Generally considered the most talented of the famous Bronte family of writers (her sister Charlotte wrote Jane Eyre
), Emily Bronte published Wuthering Heights
in 1847, and it became an immediate success. The story was set in familiar territory for its writer; as children, the Bronte's lived and played on the Yorkshire moors.
The chronology and credits for the inception of the film adaptation of Bronte's novel have been disputed and contradicted by both film scholars and many of the principals involved. Some say the idea for the adaptation came from screenwriters Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, who wrote the script then shopped it around. Others say it was Wyler who hired the two to write an initial draft. Another version has it that the writers were commissioned to do the work by producer Walter Wanger, who had bought the rights to the book as a vehicle for Charles Boyer and Sylvia Sidney.
Before making the Bronte picture, Wanger wanted his stars to make Algiers
(1938). When Sidney refused to play a role she considered secondary to the female lead (Hedy Lamarr) in Algiers
, Wanger sold the rights to the Bronte novel. Sidney always considered it a blatant act of revenge against her.
At one time, it was rumored that Wanger had also considered casting Katharine Hepburn as Cathy.
Wyler reportedly brought the project to the attention of Bette Davis, with whom he had just worked on Jezebel
(1938) at Warner Brothers. Davis tried unsuccessfully to get Jack Warner to buy the script for her, and independent producer Samuel Goldwyn snatched it up as a vehicle for his contract star Merle Oberon, who had reached stardom shuttling between Goldwyn's Hollywood productions and the British films made by her then-husband, producer Alexander Korda. Goldwyn wasn't sure he wanted such a dark, depressing love story, but reportedly jumped at it when he thought Warner and Davis might get it.
Wyler's first choice for the role of Heathcliff was young British actor Laurence Olivier, and he also offered a role in the film to Olivier's sweetheart, Vivien Leigh. Olivier and Leigh were initially interested until it became apparent Goldwyn wanted her not for Cathy but for the secondary female role of Isabella, Heathcliff's unhappy wife. When Leigh refused the part, Wyler told her she was unknown in the States and couldn't expect to jump right into a lead role in a major release. (Leigh's American debut turned out to be Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind
, 1939.) Without Leigh, Olivier declined to do it.
Goldwyn sent Wyler to England to convince Olivier to do the picture. While there, Wyler tested another British actor, Robert Newton, for the role. The director found Newton's dark, craggy looks and brooding manner perfect for Heathcliff, but Goldwyn thought he was too homely to attract audiences.
The producer had also nixed an earlier test of Douglas Fairbanks Jr., who he thought too weak in the part.
Olivier was less than eager to do a Hollywood film, with or without Leigh. His early experiences there had not been good. He was originally cast opposite Greta Garbo in Queen Christina
(1933) and was still bitter over being bumped from the project at the last minute in favor of Garbo's frequent silent-film co-star John Gilbert. He was finally convinced to do Wuthering Heights
by both his lover and a close friend. Leigh told him they couldn't expect to make every picture together. And asked for his opinion, stage actor Ralph Richardson said, "Yes. Bit of fame. Good."
Goldwyn contract player David Niven was assigned to play Edgar Linton, the genteel man Cathy marries, but he thought it was "the most awful part ever written." He had also worked with Wyler on Dodsworth
(1936) and was not eager to work again with a director known for putting his actors through as many as 30-40 takes without ever clearly communicating what he wanted from them. He opted to go on suspension rather than do the picture. Wyler took the actor out for drinks and dinner and convinced him by insisting he had changed as a director and would make Niven "great" in a "great picture."
After settling on fiery, strong-willed Irish actress Geraldine Fitzgerald as Isabella, the girl Heathcliff marries out of spite, the supporting cast was chosen from the growing ranks of the colony of British actors in Hollywood: Leo G. Carroll, Cecil Kellaway, Miles Mander, Cecil Humphreys.
The key role of Ellen, the family servant who narrates the story, was filled by British actress Flora Robson, who had played Queen Elizabeth in the Olivier-Leigh picture Fire Over England
Hecht and MacArthur's screenplay left out the entire second half of Bronte's multi-generational family epic and concentrated only on the romance between Heathcliff and Cathy. They did, however, stick to Bronte's device of having the story told in flashback by Ellen, the servant.
Wyler thought the writers had turned out a beautiful screenplay but felt it was still only in treatment form. He convinced Goldwyn to hire writer John Huston (who had not yet started his directorial career) to do uncredited work on the script.
Goldwyn's marketing department told him they didn't think they could sell the film under its original title. He instructed them to come up with some new ones, which Wyler thought was insane. Their proposed titles - "The Wild Heart," "Dark Laughter," and "Bring Me Back the World" - were all rejected.
by Rob Nixon