Wuthering Heights (1939)

wuthering heights
Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon

'Wuthering Heights' is a classic romantic movie made in 1939, directed by William Wyler, produced by Samuel Goldwyn and starring Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon. It is based on Emily Bronte's supreme 1837 novel of melodramatic wild love, and passionate jealousy and revenge, set in and reflecting the stormy, untamed weather of the bleak moors in Yorkshire.

The novel is one of the major classics of literature and is not an easy subject to film. Other movies have been made of it but this version, under the inspired direction of William Wyler, is generally regarded as one of the greatest of the classic romantic films, although only the first half of the novel is depicted. The second generation of characters from the last eighteen of the novel's thirty-four chapters were eliminated.

1939 was a marvellous year for movies, one of the best in Hollywood's history and 'Gone With the Wind' swept up most of the Oscars but 'Wuthering Heights' received eight award nominatons including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor for Laurence Olivier, and it won one for Gregg Toland's beautiful atmospheric black and white cinematography.

Plot Summary

The original plot of the novel is a complex interweaving of the lives of three generations of families. The movie screenplay writers decided to simplify it and ended the movie when Cathy dies. Nevertheless the novel's overweening dark atmosphere is skilfully recreated, and much of the original dialogue is retained.

The story is told in flashback by the housekeeper (Flora Robson) of the Victorian mansion called Wuthering (Stormy) Heights on the forbidding Yorkshire moors. She briefly outlines the childhood backgrounds of the three main protagonists and then begins her tale of love, revenge and tragedy.

The central character is Heathcliffe, an uncouth gypsy youth who was brought into the Earnshaw house, Wuthering Heights, as a boy, and forms a deep bond with the daughter of the house, Catherine Earnshaw. There is a fierce dislike between Heathcliffe and Cathy's brother, Hindley.

As they grow up the hatred between the two men intensifies whilst the affection between Cathy and Heathcliffe turns into love. Heathcliffe leaves the house, mistakenly thinking that the capricious Cathy believes him to be socially inferior. He is away for three years during which time Cathy marries Edgar Linton (David Niven), a wealthy neighbour.

When Heathcliffe returns, a rich man, he determines on revenge on Cathy, her husband and her brother. To this end he marries Edgar's young sister, Isabella (Geraldine Fitzgerald) and succeeds in causing enough misery to drive a distraught Cathy to an early death.

In the famous final scene we see the spirits of Cathy and Heathcliff re-united for ever walking along Peniston Crag where they had spent such happy hours together as children. This scene was definitely not in the novel and William Wyler refused to shoot it as a 'happy' ending, but Sam Goldwyn was adamant that the movie should end on an upbeat note and used another director and doubles for Olivier and Oberon in order to make it.

Main Cast

Merle Oberon ... Catherine Earnshaw
Laurence Olivier ... Heathcliff
David Niven ... Edgar Linton
Flora Robson ... Ellen Dean
Donald Crisp ... Dr. Kenneth
Hugh Williams ... Hindley Earnshaw
Geraldine Fitzgerald ... Isabella Linton
Leo G. Carroll ... Joseph
Cecil Humphreys ... Judge Linton
Miles Mander ... Mr. Lockwood
Romaine Callender ... Robert
Cecil Kellaway ... Mr. Earnshaw
Rex Downing ... Heathcliff as a child
Sarita Wooton ... Cathy as a child
Douglas Scott ... Hindley as a child


Director ... William Wyler
Producer ... Sam Goldwyn
Screenwriters ... Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur
Based on the novel by Emily Bronte
Cinematographer ... Gregg Toland
Musical Director ... Alfred Newman
Running Time ... 104 minutes.

Academy Awards (1940)

1 Win:
Best Cinematography, Black-and-White ... Gregg Toland
7 Unsuccessful Nominations:
Best Picture
Best Director ... William Wyler
Best Actor ... Laurence Olivier
Best Supporting Actress ... Geraldine Fitzgerald
Best Art Direction ... James Basevi
Best Music, Original Score ... Alfred Newman
Best Writing, Screenplay ... Ben Hecht, Charles MacArthur