The 1939 Best Picture nominee Wuthering Heights, directed by William Wyler, and starring Merle Oberon and Laurence Olivier, will be the next feature in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ series “Hollywood’s Greatest Year: The Best Picture Nominees of 1939.” The Wuthering Heights screening will take place on Monday, June 8, at 7:30 p.m. at the Academy’s Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills.
Starting at 7 p.m., the feature will be preceded by the fourth chapter of the 1939 serial Buck Rogers, starring Buster Crabbe and Constance Moore, and the animated short The Pointer, starring Mickey Mouse and Pluto.
According to Samuel Goldwyn biographer A. Scott Berg, Wuthering Heights was the producer’s favorite among his films. I’d say deservedly so. Although I find several things to carp about in this film adaptation of Emily Brontë’s classic Gothic novel– which happens to be one of my favorite books — the positive elements in Wuthering Heights far outweigh the negative ones.
Understandably, a large chunk of the novel had to be excised; else the film would probably have to be about four hours long. As a result, Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht’s screenplay dwells only on the passionate but doomed romance between the brooding Heathcliff and the willful Cathy, who love one another but end up married to others.
Now, if at times the novel’s Gothic feel has been replaced by Hollywood hokum (the initial sequence showing the future lovers as kids is particularly saccharine), William Wyler, with the assistance of cinematographer Gregg Toland and production designer James Basevi, for the most part manages to convey the dark intensity of Emily Brontë’s vision. And that’s no easy task. (In fact, Wuthering Heights is far superior to the 1944 film adaptation of Charlotte Brontë’s own Gothic romance, Jane Eyre, directed by Robert Stevenson.)
Unfortunately, however, Wyler failed to tone down the stage-trained Laurence Olivier, then making his Hollywood comeback following his professional debacle six years earlier, when MGM sent him packing back to England after Greta Garbo demanded that John Gilbert be her Queen Christina co-star. Olivier had been making movies in England for quite some time (in addition to a brief Hollywood stint in the early 1930s), so it’s hard to understand why he felt the need to ham it up so much as Heathcliff. His final monologue, for instance, is so over the top that he almost manages to ruin the film’s otherwise touching epilogue, ghosts walking up to heaven and all. (Robert Newton, another shameless ham, had been suggested to play Heathcliff, but Goldwyn found him too ugly. Douglas Fairbanks Jr. was another option, but Goldwyn found him too weak.)
On the positive side, Merle Oberon (in a role originally intended for Sylvia Sidney) delivers what may well be the best performance of her career, while Geraldine Fitzgerald, David Niven, and Flora Robson provide solid support.
As an aside, Fitzgerald’s role was offered to Olivier’s lover (and future wife), Vivien Leigh, who refused it for she wanted to play Cathy and only Cathy. It was while accompanying Olivier in Hollywood that Leigh met agent Myron Selznick who introduced her to brother David O. Selznick who hired her to play an even more important role than that of Emily Brontë’s heroine.
The New York Film Critics’ pick for best picture of 1939 (as they couldn’t decide between Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Gone with the Wind — don’t ask…), Wuthering Heights went on to win an Oscar for Black-and-White Cinematography.
In addition to its Best Picture nod, the film was also up for Academy Awards in the following categories: Best Actor (Olivier), Actress in a Supporting Role (Fitzgerald), Directing (Wyler), Art Direction (James Basevi), Music - Original Score (Alfred Newman), and Screenplay. (Merle Oberon, no matter how good, went nominationless.)
By the way, in his Goldwyn biography A. Scott Berg explains that Wuthering Heights almost had its name "bettered" after the producer’s marketing people complained that the novel’s title didn’t sound good. Goldwyn then ordered his story department to come up with something else, but was eventually convinced that to call Wuthering Heights "The Wild Heart" or "Bring Me the World" would be tantamount to having David O. Selznick "change David Copperfield to ’A Little Boy in England’ or Little Women to ’Katy Wins Her Man.’"
Tickets for Wuthering Heights are $5 for the general public and $3 for Academy members and students with a valid ID. Tickets may be purchased online at www.oscars.org, by mail, in person at the Academy during regular business hours or, depending on availability, on the night of the screening when the doors open at 6:30 p.m.
Curtain time for all features is 7:30 p.m., and pre-show elements will begin at 7 p.m. The Academy is located at 8949 Wilshire Boulevard in Beverly Hills. For more information, call (310) 247-3600. For the latest updates on guests, cartoons and other films in the series, visit www.oscars.org.
Photos: Courtesy of the Margaret Herrick Library