Wednesday, September 2, 2009

1939 - Wuthering Heights

As I launch into the Best Picture nominees of 1939, I am reminded of the stark differences between films from that era and films of today. There has been a great evolution in the art of cinema over the last seven decades. Acting has developed, directing has matured, but one of the most obvious transitions in my mind is that of the film score. It must have been an innovative composer, indeed, who first discovered that his orchestration did not need to consist entirely of instruments from the strings family. I mean, seriously, had composers in the golden years of Hollywood not heard of the flute or the oboe or the trombone? Or were violin manufacturers offering some kind of pay-per-use scheme? It seems almost every score in classic cinema is an oozing mishmash of stringsy drones and sighs. How on earth did people survive before rock and roll?

Pardon the rant. Obviously, I'll need to wear my respectful film connoisseur hat when I watch these movies and accept that there were different standards back then. And I'll never need to compare films from different years anyway, so it matters very little. Still, a little rhythm guitar isn't too much to ask, is it?

Late last night, I watched the first nominated film from 1939...

Wuthering Heights
William Wyler
Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht
(based on the novel by Emily Brontë)
Laurence Olivier, Merle Oberon, David Niven, Flora Robson, Donald Crisp, Geraldine Fitzgerald
Academy Awards:
8 nominations
1 win, for Best Black-and-White Cinematography

Despite the fact that I had studied Emily Brontë's novel in high school, I had never seen any filmed version of Wuthering Heights. Unusual, since I was not opposed to substituting the reading of books with the watching of movies. A mostly successful technique until my graduating year, when the class was assigned Peter Carey's novel Oscar and Lucinda. The Ralph Fiennes/Cate Blanchett film was still a few years from completion... But, I digress.

Wuthering Heights is the tale of Heathcliff, a poor young boy taken in by a wealthy family. He quickly bonds with the daughter of the house, Cathy, and, as they grow up, their friendship blossoms into a deeply passionate love. Heathcliff's love is certainly intense, almost stalker-like, and Cathy is seemingly fickle. He runs away a couple of times. She marries another man. And every time he returns, they seem to just get angry with each other. The story spans a great many years, told almost entirely in flashback, as the housekeeper relates it to a new neighbour.

The one main drawback of this film is that age-old problem that arises when lengthy novels are adapted for the screen. Even leaving aside the fact that the film essentially omits a great portion of the latter stages of the book, it sometimes feels too rushed and simplified, especially the first half. Once Heathcliff returns from America as a wealthy man, we breathe a little, but until that point, we are speeding through the years with great haste. There's not much chance to allow everything to sink in. The love between the two main characters is established rather briefly and so, when they constantly bicker throughout the rest of the film, one can't help but think they'd better off without each other.

The opening scenes are particularly eerie (perhaps enhanced by the fact that I watched this late at night), although I remember the novel containing a lot more ghostly apparitions, a by-product of the abridged script, no doubt. Nonetheless, when Cathy's ghost first cries out, I had the equally eerie Kate Bush song running in my head for the next half an hour.

Another slight deficiency, presumably due to the budget, was that the sweeping moors of the novel were reduced to one small hill, shot from the same angle in each scene. Although the black-and-white cinematography was superb, it definitely could have benefited from panoramic landscapes.

Acting styles have progressed over the years and melodrama has given way to naturalism, but, that said, Wuthering Heights contains a great deal of impressive work from its cast. Merle Oberon is striking as Cathy. David Niven is perfect as Linton, the man Cathy marries. And the great Laurence Olivier delivers a brilliant performance, as well. Although, for a man with a reputation for being one of the greatest actors of all time, he sure does overact a lot. Granted, the script calls for him to slap Cathy twice, immediately wince in remorse, and then pronounce, "It doesn't help to strike you," so I suppose he's not all to blame. The child actors who portray the younger incarnations of the two main characters carry their scenes very well, despite the young Heathcliff having the floppiest fringe I've ever seen. (For my North American readers, a 'fringe' is the Australian equivalent of what you refer to as 'bangs'.)

My favourite line in the film comes when the doctor, after seeing to a sickly Cathy, proclaims to her carers, "Keep her in the sun and give her plenty of cream and butter." If doctors today maintained the curative effect of fatty dairy products, I'd get sick more often.

It also occurred to me how similar Timothy Dalton is to Olivier without realising that the James Bond star had indeed played Heathcliff in a 1971 version of the story. In fact, watching this classic version of the film compels me to view later versions as well in the hope that they might be more thorough. Ralph Fiennes and Juliette Binoche starred in a 1992 version that might be worth a look. But with my current viewing schedule, it may be some time before I get around to that. I'll have to be content with watching Monty Python's semaphore adaptation instead.


  1. Wuthering Heights was one of my mother's favorite films and as such is an important movie to me. It is tragically romantic and starkly atmospheric. It is also as you said Matt, a moody and brooding picture - Not many happy campers in this one.

    The New York Film Critics selected it as their Best Film of the year. It took many ballots and only emerged after Gone With the Wind and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, the early leaders cancelled each other out.

    **SPOILER** The lump-in-your-throat coda with the spirits of Cathy and Heathcliff walking up their lane into the clouds was actually imposed by producer Samuel Goldwin over Director William Wyler's objections. In fact, both actors, Oberon and Olivier, had already left for other projects and stand-ins were used. I thought this tidbit would be interesting, but truth be told, IMDB, with its huge resources has this story and many other comments in its Trivia link on Wuthering Heights page.

  2. Yes, I read about Goldwyn's sly addition, too. It almost takes away from the tragic nature of the whole story. Most resources suggest also that it was in all probability not even close to Brontë's intention for the characters in their after-life.

    Just another example of the studio's interference, I suppose. I suspect that happened more often back then that it does now.