Wuthering Heights is another one of those classic stories I am going into entirely ignorant. It is a classic novel by Emily Brontë from 1847, a movie from 1939 and a remake from 2011. And I never read or saw any of these, before now. Well, the explanation is simple enough. With a derogatory label I would call this a Girls movie, with capital G, about big love, not the blissful and sweet kind, but the all-consuming, bitter and destructive sort of love. Frankly I do not have too much patience with this sort of stories, so I have never really been tempted to see it.
I have the Book to thank for taking me through this sort of movies now. They make up a fair share of the entries and the List forces me to sit through them. And thank you for that, because most of them are worth seeing even if I would not have picked them myself.
In this case I thus go in to this classic story with fresh eyes and cannot say if it is true to the novel or if it is better or worse than the modern remake, but can comment on it entirely based on itself. I have had a lot of those experiences with the early cinema, which frequent readers of this blog will know and I really enjoy that feeling of novelty, though to true connoisseurs of classic movies I may appear an ignorant amateur.
Enough rambling, back to the movie.
Wuthering Heights take place in Yorkshire, England, on the moor in the middle of the 19th century. A stranger arrives in a snowstorm to the lonesome house of Wuthering Heights and asks for shelter. The hosts are not particularly friendly and soon he is hearing ghosts. The master of the house runs out into the snow and the old maid, Ellen, starts telling the bewildered guest the tragic story of Wuthering Heights.
On Wuthering Heights lived a brother and sister, Hindley (Hugh Williams, as adult, Douglas Scott as a child) and Cathy (Merle Oberon as adult, Sarita Wooton as a child). One day their father brings home an orphan he found in Liverpool and makes him part of the family. The child is Heathcliff (Laurence Olivier as adult, Rex Downing as a child). While Cathy takes a liking to Heathcliff and makes him her best friend, Hindley hates him with a vengeance and treat him like dirt. When the father dies Hindley becomes the master of the house and Heathcliff the stable boy. Yet Cathy and Heathcliff’s friendship turns into love and they swear each other eternal fealty.
Cathy however is torn between the love she feels for Heathcliff and the lifestyle she crave which is way beyond what he can provide. When they sneak peak at a ball at the wealthy Linton estate they are caught and Cathy, recovering from a dog bite, gets a taste of what life can be. When she returns to Wuthering Height she has a new love in the life, the wealthy Edgar Linton (David Niven). Her resolve is not particularly strong however and she suffers quick changes in mood and affection: Edgar, Heathcliff, Heathcliff, Edgar. If Edgar was an ass it would be easy to claim that she was torn between her heart and her wallet, but except for a certain amount of aristocratic arrogance Edgar is a gentleman and actually a nice guy.
On the night that Edgar proposes to her Heathcliff overhear Cathy calling Heathcliff names and declare her love for Edgar. When she moments later changes her mind ad declare her love for Heathcliff it is too late. Heathcliff is gone. Cathy runs after him into the storm (it always storms at Wuthering Heights, they ought to get some wind turbines there) and is almost dead when the search party finds her on the moor.
That settles it. She marries Edgar and forgets about Heathcliff.
Until Heathcliff returns, a wealthy man.
Heathcliff is a bitter man who never forgets. Hindleys torment of him is repaid by buying up Wuthering Height and reducing Hindley to a pathetic guest in his house and Cathy he is gaining access to by using Edgar’s sister Isabella’s (Geraldine Fitzgerald) infatuation in him.
What a mess.
Edgar loves and is married to Cathy.
Cathy loves Edgar and Heathcliff, but since she is married to Edgar she has to turn away Heathcliff
Isabella loves and get married to Heathcliff
Heathcliff is married to Isabella but has only eyes for Cathy. In fact everything he does is for her and caused by a resentment against everything and everybody that keeps him from her.
This of course ends in misery for everybody. Cathy dies, Heathcliff keep obsessing over her and who knows what happens to Isabella and Edgar.
Now many years later Heathcliff dies in the snowstorm following the call of ghostly Cathy and they are reunited in death. Sorry if I spoiled it for anybody.
This is a movie for the BIIIG emotions and it aims high. So high that it frequently breaks under its own pathos. I have not seen as much overacting and melodrama since the silent era. I suppose it belongs in this sort of movie, but it is rather off-putting to me. These people are reeeeally serious. Heathcliff in particular is wearing his emotions on the outside and the bitterness he is exuding is so dark on venomous that he is outright scary if it did not become almost comical in its intensity.
That said, even I had to wipe a tear in the end when the conclusion had played itself out for max effect.
I was very interested in seeing Laurence Olivier and David Niven in this movie. They already were and became even bigger stars over the coming years. Olivier got an Oscar for Wuthering Heights as did his girlfriend at the time Vivien Leigh for Gone with the Wind making them the biggest thing in Hollywod. However I mostly enjoyed Merle Oberon as Cathy and even more so Sarita Wooton playing Cathy-as-child. They were both a bliss to watch.
But man, what a mess.