Monday, August 22, 2011

Wuthering Heights 1939 Review

Once again, I must ask excuses for the length between posts. I underestimated the weight of my homework load, and thus have not had much time to blog. With that being said, I also realize that my last few posts have been extremely Jane Eyre centered. I apologize for that also, but justify it with the excuse that with the excitement surrounding the DVD release it's been very hard to keep the novel out of my brain. But now I believe I've come to the end of my rather unhealthy obsession. I've watched the movie countless times and have settled into the comfort and familiarity of having it, which means that I no longer need to write about it and its source material every minute of the day. However, I will continue my "Search for Jane Eyre" because that is a subconscious journey. I still encourage you to submit comments and guest posts (ahem, Miss Lady Disdain!). 

With all Jane Eyre demons exorcized, my thoughts now turn increasingly to Wuthering Heights. It's natural for you to wonder why. After all, I was the one who emphatically stated my dislike of the novel in an earlier post. I guess the true answer to that is the fact that though I find the book melodramatic, cruel and insane, I can't resist a good literature adaption. In preparation for Andrea Arnold's take on the beloved tale, I've been taking in a few of the previous adaptions (which are about as numerous as Jane Eyre flicks, I might add). The first one I revisited was the 1939, seeing that it was that particular version that I watched first and prompted me to read the novel in the first place. 

We should all know the plot of the novel and even if you might not, there's too many twists and turns in the plot for a remedial teenage writer like me to explain it to you. In so many words, this profound piece of literature dwells on the love between Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff; two characters that defy fate and the normal "starry-eyed" love story by falling in love and then wrenching themselves apart. 

The 1939 version was one of the first black and white films I ever watched, and strangely enough it was the first literary film adaptation I ever laid eyes on (yes, even before Jane Eyre). The dauntingly fair-faced and high-cheekboned Merle Oberon claimed the role of Cathy and opposite her was the handsome and well-chiseled face of Laurence Olivier. Both went on to be in that category of timeless Hollywood elites. 

Before delving into the process of reviewing the film, I must make one thing clear. Though I have read the book in depth, I don't place as much weight on it as I would on a Jane Eyre adaption. Therefore, I do not necessarily rate it based on faithfulness to the source material. With that being said, however, I do like to point out some details. 

The first thing I immediately noticed after feasting my eyes on this adaption just a few days ago was the obvious lack of concern shown for the characters' true ages. Merle Oberon is obviously not nineteen (wasn't Cathy nineteen, or somewhere in her younger years?) and Laurence Olivier doesn't do any better. One thing that I've noticed about Bronte novels is the fact that ages are imperative. I've reviewed many adaptions of a particular Bronte piece (hmmm, I wonder which one?) and always dwelled on the importance of the character's age. The same idea stands true with Wuthering Heights. Cathy and Heathcliff are still teenagers, which means that a naive and childlike heart still dwells in them. In simpler terms, it's easier to justify two teenagers running across the moors and dreaming up spectacular fantasies than it is when seeing two adults. 

Merle Oberon as Cathy
With age being discarded, however, I actually enjoyed how Merle and Laurence executed their roles. Merle was a fierce and stubborn Cathy that matched the spiritual essence of the one in the novel. Laurence was decidedly less dark than the "real" Heathcliff, but I found him much more humane than the actual character. When he comes into the kitchen uttering wishes for Cathy's forgiveness, a slight "aww" escaped my lips. Even though the line wasn't mentioned anywhere in the novel, it made Heathcliff a much more likable character that I was willing to sympathize with. The actors matched each other well--a surprising notion when one actually understands how much they despised one another (and the director) when the camera wasn't rolling. I probably wouldn't have had it any other way. By casting two actors that hated each other, Cathy and Heathcliff's turbulent and blatantly hostile relationship was captured perfectly. 

Laurence Olivier as Heathcliff. Is it insane to crush on
someone from another time?
Yet, once again we must remember the time period in which this film was made. This era was not known for its subtle acting approach. Outdated "slapping" sound effects, fake crying, and a boisterously string-filled score make a melodramatic plot all the more eye-rolling, sometimes crossing the boundaries of cheesiness. But of course, one would expect that of a film made in '39. 

I'm not trying to be tedious or anything, but what happened to the other half of the film? Cathy dies in chapter sixteen. There are thirty-three chapters in the entire novel! Whether it be the need for glorification  of romance in black and white Hollywood or not, it's a shame to take absolutely no note of half the novel. Yet, even this can be partially justified. To tell the second half of the story would be to expose Heathcliff's cruelty; a thing that audiences in '39 wouldn't have liked to see. 

All things considered, this adaption deserves to be watched. But just like the black and white Anna Karenina or Jane Eyre, it's not worth a watch for its faithfulness to the text. It's simply one of the immortal movies that have cleared a spot in film-making history. If you have a taste for the classic black and whites then you won't hesitate to give this one a try. If not, then I'd strongly recommend you stay away from it. 


  1. It's coming! I swear! I'm currently working on this assignment due on Friday - worth half the course credit - ('So what the hell is she doing, stalking my blog?' you're thinking? I'm procrastinating, madam, and yours has been chosen to be worthy of my procrastinatorly pursuits. Not a word, I know.) but you will have my post by the end of the weekend, at the latest. With pictures *grin* Ok, I'm grovelling, but still, have some mercy.

    I, too, despise WH with the fire of a thousand burning suns but, like any book worm, love it when any literature is adapted to film. Although I've only seen the Fiennes & Binoche (?) version, and that not even completely. Should sit down and watch the whole thing sometimes. Especially interested in the version with Dalton as Heathcliff (he played 2 Bronte heroes! Well, so did Toby Stephens, but Heathcliff & Rochester are kind of intense). You should do a review on Miss Anne Bronte also.

  2. Ha ha I'm not trying to rush you. Thank you for making my blog worthy of you "procrastinatory pursuits". I just can't wait to hear what you have to say.

    I've "skimmed" through all the WH adaptions, but for some reason I never have the patience to watch them all in their entirety. Most times I skip to the parts that I find most important. This week I'm devoting my time to actually sitting down and gluing my eyes on them. The "Fiennes" was the second adaption of the book that I saw. The "Dalton" I don't remember as much. Anne Bronte will be coming! I've been telling myself to get to it for a while now, but I feel like "The Tenant of Wildfell Hall" needs to garner some more research before I can review it. I read the novel a long time ago and don't exactly remember the particulars, so I'm hoping to revisit it when I have time.

  3. I haven't seen this movie in AGES, thanks for the review!

  4. No problem. I've been keeping up with your classic movie reviews. They are very good! I'm always excited to see them.

  5. It's not insane at all - Orson Welles as Rochester was a DISH! :D Actually, Olivier looks like he could do a pretty decent Rochester too from that picture.

    I've heard this adaptation only told half the story. Nice to know which one. Good review!

  6. I've always wondered why Olivier never got the chance to play Rochester. Maybe it's because he was too handsome, but so were all the others. As it is, he was a lovely Heathcliff. Thank you for the comment!