Hollywoodland Reviews: Wuthering Heights (1939)

My first ever picture on Hollywoodland Photos. Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon in the 1939 classic Wuthering Heights.

I thought I would kick off my new venture by writing about the movies that completely changed my life. Each of the films I will write about over the next few weeks have had a profound effect on me and what I decided to do with my life. I can’t wait to get started.

The first photo I posted on my Instagram account Hollywoodland Photos all the way back in May 2013, was of Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon overlooking the Yorkshire Moors in the 1939 classic Wuthering Heights. I was 17 when I stumbled on it for the first time and it was entirely accidental. In the time before Netflix was available in Australia, I was on YouTube watching all the old films I could get my hands on when I came across this film version of the classic book. I pressed play and had a life-altering experience. I could write a book on everything this movie and story has done for me. It is really quite astonishing. But for now, I will try to keep it to this blog post and focus on the film.

Based on the classic 1847 Emily Brontë book of the same name, Wuthering Heights is about the turbulent love story between Heathcliff and Cathy and the revenge Heathcliff brings to everyone surrounding him once he loses her. In the late 1930’s legendary Hollywood producer Samuel Goldwyn acquired the rights to the book and heavily simplified the plot, keeping only 16 of the original 34 chapters in the film and omitting any mention of the children of the main characters.

Originally intended as a vehicle for young actress Merle Oberon, actors such as Ronald Colman and Douglas Fairbanks were considered for the role of Heathcliff eventually played by English actor Laurence Olivier in his first big Hollywood role. Oliver and Oberon had previously worked together on the 1938 British film, The Divorce of Lady X and while they were friendly enough during that shoot, Olivier believed that Oberon did not have the passion to play the headstrong and energetic Cathy and thought that his soon to be wife Vivien Leigh would be ideal for the role. Director William Wyler and Goldwyn disagreed and offered Leigh the lesser role of Isabella Linton, Heathcliff’s doomed and tormented wife, which she eventually turned down after acquiring the much-coveted role of Scarlett O’Hara in the big budget blockbuster Gone with the Wind.

Oberon and Olivier receiving between takes.

California’s San Fernando Valley became the bleak and desolate Yorkshire moors for the shoot, with over 1000 real heather plants transported over from England for the close-up shots. It was a strained production with the two leading actors continually clashing and Wyler struggling to tame the theatre-trained Oliver into a more believable film actor. Olivier reflected about the time on set in his 1982 autobiography, ‘Confessions of an Actor’:

“Wyler, somewhat painfully, taught me respect for the medium.”

The original 1939 film poster.

Wuthering Heights finished 13 days over schedule, $100,000 over budget and was released in March 1939 to critical acclaim. Frank S. Nugent of The New York Times reviewed:

“…unquestionably, one of the most distinguished pictures of the year, one of the finest ever produced by Mr. Goldwyn, and one you should decide to see.”

It received 8 Academy Award nominations including nods for Best Picture and Best Actor.

I love this movie. Yes, it is different from the original story and if you are looking for a faithful retelling of Wuthering Heights, this isn’t it. But I think it is powerful enough to stand alone. This is Old Hollywood at its finest. Romantic, beautifully haunting and if you have yet to see it, a movie to put on your must watch list.

One thought on “Hollywoodland Reviews: Wuthering Heights (1939)

  1. Hi Cassidy,
    Your writing is very good I think, and it was great to read your very first blog.
    Didn’t know that Vivian Leigh didn’t take a roll and instead went on to another great movie.
    I actually haven’t seen this movie so I will have to watch it.
    Keep up the good work Cassidy, I always thought you would make a good movie host on Tv.
    Love Barb

    Like

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