Wuthering Heights

"What do they know of heaven or hell, Cathy, who know nothing of life?"

An older, 
brooding Heathcliff

Heathcliff hears Cathy calling

 Olivier, Oberon and Crisp

  UnitedArtists release of a Samuel Goldwyn Production - 1939

CAST: Merle Oberon (Catherine Earnshaw); Laurence Olivier (Heathcliff); David Niven (Edgar Linton); Flora Robson (Ellen Dean); Donald Crisp (Dr. Kenneth); Hugh Williams (Hindley Earnshaw); Geraldine Fitzgerald (Isabella Linton); Leo G. Carroll (Joseph); Cecil Humphreys (Judge Linton); Miles Mander (Mr. Lockwood); Romaine Callender (Robert); Cecil Kellaway (Mr. Earnshaw); Rex Oberon, Olivier, NivenDowning (Heathcliff as a child); Sarita Wooton (Cathy as a child); Douglas Scott (Hindley as a child); Mme. Alice Ehlers(Harpsichordist).


Director: William Wyler; Producer: Samuel Goldwyn; Screenwriters: Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur; Based on the novel by Emily Bronte; Cinematographer: Gregg Toland; Editor: Daniel Mandell; Art Director: James Basevi; Set Decorator. Julie Heron; Costumes. Omar Kiam; Musical Direclor: Alfred Newman; Special Character Makeup: Blagoe Stephanoff; Running Time: 104 minutes.


When, back on the London stage, Olivier received Samuel Goldwyn's offer to play Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights, he consulted his acting colleague Ralph Richardson, who replied cryptically: "Yes, dear boy. Bit of fame. Good."

Goldwyn's earlier plan was to team Olivier romantically with his Divorce of Lady X costar Merle Oberon as Cathy--and the actor's offscreen inamorata Vivien Leigh in the secondary part of Isabella. Olivier knew Vivien would have made a perfect Cathy, while doubting Merle's emotional qualifications for the role. Leigh refused to accept a supporting part in Wuthering Heights, reportedly scoffing at William Wyler's protestation that she’d never get as good a first role in America!

Emily Bronte's melodramatic tale of tragic love, jealousy and revenge was first published in 1837 under the nom de plume of Ellis Bell, to hide the fact that the author was a woman. It was her only novel, this wildly imaginative story of conflicting passions on the wild and stormy moors of her native Yorkshire. Its focus is on the moody and unrefined gypsy youth known only as "Heathcliff” who, through his unfulfilled love for the well-born and self-centered Cathy Earnshaw, is driven to extremes of vindictiveness, ending in either death or tragedy for everyone involved.

A number of other versions of Bronte's book have reached the screen -- a 1920 silent British adaptation with Milton Rosmer and Colette Brettel; Luis Bunuel's 1953 Mexican translation, Abismos de Pasion, with Jorge Mistral and Irasema Dilian; a 1970 British remake, realistically filmed in Yorkshire with Tirnothy Dalton and Anna Calder-Marshall; a French adaptation in 1985, and a Japanese one three years later. (At this writing, a new British remake is in production for 1992 release.) But the only lasting classic has proved to be Goldwyn's haunting, California-made, 1939 production, sensitively directed by the demanding William Wyler and artfully photographed in black-and-white by Gregg Toland. Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur confined their simplified adaptation of Bronte's complex plot to only the novel's initial half, while retaining much of its original dialogue.

In a vintage year for Hollywood movies, Wuthering Heights held its own among intense competition, even surpassing Gone With the Wind to win the New York Film Critics' Award as 1939's Best Picture. And though it only took home one Academy Award--for Toland's atmospheric photography--there were Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Screenplay, Director Wyler, Supporting Actress Geraldine Fitzgerald (in the role Vivien Leigh rejected), Alfred Newman's score--and, in the first of his Best Actor nominations Laurence Olivier (who had been cast only after fellow British actor Robert Newton had tested unsuccessfully).

Although generally popular with both critics and audiences, Wuthering Heights was not a financial success until after its eventual reissue. Nevertheless, it remained Goldwyn's favorite among all of his own productions.



"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 William Wyler. Wyler was a marvelous sneerer, debunker; and he brought me down. I knew nothing of film acting or that I had to learn its technique; it took a long time and several unhandsome degrees of the torture of his sarcasm before I realized it. "


It is Goldwyn at his best and, better still, Emily Bronte at hers. Out of her strange tale of a tortured romance, Mr. Goidwyn and his troupe have fashioned a strong and somber film, poetically written as the novel not always was, sinister and wild as it was meant to be, far more compact dramatically than Miss Bronte had made it. And it has been brilliantly played. Laurence Olivier's Heathcliff is the man. He has Heathcliff’s broad lowering brow, his scowl, the churlishness, the wild tenderness, the bearing, speech and manner of the demon-possessed.

Merle Oberon has matched the brilliance of his characterization with hers. William Wyler has directed it magnificently. It is, unquestionably, one of the most distinguished pictures of the year.” -- Frank Nugent in The New York Times.

All the above (pictures [save the poster] and text) is from The Complete Films of Laurence Olivier by Jerry Vermilye

Merle Oberon

Heathcliff and Cathy

'This actor is the ugliest actor in pictures. This actor will ruin me.' One's wildest imagination could not lead one to believe that these words were directed at Laurence Olivier. But they were. This used to be the highlight of one of Larry's favourite Hollywood stories.

During the early days of the shooting of Wuchering Heights Larry had unnecessarily acquired athlete's foot. We were shooting the film in sequence, and had filmed three days with Larry as the stable boy in our initial Scenes. Sam Goldwyn strode on to our set on this particular day, and called cast and crew around him. Larry was on crutches because of the athletes foot, and it took him somewhat longer to gather around than most. As Larry put it, he made a splendid picture of " the Show must go on" - the brave actor coming to work despite discomfort and crutches.

The attention he expected was at least for his courage. Instead Sam, with a face puce with fury, and pointing an accusing finger at Larry, cried out in a voice that doubtedly carried to Sunset Boulevard, “Thees ector es the ogliest ector in pictures, thees ector will ruin me.”

Larry's mimicry of Sam's voice and manner were hilarious. What had caused this panic in the hierarchy was Larry's make-up, and appearance in general. He had insisted on looking like an authentic and very grubby stable boy. Coming from the Old Vic, where he had an enormous success, he didn't agree that he should tone down his make-up and performance for the magnifying screen. He was finally convinced by seeing the rushes of the first few days. It is really interesting to look back and realize we were witnessing a great actor adapting his art from stage to screen, even though we all suffered a bit from the growing pains.

I was essentially a screen actress, and though only twenty-two at the time was treated like an old shoe. I don't believe William Wyler, the director, looked at me too much; though I do remember he did make a suggestion in the death scene. I had to cry with happiness at seeing Heathcliff, combined with a sense of frustration at knowing I was leaving him. After the first take Willie said: 'A little more [tears] in the left eye." I occasionally still tease Willie about this, and we have a good giggle. But: the results of Larry's performance are now notable in the prouder annals of the history of motion pictures. The film itself (in spite of the old shoe) is in the archives of the Library of Congress of the United States Government.

But Wuthering Heights was not an easy film to make. We had our troubles. I caught a cold that threatened to develop into pneumonia, so in the scenes where Cathy has to search for Heathcliff in the rain, Cathy was forced to wear what skindivers call a wet-suit under her silk dress, the rain had to be warmed, and Alice, my stand-in, had to bear most of the storm.

Another point (for which we still get criticized - especially by the British) was the height of the heather. Our excellent set designers had built an extraordinarily convincing Yorkshire landscape in Chatsworth, a suburb of Los Angeles. We were due to film the love scene in the heather on a Thursday. While running down the hill I sprained my ankle, so the scene was postponed until the following Monday. The heather, already the height of Yorkshire heather, had been planted on Wednesday for shooting Thursday. On Monday, when we arrived to do the scene, you could hardly see me for the heather. No one had reckoned on the power of the California sunshine. Larry and I ran through what looked like extremely healthy wheat. People still say - in the middle of telling me how much they liked the film - 'But how come they didn't know that heather doesn't grow that high?'

Picture from The Complete Films of Laurence Olivier, text: Merle Oberon -- from OLIVIER - Ed. Logan

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