Posted by Susan Doll on April 3, 2017
Currently available on FilmStruck for your streaming pleasure is “The Brontë Sisters,” a modest selection of titles related to the works of England’s beloved novelists of the Romantic era. Included in the series are the classic-film versions of Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights (1939) and Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre (1944). While both feature Golden Age stars that mesmerize with magnetism and captivate with charisma, does one film have the edge in capturing the ill-fated relationships and melancholy atmosphere of Gothic Romance?
As written by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, and directed by William Wyler, the film version of Wuthering Heights emphasizes the doomed romance in Brontë’s story, which was essentially a revenge tale. The orphaned Heathcliff grows up with his adopted family on the moors of Yorkshire alongside manor-born Cathy. The two are inseparable until adulthood when Heathcliff’s lowly station as the stable boy interferes with their bond. He runs off to distant places, where he earns a fortune and becomes a gentleman. In the meantime, Cathy has married Edgar Linton. When Heathcliff returns, he woos and marries Linton’s sister out of revenge. The story is told in flashback by the housekeeper to a neighbor, as a violent snowstorm rages and a ghostly presence lingers.
Like Wuthering Heights, the film version of Jane Eyre offers doomed romance, a brooding leading man, class prejudice, cruelty to children and the gloomy British countryside, sweetening the heady mix with a dose of madness. Mistreated and abused, little Jane Eyre is sent to a boarding school run by a sadistic headmaster. When she reaches adulthood, she becomes governess to the ward of Edward Rochester, who, for my money, out-broods the brooding Heathcliff. Rochester falls for the plain but intelligent Jane and proposes marriage. But poor Jane can never catch a break, and she discovers that the creepy noises upstairs at Thornfield Hall are the jealous ravings of Mrs. Rochester, who may be insane but is still married to Edward. Though Jane Eyre does not have the foggy moors and dramatic weather of Wuthering Heights, it compensates with a hellacious fire.
Wuthering Heights boasts Laurence Olivier as Heathcliff, who not only broods but smolders. Olivier was returning to Hollywood after a disastrous attempt to conquer the movies earlier in the decade. Eager to create a memorable impression, the drop-dead handsome Olivier worked to make the character dark and dangerous. Apparently, he was very difficult to work with for the cast and crew. Coming directly off his stage experience, he tended to overplay his character, and he was too arrogant to take direction from William Wyler until producer Samuel Goldwyn set him straight. He was also rude to costar Merle Oberon, because he had wanted future wife Vivien Leigh in the role of Cathy, according to some biographers. Whatever trouble he created behind the scenes, it enhanced the tension that existed between Heathcliff and the other characters, particularly Oberon as Cathy. Oberon generally played glamorous, slightly exotic roles, but Cathy was arguably her best performance, particularly when her character was young, feisty and unruly. The cast also included a young David Niven as Linton and Geraldine Fitzgerald as his sister. Thankfully, producer Goldwyn was advised against his desire to change the title, which he didn’t understand, often referring to it as “Withering Heights.” His rejected suggestions of Bring Me the World or The Wild Heart definitely did not have the Romantic ring of the original.
I prefer Oberon to Joan Fontaine, who plays the title character in Jane Eyre. Fontaine had mastered the art of the angelic expression, which, with the quiver of the mouth and a furrow of the brow, could turn into a look of anxiety and fear. Though I have never liked her bird with the broken wing persona, it is used to its best advantage in Jane Eyre. Her quiet, humble demeanor is the perfect contrast to the larger-than-life Orson Welles as Edward Rochester. I don’t think Welles was ever more attractive than he was as Rochester, a man that continues to pay for a mistake he made long ago. Fontaine and Welles have a surprising chemistry, even as their characters restrict themselves to the confines of their social class, which is more appealing than the tension-driven attraction between Heathcliff and Cathy. The supporting cast includes several young actresses at the beginning of their stardom. Elizabeth Taylor is luminous as Jane’s childhood friend Helen, while Peggy Ann Garner plays Jane as a child and Margaret O’Brien is Rochester’s ward Adele.
Robert Stevenson directed Jane Eyre, but I can’t help but wonder if Orson Welles influenced the director, particularly in regard to performances and interpretation of the characters. The screenplay is credited to Stevenson, Aldous Huxley and John Houseman, who was Welles’s producer and partner. Given Houseman and Welles’s talents for interpreting the classics, I think it is surely possible.
Characters who smolder with pent-up passions, while storms brew and disasters rage, are essential to Gothic Romance no matter the medium. However, in cinematic interpretations, it is the visual design and cinematography that recreate the heavy atmosphere of that hangs over the plot. It is significant that Gregg Toland was the director of photography on Wuthering Heights while George Barnes was the d.p. on Jane Eyre. Toland, who later teamed with Welles on Citizen Kane (1941), is best remembered for the development of deep focus photography, but in Wuthering Heights, it is his depiction of nature that reflects Romanticism. The gray, stormy clouds in the enormous sky suggests the “sublime” in nature, which refers to the idea that nature is both beautiful and treacherous—one of the characteristics of Romantic painters like Casper David Friedrich. Toland had apprenticed under Barnes, who specialized in a kind of soft-edged, low-key lighting to heighten suspense or drama. He was a master at using reflective surfaces and large windows with billowing curtains to create patterns of light and dark within the frame. If you recall Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940), you will know what I mean. The low-key lighting of the boarding school in Jane Eyre casts a gray, gloomy pall over the place and its tortured inhabitants, while the deeper shadows in the interior of Thornfield as well as on Rochester’s face tell us that he is hiding something.
Both Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre feature the requisite characteristics of Gothic Romance, offer terrific movie stars in dramatic performances, and boast creative teams that did the original novels justice. But, for me, I will choose Jane Eyre the next time I feel the urge to experience “Romance” with a capital “R.” What about you?
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