By Marc S. Sanders
1939 is a pioneering year for film with timeless classics like Gone With The Wind, Stagecoach, and The Wizard Of Oz making their debuts on the silver screen. Arguably, it is one of best years ever for cinema. Finally, I was able to see another sampling from this period, William Wyler’s adaptation of Emily Brontë’s novel, Wuthering Heights.
Laurence Olivier portrays Heathcliff, a wandering “gypsy boy” welcomed into the home where the story derives its title from. Over time, he develops animosity from Henry, the son of the landowner, while building a an affectionate relationship with the daughter, Cathy (Merle Oberon). Heathcliff and Cathy fantasize of royal, romanticized adventures along the neighboring rock side. Following a sneak away moment to observe a social gathering dance on a nearby estate, Cathy is tended to and welcomed by Edgar (David Niven), and eventually marrying him, much to Heathcliff’s dismay. From there, moments of melodrama, that likely served as a precursor for modern day soap operas, occurs.
Wuthering Heights caught my attention from the moment it began because I thought I was about to journey through a servant’s ghost story retelling of what became of the lovers never meant to end up together. A stranger wanders on to the property in the midst of a fierce snowstorm and swears he heard a woman’s voice outside and witnessed two shadows. Was this written by Brontë or Poe? Then the tale plays out.
Olivier is the most impressive of the cast, naturally. He’s very striking and handsome. While watching with friends, we all agreed that he might have made a good James Bond or Bond villain. Whether he’s the poor, oppressed Heathcliff or the later, wealthier property owner, Olivier offers a commanding presence that you can’t ignore.
The story doesn’t wow me as much as the the set design and camera work for 1939. Edgar’s grand ball room and foyer are a sight in wide measure with gorgeous, prominence ranging from large bookshelves and furnishings to a functioning fireplace. Was this a real home that Wyler’s camera moved through, or just a Hollywood set?
It was good to catch up with a classic. I’ll likely not watch on repeat, but Wuthering Heights is a treasured story in literature and film. I’m appreciative of the experience.