Wuthering Heights: Review
Wuthering Heights has been hailed as producer Samuel Goldwyn’s proudest professional achievement. And even though as a nominee for Best Picture of 1939, Heights lost out to the bigger and splashier epic Gone with the Wind, this gut wrenching love story offers more emotional wallop and heart break than any of the other nine films nominated that year... put together.
Heights is by all means the ultimate story of star crossed lovers, much in the mold of Romeo and Juliet, except here the two ill-fated admirers live amongst the picturesque moors of 1840‘s Scotland. Based on Emily Bronte’s gothic novel, the relationship between Heathcliff (a young and painfully handsome Lawrence Olivier) and Kathy (the timeless and enchanting Merle Oberon) is a tormented affair that spans the brief decades of the lover’s emotionally wrought lives. True to Bronte form, someone loves too hard and too much while their object of desire is drawn to another in what turns out to be a mistaken attraction. In this case ambition and success leaves the hero bitter, while the lackluster love of another man leaves the heroine unfulfilled. Ultimately the two reconcile their differences in a very dramatic ending worthy of the word gothic.
Shot entirely on locations in California and on the sound stages of MGM, director William Wylerand his production did an exceptional job of simulating the atmosphere of the tumultuous and brooding isolation of a Scottish wasteland. This allusion is enhanced all the more by the stunning black and white cinematography of famed director of photography Gregg Toland (Citizen Kane, The Grapes of Wrath). The setting provides a perfect backdrop to the performances of the actors as they effortlessly emote the raging conflicts inherent to the characters of the proud yet devoted Heathcliff and the vain yet sympathetic Kathy.
Lesser actors would have easily muddled their way into mellow-drama, but the brilliant nuances of Olivier’s performance turns the difficult character of Heathcliff into something eerily empathetic. Oberon likewise endows Kathy, the two-dimensional brat of the book, with such depth and pathos that the audience is capable of understanding, even sympathizing with the woman who causes so much pain and suffering through her material selfishness. And the chemistry between the two great stars is so utterly believable it’s palpable. Indeed, once you’ve seen this 1939 version of Heights it’s impossible to imagine anyone else in these iconic roles.
Although the film has been remade several times to varying degrees of success (most often for television) the story itself is best served by the production values of the Golden Age of Hollywood. The epic scope of emotions alone would explode into “camp” in the ‘50s and would have been reduced to the level of a common soap opera in the ‘70s. Heaven only knows what the colorful and high contrast approach of the ‘80s might have done to “enhance” the tale. Fortunately the combination of talents afforded the production in 1939 ensured the outcome of nothing less than a quality film to be remembered for decades to come.