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Wuthering Heights

Wuthering Heights(1939)

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teaser Wuthering Heights (1939)

Wuthering Heights went before the cameras in early December 1938 in the hills of the San Fernando Valley about 50 miles north of Los Angeles. The production was not an easy one, and all the way through shooting what he would later say was his favorite among all the films he made, Goldwyn constantly referred to it as "a doubtful picture."

Goldwyn sent a film crew to northern England for images of the Yorkshire moors to help the designers recreate the story's setting.

About 500 acres of the hills were stripped of their natural vegetation, and 15,000 pieces of tumbleweed were brought in and topped with purple-painted sawdust to resemble heather.

About 1,000 genuine heather plants were brought in for close-ups. In the southern California sunshine, the plants grew much taller than they ever would on the moors.

The time-setting of the novel, the early 19th century, was updated to about 1841 because Goldwyn and his designers thought the later period's off-the shoulder gowns would showcase Oberon and the other female stars to greater effect.

Animal lovers were incensed when they read in a press release that to keep the barnyard noises from overwhelming the soundtrack, the animal trainer had snipped the vocal cords of the ducks and geese on the set.

Olivier dove into the role armed with the techniques he had perfected playing Hamlet on stage in 1937. Given a collection of essays on psychoanalysis by the play's director, Tyrone Guthrie, Olivier developed a staccato rhythm in his lines based on his Freudian conception of the melancholy Dane. Using that as a basis for Heathcliff, he eschewed the stock-in-trade doomed lover and sought to make something more smoldering and dangerous of the part.

Olivier also came to the set armed with what he later admitted was an abominable pomposity and conceit. Already lionized for his performances on the British stage, the young actor thought he knew everything about acting. Working with Wyler soon beat that arrogance out of him.

Olivier's first on-set confrontation occurred in a dispute with co-star Merle Oberon. Although they had worked together happily on The Divorce of Lady X (1938), Olivier now resented that Oberon had the role he felt should have gone to Vivien Leigh. In one particularly passionate scene, Oberon became upset that Olivier kept letting spit fly from his mouth and land on her. "Why you amateur little bitch," Olivier responded. "What's a little spit for Chrissake between actors? You bloody little idiot, how dare you speak to me?" Oberon stormed off the set in tears, and Wyler forced Olivier to apologize.

Olivier later admitted his first takes were full of overacting and "extravagant gestures." Wyler stopped him: "Do you think you're at the Opera House in Manchester?" Olivier answered with all his disdain for films: "I suppose this anemic little medium can't take great acting." He was humbled when the entire cast and crew, including Wyler, burst out laughing.

Suffering from a debilitating foot ailment, Olivier was often in pain and hobbled around on crutches between takes. Thinking he would get Goldwyn on his side against Wyler, he played up the crippled act until one day Goldwyn called him over and put his arm around him. Much to his surprise, Goldwyn yelled out in front of everyone, "Will you look at his ugly face? He's dirty! His performance is rotten! It's stagy! It's just nothing! Not real for a minute. I won't have it, and if he doesn't improve, I'm gonna close up the picture." The incident had actually been cooked up by producer and director so Wyler could defend Olivier and gain his trust.

Wyler finally pulled Olivier aside one day and explained his great reverence for the possibilities of film art. It changed Olivier's outlook considerably. "If any film actor is having trouble with his career, can't master the medium and, anyway, wonders whether it's worth it, let him pray to meet a man like Wyler," Olivier later said.

"It is really interesting to look back and realize we were witnessing a great actor adapt his art from stage to screen, even though we all suffered a bit from the growing pains," Oberon said later

Olivier wasn't the only source of problems, however. All the actors, particularly Olivier and David Niven, were incensed by Wyler's propensity for numerous takes. Niven quickly found that despite Wyler's earlier assurances to the contrary, the director had not changed at all. He demanded at least 40 takes for Niven's first scene in the film!

Niven recalled that after doing a scene repeatedly, Olivier shouted at Wyler, "I've done it differently 30 times! What the hell do you want me to do?" After thinking silently for several minutes, Wyler finally said, "Juste better."

In one scene, Wyler insisted Niven break down. When Niven told him his contract said he would never have to cry on camera, Wyler didn't believe him. Niven got the contract the "no crying" clause was in there.

More than once, Oberon was reduced to tears by Wyler's methods. When Cathy had to run out onto the moors in a fierce storm to stop Heathcliff from leaving, Wyler ordered the actress over and over into propeller-driven winds and rain. After many takes, she began to choke and vomit. She ran a fever and had to be confined to a hospital bed, costing the production thousands of dollars. She refused to do the scene again until Goldwyn rigged heaters to warm the driving rain.

Wyler and Goldwyn were also constantly at each other's throats; in fact, Wyler had nightmares about his producer while Goldwyn insisted the director was "trying to kill me." Goldwyn accused Wyler of overshooting and overdirecting. He was especially incensed at the number of camera angles the director used to film even the simplest scenes. Wyler kept trying to assure him that it would all be pieced together eventually. That task was handled by film editor Daniel Mandell, who did such a superb job of capturing the emotional intensity of the film by selectively splicing the best takes together. Wyler insisted, "I'm sure [Mandell] saved my job."

Wyler and Goldwyn also clashed over Oberon's deathbed scene. Because of the somber sadness of it, Goldwyn wanted her to be beautifully gowned and shown in glamorous close-ups. Wyler thought that was ridiculous and kept her in less glamorous long shots as much as possible. When he saw the finished product, Goldwyn told Oberon it was the finest work she had ever done in pictures.

One battle Wyler lost concerned the ending. Goldwyn wanted something more hopeful, romantic, even oddly upbeat. Wyler refused. So after principal photography was completed, Goldwyn hired another director to shoot the final scene that was used in the film's release two actors (not Olivier and Oberon) shot from behind to depict the ghosts of Heathcliff and Cathy walking off, arm-in-arm to heaven.

The one happy relationship on the set was between Wyler and cinematographer Gregg Toland. The two had worked together successfully on three prior pictures (and would collaborate on three more after this). They had great respect for each other and were perfectly in synch with their ideas of lyrical, fluid camera movements, long takes, and deep-focus photography that would reveal backgrounds as clearly as characters and images close to the camera.

Toland rejected the typical Hollywood soft-focus, one-plane depth and strove for razor-sharp black-and-white images. To achieve the maximum contrast between shadow and light on this film, he used high-powered Technicolor arc lamps and a film stock four times faster than customary without an appreciable increase in graininess. He achieved the mood Wyler wanted for the picture by using candle-like effects, keeping the characters partially in darkness before coming fully into the light at climactic moments, and shooting from a low angle to capture the ceilings of the sets, emphasizing the confining loneliness of Wuthering Heights.

Wuthering Heights came in 13 days over schedule and more than $100,000 over budget.

by Rob Nixon

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teaser Wuthering Heights (1939)

Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte's classic novel of doomed love between the brooding gypsy Heathcliff and the passionate, headstrong Cathy has been filmed many times. There was a Spanish-language version by Luis Bunuel, an Egyptian production in Arabic, and numerous television adaptations. But the definitive version is the one directed by William Wyler, and produced by Samuel Goldwyn.

Wuthering Heights (1939) followed a circuitous path to the screen. Some sources say that Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur adapted the novel on speculation, and took it to producer Walter Wanger. Others say that it was commissioned by Wanger, who planned it for Sylvia Sidney and Charles Boyer. That project fell through, and Wanger then offered to sell the script to Sam Goldwyn. William Wyler, Goldwyn's star director, loved the adaptation and urged his boss to buy it. Wyler had Bette Davis, with whom he'd worked on Jezebel (1938), in mind for Cathy. Goldwyn had another suggestion: Merle Oberon, whom he had under contract.

Goldwyn's first choice for Heathcliff was Ronald Colman, whom most people felt was wrong for the part and was unavailable anyway. Oberon suggested Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., who tested badly. English actor Robert Newton also tested, but Goldwyn thought he was "ugly." Someone brought Laurence Olivier to Goldwyn's attention, and he dispatched Wyler to England to look at the actor. Olivier hesitated; he'd failed miserably in Hollywood a few years earlier, and had been fired as Garbo's leading man in Queen Christina (1933). Olivier was now a star of the British stage, and convinced that was where he belonged. He was also involved in an intense affair with Vivien Leigh, and didn't want to be separated from her. Wyler offered Leigh the secondary role of Isabella in Wuthering Heights, but she wanted to play Cathy, or nothing. Finally, it was Leigh who convinced Olivier that he couldn't pass up the opportunity, and he agreed to play Heathcliff. Months later, during a trip to the U.S. to see Olivier, Leigh was introduced to producer David O. Selznick and signed to play Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind (1939).

Filming on Wuthering Heights began in December, 1938. The hills of the San Fernando Valley north of Los Angeles stood in for the Yorkshire moors. 500 acres were covered with tumbleweed topped with purple sawdust to simulate heather. A thousand real heather plants were imported from England for close-ups. During shooting on the fake moors, Merle Oberon slipped and sprained her ankle, and shooting was suspended for a week. During that time, the heather grew so tall in the California sunshine that it no longer looked like the real thing.

Goldwyn contract player David Niven was assigned to play Edgar Linton. His previous experience with Wyler - who was known for tormenting actors and insisting on dozens of takes - had been miserable. Furthermore, Edgar was a thankless role. Niven decided to go on suspension rather than do it, but Wyler took him to dinner and assured him he'd mellowed. Niven reluctantly agreed...and lived to regret it. Wyler made his life hell during production but the actor delivered a moving performance as the hapless Edgar.

Olivier also suffered under Wyler's direction. After being forced to do a scene over and over, Olivier exploded. "I've done it thirty different times, thirty different ways," he shouted. "How do you want me to do it?" "Better," Wyler replied. Furious, Olivier sneered, "I suppose this anemic little medium can't take great acting." The guffaws of the crew were humiliation enough, and eventually Olivier realized he had something to learn about film acting, and that Wyler was the one to teach him. He would later express his gratitude to the director, and even asked Wyler to direct him in Henry V (1944). Wyler was unavailable, but they would work together again on Carrie (1952).

Olivier found another target for his frustration and contempt in Merle Oberon, whom he resented for playing the role he thought Vivien Leigh should have won. At one point, Oberon accused Olivier of spitting on her during a love scene, and he called her an "amateur," and a "bloody idiot." Amazingly, none of this hostility is apparent onscreen.

Wyler was having his own shouting matches with Sam Goldwyn. The producer wanted Wuthering Heights (which, in his typically malaprop way, he called "Withering Heights") to be a showcase for Merle Oberon, and insisted on full makeup and glamorous close-ups, even in her death scene. Wyler convinced Goldwyn that "when beautiful movie stars allow themselves to look terrible, people think they're really acting." On one point, however, Goldwyn was adamant. He insisted on some semblance of a "happy" ending by having the ghosts of Heathcliff and Cathy walking off into the clouds. Wyler refused to shoot that ending, and Goldwyn brought in another director and doubles for Olivier and Oberon to do it. But Goldwyn did back down on his request to retitle the film, after Wyler convinced him that they would be ridiculed for changing the title of a well-known classic.

The New York Film Critics selected Wuthering Heights as the year's best film, and it was nominated for eight Academy Awards, including best picture and best director. But Gone With the Wind swept the awards. Wuthering Heights won only one Oscar®, for Gregg Toland's moody, atmospheric cinematography. In spite of generally favorable reviews, however, Wuthering Heights was not a popular movie, perhaps because it was so downbeat, or because it had been considered a "difficult" novel even for readers with an acquired literary taste. But Wyler's movie was certainly an artistic success, and over the years, it's become recognized as one of the screen's great love stories. And for producer Sam Goldwyn, Wuthering Heights was his favorite film and proudest achievement.

Director: William Wyler
Producer: Samuel Goldwyn
Screenplay: Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, from the novel by Emily Bronte
Editor: Daniel Mandell
Cinematography: Gregg Toland
Costume Design: Omar Kiam
Art Direction: James Basevi
Music: Alfred Newman
Cast: Merle Oberon (Cathy Linton), Laurence Olivier (Heathcliff), David Niven (Edgar Linton), Donald Crisp (Dr. Kenneth), Flora Robson (Ellen Dean), Hugh Williams (Hindley Earnshaw), Geraldine Fitzgerald (Isabella Linton).
BW-104m. Closed captioning.

by Margarita Landazuri

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