Directed by William Wyler and nominated for eight Academy Awards, Wuthering Heights (1939), based on Emily Bronte's widely acclaimed novel of the same name, is a tale of tragic love, conflicting passions and revenge. Considered one of the greatest romantic films ever made, the highly acclaimed film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Liberty of Congress in 2007.
Although the love story of Heathcliff and Cathy, depicted in the novel, was set against the restrictions and social conventions prevailing in the 18th century, the film placed the action in the mid-19th century, concurrent with the publication of the novel in 1847. The plot of the novel was also significantly shortened for the film and out of the 34 chapters of the novel, only 16 chapters were adapted for the screen. Apart from that, while the novel was set on the Yorkshire moors, it was primarily filmed in Thousand Oaks, California.
While the film was intended to project Merle Oberon in the leading female role of Cathy, as she was under contract with Goldwyn at the time, the role of Heathcliff was played by Laurence Olivier, although Ronald Colman, Douglas Fairbanks and English actor Robert Newton were all considered for the role. However, Vivien Leigh was eager to play the role of Cathy, opposite to her lover, Olivier, whom she married later.
But the studio was reluctant, as they did not want to take the risk of selecting an actress to portray the female lead, who was largely unknown in America. But they offered her the role of Isabella Linton, which she declined. As luck would have it, in the same year, Vivien was cast as Scarlett O'Hara in the epoch making film Gone with the Wind (1939) and won an Academy Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role. Strangely, although Wuthering Heights was nominated for eight Academy Awards, which included the nomination of Geraldine Fitzgerald for Best Supporting Actress for her performance in the role of Isabella Linton, Merle Oberon did not receive a nomination for her performance in the film, despite it was the best work in her entire career.
The famous last shot of the film, showing superimposed ghostly spirits of Cathy and Heathcliff walking hand in hand, reunited for eternity in death on the Peniston Crag, was shot later, after the filming was completed. Originally, the film ended with the lifeless body of Heathcliff lying on the snow. But the producer, Samuel Goldwyn did not like it and he insisted on a different ending than the tragic one, made by Wyler.
So he hired an assistant director to reshoot a new ending, which was shot with body doubles, after the original cast was released.
Tension reigned throughout the filming of Wuthering Heights, due to the clashes on the set between the actors and the director. Both the leading players began work on the film in distressing mental condition, as Olivier missed his fiancée Vivien Leigh, who was back in the United Kingdom, while Oberon was missing the British film director and producer Alexander Korda, with whom she had recently fallen in love. Apparently, Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon detested each other and they fought throughout the filming. Tensions also arose between Olivier and director William Wyler, as Olivier was increasingly becoming annoyed with the director’s exhausting style of filmmaking. In one particular scene, Olivier became exhausted and felt irritated, when the director was not happy even after 72 takes and insisted on yet another, as he wanted it better. Nevertheless, much later, Laurence Olivier confessed in his book that Wyler taught him how to act in films, as opposed to on the stage acting.
The film, Wuthering Heights (1939), opens with the scene of a raging blizzard, a bitterly cold, snowy night in the storm-tossed Wuthering Heights, when Lockwood, a new tenant at the Grange, had to take refuge in the house of Heathcliff, despite his cold behaviour. He was allotted a depressing, upstairs bridal chamber guest room, where nobody slept for years. But Lockwood could not sleep peacefully and late at night, his fitful sleep was disrupted by a gust of cold wind and he woke up to find the window shutter rattling back and forth by the violent rush of stormy wind. As he got up from his dusty bed and was about to close the window, he felt an icy hand clutching his and saw the shadowy figure of a woman outside, introducing herself as Cathy and frantically calling Heathcliff to let her in. Apprehending a disaster, Lockwood called Heathcliff loudly and told him what he saw and heard, whereupon Heathcliff ran downstairs and rushed outside, into the blizzard, calling Catherine's name. Lockwood was perplexed by the bizarre occurrence and when he asked Ellen, the housekeeper, about Cathy and the ghostly figure, she told him that he had seen the ghost of Cathy Earnshaw, Heathcliff's great love, who died years ago. Seated in front of the fireplace, Ellen told him all about Cathy and her tragic love with Heathcliff, which began forty years ago, when Wuthering Heights was owned by Cathy's family, the Earnshaws. And thus, the main plot of the film begins as a long flashback.
Forty years ago, Wuthering Heights, was owned by Mr Earnshaw, a Yorkshire widower, who once brought home a young, dirty-faced gypsy boy upon his return from a trip to Liverpool, to live with his two children, Catherin and Hindley. Although at first he was reluctantly accepted by the children, gradually Cathy became friendly with the boy, whom her father named Heathcliff, but her brother Hindley remained contemptuous of his presence and continued to treat him harshly. When he became the new master of Wuthering Heights, after the death of his father, Hindley turned into an ill-tempered and cruel tyrant, drinking heavily and gambling and forced Heathcliff to become his stable boy. However, by that time, Cathy and Heathcliff were in deep love with each other, meeting secretly at Penniston's Crag, in their make-believe castle high above Wuthering Heights, imagining the Crag as a castle, whereHeathcliff is the prince and she is his queen. Despite Cathy used to urge Heathcliff to escape from Wuthering Heights, his love for Cathy prevented him from leaving and seeking his fortune elsewhere.
One of those afternoons, while they were returning home from the crag, playful music attracted the young pair and they stopped to peek into an elegant ball taking place in the nearby Linton mansion by climbing over their garden wall. While Cathy was entranced by the sight of the beautifully costumed, whirling couples waltzing together, their presence alerted the guarding dogs who rushed towards the wall. Cathy suffered a serious injury when one of her legs was bitten by a dog and another dog attacked Heathcliff's arm. Soon the people from the mansion came out to find out about the commotion and recognised Cathy, who was carried inside in the arms of Edgar Linton, but Heathcliff, regarded as a rascal, was forced to leave Cathy in their care.
While staying with the Linton family during her long recuperation, Cathy had tasted a wealthy lifestyle, which she liked and enjoyed, but by that time, Edgar Linton had fallen for her and proposed.However, she was stylishly brought back to Wuthering Heights by Edgar in a carriage, decked in a borrowed dress and she told everything to Ellen, the housekeeper. As Ellenreminded Cathy about Heathcliff and she sharply replied that it would degrade her to marry him, Heathcliff overheard the conversation and it broke his heart. He felt so low that he immediately ran off, before hearing the last part of the conversation when Cathy confessed that she was truly in love with him. But as soon as Cathy realized that Heathcliff overheard only the insult, she immediately ran after him during a raging storm, ran across the moors to find her true love at the Peniston Crag. She collapsed on the moors during the night and was found by Edgar on the next day, who took her to his estate, where she recovered from pneumonia. After regaining her health, Cathy consented to Edgar's flattering proposal and married him, ignoring her first love and memories of Heathcliff.
Heathcliff returned two years later as a wealthy and elegant person with refined appearance and manners, after making a fortune abroadand secretly purchased Wuthering Heights by paying Hindley's gambling and drinking debts. With the intention to hurt Cathy, he then started courting Edgar's naïve sister, Isabella and finally married her, despite Cathy's strong objections to both of them. However, months later, when Heathcliff came to know that Cathy was gravely ill with fever and inflammation of the lungs and was counting her days on her deathbed, he rushed to her side, ignoring the imploring Isabella, who realised that her husband is still in love with Cathy. Cathy was gladly surprised to find her true love at the side of her bed and became emotional, when they pledged their undying love and became reconciled after so many years of mutual unhappiness and bitterness. At her request, Heathcliff carried her to the window for one last look at the moors, when she died in his arms and Heathcliff prayed her to haunt him, haunt her murderer, till they are reunited.
The flashback ended as Ellen concluded her story about Cathy and Heathcliff, when the family doctor bursts in to report that he saw Heathcliff on the moors, walking in the snow with a woman, but when he approached, he found only Heathcliff, lying dead in the snow. But Ellen retorted and remarked that he was not alone, he was with her.