Wuthering Heights is an American black-and-white film directed by William Wyler and produced by Samuel Goldwyn. It is a film adaptation of Emily Brontë’s novel of the same name. The screenplay was written by Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht. It was released on April 13,1939. The film was nominated for eight Academy Awards, winning an Oscar for Best Cinematography.
The film opens with Mr. Lockwood seeking refuge at Wuthering Heights as he has lost his way out on the moors near Thrushcross Grange where he is staying. Heathcliff, his leaser, reluctantly allows him to stay the night. In the night he encounters the ghost of Catherine Earnshaw. Troubled by what he may have seen the house keeper, Ellen, tells Catherine’s story.
She begins her tale forty years back when Catherine’s father first brought a young Heathcliff to live at the Heights. While Catherine and Heathcliff become friends her brother, Hindley torments him. After their father passes Hindley is even more tyrannical toward Heathcliff. He and Catherine meet in secret, hiding their love from everyone. The pair sneak into their neighbors, the Lintons, garden watching a party from the window. When they are discovered Catherine is bitten by one of the dogs and Heathcliff is sent out of the house. Catherine returns to the Heights after months of recovery engaged to the Linton’s son Edgar. While discussing her engagement with Ellen Catherine says it would “degrade” her to marry Heathcliff. Heathcliff overhearing this runs away.
Two years later Catherine has married Edgar and is living at the Grange when Heathcliff returns. He is now wealthy and has bought the Heights by paying Hindley’s debts. To punish Catherine Heathcliff gains the attention of Edgar’s sister Isabella, eventually marrying her. These events cause Catherine to fall gravely ill. Heathcliff sneaks in to see Catherine. They spend her last moments looking out on the moors they played on as children.
The scene shifts back to the present where suddenly Dr. Kenneth rushes in saying he saw Heathcliff out on a moors with a woman. Ellen is certain it was Catherine. Dr. Kenneth is sceptical, but says that when he found Heathcliff on the moors he was alone and dead. Ellen is sure that he is not dead, but finally alive with Catherine.
The film spends a great deal of time focused on class and the desire for status. Catherine’s affection for Heathcliff is hampered by her desire for him to run away and return with wealth and status. She herself comments on the difference between herself and Heathcliff, and the “Linton angels.” However much she expresses her feelings for Heathcliff she is aware that class separates her from a happy future. she becomes enthralled by the glamour of their world, causing her to choose. Heathcliff is forced to see this when he is turned out of house at the Lintons. He promises to some day make his fortune and spite them all. It isn’t until Catherine returns home engaged to Edgar that he takes action. Even as Catherine expresses that her actions are for Heathcliff also, he has already heard her declaration that it would degrade her to marry him. He sses no other option but to change his status. When he returns wealthy enough to buy the Heights out from under Hindley he is met with shock and horror at the turn of events. The class shifts create much of the conflict between Edgar and Heathcliff. The affections of Catherine could better serve as a marker of their vie for footing if Heathcliff wasn’t degraded to a point that he is desperate to change his status.
Love and Transcendence
Many kinds of love are portrayed in this film. It is clear that the love between Catherine and Heathcliff is all consuming and freeing for them. It is portrayed as a dream that they live together out on the moors. This love is contrasted by the proper and reserved affection Catherine exhibits toward Edgar. Catherine considers herself to be unfit for heaven, and she seems happy to have experienced a dream where she left heaven to return to Earth. Her love for Heathcliff is beyond enjoyment. She expresses the notion that she could have both loves together, that one could further the other. She describes Heathcliff’s love as something un-moving, like a rock. While her love for Edgar is fleeting she finds it may be the best choice.
Heathcliff finds he cannot satisfy Catherine’s wishes. He chooses to seek his fortune as she asks and return to her. Upon finding she has married Edgar he stretches his revenge beyond Hindley to include Edgar too. For Heathcliff he is unstoppable in his intent to cause those around him pain. He lures Isabella away from her family in an attempt to harm Edgar and Catherine. He feels no affection for her, becoming repulsed by her misguided affection. His vengeance reaches even to Catherine as he cannot forgive her for dying. He is beyond consoling hoping she will haunt him after death.
This adaptation is considered to be one of the best drama classics of all time. It continues to be the most famous film version of the narrative. Critics at the time praised it for bringing Brontë’s great tragedy to Hollywood. While it is a moving, beautifully crafted film; it achieves this at the expense of straying away from the Gothic elements that are so central to the novel. The passion shared between the pair is made less extreme when the two personalities are so blatantly portrayed. Catherine is a petulant child who wants the pony and the castle. She is smitten with Heathcliff, but wonders why he doesn’t run away and come back rich. Her affections change the moment she is dazzled by the beauty of Edgar’s possessions. Heathcliff is depicted as the underdog trying to overcome his social standing to be worthy of his love. While this description may be accurate Heathcliff is too open with his plans and his feelings to really capture the brooding roughian in the novel. While these traits take away some of the feelings of destructive love they are redeemed in the representation of Catherine’s stubborn nature, and Heathcliff’s manipulative treatment of Isabella.
The Old Hollywood style has this streamline effect on the setting as well. The Heights are still desolate and removed, but the Grange is the center of society. The party scene alone shows the liberties taken to make a film that fits in with the style of the time. Isolation and society are central themes that are take a different tone in this Wuthering Heights. While these decision may not draw directly from the moods of the narrative the film is well received adaptation that is considered to be a fine merging of fine literature and grand film making.
The film received wide spread praise from critics following its release. While today there are more mixed reviews, the film still maintains it place as one of the best romance films of the time. The critical responses after its initial release spend some time speculating about issues behind the scenes. The film currently holds a 100% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and a 7.8 star rating on IMDb.