William Wyler’s Wuthering Heights (’39)

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Following the success of Dead End (written about here) in 1937, director William Wyler headed over to Warner Bros. to direct Jezebel (1938), a romantic drama set in the antebellum South, starring Bette Davis and Henry Fonda. The film was a critical and commercial success, and earned Davis her second Academy Award for Best Actress. Jezebel marked the first time that Wyler had tackled a period drama; one that is often held up against the more popular Gone with the Wind (1939), with many considering Jezebel the superior film—myself included. Thanks to Jezebel, Wyler proved that he could hold his own as a director outside the control of producer Samuel Goldwyn.

Immediately after Jezebel, Wyler returned to work with Samuel Goldwyn, as he was still under contract with the producer. For their next project, Wyler and Goldwyn began production on a film adaptation of Emily Brontë’s novel Wuthering Heights. For the leading role of Cathy, Goldwyn insisted upon Merle Oberon, one of his star contract players. This film was the second and final collaboration between Wyler and Oberon (the first being 1936’s These Three, written about here). For the role of Heathcliff, Goldwyn wanted Laurence Olivier, who had made a handful of films in Britain and was known predominately for his work on the stage. Initially, Olivier refused Goldwyn’s offer as he did not want to be away from his partner Vivien Leigh (who was in England), unless she was cast as Cathy. Goldwyn refused, and instead offered Leigh the role of Isabella—a considerably smaller role. Leigh passed on the offer, and was eventually cast as Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind. Since Leigh would be in Hollywood working on the epic Civil War drama for the foreseeable future, Olivier finally agreed to star in Goldwyn’s Wuthering Heights (1939).

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The production of Wuthering Heights was a difficult one. Much like their earlier collaborations, Wyler and Goldwyn were constantly arguing—mainly over creative differences. While this strained relationship was nothing new for the filmmaker and producer, by the time Wuthering Heights was entering production, Wyler had earned a solid reputation and had more leverage in his constant negotiations with Goldwyn. This was due, in part, to Wyler demonstrating his skills as a director independent of Goldwyn with Jezebel. As a result, Wyler was successful in many of their debates. But, it wasn’t just Wyler and Goldwyn who were in constant disagreement. The film’s stars, Merle Oberon and Laurence Olivier, weren’t exactly the best of friends. Aside from contrasting personalities, the added strain of the difficult shoot, along with their vastly different approaches to acting (Olivier’s being deeply rooted in the theatre, while Oberon’s strictly for the screen), made the production at times unbearable. Complicating matters for the film’s cast was Wyler’s demands for retakes. Offering little or no explanation, Wyler would have his actors film the same scene countless times, causing frustration, and ultimately tiring them out. This unusual technique became one of Wyler’s signature traits. And while not necessarily pleasant for his actors, what ultimately made it into the final cut always proved to be the best performance. At the time of filming, Laurence Olivier was very unhappy with Wyler’s directorial style, believing his tactics to be completely unnecessary and a waste of time. But after seeing the finished product, Olivier was quite pleased with his performance and understood Wyler’s motivations, later crediting the director with helping him transition from stage actor to movie star. Olivier and Wyler collaborated once more, on the 1952 film Carrie, also starring Jennifer Jones.

In a year filled with some of Hollywood’s greatest films, Wuthering Heights was a huge success. The film was nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (for Olivier) and Best Supporting Actress (for Geraldine Fitzgerald), winning only for Gregg Toland’s black and white cinematography. While not entirely faithful to Emily Brontë’s novel, the heartbreaking, romantic story between Cathy and Heathcliff, set against the ethereal, haunting landscape surrounding the estate of Wuthering Heights is quite remarkable. We never really see much of a physical romance between Cathy and Heathcliff, and yet, we are entirely convinced of their passionate, eternal love for one another—even when hatred and revenge threaten to tear them apart. This is definitely a credit to Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon’s acting, and Wyler’s fierce direction.

But what makes Wuthering Heights such a beautiful film are Wyler’s creative choices with the camera. Working again with Gregg Toland, Wyler pushed the boundaries of filmmaking by stretching the restrictive limits of what the cameras were capable of capturing on film. In the hands of another director, Wuthering Heights could’ve easily been just another forgettable, bloated costume drama. Wyler takes a simple story and creates an almost mystical world that feels both familiar and strange. This constantly-evolving, groundbreaking style kept Wyler interested in filmmaking, with every film project an exciting new challenge for him, and an inspiration for others.

Jill Blake

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2 Responses William Wyler’s Wuthering Heights (’39)
Posted By Doug : October 22, 2017 9:56 am

Perhaps Goldwyn believed that antagonism/conflict with others was the best way to get the best out of them. He wouldn’t be the first or last to use such a tactic. If they get comfortable, they get complacent and don’t work as hard.
Along that same line, I’m pleased that Oberon and Olivier didn’t get along. I imagine that spurred them on to becoming the “Best” Cathy and the “Best” Heathcliff possible. I notice in the two photographs that they do not look at each other.
We all have our favorite genres; mine is romantic comedy-
Wyler’s “Roman Holiday” is one of my favorite favorites.

Posted By swac44 : October 28, 2017 5:58 pm

Definitely near the top of my list of films crying out for a blu-ray release.

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