Wuthering Heights (1939)

Since I watched Dil Diya Dard Liya (the Hindi adaptation of Wuthering Heights), I decided it was about time I watched the 1939 film version of the book, too. I’ve seen several English-language adaptations of Emily Brontë’s dark classic (including some TV series), but had never got around to watching this one, which won an Oscar (Gregg Toland, for Best Cinematography, black and white) and received several Oscar nominations, including Best Actor (Laurence Olivier) and Best Supporting Actress (Geraldine Fitzgerald).

I won’t go into a blow-by-blow account of the story, since it’s fairly simple. Wuthering Heights is the name of a country house, dreary and dark, high up in the equally dreary moors. On a cold, stormy night, a man lost on the moors comes here for shelter and is given a cold welcome (in fact, a rather unwelcome welcome) by the master of Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff (Laurence Olivier). He very reluctantly allows the unexpected guest to sleep in one of the dusty guest rooms upstairs…

… an experience which proves unsettling for the guest, who sees a ghostly female figure outside the window. When he tells Heathcliff about this, a maddened Heathcliff goes racing to the window, and finally racing out of the house and out onto the moors.

While he’s gone, the puzzled guest urges the housekeeper, Ellen Dean (the inimitable Flora Robson) to tell him what that was all about. The story she recounts is what this film is all about: about how, years ago, the widowed Mr Earnshaw, who owned Wuthering Heights, one day returned from a trip bringing home a dirty, dishevelled gypsy boy, whom he had named Heathcliff.

Mr Earnshaw’s own children were of about the same age as the newcomer, but their reactions to Heathcliff—then and later—were markedly different. Catherine ‘Cathy’ was friendly, quickly warming to Heathcliff. Her brother, Hindley, who probably saw in Heathcliff a threat to his inheritance (and perhaps also harboured a considerable degree of racism?), on the other hand, hated Heathcliff.

Enough to throw stones at Heathcliff, enough to turn Heathcliff into a stable boy after Mr Earnshaw died. Cathy (now Merle Oberon) watches on warily as her brother (now Hugh Williams) orders Heathcliff around—but when Hindley’s gone, Cathy, wild and headstrong and happiest when shes’s running across the moors with Heathcliff, goes dashing off to meet her lover.

They climb up to a crag, they pretend Heathcliff is a brave knight and Cathy a queen. He fills her arms with heather.

And they sneak over a garden wall to look in on a ball being hosted by the Lintons, somewhat distant neighbours who lead a rather more staid and more orderly life than do the people at Wuthering Heights. Heathcliff is unmoved and unimpressed, but  not so Cathy. To a starry-eyed Cathy, this is the life: the glitter, the glamour, the beauty of it all—oh, if she could only be a part of it!

While Cathy’s watching longingly, the Lintons’ dogs, suddenly alert to the two intruders, come after Cathy and Heathcliff. The two of them race for the garden wall, but the Lintons’ dogs are faster, and one of them grabs Cathy by the leg. Her screams, the dogs’ frantic barking, and Heathcliff’s worried shouts bring the Lintons, their servants and guests out to see what’s happening. In the forefront is Edgar Linton (David Niven), who carries Cathy, her leg bleeding, into the house. Behind him trails his sister, Isabella (Geraldine Fitzgerald), scurrying about and eager to help.

Heathcliff, mad with anxiety, insists on seeing Cathy, but Edgar (and a weak, traumatized Cathy) send him away.

This incident proves to be a turning point. Because Cathy needs enough looking after for the Lintons to insist that she stay on at their home until she’s well. And when Cathy is well enough to return to Wuthering Heights, she is well on her way to being a changed person… not completely changed yet except in her appearance, but halfway there. The wild, impetuous Cathy who was Queen of Peniston Crag has donned the raiment of a gentlewoman.

Soon, to Heathcliff’s shock and despair, she turns away from him, too, scorning his lowness, taunting him and comparing him to the fineness and wealth of Edgar Linton. Heathcliff, angry and broken-hearted, runs away from Wuthering Heights—and from Cathy.

If you’ve read Wuthering Heights (or you’ve seen one of the many other adaptations of the novel) you of course know what happens next. If you haven’t—well, the film shows the tempestuousness of human nature, the ease with which we can inflict pain on not just others but on ourselves too.

What I liked about this film:

The award-winning cinematography, which is superb: the dark, bare gloom of Wuthering Heights and the wildness of the moors around it are, in particular, vividly and beautifully brought to the screen.

Then, there’s the acting. Geraldine Fitzgerald’s nomination for Best Supporting Actress was well-deserved, as (of course) was Laurence Olivier’s nomination for Best Actor, but personally I do think Merle Oberon deserves a very special mention: she brings Cathy—tormented, unhappy, wild, madly ecstatic, torn—very vividly to life. One particular scene stands out for me: when Cathy, panic-stricken, races up the stairs and meets Edgar Linton coming down. I won’t spoil it by saying what happens, but the point is that while the conversation itself is very brief, the communication goes on beyond the conversation—because Cathy, looking up into Edgar’s face, has such a succession of expressions passing across her features that he, even without her saying anything, is able to decipher her thoughts. While David Niven is also excellent here, it’s Merle Oberon who, for me, steals this scene.

And, there is the story itself, for which Emily Brontë should get credit. But more about that in the next part.

Comparisons, comparisons:

Usually, when I compare a film to the book from which it was adapted, I do so after having recently read (or re-read, as the case may be) the book in question. I must admit that for Wuthering Heights I didn’t do so. It’s been many years since I last read Wuthering Heights, and frankly speaking, I have no desire to put myself through that again. It’s not that I don’t admire the novel—it is worthy of the praise it receives; it’s just too depressing and grim for me to want to read it all over again (it’s also a pretty long book). But I do remember a good bit of Wuthering Heights, so this somewhat-comparison is based on what I recall of the book.

The novel, Wuthering Heights, spans a couple of generations, with Heathcliff and Cathy meeting as children, growing up—and the story continuing into the next generation as adults. It is, admittedly, not an easy task to fit all of this into one film convincingly, so—as in the case of Dil Diya Dard Liya—in this film too the story is trimmed considerably, with the next generation completely cut out of the picture. The story of Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff is the only story here, and it’s enough to fill the reels, with the tempestuousness of their mutual passion, sometimes dampened, sometimes brutally crushed down, eventually acknowledged.

It is these two characters that are the focus of Wuthering Heights, both the book as well as the film. It is Cathy, wild and willful, and Heathcliff, whom Cathy eventually sees as her ‘soul’—more her than she herself is willing to admit—who, more than the plot, dominate Wuthering Heights. While the film does away with a good bit of the story, it at least does a good job of delineating the characters of Cathy and Heathcliff.

…not that the characters Merle Oberon and Laurence Olivier play are strictly the Cathy and Heathcliff of Brontë’s book. The literary characters are more cruel, more harsh, more in keeping with the wildness of the moors. Heathcliff, for no good reason, treats pretty much everybody around him with not just utter disdain but outright cruelty (in the book, his treatment of the two principal characters of the second generation is almost breathtaking in its sheer heartlessness). Cathy is little better—selfish and self-centred to the point of being most unlike the classical ‘heroine’.

The film, however (perhaps in an attempt to appeal to a wider audience, with less of a taste for the unsavoury?) softens both Cathy and Heathcliff.

Cathy, for example, is shown as a basically sweet, warm-hearted woman who loses her way because of a misguided longing for the glamour of the Lintons. After the death of her father, Wuthering Heights passes into the hands of the perpetually drunk, vicious Hindley, and as a result, the home and its lands are sunk beneath a pall of gloom and misery (relieved only occasionally by Cathy’s forays up to Peniston Crag with Heathcliff). Suffocated and with her natural gaiety stifled by these surroundings, is it any wonder that Cathy finds her head turned by the dazzle of Thrushcross Grange and its residents, the Lintons? Poor Cathy, doomed for being impetuous; more to be pitied than to be censured.

Similarly, Heathcliff is shown in a kinder light—not only is he treated vilely by Hindley and looked down upon by everyone in the neighbourhood, he also finds his one and only love leaving him for another. Cathy’s faithlessness and the scorn he receives from Hindley, Linton, et al, are what combine to make Heathcliff bitter. Not, mind you, the tyrannical, scheming and frighteningly nasty character he is in the book, but a man who has been driven mad by a love that’s been lost. A man I couldn’t help but feel sorry for.

No, not a completely faithful copy of even part of the book, but a good film in its own way.

8 thoughts on “Wuthering Heights (1939)

  1. I enjoyed reading your review of the movie because, to date, I have never even read the book fully. It is too depressing for me. As a result, I have stayed away from the movie adaptations also. I have the book on my iPad but haven’t yet opened it. I will see if I can find the movie and watch it, and maybe also watch Dil diya dard liya, and after that, if I can summon up the energy, read the book. Thanks for the review which makes me want to watch the movie. After all, Merle Oberon is one of my favorite actresses and I like Lawrence Olivier and David Niven.

    • I think I’ve read this book twice. Once as a teenager, and another time perhaps in my 30s or something. I find it far too depressing for my liking, and perhaps one reason I’ve never really warmed to it is that there’s nobody there (in the ‘main generation’ so to say), whom I could root for. Both Heathcliff and Catherine are just too flawed for me to like them.

      But if you like Merle Oberon and Laurence Olivier (I do), then it’s worth a watch, because both of them are so good here. I would strongly advise against watching Dil Diya Dard Liya, though!

  2. As I said before (on your Dil DIya Dard Liya post), the Brontës have never been my favourite authors. So re-reading Wuthering Heights is out of the question; and much as I like Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon (who reminds me uncannily of Rekha), I will pass on depressing myself further. :)

    Shalini has promised to look out for silly films to watch during these trying times.

    I hope all of you are safe, Madhu.

    • Talking of silly films, have you watched The Mouse That Roared? Not silly, but very funny. :-)

      We’re all fine here, Anu. The LO is getting some art classes from me (she watched me paint some flowers this morning – and she helped in little ways), plus we’re getting to spend some quality time together as a family. At least we’re fortunate enough to not have to worry about supplies – I feel really anxious about the poor, who are already having a lot of problems.

  3. Thanks for reviewing this beautiful classic of British cinema!
    This was actually my own first encounter with “Wuthering Heights” – watched it on a Friday night in my early teens and – of course – loved the romance and the drama!
    I read the novel in my late teens – when I was mentally ready for it, I guess
    (I don’t seem to shy away from depressing stuff anyway :)
    True that the main characters appear softer and more lovable in the screen adaptation, but they are well written (and acted) and overall convincing, and that was not the case in “Dil Diya Dard Liya”, which imo was the biggest problem of the Hindi version.
    I swear I can sense that Waheeda Rehman (being a very sensitive performer) was sometimes reluctant to deliver the Roopa dialogue…

    • I have to admit I’ve never liked depressing stuff! If I admire Wuthering Heights, it’s because of the way Bronte manages to bring the gloom and wildness of the place (and the people) to life.

      Yes, agree completely about the fact that the characters are poorly written in the Hindi version (and therefore perhaps not very well-acted, even though the actors themselves are so competent).

    • Yes, it’s on Youtube. The only version I could find there was subtitled in Portuguese. But since you can turn off the subtitles, it doesn’t make a difference. Here is the link:

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