Wuthering Heights (1939): Wyler’s Lavish Romantic Melodrama, Starring Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon

William Wyler’s supremely executed romantic drama, Wuthering Heights, reunited Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon after their successful appearance in the 1938 British film, The Divorce Of Lady X.

The screenplay by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur is based on Emily Bronte’s novel, which served as source for a very different rendition by Spaniard Luis Bunuel, made in Mexico in 1953.

Bronte’s tragic novel, which was published in 1847, is set against the somber background of the Yorkshire moors. Heathcliff, a gypsy boy is picked up on the streets of Liverpool by the noble Mr. Earnshshaw of Wuthering Heights, who brings him to his estate on the edge of the moor. The boy grows there to manhood, but after his master’s death, is hated by Hindley (Hugh Williams), the new master. Meanwhile, Hindley’s sister Cathy (Oberon) falls for Heathcliff (Olivier), who’s still wild, untamable and alien to his refined surroundings.

Torn between her instinctive passion for Heathcliff and her desire for safety, security and easy, elegant life with the neighbor Edgard Linton (Niven), she chooses the latter, as dictated by norms of the times.

Though the film necessarily condenses Bronte’s long novel, Samuel Goldwyn’s production didn’t spare any money on making the film, resulting in a polished movie with plenty of talent in front and behind the camera. Gregg Toland’s moody black-and-white cinematography deservedly won the Oscar Award in a year, 1939, which is considered to be the best in Hollywood’s history.
At the time, some critics complained about the changes in the historical era, from the original novel’s Regency to the movie’s Georgian period. Olivier was praised for his interpretation, which catapulted him to Hollywood’s stardom, a status reaffirmed the following year with a starring performance in Hitchcock’s first American film, “Rebecca.” But Merle Oberon was criticized by some for failing to endow her tragic role with the necessary conviction and passion. Oberon was not the first choice: The role had been offered to Vivien Leigh (who was Olivier companion), who made a splash of her own that year in “Gone With the Wind.”


Cathy Linton (Merle Oberon)
Heathcliff (Laurence Olivier)
Edgar Linton (David Niven)
Dr. Kenneth (Donald Crisp)
Ellen Dean (Flora Robson)
Hindley Earnshaw (Hugh Williams)
Isabelle Linton (Geraldine Fitzgerald)
Joseph (Leo G. Carroll)
Judge Linton (Cecil Humphreys)
Lockwood (Miles Mander)

Oscar Nominations: 8

Picture, produced by Samuel Goldwyn
Director: William Wyler
Actor: Laurence Olivier
Supporting Actress: Geraldine Chaplin
Screenplay: Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur
Cinematography (b/w): Gregg Toland
Interior Decoration: James Baservi
Original Score: Alfred Newman

Oscar Awards: 1


Oscar Context

“Wuthering Heights” vied for the Best Picture Oscar with nine other films in what’s considered to be the best year in Hollywood’s history: “Dark Victory,” “Gone With the Wind,” which swept the Oscars, “Goodbye Mr. Chips,” “Love Affair,” “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” “Ninotchka,” “Of Mice and Men,” “Stagecoach,” and “The Wizard of Oz.”

This is the only Oscar that Gregg Toland, arguably Hollywood’s brightest cinematographer, had ever won. He’s also known for the imagery of “Citizen Kane” and “The Little Foxes,” both in 1941. Toland died young, at 44, in 1948, but he left a rich, influential legacy behind him.

The Best Actor Oscar went to another Brit, Robert Donat, in “Goodbye Mr. Chips,” and the Supporting Actress to Hattie McDaniel for playing Mammie in “Gone With the Wind.” The Scoring Oscar went to Herbert Stothart for the MGM musical, “The Wizard of Oz.”

United Artists (Samuel Goldwyn Production)