Wuthering Heights (1939): 7 out of 10: I can’t believe I had this sizeable a gap in my knowledge of literature and tropes. I have to confess I have never read Wuthering Heights, and until seeing this film adaptation I was unfamiliar with the details of the story.
That is a shame because I really could have used this knowledge in my reviews. I could use the “last one to be with her is the one that truly loved her” trope on my recent posting of Love of My Life and the whole brother wants to marry his sister romance angle will be perfect for my upcoming review of Ator, The Fighting Eagle.
Our lovers are clearly brother and sister. Unless Heathcliff is the secret son of Rhaegar Targaryen, the ‘Last Dragon’ he is the illegitimate child of the patriarch whose mistress ran off or died of consumption or something. I mean, the wife knows it right away. It also isn’t as if Heathcliff is a particularly cute or amiable child. He is a little terror. So what would prompt a gentle farmer to bring home this little terror from a town that he visits on a regular basis while his wife stays at home?. Yeah… I think we know where the odds are.
In reality, it would be almost bizarre if Heathcliff wasn’t an illegitimate son. That is what makes the Jon Snow reveal work everyone assumes he is the illegitimate son of Ned Stark because that is what you did when you had an out-of-wedlock child and mistress mom wasn’t around. I think this was much more of an unmentioned assumption in 1770s and 1780s when the book (and except for the Civil War era costumes the movie) takes place.
The Good: Wuthering Heights is considered one of the classic films of 1939. To recap those films are.
Gone with the Wind (Best Picture winner)
Goodbye, Mr. Chips
Love Affair (the movie in Sleepless in Seattle)
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Of Mice and Men
The Wizard of Oz
And those are just the best picture nominees. So that list doesn’t include. The Women with Joan Crawford and Rosalind Russell or Sorority House with Tom Hanks and James Stewart as two college students who dress up as women to get free housing.
So in what is almost always considered Hollywood’s best year of film (sorry 1999), to stand out you have to bring something to the table. What Wuthering Heights brings is some incredible acting. Laurence Olivier was already Shakespearean/ Old Vic Laurence Olivier when he made Wuthering Heights, but after the film he became a movie star. He credits director William Wyler for teaching him how to act for film. Another standout is Geraldine Fitzgerald, who honestly would have won her best support actress nomination in almost any other year. Pretty much everyone else is on point with David Niven giving a very solid performance in a thankless role.
Direction is solid, but the sets are standard 1939 fare that would not have been out-of-place on a back-lot for a Sherlock Holmes feature (Wuthering Heights has a serious The Hound of the Baskervilles vibe). The adaptation by a dream team of Charles MacArthur, Ben Hecht, and John Huston is very good. Trimming the story to the first half of the book so it can be told at a reasonable pace on the screen.
The Bad: Merle Oberon isn’t bad as Heathcliff’s love interest/ half sister. She is simply outshone by everyone else. Laurence Olivier originally wanted his lover Vivien Leigh for the role, and good God she would have been perfect. (She ended up appearing in some other film that year). Vivian Leigh has a way of making nastiness, cruelty and flightiness appealing and sexy. Oberon simply does not. Which brings us to the crux of the problem. We can understand why Oberon is attracted to the cruel evil Heathcliff. He is a charismatic dish. But why is Heathcliff attracted to Oberon? All the acting in the world will not solve that quandary. (Though incest and revenge add some motives to the initial seduction. It doesn’t explain the constant, all-consuming, obsessive love that follows.)
The Ugly: If it isn’t obvious from what I have said so far, our tragic lovers are both awful people. I mean really awful. Heathcliff drives men to poverty and suicide, seduces both his sister-in-law and half sister and rapes and terrorizes the sister-in-law during their marriage. He also runs the Wuthering Heights estate to the ground.
Heathcliff’s half sister Cathy is almost worse. Marrying for money, constantly changing her mind about her affections and emboldening Heathcliffs cruelty. I can imagine that the entire township, let alone the household, breathed a sigh of relief when their love affair hit the tragic portion of the story.
In Conclusion: Wuthering Heights doesn’t quite pull it off. Unlikable characters (particularly Oberon) cast a pall over the proceedings. It is hard to have a love story where the leads are so unlikable. (I am looking at you, Border). The fact the movie almost pulls it off is a testament to all the talent on screen and behind the camera.
Also, a pro tip. Like I said above the film only covers the first half of the book (Which makes Heathcliff actually less evil.) So if you have a book report due and want to watch the movie instead please keep that in mind that all these people had kids (Who also intermarried) to the point that a sequel to Wuthering Heights might be more along the lines of The Hills Have Eyes. Good luck keeping track of the family tree.