classic film laurence olivier

Favorite Films of 1939: Wuthering Heights

Merle Oberon and Laurence Olivier in Wuthering Heights

When I originally signed on to participate in the CMBA Films of 1939 Blogathon, I was really hoping I’d get a chance to write about William Wyler’s adaptation of Wuthering Heights. But it turned out someone else had already chosen to write about this film. Therefore, I decided to wait until after the blogathon finished to get my two cents in about what is not only one of my favorite films of 1939, but what might just be my favorite film, period.

Let me give you a little back story. I read Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights for my AP English class during my senior year in high school and admittedly hated it. This was followed by  screening of the 1992 film version starring Juliette Binoche and Ralph Fiennes, and I hated that, too. Then one day a couple of years down the road, I caught the 1939 version on TCM and the rest, as they say, is history.

As an adaptation of one of the most famous novels in English history, some may have qualms about this film version. It leaves out about half of Bronte’s story, instead choosing to focus on the relationship between Cathy Earnshaw and Heathcliff. There is no second generation, there is no borderline necrophilia and the gothic factor is toned down. Yet, as a film–particularly a Hollywood studio filmI find this version to be absolutely beautiful. Gregg Toland, who would become famous for his use of deep focus photography in Citizen Kane, did the cinematography here and photographed the “Yorkshire moors” in all of their moody splendor. Alfred Newman’s score, particularly Cathy’s Theme, is one of my favorites from any film.

Listen to Cathy’s Theme by Alfred Newman


Like The Wizard of Oz, Wuthering Heights is notable for the performances, specifically Laurence Olivier’s. Melodrama, particularly costume films, is usually a genre where the female lead gets to shine. One might say this is true for Merle Oberon, as the film was planned as a star-making vehicle for her. However, it turned out to be much more of a star-making film for Olivier who takes the cake as Heathcliff. Personally, I think Merle is okay in this film, and perhaps other actresses could have done better, but Laurence Olivier is the best Heathcliff out of any film version I’ve seen.

Merle Oberon and Laurence Olivier in Wuthering Heights

Heathcliff was not a part that Olivier was eager to accept. In 1938, he was vacationing in France with Vivien Leigh when a letter came through from William Wyler asking him to consider returning to Hollywood. Olivier’s misgivings were twofold. He did not want to be separated from Vivien for such a long period of time, and he had a strong dislike for filmmaking in general and Hollywood specifically. His first stint in Hollywood had proved a failure. In 1931, he and his first wife Jill Esmond had gone to Hollywood under contract to RKO. Olivier had been molded and marketed as the next Ronald Colman, but he only made three films before being sacked by Greta Garbo from Queen Christina and replaced by John Gilbert. Olivier and Esmond returned to England where he immediately set out to conquer the classical stage, occasionally acting in British films to supplement his income. When Wyler offered him the role in Wuthering Heights, he said he would only do it if Vivien Leigh was given the role of Cathy. Unfortunately for them, it had already been promised to Merle Oberon and Vivien was offered the consolation role of Isabella Linton. In response, Vivien is supposed to have famously told Wyler that she’d play Cathy or she’d play nothing.

It is not 100% clear what finally motivated Olivier to accept the role, but when he arrived in Hollywood in November 1938, he was miserable. The separation from Vivien was straining and it showed in his mood. Wyler advised he keep his personal life separate from his work. Olivier later confessed in his book On Acting, “He was right. I was madly in love with Vivien and could think of little else.” Aside from personal angst, Olivier found working on the film challenging. He clashed with Merle Oberon, perhasp because he was bitter that Vivien did not get the part. He also went head to head with Wyler who he forever thought horrible to work with, although he greatly respected the director. Wyler was determined to bully a natural performance out of his leading actor, and Olivier (who also later described himself as a “pompous twat” on the set of Wuthering Heights) had to be taken down a few notches before he gave in and began to appreciate that acting for the screen was a different game altogether.

Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon in Wuthering Heights

For Olivier, the difference between acting on film and acting on stage was fundamental. Film was the director’s medium whereas theatre was the true actor’s medium. In a famous 1969 interview with Michael Parkinson, he explained this difference: “I’d say [acting for film] was more a science than an art. If you are acting on a film, the camera comes in and gets you and the sound man comes in and gets you, and that is projected onto the screen. If you are acting on the stage, you’re projecting it onto the audience.”

Wyler’s tough love stance eventually won Olivier over, so much so that Olivier willingly signed up to work with him again on the 1952 film Carrie (which is definitely one of Larry’s best and most under-rated performances. Well worth a view if you haven’t see it already). The mutual respect between actor and director eventually paid off. Olivier gives, in my opinion, one of the best performances of his career in Wuthering Heights. There is a great intensity and sensuality about him, particularly in his eyes. Many people who saw him perform on stage talk about his palpable intensity, and I think it comes through in this film. He is truly electrifying. I think if he and Vivien had starred together in this film, the screen probably would have exploded. Although he lost to Robert Donat in Goodbye Mr. Chips, Olivier earned the first of many Oscar nominations for his performance. The film also won the New York Film Critics Circle award for Best Film of 1939, beating out even Gone with the Wind.

Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon in Wuthering Heights

I mentioned in my Wizard of Oz post that I had the opportunity to see it on the big screen in beverly Hills at the AMPAS tribute to the films of 1939. I also had the chance to see Wuthering Heights during the same tribute, and it was probably the best film screening ever. Unfortunately, this is not a film that gets revived…ever. Hell, it’s not even on DVD in the US. What is wrong with this picture, seriously? So having the chance to see it as it was originally shown was really special for me. Samuel Goldwyn Jr. was on hand to introduce the film. He talked a bit about the production and how, out of all the films his father produced, this one always made the famous mogul most proud. We also got a very special treat when the programmers screened some home video footage from William Wyler’s collection which showed Olivier and Merle Oberon filming the Penistone Crag scenes. The best part? It was in color! And it was glorious!

Wuthering Heights is a film that I have seen many times and never get sick of watching it. This is the film that made me love Laurence Olivier. It was as if a lightbulb went on as soon as I saw him on screen and I haven’t looked back since. Well done, Larry, well done.

AMPAS screening of Wuthering Heights


AMPAS screening of Wuthering Heights 2009

Publicity and Academy Awards photos. Samuel Goldwyn Theatre, 2009

Kendra has been the weblady at since 2007. She lives in Yorkshire and is the author of Vivien Leigh: An Intimate Portrait, and co-author of Ava Gardner: A Life in Movies (Running Press). Follow her on Twitter @kendrajbean, Instagram at @vivandlarrygram, or at her official website.

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Comments (20)

  1. I have so much love for this film. Even though it covers only the first half of the novel it still captures the essence of the book which is important for me when it comes to adaptations. I’ve watched parts of other versions and I can’t stand them because they veer so far from the heart of the story. Besides Gone with the Wind, this is my favorite film of 1939. I can only hope that someday an adaptation as good as this one will be made that includes the second half of the book.

    1. I recently saw the Tom Hardy BBC version and thought it was pants, even though it remained quite faithful to the book. The acting was 10 shades of awkward.

  2. “this is the film that made me love Laurence Olivier” I can subscrive to it , Kendra. I was about twelve when I saw this film on the telly and found Larry devastingly attractive,charismatic and wildly talented.I didnt know much about the novel at that time but even after having read it and having seen other versions, Olivier is to me the only and one Heathcliff.

  3. Kendra, I found your WUTHERING HEIGHTS blog post fascinating and moving — which is saying quite a lot considering this version of the film has always left me wanting to smack both Heathcliff and Cathy upside their heads for being so willful and hostile, especially to Isabella! But in a crazy kind of way, that’s a compliment, since Olivier’s and Oberon’s performances definitely stirred my emotions in one way or another! 🙂 Your writing is excellent as always, and I was caught up in the backstage (so to speak) drama surrounding the making of the film and the difficulties arising from Olivier having to do without Leigh during the filming. Also, good points about how acting for film differs from stage acting.

    1. Thanks, Dorian! I know what you mean, I also want to smack their heads together out of frustration. That Olivier and Oberon didn’t get along at the time made their love scenes even better. The backstage stories are always the best and I do think he was being a bit dramatic because Vivien joined him in Hollywood about a month later, but they were so crazy about each other that he couldn’t deal.

  4. This film made me love Laurence Olivier too! I think I must have watched it so many times as a teenager that I wore out the VHS copy I had. I had all the lines memorized and was obsessed with anything having to do with Laurence Olivier. I recently came across a DVD copy of “Wuthering Heights” and watched it after a 10 year hiatus from my first love (marriage, kids, etc. taking over), and am in love again! Now I am going to show it to my oldest daughter and hope she loves it just as much as I do!

  5. I can’t believe I haven’t seen this Wuthering Heights yet! I’ll be scourging youtube now for the rest of the day.

    There is something about these classic performances that just make them absolutely fantastic, I completely agree. The 1940 version of Pride and Prejudice and the 1943 Jane Eyre is that way for me.  Particularly Jane with Orson Wells. (He’s my Olivier.)  I think, as readers, we’re able to let go of textual accuracy in these early versions because we know it won’t happen. Then, we’re able to enjoy the story as a film, not an adaptation.

    On a side note, I adore all your back story knowledge and your voice in your posts: it’s so much more like sharing and less like teaching. Love that!

  6. Laurence Olivier had wanted Vivian Leigh as his co-star for this movie. Because of this, the prevailing attitude seemed to be that Merle Oberon’s performance as Cathy was mediocre. Every time I watch “WUTHERING HEIGHTS”, I have great difficulty in accepting this view. In fact, I was a little more impressed by her performance than I was by Olivier’s. Sorry, but I always come away with this view.

  7. I thought that Merle Oberon’s death scene was awful. She just did not get it right. Unless that is how the director wanted her to act in this scene. Laurence was brilliant.

  8. I have just watched this movie and I LOVE IT! 😀
    It is not faithful to the book…but who cares!!
    I know this is an old post…done in 2011…but back then I had no idea that this movie existed. I am a huge ole movie freak who loves the 1930’s films… (Ha, how many 14 year old girls have said that to you.?.lol)
    “This is the film that made me love Laurence Olivier” I agree with you SO much! He is great in this role, the best bit for me was the one where Cathy and Heathcliff are looking in at the Party that the Linton’s where having. After they are discovered and Cathy is taken inside, the curse that Heathcliff puts on the Lintons, the way he does it is amazing. I pause it there where he is standing up to them, he in is servants clothes and they are in the dresses and fancy clothes and airs
    Cathy: Go on, Heathcliff. Run away. Bring me back the world.
    Judge Linton: Pack this fellow off.
    Heathcliff: I’m going. I’m going from here and from this cursed country both.
    Judge Linton: Throw him out!
    Heathcliff: But I’ll be back in this house one day, Judge Linton and I’ll pay you out. I’ll bring this house down in ruins about your heads. That’s my curse on you!
    [spits on the floor]
    Heathcliff: On all of you!
    But then there are so many great bits!
    Like where Cathy was “dressing for dinner” and Heathcliff finds out, he says this to her….
    Heathcliff: Tell the dirty stable boy to let go of you. He soiled your pretty dress. But who soiled your heart? Not Heathcliff. Who turns you into a vain, cheap, worldly fool? Linton does. You’ll never love him, but you’ll let yourself be loved because it pleases your stupid, greedy vanity!”
    Then this one is my second favourite quote from this movie. When Heathcliff is “praying” for Cathy
    “Catherine Earnshaw, may you not rest so long as I live on! I killed you. Haunt me, then! Haunt your murderer! I know that ghosts have wandered on the Earth. Be with me always. Take any form, drive me mad, only do not leave me in this dark alone where I cannot find you. I cannot live without my life! I cannot die without my soul. “

  9. I’ve always loved this movie. Saw it at 1 am on AMC when I was 12, 13 or 14. I’m 40 now. Been married for 17 years. Tried to find where the penistone crag scenes were filmed with my wife in February 2013. Hiked around the Wildwood area of Thousand Oaks. Had an amazing time. I know the close up shots were probably in a studio but I had to go out there.

    When I first watched this movie with my wife (she had never seen it), she loved it. I wasn’t sure she would. Made me love her more.

  10. I watched WutheringHeights again yesterday and still cried my eyes out. I studied this book for a level Literature and am now 47 but still recall it word for word. I studied to be a teacher in Yorkshire because it was where Wuthering Heights was set … I actually said that in interview. Laurence Olivier is Heathcliffe . My favourite line is … he’s more myself than I am .

  11. The thing is, she didn’t want this movie. She only wanted to be in it after Olivier was in it. She didn’t have the drive for it as she did for GWTW and A Streetcar Named Desire or even Caesar and Cleopatra for that matter.

    I feel she should have accepted the role of Isabella Linton if she had the time to do so. I think there would have been great chemistry on screen with her, Merle and Olivier.

    It’s quite disappointing that she was not interested in Wuthering Heights which is a deeper work of art than mainstream GWTW. The characters may not be as realistic and entertaining as Scarlett but they are unforgettable. Scarlett and Rhett pale in comparison to Heathcliff and Cathy.

    She could’ve later performed a stage version or commissioned a British production of Wuthering Heights.

    The reason why I say this is because I was not pleased with Merle’s nor Juliette Binoche’s performances in Wuthering Heights. By the way, Juliette Binoche looks quite a lot like Viv.

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