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1939: Hollywood's Golden Year
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Wuthering Heights (1939)

Friday July, 26 2019 at 10:30 PM

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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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