1939 was an epic year of filmmaking with Gone with the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Stagecoach, and Wuthering Heights. Wuthering Heights is based on the novel by Emily Bronte and starred Laurence Olivier as Heathcliff, Merle Oberon as Catherine, and David Niven as Edgar. For a summary and review of the novel Wuthering Heights, please see this link.
This movie overall makes Heathcliff and Catherine into much more romantic leads than what was originally in Emily Bronte’s novel. They are painted solely as star-crossed lovers that are just never able to get together because of various misunderstandings. The movie leaves out the entire second half of the novel, which shows how Heathcliff carefully plotted his revenge onto the second generation. In this movie, there are no children born.
Heathcliff first of all is portrayed by the very handsome Laurence Olivier. While I love Laurence Olivier and think he is a spectacular actor, he is not the dark personage described in Wuthering Heights. He is viewed in much more a sympathetic light because of the lack of showing his revenge on the second generation. His wife Isabella is shown to be miserable solely because of his continued love for Catherine. His abuse of her and the knowledge that he only married her to be able to inherit the Linton estate, Thrushcross Grange, is not mentioned. I believe that this movie may be one reason that people think of Heathcliff as a romantic character, when he is really not a very likeable character.
Merle Oberon is a good Catherine, although her selfish motives do not take center stage. I found her to be a much more unlikeable character in the book than in this production. David Niven is a good Edgar, although if I were Catherine and had to choose between a Laurence Olivier Heathcliff and a David Niven Edgar, I would be hard pressed to pick Edgar. You have a passionate love for Heathcliff who shares your passion and he is also hot as sin. Why are you picking the boring neighbor again? I feel kind of sorry for David Niven. I know him from being the Bishop in The Bishop’s Wife. In that movie, he is afraid his wife, Loretta Young, is developing feelings for an angel played by Cary Grant. Niven always seems to be the second fiddle.
The deathbed scene seemed strange to me. There is a very passionate speech from Heathcliff, while Catherine’s husband Edgar kneels by the bed in a prayerful poise saying nothing. This is very different than the death scene in the book. Catherine and Heathcliff have a passionate speech to each other when Edgar is away at church. There is suspense when he returns and he “flies at” Heathcliff enraged to see him there, but Catherine faints. Edgar has a bit more edge to him in the novel.
I did not like the omission of Hindley’s wife, Frances. Hindley is not a good man, but you can understand him better in the novel. First he has to see his father love Heathcliff rather than himself, and then his beloved wife Frances dies. It is easier to see why he became an alcoholic when Frances is in the picture and it humanizes Hindley.
Overall, I enjoyed the romance of the 1939 film version of Wuthering Heights, but I think it did a poor job of bringing Emily Bronte’s classic to life. The romance actually took away from Bronte’s original intent, and the omission of the younger generation made it so the viewers were unable to see the masterful plotting of revenge by Heathcliff.