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...
Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht
(based on the novel by Emily Brontë)
Laurence Olivier, Merle Oberon, David Niven, Flora Robson, Donald Crisp, Geraldine Fitzgerald
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.