It’s almost instantly reasonable to clump this cinematic adaptation of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights with other contemporary pictures swirling with gothic menace like Rebecca, Suspicion, and Jane Eyre. The latter film, of course, is based off the novel of another of the Bronte Sisters, Charlotte.
We might be able to give it some credit as the first of the lot while it also somehow managed to be one of the most high profile pictures in a year that has been lauded for the spectacular nature of its output. Its true 1939 was a staggering year for Hollywood. The list is too extensive even to begin attempting.
William Wyler was continuing his string of successes throughout the 1930s before WWII, and Wuthering Heights, in particular, would see the formation of a fruitful partnership with Gregg Toland, the cinematographer renowned for his perfecting of deep-focus photography. It was used in this picture and most prominently in Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, and then again in The Best Years of Our Lives, also with Wyler.
The story itself streamlined and truncated from the original work begins with the dark mood of the eponymous estate roosted over by a brooding man named Heathcliff and his gaunt wife, frail old housekeeper, and his hounds. But we are provided a flashback to happier times evoking childhood and the glories of the Yorkshire Moors covered by vast expanses of heather (actually imported from England to California).
How it diverges from the tales of Dickens or even Charlotte Bronte’s work is by offering a portrait of elders who are not nearly puritanical but actually show a pretense of actual Christian charity. What is there is a warmth girded around them and a hospitality and prodigal nature toward the less fortunate.
Mr. Earnshaw is a model of such a man as he brings a besmirched orphaned youth from his travels on London back to his estate and he adopts him as his own son. As long as the man lives young Heathcliff finds great joy in life treated as a full member of the family. Out of his childhood blooms his lifelong affection for his adopted sister Catherine. Their friendship grows out of horseback riding and wishful dreaming of castles and knights on the rolling plains of their homeland. They could not be more contented.
Ironically, behind the scenes, we have two talents in Merle Oberon and Laurence Olivier who could not have been more antagonistic. Though young, Oberon was a fairly established actress in Hollywood, admired for her exquisite beauty. Laurence Olivier was just coming into his own as a film actor. His presence and dashing looks are irrefutable, though he had only recently dabbled in the medium following his already illustrious career on the stage.
Their projections are all but believable and ultimately rapturous even if the illusion is somewhat broken by the realization that the two actors abhorred each other off-camera. Part of the resentment might stem from the fact Olivier’s lover and soon-to-be wife Vivien Leigh had been passed over the leading role. But we must fall back to the story.
Mr. Earnshaw’s own son Hindley (Hugh Williams) vindictively maintains a grudge against Heathcliff that began the first day he ever set eyes on the other lad. He was never going to be anything but a stable boy.
Inevitably comes the day when Mr. Earnshaw passes on and the warmth once bathing his dominion is so quickly scrubbed away by the younger Earnshaw. He pushes Heathcliff out of the house to take care of the horses and treats him as he always has, as a mere pair of dirty stable hands, Meanwhile, the conceited rival becomes crippled by alcoholism and gambling debts.
Though they have confessed their undying love, the fact that Heathcliff can never achieve any amount of success to fund their childhood fancies, Catherine grows up impatient and bitter. Impatient to find a man who can make her happy by means of the world. Heathcliff now scorned seemingly leaves for good and she finds such an affluent suitor in Edgar Linton, David Niven with another thankless part, doting over her good-naturedly.
What ultimately arises in the final act is a vindictive battle of raging jealousies and contorted love affairs. Heathcliff begins to court the sympathetic younger sister Isabelle Linton (Geraldine Fitzgerald) which immediately receives the ire of not only her older brother but Cathy as well. She and her future sister-in-law have at it and yet soon Cathy is taken by illness because though she’s too proud to admit it, truthfully she still desires Heathcliff.
The most piercing love stories are those that are unrequited or worst yet lost out on based on the passage of time and changing circumstances. Where regrets and misfortunes pool up in such a way crippling what could have been so joyous. It speaks to a human desire for abiding, even eternal, romantic contentment. Heathcliff rashly prays to be haunted by her — for the ghost of her to torment him — because he cannot live without his soul. That is, Cathy.
What’s more, he is all but granted the wish that never seemed attainable in life, provided by a near transfiguration of the ethereal and the eternal. It’s a deeply powerful and moving apotheosis but upon closer observation, it also bears the responsibility in creating myths around romantic love. Because even in this modern age inundated by themes and testimonies of passion we cling to the idea that love is an eternal force when evoked and instigated between two people.
However, it’s only a half-truth because even as we look at the narrative of Wuthering Heights the messiness and the heartbreak that’s found all the way throughout the story, such final departures do not fit the origins of the story. They cannot line up in the real world either and it is true this is a picture that relies on the outskirts of the imagination and the hinterlands existing on the edges of the moors and the frames of the film itself. This is where love is able to survive in this almost unknowable, illusory world where it is not bounded by the ephemeral things we know to be true.
Reminiscent of some of Frank Borzage’s most enthralling romances, love is spiritual — a religion all to itself — ably transcending the throes of death. That’s the sentiment anyway, observed most curiously by the maid Ellen (Flora Robson) as, “Trying to tear away the veil between death and life.”
Because with Wuthering Heights, were it to maintain a real-world authenticity to the end of its days, we would rue the day we ever saw it and be bitter and downtrodden for the tragedy we had just witnessed. Life and film cannot always be interchangeable. As long as we understand this, there’s a good chance we can avoid being damaged by such fallacies on the other side of the written page and the celluloid screen.