March 1, 2024

Gabbing Geek

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AFI Countdown Challenge #73: Wuthering Heights

Heathcliff, Cathy, and a whole lot of the Moors appear in this 1939 adaptation of the Gothic Romance.

There have been number of film versions of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, but up until this point I hadn’t seen one.  I read the novel a couple years ago.  I was expecting something akin to Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, but while that book featured a somewhat scrappy, plain-looking woman who eventually wins over and finds love with a somewhat moody, handsome, rich man, Wuthering Heights is nothing like that.  Instead, the two presumed lovers of Heathcliff and Cathy are, well, not very likable people.  In fact, it’s hard to say there are any likeable people in Wuthering Heights.

As it is, a friend of mine chided me a bit when I told her I was expecting something closer to Jane Eyre, then succinctly summarized Wuthering Heights as being about two horrible people who deserve each other.

However, that was the book, and there was a good deal of material left out of this adaptation as it is.

After a brief prologue in which a traveler is stranded in the title house, a run-down looking place that may have been nice once, we learn that the wealthy, harsh man who owns the place, Heathcliff (Lawrence Olivier) was once in love with and calls to someone named “Cathy” who may or may not be alive and may or may not be on the moors surrounding the house.

By the by, she isn’t and she seems to be.

The intrigued traveler gets the housekeeper to tell the story, and it comes down to this:  two children who grew up in the house, Cathy and her older brother Hindley Earnshaw, were surprised when one day their father brought home a poor orphan named Heathcliff.  He may or may not be a gypsy.  Cathy, a wild girl to begin with, quickly takes a liking to the boy while Hindley turns out to be, well, awful.  When the family patriarch dies, Hindley immediately sends Heathcliff to work in the stables.  Both are still kids.

As it is, Heathcliff and Cathy (Merle Oberon) fall in love, but does Cathy marry Heathcliff?  Nope.  She marries a rich neighbor, Edgar Linton (David Niven).  Enraged, Heathcliff swears revenge.

Why didn’t Cathy marry Heathcliff?  She reasons that in many ways they already share a soul and, her words, she is Heathcliff.  Heathcliff may or may not have heard that part.  He doesn’t in the novel, loudly leaving an eavesdropping position shortly after Cathy says she’s marrying Edgar.

Heathcliff later comes back a wealthy man who bought the run-down Wuthering Heights without telling the drunken gambler Hindley who he was.  Edgar figures that for the most underhanded and wrong thing he’d ever heard, which tells me Edgar doesn’t get out much.  There are much worse things to do than that.  But that was what bugged me about the novel:  Heathcliff just wanted, well, revenge.  What did he want revenge for?  Hindley was treating him badly, true, but what did the Lintons ever do?  Part of Heathcliff’s revenge seems to involve marrying Edgar’s sister Isabella, and while this movie changes Isabella’s ultimate fate, it likewise omits how Heathcliff eventually comes to own both houses due to some sort of legal maneuvers.  Why does Heathcliff want so much revenge?  Is it against Cathy for breaking his heart?  Is it a class thing, where poor child Heathcliff is striking back at his social betters for the crime of being his social betters?

Cathy and Isabella

Maybe it was because there was less talk of revenge and more time onscreen for Cathy (who seems to die somewhat early in the novel), but this film made the pair a bit more likable.  Oh sure, Cathy is still impulsive and flighty in ways that just infuriate Heathcliff, and Heathcliff is still that Byronic hero full of brooding rage, but it’s aimed at the woman who spurned him.  He may not like the Lintons, causing misery for his wife and pretty much everyone else around him, but it comes from a broken heart.

That’s understandable.  It’s not acceptable, but it’s understandable.

In many ways, this is one of those tragic Hollywood romances.  Cutting out the last portion of the book involving a second generation, the flashback ends with Cathy’s death in Heathcliff’s arms.  The score is the saddest violin music possible.  Tears flow.  I don’t go for this sort of thing, and this time it was cranked up to eleven.  I suspect many of the cliches for this genre were invented by this film, though, and it ends with the happy (?) ending of Heathcliff running out onto the moors to freeze to death, uniting the two in death as ghosts over the last frames of the movie.

Are they still horrible people?  Yes, but Olivier brings a bit of dash to Heathcliff, and Oberon does make for a charming Cathy.  They still deserve each other.

NEXT UP:  I’d best get comfortable since coming up next is the 1959 Ben-Hur which clocks in at roughly three and a half hours long.  I somehow doubt it’s all chariot races.