Program Notes: Wuthering Heights (1939)

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Happy sets do not always result in happy movies.

Nor do miserable sets invariably produce cinematic dreck.

For proof of that one need look no further than the career of William Wyler, one of the most prolific and honored filmmakers ever.

Films made by Wyler (1902-1981) have won more awards – acting, writing, technical achievement – than those of any other director in Hollywood history. Moreover, Wyler himself was 12 times nominated for an Oscar for best director, winning three times. That’s a record that holds today.

But Wyler he had a reputation for crankiness, imperiousness and, some would say, borderline sadism in his handling of actors.

He was a perfectionist who would drive his cast and crews crazy with reshoots, earning him the nickname “90-take Wyler.” While filming Jezebel, he had Henry Fonda do the same scene 40 times in a row. His only comment to the actor was “Again.”

Film Screening:
Wuthering Heights (1939)
Saturday, Feb. 15 at 1:30 p.m.
Central Library

When an exasperated Fonda asked what was wrong with the take they’d just completed, Wyler replied: “It stinks.” And kept on shooting.

In 1938 producer Samuel Goldwyn contracted with Wyler to direct an adaptation of Emily Bronte’s Gothic classic, Wuthering Heights.

By this time Wyler – who was born in Alsace, a French-speaking district of Germany – had been shooting Hollywood features for a decade.

His earliest efforts were mostly Westerns (a French-speaking German shooting cowboy pictures ... go figure) but he’d also done a good mix of comedy (Her First Mate, The Good Fairy, The Gay Deception) and drama (Counsellor at Law, These Three, Dodsworth, Dead End).

Moreover, he’d gotten terrific performances from a wide range of actors: John Barrymore, Paul Lukas, Constance Cummings, Margaret Sullavan, Herbert Marshall, Joel McCrea, Miriam Hopkins, John Huston, Frances Farmer, Humphrey Bogart, Sylvia Sidney.

Wuthering Heights was going to be a prestige production, one of the year’s most important films, and by the time Wyler was on board much had already been done.

Stage legends Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht (with an uncredited assist from John Huston) had wrestled Bronte’s massive novel into shape by eliminating the second half of the book and concentrating soley on the doomed romance of Cathy and her childhood companion, the fiery stableboy Heathcliffe.

The art department had stripped the natural vegetation from hillsides near Chatsworth, north of Los Angles, and replaced the living plants with thousands of tumbleweeds topped with purple sawdust to give the impression of fields of English heather. For close ups a thousand real heather bushes were imported and planted – but they were so delighted with the California sunshine that within days they had grown twice as tall as they would have back home in England and had to be cut back.

And Goldwyn had already hired his Heathcliffe – the rising British actor Laurence Olivier, who was making his Hollywood debut.

This is where things got testy. Olivier – an accomplished stage performer with an ego to match – lobbied heavily to have his then-paramour, Vivien Leigh, cast as Cathy. Wyler dismissed the idea and instead gave the role to the India-born English import Merle Oberon, with whom he had worked a couple of years earlier in These Three (the first film based on Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour).

Olivier was not pleased.

(Actually, it all worked out for the best, since Leigh was also up for the role of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With the Wind, a part she won and which overnight made her a household name.)

Moreover, Olivier – who earlier had worked with Oberon in an English film – thought his co-star was a lightweight and did his best to make her life miserable, openly referring to her as a “little amateur bitch.”

“I was abominably pompous with Wyler, who detested me quite rightly,” Olivier confided years later. “I was so conceited. I thought I knew all about acting. I thought I knew all about films. I thought I knew all about the art of the craft.

“I didn’t, and it took Wyler to bully it out of me.”

And that’s exactly what happened. Every time Olivier got on his high horse, Wyler knocked him off while the cast and crew looked on. Accustomed to working on the stage and casting his performances to the last seat in the balcony, Olivier was over-emoting. He had to be taught to tone it down.

“I want it better,” was Wyler’s constant refrain.

Over several months Wyler – though a savvy combination of nastiness and fatherly instruction (he was a one-man good cop/bad cop routine) – brought his leading man down to earth and showed him the mechanics of movie acting.

For the rest of his life Olivier credited Wyler with opening his eyes to the subtleties of film acting, and that thereafter he felt cinema was the equal of the stage.

Five years later when Olivier was planning to star in a film version of Shakespeare’s Henry V, he asked Wyler to direct it. Wyler replied that Olivier was himself capable of directing the film.

He was right. Henry V was a triumph, winning Oliver an honorary Oscar “for his outstanding achievement as actor, producer and director in bringing Henry V to the screen.”

During the making of Wuthering Heights Wyler also had to run interference with a meddling producer. Goldwyn complained that Olivier looked too dirty and scruffy, not nearly romantic enough.

Wyler responded that Olivier was playing a stable boy, for crying out loud. Later, when Heathcliffe rises to become the master of the estate, there would be plenty of time for snappy clothes and good grooming.

On one sticking point, however, the producer had his way. Goldwyn was frustrated because the film ends with Heathcliffe dying, Cathy having passed on many years before.

“I don’t want to look at a corpse during the fadeout,” Goldwyn protested. He asked Wyler to shoot a final scene in which Cathy and Heathcliffe would be reunited in heaven.

Appalled by the cheesiness of the suggestion, Wyler refused.

But Goldwyn had the final say. After Wyler had left the production, he ordered an underling to shoot the “heaven” scene, using two stand-ins to play Heathcliff and Cathy. With their backs to the camera they climb a hill of heather, hand in hand.

The end.

Wuthering Heights was released in 1939, widely regarded as the best year in Hollywood history. It faced major competition for the Oscars that year – Stagecoach, Gone With the Wind, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Wizard of Oz, Ninotchka – but earned a slew of nominations, including best picture, director, and actor. Its only win, though, was for Gregg Toland’s cinematography.

But it cemented Wyler’s place as one of the most versatile directors in town. Over the next 30 years he would turn out cinema landmarks like Mrs. Miniver, The Heiress, The Little Foxes, The Best Years of Our Lives, The Children’s Hour, Roman Holiday, Ben-Hur, and Funny Girl.

Other films in the series “Hollywood’s Greatest Year, 1939: Great Adaptations”

Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:

Admission to these films is free.

About the Author

Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.

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