) are not friendly to their visitor. Put up in an old room that has been unoccupied for years, Lockwood hears a female voice call out Heathcliff’s name and feels a mysterious hand touch his. When he tells Heathcliff this, the man runs out into the snow. The housekeeper Ellen Dean (Flora Robson) tells the story of Heathcliff and the love of his life, Cathy Earnshaw (Merle Oberon).

Wuthering Heights, first published in 1847, at first attracted little attention, apart from some distaste for its “immorality”. It was Emily Brontë’s only novel. (She was reputedly working on a second at the time of her death, but none of this survives.) It has never been the popular favourite that Emily’s sister Charlotte’s Jane Eyre was from the outset, and its reputation only increased after Emily and her other sister Anne’s deaths, and the tragic story of the Brontë sisters became widely known. There aren’t many novels like Wuthering Heights in the English language, and it’s often misunderstood. To read it as just an epic romance set amongst some particularly atmospheric scenery is to simplify it and in some ways to domesticate it, and that is what William Wyler’s film version does, for all its virtues.

Let’s begin with the virtues. This was a mega-production of its day, with producer Samuel Goldwyn sparing no expense, importing an all-British cast and recreating the Yorkshire Moors in the Hollywood Hills. The sets and costumes are lavish. Goldwyn intended the film as a vehicle for Merle Oberon (actually Tasmanian-born with some Indian ancestry), whom he was grooming as a Hollywood star. Olivier was less well known at the time (he had been cast opposite Greta Garbo in Queen Christina but the part had eventually gone to John Gilbert) but had costarred with Oberon the previous year in The Divorce of Lady X. William Wyler was one of the most prestigious directors of the time. At his worst he could typify “worthy but dull”, but he made some very fine films, of which this is one. He was one of the finest directors of actors in Hollywood, and this shows: not just in a probable career-best performance from Oberon and intense (if arguably miscast) work from Olivier, but in the work of the supporting cast. Geraldine Fitzgerald is fine (and Oscar-nominated) as Isabella, though David Niven does what he can with the thankless role of Edgar Linton. Wyler should take some credit, along with cinematographer Gregg Toland, for the look of the film. Toland is rightly celebrated for his work on Citizen Kane, but he was actually developing many of the techniques used there in earlier films for both Wyler and John Ford. Look at Wuthering Heights – which won Toland his only Oscar, though he was nominated six other times – and you’ll see much use of deep focus, emphasised by two-room sets with the connecting doors left open to emphasise scale. Wuthering Heights displays all Hollywood’s considerable resources. It’s Hollywood artifice at its highest, and that’s as it should be. Brontë was not a realist novelist (neither, for that matter, was Dickens) and real location shooting wouldn’t work with this story. Cathy and Heathcliff are larger than life creations, at the mercy of heightened passions, which would look ludicrous in a more realistic context. It’s no surprise that the novel, which placed l’amour fou above everything else, was a favourite of the Surrealists. Luis Buñuel made his own version of the story, Abismos de pasión (1953), which transplanted the action to the very different scenery of Mexico.

Ben Hecht and Charles Macarthur’s adaptation notoriously only covers the first half of the novel, leaving out the later sections where new generations of Earnshaws and Lintons replay the story of their forebears. The debate as to how faithful film adaptations should be to their source is ages old and unlikely to cease. Besides, fidelity doesn’t automatically guarantee quality, as one look at the 1992 version of Wuthering Heights (with a badly miscast Juliette Binoche and a not much better Ralph Fiennes) will demonstrate. More important is a closeness to the spirit of the original work. Hecht, Macarthur and Wyler certainly get the surface right, and as a result produce one of Hollywood’s great screen romances. In the novel Heathcliff, as his name suggests, is very much a force of nature, someone who is not civilised and tamed. This is probably an impossible part for almost any actor to play and, despite Olivier’s brooding intensity, there’s something a little too refined about him. Wuthering Heights is a fine people of Hollywood craftsmanship, standing out even in one of the greatest years in film history, but it shouldn’t be mistaken for the novel on which it is based.

For such a prestigious film in their back catalogue, MGM’s treatment of Wuthering Heights is remarkably lacking. The picture quality could be better: it’s a little too soft and most scenes have a fine layer of grain over them. It’s acceptable, but it’s lacking a few shades of grey. There are some minor scratches and spots in a few places, but nothing very distracting. The film was shot in Academy Ratio (1.37:1) as was virtually everything else made before 1950, and is correctly transferred full-frame to DVD.

No complaints about the mono soundtrack. Just like every other aspect of the film, it’s an example of Hollywood expertise at its height, with dialogue, sound effects and Alfred Newman’s sweeping score perfectly balanced. Dubbed versions are available in four languages.

There are sixteen chapter stops, and subtitles are provided in eight different languages. The disc is encoded for both regions 2 and 4. Menus are available in German, French, Italian and Spanish as well as English, which seems pointless as MGM have adopted a “universal” menu design using symbols as well as text. This took some getting used to, especially when I tried to look for extras. There aren’t any, not even a trailer.

Wuthering Heights, though it’s at some distance from Emily Brontë’s novel, is a fine film in many ways. This bare-bones DVD has acceptable picture and sound and that’s it. Granted that this film is sixty-five years old and, apart from Geraldine Fitzgerald, none of the principal cast and crew are (to the best of my knowledge) still alive, but surely some extra material could be found? A trailer would do at the very least, maybe a featurette on Wyler or on Toland. Some material on Emily Brontë and her novel wouldn’t have been difficult to put together. I wouldn’t recommend this disc at full price: wait until it turns up in a sale for under £10.


Updated: Jul 05, 2004

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