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Film / Wuthering Heights (1939)

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Wuthering Heights is a 1939 film directed by William Wyler.

It is, of course, an adaptation of Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontė. Mr. Earnshaw, owner of a Yorkshire estate called Wuthering Heights, brings home a child named Heathcliff, a homeless urchin he found in Liverpool. His daughter Cathy takes an immediate shine to Heathcliff and they become friends, but Cathy's arrogant brother Hindley hates Heathcliff and abuses him terribly. After Mr. Earnshaw dies and teenaged Hindley becomes master of the house, he kicks Heathcliff out of the main house, banishing him to the stables as a servant.

Cut forward a decade or so. Adult Heathcliff (Laurence Olivier) still labors as a stable boy for the Earnshaws. He and adult Cathy (Merle Oberon) have fallen in love, but Cathy, who has become accustomed to a life of pampered wealth, declines to run away with Heathcliff. Meanwhile, Hindley, now an alcoholic wastrel, still hates and abuses Heathcliff. When neighbor Edgar Linton (David Niven) starts paying romantic attention to Cathy, Heathcliff leaves the moors, vowing revenge. Edgar and Catherine marry. Many years later, Heathcliff comes back to Yorkshire, bent on revenge—a revenge that eventually involves Edgar Linton's sister Isabella.

Leo G. Carroll plays Joseph, the servant. Alfred Newman composed the store.


  • Adaptation Dye-Job: Blond Edgar played by dark-haired David Niven.
  • Adapted Out: Like many adaptations, this version omits the whole second half of Wuthering Heights, which deals the next generation in the persons of Hindley, Catherine, and Heathcliff's children. None appear. Mrs. Earnshaw is also omitted.
  • The Alcoholic: Hindley becomes a drunkard. He's wobbling on his feet in the scene where Ellen comes back to tell him that Cathy is lost on the moors. Hindley's drinking and gambling allows Heathcliff to buy Wuthering Heights out from under him; Heathcliff makes sure that Hindley is still supplied with wine to speed his descent into oblivion.
  • All Girls Want Bad Boys: Well sure Cathy is going to go for dark, mysterious Heathcliff instead of handsome, pleasant, adoring Edgar. Isn't that always how it goes? Isabella wants him too, unfortunately for her.
  • Angry Guard Dog: The angry guard dogs at the Linton mansion bite Cathy's ankle, introducing her to Edgar while causing Heathcliff to leave to make his fortune.
  • Anguished Declaration of Love: Heathcliff and Cathy do this a lot. Cathy says "He should have known I love him, I love him, I love him!", after finding out too late that Heathcliff has ridden away.
  • Asshole Victim: Hindley the mean vicious Jerkass had Heathcliff's revenge coming, although nobody else did.
  • Chiaroscuro: Dark, shadowing lighting sets the mood at Wuthering Heights in the Framing Device, as Lockwood is shown to his room, only to encounter a ghost at the window.
  • Create Your Own Villain: Hindley's overt abusiveness and scorn, and to a lesser extend Edgar's snobbery, are what later bring the wrath of Heathcliff down upon the two of them.
  • Died in Your Arms Tonight: A dying Catherine asks Heathcliff to help her to the window to look once more at the moors. As they look out together she dies, as shown by her arms slipping off his shoulders.
  • Died Standing Up: Died being held up, that is, as Cathy dies in Heathcliff's arms while they both look out the window.
  • Dies Differently in Adaptation:
    • In this movie Cathy dies of Victorian Novel Disease, while in the actual Victorian novel, she dies in childbirth.
    • In the novel, Nelly finds Heathcliff dead on his bed after he spends several days behaving strangely and refusing to eat or sleep. In the movie, he runs out into a blizzard in search of Cathy's ghost, and soon afterward Dr. Kenneth finds him dead in the snow.
  • Framing Device: The whole story is told by Ellen the servant to Lockwood, a temporary guest at Wuthering Heights.
  • Get Out!: What Cathy says to Edgar when throwing him out of the house after Edgar insults Heathcliff.
  • Ghost Reunion Ending: Ends with the ghosts of Heathcliff and Catherine, together at last, walking off towards Peniston Crag.
  • Gorgeous Period Dress: The film moves the action forward from the late 18th century to the mid 19th century, because the latter period was all the rage in Hollywood films of the time (e.g. Gone with the Wind). This allows Merle Oberon's Cathy to wear sumptuous hoop-skirt gowns once she becomes Lady Linton and there are ball scenes at Thrushcross Grange (no balls occur in the novel) that showcase the fashion even further.
  • Longing Look: Isabella invites Heathcliff to the Lintons' fancy party, but all he can do is stare at Cathy. Soon after he begs her to go away with him but she refuses.
  • Love Makes You Evil: Rejection by Cathy turns Heathcliff mean and cruel and bent on revenge.
  • Master of the Mixed Message: Cathy does this a lot to Heathcliff before they go away. She vows her love to Heathcliff when they're out on the crag together. But when she returns to Wuthering Heights after her recuperation at the Linton house she is cold to Heathcliff and insults him. Later she meets Heathcliff at the crag, apologizes, and embraces him again. Then she insults Heathcliff again after Edgar pays a visit, which is what finally leads him to leave to make his fortune.
    Cathy: Well, my moods change indoors.
  • A Minor Kidroduction: The opening scenes show Heathcliff, Cathy, and Hindley as children, with Heathcliff and Cathy becoming best friends while Heathcliff and Hindley hate each other.
  • My Sister Is Off-Limits: Edgar frantically tries to stop Isabella's romance with Heathcliff, to no avail.
  • Noodle Incident: As with the novel, no explanation is given for how Heathcliff the penniless stableboy turned himself into a wealthy man.
  • Oh, Crap!: Edgar gets a look of horror on his face when Cathy's violent reaction to Isabella running away with Heathcliff makes Edgar realize that he is the Romantic False Lead in this story.
  • Off-into-the-Distance Ending: Cathy and Heathcliff, both ghosts, walking off towards the crag.
  • Our Ghosts Are Different: Lockwood not only hears the ghost of Catherine but touches her hand. Ellen says that it's not Cathy's ghost but her love. The final scene, which Sam Goldwyn forced director William Wyler to film, shows the ghosts of Heathcliff and Cathy walking back to Peniston Crag.
  • The Place: Wuthering Heights is the house.
  • Say My Name: Cathy goes out into the driving rain screaming "HEATHCLIFF! HEATHCLIFF!", after Heathcliff leaves the moor for good (until his vengeful return, that is).
  • Significant Wardrobe Shift: Isabella is always clad in fancy white gowns before her marriage to Heathcliff. After that extremely unfortunate coupling, she's seen dressed in black.
  • Spared by the Adaptation: In the novel, Isabella leaves Heathcliff and then dies. In this film she is still alive when Heathcliff kicks it at the end.
  • Spiteful Spit: Heathcliff spits at Judge Linton's feet while vowing revenge.
  • Time Skip: Ten years or so from teenaged Hindley inheriting the house and banishing Heathcliff to the stables, to all three characters as adults.
  • Together in Death: Catherine and Heathcliff spend the afterlife together.
  • Victorian Novel Disease: The doctor basically shrugs when asked what is wrong with Catherine, saying that she's got a lung disease but, really, "a will to die." And so Catherine does die, as she explicitly wants to. This is a change from the novel where Catherine dies in childbirth. It does seem to allude to the real-life death of Emily Brontė, though: the doctor's reference to her "inflammation of the lungs" is the exact same phrase Charlotte Brontė used to describe Emily's illness before they realized it was tuberculosis, and a persistent myth about Emily is that she willed her own death after the loss of her brother Branwell.
  • You Wouldn't Shoot Me: Hindley pulls a gun on Heathcliff, but Heathcliff diagnoses him correctly as a cowardly weakling who won't pull the trigger.
    Heathcliff: Shoot, you pulling chicken of a man with not enough blood in you to keep your hand steady!