Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Wuthering Heights - 1939

This 1939 film version of Wuthering Heights, directed by William Wyler, is more like an abridged version of the book. The story is limited to Cathy and Heathcliff, some parts tweaked to make the tale simpler and more palatable. Emily Bronte's novel is complex, with much coming and going between Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange as the story progresses. 
The movie opens with Mr. Lockheed (Miles Mander) arriving at Wuthering Heights on a stormy night and finding that he has to stay there perforce as his landlord, Heathcliff (Laurence Olivier) will not allow anyone to escort him back to Thrushcross Grange, which he has taken on rent.  At night, he is shown to Cathy's (Merle Oberon) old room and as the readers of the novel expect, there is a knock at the window in the middle of the night. Mr. Lockhead cries for help as he spots someone at the window.  Heathcliff throws the window open looking for Cathy and later, rushes out into the night crying her name.

The housekeeper at Wuthering Heights, Ellen (Flora Robson), then sits down to relate the strange tale of Cathy Earnshaw and Heathcliff. The movie goes into a flashback, and we see Mr. Earnshaw returning from one of his travels with a dark, ragged boy by his side.  Cathy takes to him readily and dreams up stories about his exotic past.  Hindley, her brother, is not happy with the new entrant into the family and beats him up at any opportunity he gets.  When his father dies, he banishes Heathcliff to the stables.

Cathy and Heathcliff run off to the moors at every opportunity they get and spend time together. They profess love for each other and are happy together. One day, Cathy hears music being played at Thrushcross Grange and goes over to the house to explore.  She is delighted by the sight of beautifully dressed ladies dancing.  She is thereafter torn between the genteel charms of Edgar (David Niven), the heir of Thrushcross, and the wild passion of Heathcliff.

Who does Cathy choose?  How does Heathcliff turn into a moneyed gentleman from a ragged stable boy?

I was eager to see the film as it starred Laurence Olivier as Heathcliff.  It was a treat I did not want to miss. I was not disappointed, Olivier Laurence's dark good looks make him very suitable as Heathcliff.  He does full justice to as much of Heathcliff as he is allowed to portray. Of course, the script does not allow him the full scope of the diabolical Heathcliff of the novel, which is sad.

 I have never seen Merle Oberon but have heard a lot about her.  She is a pretty girl, no doubt about that. She makes a lovely Cathy.   David Niven cut a dashing figure as the gentle Edgar. Geraldine Fitzgerald put in a spirited performance as Isabel, Edger's sister.

The movie is beautifully made and beautifully acted by all. It does not do full justice to the book, which is one my favorites. I can see how hard it is to depict three generations of Earnshaws and Lintons in a movie.  On the other hand, a trilogy (a la Lord of the Rings) or a TV series would have been a better vehicle. 


  1. Wuthering Heights is my favourite novel, I have read the book umpteen times and have also seen the movie. I am feeling nostalgic after reading the beautiful review. Thank you Ava for bringing back old memories.

  2. You are welcome, Ushaji. It is my favorite as well. Laurence Olivier makes a dashing Heathcliff.

  3. Though I've seen other adaptations of Wuthering Heights (I like the Matthew McFadyen one the best), this one somehow slipped through. I do like Laurence Olivier a lot, and can just imagine him as Heathcliff. Must hunt this down and watch!

  4. Madhu, I did want to know which of the many versions was a good one. Thanks.

    I had to buy a DVD for the Olivier Laurence one, it is not available on YouTube. Let me see if I can share it somehow. Will send a link across, if so.