Monday, January 18, 2010

Wuthering Heights (1939)

Year: 1939
Rated: NR (Probably PG by today)
Run Time: 1 hour, 45 minutes.

Tagline: I am torn by Desire... tortured by hate!

First Viewing: 2005, Junior year of high school on TCM.

Adaptation Accuracy/Dialogue - The 1939 version of Wuthering Heights is the most famous and considered to be the best. I beg to differ. In fact, I demand to differ. First of all, it only covers the first generation of characters. Hindley never marries Frances (more on that later) therefore, Hareton is never born. Cathy dies of "lack of will to live" and not from complications during childbirth, so no Catherine. Although we see that Heathcliff and Isabella are still together at the beginning of the movie, they appear to have not created Linton.

Since most of the versions fill up two hours of screen time with both generations, this one has to stretch a little, therefore creating fictitious scenes like a ball at Thrushcross Grange. Besides that, for reasons unbeknown to me, a lot of the dialogue is changed instead of being cleaned up for modern audiences. Because Wuthering Heights is in the public domain, there is no reason for this!

Finally, there are a lot of character innacuracies, which I will review individually, but the biggest thing that effects all of them is the ages. Every actor is far older than the character they are playing. This will be a very common complaint in all these reviews because it's an issue in every adaption of WH, but the '39 version is particularly guilty.

Heathcliff (Laurence Olivier, age 32) - Despite being too old, Laurence Olivier is one of my favorite Heathcliffs...and one of the handsomest. Being a classically trained Shakespearean  actor, I think he does better as "refined Heathcliff" after he returns as a wealthy gentleman. Physically, Heathcliff is supposed to be dark skinned and "unattractive" and in my opinion, stable boy Heathcliff is still too attractive...and old...and calm. It would be interesting to see Olivier as Heathcliff in the second generation of events, since he already has the age and refinement going for him.

Cathy Earnshaw (Merle Oberon, age 28) - It's rumored that Vivien Leigh (Laurence Olivier's wife) was up to play Cathy, but she was already cast in another little MGM film called Gone With the Wind. I feel that the chemistry and Vivien Leigh's Englishness would only help this version, but looking back, she probably made the right choice to be in the other movie. Merle Oberon is okay as Cathy. She definitely has the bitchiness down, but with it comes an uptight prissiness that doesn't fit a girl who is supposed to be "half savage and hardy and free." I find her unsympathetic.

Edgar Linton (David Niven, age 29) - This is one of the gentlest Edgars. Gentle without being too big of a pussy, otherwise all sympathy is lost for him. As with all Edgars, you should believe that he truly loves Cathy and Niven does a very convincing job of this.

Isabella Linton (Geraldine Fitzgerald, age 26) - Although she is supposed to be a weak, timid, and naive character, Isabella is often portrayed tougher than she really is in film adaptations. This is one of them, but Geraldine Fitzgerald does it without being too strong. She is more daring, and even travels to Wuthering Heights unchaperoned to see Heathcliff. I also love her transition after a few months of marriage to Heathcliff. Costuming has a lot to do with it, but her vivacity and beauty is gone even though she continues to love Heathcliff despite his underplayed abuse. I love her last scene where she contemplates how if Cathy dies, Heathcliff would be free to love her.

Hindley Earnshaw (Hugh Williams, age 35) - The reason Hindley becomes a drunkard is because his wife Frances dies shortly after childbirth. For some reason, this version cuts this out entirely, and Hindley has no motivation for his descent into alcoholism. Is it supposed to be because his father didn't love him? Not good enough, if you ask me. Hugh Williams does the best he can with this Hindley, but his character seems oddly detached from the rest of the story.

Nelly Dean (Flora Robson, age 37) - Too old. Nelly is always too old. She's supposed to be the narrator and a character that interacts with all the other characters, but in most versions (including this one) she acts as a nursemaid to Cathy's Juliet, if you get my analogy. It's obvious that William Wyler wanted Nelly to be an all knowing, outside observer instead of an active part of the story, so I'm blaming the director rather than Robson herself. She's simply too old and boring.

Joseph (Leo G. Carroll) - You can't get Joseph wrong. Mix a thick Yorkshire brogue, piousness, and over all uselessness  and you've got him down pat.

Lockwood (Miles Mander) - Lockwood is Lockwood. You can't really say  much about him. No complaints about this portrayal.

Costumes/Character Appearances - Wuthering Heights was published in 1847. It takes place from 1771 to 1801 and for some reason, the film makers decided to set the movie in the 1840's, instead of when it was supposed to be. Why? I can only assume it was to have dresses similar to those in Gone With the Wind. But even that's a stretch. I know most people don't care (and probably couldn't tell the difference) but I notice and it bothers the fuck out of me.

Age issues aside, both Edgar and Isabella should be blonde to set them apart from the brunette Earnshaws. Heathcliff should have darker skin and hair and is supposed to be less attractive than Edgar Linton. However, at the time the book is set, more effeminate and gentle looking men were considered handsome. Rugged gypsy stable boys would not be hot, but disturbing and scary.

Sets/Filming Locations - WH '39 was filmed in southern California instead of on the real Moors of Northern Yorkshire England. Luckily, the black and white cinematography hides it pretty well. As for the houses, I have no great complaints.

Music - Generally, I don't like scores from old movies. They are far too melodramatic and WH '39 has one of the most stereotypical examples of this. I blame the era for this mishap. The music is more "romantic" than "haunting."

Overall Likes - Accurate framing of Nelly telling the story to Lockwood; The scenes with young Heathcliff and Cathy playing at Penistow Crag; Geraldine Fitzgerald's entire performance; Cathy chasing after Heathcliff in the rain; Edgar's gentility; Dr. Kenneth; The coldness of Heathcliff's return scene; Isabella's final scene with Dr. Kenneth wishing for Cathy's death, refusing to go to the Grange with Nelly, and begging for Heathcliff to love her; Cathy dying while standing with Heathcliff admiring the Moors from an open window; Nelly still being married to Heathcliff, 30 years later.

Overall Dislikes - The ages of all the actors; Unnecessary dialogue changes; Nelly's inactivity; The melodramatic music; No Frances; 1840's costumes; That woman playing the harpsichord at the ball (seriously, why was that so long?); Cathy dying from...nothing; No second generation.

Final Thoughts - As a movie, Wuthering Heights (1939) is okay. Maybe even as a tragic romance movie, it's good. But as a faithful adaptation of the book, it's not good at all. There are just too many unnecessary changes. However, despite the edits, the screenwriter does manage to add in some good stuff that wasn't in the book.

But it doesn't age well. It wreaks of the 30's and not in a good way. I can't help but compare it to Gone With the Wind. Both are epic tragic romances, but one seemed to get bigger stars, bigger sets, a bigger budget and much, much more attention. Why? I attribute it to the books' publication dates. GWTW was fresher in everyone's mind and a recent Pulitzer winner. WH was nearly a century old and an English standard. It's kind of like Twilight being made into a movie now, and, well, if GWTW was going to be remade.

Still WH is considered one of the classics of 1939 and it does it with a relatively small cast and minimal locations. It's definitely a more intimate film, a calmer film when it comes to epic romances. I feel that Wuthering Heights '39 is considered the best just because it's old and Oscar nominated. That's a shame, because there are better versions but this one is necessary for any WH fan to watch.

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