Wuthering Heights (1939 film)

Wuthering Heights is a 1939 American romantic period drama film directed by William Wyler and produced by Samuel Goldwyn. It is based on the 1847 novel Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë. The film depicts only 16 of the novel's 34 chapters, eliminating the second generation of characters. The novel was adapted for the screen by Charles MacArthur, Ben Hecht, and John Huston.

Wuthering Heights
Wuthering Heights (1939 poster).jpg
Theatrical release poster
Directed byWilliam Wyler
Produced bySamuel Goldwyn
Written byCharles MacArthur
Ben Hecht
John Huston (uncredited)
Based onWuthering Heights
1847 novel
by Emily Brontë
StarringMerle Oberon
Laurence Olivier
David Niven
Geraldine Fitzgerald
Music byAlfred Newman
CinematographyGregg Toland
Edited byDaniel Mandell
Distributed byUnited Artists
Release date
  • March 24, 1939 (1939-03-24)
  • April 13, 1939 (1939-04-13) (US)
Running time
103 minutes
CountryUnited States
Box office$624,643[2] (1989 re-issue)

It was primarily filmed in Thousand Oaks, California, with scenes shot in Wildwood Regional Park and at the current site of California Lutheran University.[3][4][5]

The film won the 1939 New York Film Critics Award for Best Film. It earned nominations for eight Academy Awards,[6] including for Best Picture and Best Actor in what many consider Hollywood's greatest single year. The 1940 Academy Award for Best Cinematography, black-and-white category, was awarded to Gregg Toland for his work. Nominated for original score (but losing to The Wizard of Oz) was the prolific film composer Alfred Newman, whose poignant "Cathy's Theme" does so much "to maintain its life as a masterpiece of romantic filmmaking."[7]

In 2007, Wuthering Heights was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant".


Heathcliff (Laurence Olivier) and Cathy (Merle Oberon) meet on Peniston Crag

A traveler named Lockwood is caught in the snow and stays at the estate of Wuthering Heights, despite the cold behavior of his host Heathcliff. Late that night, after being shown into an upstairs room that was once a bridal chamber, Lockwood is awakened by a cold draft and finds the window shutter flapping back and forth. Just as he is about to close it, he feels an icy hand clutching his and sees a woman outside calling "Heathcliff, let me in! I'm out on the moors. It's Cathy!" Lockwood calls Heathcliff and tells him what he saw, whereupon the enraged Heathcliff throws him out of the room. As soon as Lockwood is gone, Heathcliff frantically calls out to Cathy, runs down the stairs and out of the house, into the snowstorm.

Ellen, the housekeeper tells the amazed Lockwood that he has seen the ghost of Cathy Earnshaw, Heathcliff's great love, who died years ago. When Lockwood says that he doesn't believe in ghosts, Ellen tells him that he might if she told him the story of Cathy. And so the main plot begins as a long flashback.

As a boy, Heathcliff is found on the streets by Mr. Earnshaw, who brings him home to live with his two children, Cathy and Hindley. At first reluctant, Cathy eventually welcomes Heathcliff and they become very close, but Hindley treats him as an outcast, especially after Mr. Earnshaw dies. About ten years later, the now grown Heathcliff and Cathy have fallen in love and are meeting secretly on Penniston's Crag. Hindley has become dissolute and tyrannical, and hates Heathcliff. One night, as she and Heathcliff are out together, they hear music and realize that their neighbors, the Lintons, are giving a party. Cathy and Heathcliff sneak to the Lintons and climb over their garden wall, but the dogs are alerted and Cathy is injured. Heathcliff is forced to leave Cathy in their care. Enraged that Cathy would be so entranced by the Linton's glamor and wealth, he blames them for her injury and curses them.

Months later, Cathy is fully recuperated but still living at the Lintons. Edgar Linton has fallen in love with Cathy and soon proposes and after Edgar takes her back to Wuthering Heights, tells Ellen what has happened. Ellen reminds her about Heathcliff, but Cathy flippantly remarks that it would degrade her to marry him. Heathcliff overhears and leaves. Cathy realizes that Heathcliff has overheard, is overcome by guilt and runs out after him into a raging storm. Edgar finds her and nurses her back to health once again, and soon the two marry.

Heathcliff at Cathy's deathbed

Heathcliff then apparently disappears forever, but returns two years later, now wealthy and elegant. He has refined his appearance and manners in order to both impress and spite Cathy, and secretly buys Wuthering Heights from Hindley, who is now a complete alcoholic. In order to further spite Cathy, Heathcliff begins courting Edgar's naive sister Isabella and eventually marries her. The brokenhearted Cathy soon falls gravely ill. Heathcliff rushes to her side against the wishes of the now disillusioned and bitter Isabella, and Cathy dies in Heathcliff's arms.

The flashback story has ended. The family doctor, Dr. Kenneth bursts in, expressing shock that he saw Heathcliff in the snow walking with his arm around a woman. Ellen thinks it was Cathy, but Dr. Kenneth is doubtful, and tells them that he was then thrown from his horse. As he drew closer, he found Heathcliff lying in the snow. The woman had disappeared and there was no sign of her. Lockwood asks, "Is he dead?", and Dr. Kenneth nods, but Ellen says, "No, not dead, Dr Kenneth. And not alone. He's with her. They've only just begun to live."

The ghosts of Heathcliff and Cathy are seen walking in the snow, superimposed over Penniston Crag.

Novel sections omitted in filmEdit

The film significantly shortened the plot of the novel. The book originally was divided into two volumes, the first involving Cathy and Heathcliff, and the second later in time involving Heathcliff's interactions with Cathy's daughter, also called Catherine; Heathcliff's son by Isabella, Linton; and Hindley's son Hareton. In the film the second volume, and thus the children and their stories, is omitted.

Because the film cuts that large amount, some of the characters are shifted or omitted. For example, the present-time beginning and ending of the film provide a frame for the flashback in both the film and book; but in the film, Isabella is still the supposed mistress of the household, whereas in the novel time has proceeded to the point where the younger Catherine is the primary female resident. In general, Heathcliff's apparent contact with Cathy's spirit and his subsequent death is preserved as the ending of the film, although it takes place sooner in time, and in a somewhat different way.



The project was initially intended as a vehicle for Merle Oberon, who was under contract with Goldwyn at the time. However, when Laurence Olivier was cast as Heathcliff, Vivien Leigh wanted to play the lead role with her then-lover and future husband.[8] Studio executives felt the role could not go to an actress who was largely unknown in America, but they did offer Leigh the part of Isabella Linton. She declined, and Geraldine Fitzgerald was cast. Leigh was cast in Gone with the Wind the same year, for which she won an Academy Award for Best Actress; Merle Oberon did not receive a nomination for her performance.

There were clashes on the set between actors and the director. Both of the leading players began work on the film miserable at having to leave their loved ones back in the United Kingdom; Olivier missed his fiancée Vivien Leigh, and Oberon had recently fallen in love with film producer Alexander Korda.[9] Merle Oberon and Laurence Olivier also apparently detested each other. Witnesses recall Oberon's scolding Olivier for accidentally spitting on her during a particularly romantic balcony scene. Oberon shouted to Wyler "Tell him to stop spitting at me!" Olivier retorted by shouting "What's a little spit for Chrissake, between actors? You bloody little idiot, how dare you speak to me?" Oberon ran crying from the set after the outburst, and Wyler insisted Olivier apologize to her, which upset Olivier greatly.[10]

Olivier also found himself becoming increasingly annoyed with William Wyler's exhausting and often uncommunicative style of filmmaking. One scene with Olivier was shot 72 times—with each new take called for by Wyler without any actual direction for his actor; just "again!" Finally, an exasperated Olivier is said to have exclaimed "For God's sake, I did it sitting down. I did it with a smile. I did it with a smirk. I did it scratching my ear. I did it with my back to the camera. How do you want me to do it?" Wyler's retort was "I want it better."[10] However, in both his autobiography and his book On Acting, Olivier credits William Wyler with teaching him how to act in films, as opposed to on the stage, and for giving him a new respect for films. Olivier had tended to "ham it up" as if he were playing to the second balcony, but Wyler showed him how to act more subtly - in part by simply wearing him down.[11]

In the final sequence of Wuthering Heights, the spirits of Heathcliff and Cathy are seen walking together hand-in-hand, obviously in love. This scene is not found in the book, and according to literary critic John Sutherland, was likely the stark opposite of what Brontë intended the reader to understand. He contends that a contemporary reader would not have seen Cathy's ghost's actions as a gesture of undying love for Heathcliff but one of towering, protective rage; Cathy haunted Heathcliff to death only to prevent him from cheating her daughter out of her inheritance.[12] Director Wyler hated the idea of the after-life scene and didn't want to do it, but producer Samuel Goldwyn vetoed him, and the scene was added after primary filming was complete. As Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon had moved to other projects, doubles had to be used. Goldwyn subsequently claimed "I made Wuthering Heights, Wyler only directed it."[13] Goldwyn claimed that Wuthering Heights was his favorite of all his productions.[9] Sutherland writes that this change to the ending has influenced how students view the novel and especially Cathy, who comes across as more passive and accepting of abuse than Brontë may have envisioned.[12]

David Niven remembers the filming of Merle Oberon's deathbed scenes (recorded in his bestselling book The Moon's a Balloon) as less than romantic. After telling Wyler he didn't know how to 'sob', he had been given a menthol mist substance to help it appear as if he were crying, which instead had the effect of making "green goo" come out of his nose. Oberon immediately exited the bed after witnessing it.


Frank S. Nugent of The New York Times called it "a strong and somber film, poetically written as the novel not always was, sinister and wild as it was meant to be, far more compact dramatically than Miss Brontë had made it ... It is, unquestionably, one of the most distinguished pictures of the year, one of the finest ever produced by Mr. Goldwyn, and one you should decide to see."[14] Variety wrote that the film "retains all of the grim drama of the book," but believed that its "slow pace" would make for "rather dull material for general audiences."[15] Film Daily reported "Brilliant screen version of Bronte novel ... William Wyler has given the love story warm, sympathetic direction, gaining fine performances from his cast."[16] Harrison's Reports noted "The acting, direction, and production are all excellent; but the story is so sombre and cheerless, that most persons will leave the theatre depressed."[17] John Mosher of The New Yorker wrote "No screen version of 'Wuthering Heights' could ever touch the heart so closely, I am sure, as does a reading of the printed page; yet the Goldwyn production approximates the quality of the fierce, tempestuous story with a force one might never have expected ... Seldom has the tone of a great novel been so faithfully reproduced by the movie people."[18]

Wuthering Heights placed fourth on Film Daily's year-end nationwide poll of 542 critics naming the best films of 1939.[19]

American Film Institute included the film as #73 in its AFI's 100 Years... 100 Movies and #15 in AFI's 100 Years... 100 Passions.


Award Category Recipients and nominees Outcome
New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best Film Wuthering Heights (1939 film) Won
Academy Award Best Cinematography, Black and White Gregg Toland Won
Best Picture Wuthering Heights (1939 film) Nominated
Best Director William Wyler Nominated
Best Actor Laurence Olivier as Heathcliff Nominated
Best Supporting Actress Geraldine Fitzgerald as Isabella Linton Nominated
Best Screenplay Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur Nominated
Best Original Score Alfred Newman Nominated
Best Art Direction James Basevi Nominated


  • The Mitchell Camera Corporation selected cinematographer Gregg Toland and Wuthering Heights to be the first to use their new Mitchell BNC camera. This camera model would become the studio standard.
  • Ronald Colman, Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Robert Newton were considered for the role of Heathcliff.[9]
  • The novel takes place in the late 18th and early 19th century. However, the film places the action in the mid-19th century, around the time of the novel's publication. Sarah Berry writes that Samuel Goldwyn deliberately chose to do this because he thought "Civil War" fashions were more attractive than Regency fashions.[20] Other writers have claimed that Goldwyn was short on funds and had to recycle costumes from a Civil War drama.
  • The film is rated G in New Zealand.

Radio adaptationsEdit

Wuthering Heights was presented on Philip Morris Playhouse on October 17, 1941. The adaptation[clarification needed] starred Raymond Massey and Sylvia Sidney.[21] It was also presented on Screen Guild Players on February 25, 1946. That adaptation[clarification needed] starred Merle Oberon, Cornel Wilde and Reed Hadley.[22]


  1. ^ Hanson, Patricia King, ed. (1993). The American Film Institute Catalog of Motion Pictures Produced in the United States: Feature Films, 1931-1940. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. p. 2476. ISBN 0-520-07908-6.
  2. ^ Box Office Information for Wuthering Heights. Box Office Mojo. Retrieved April 13, 2012.
  3. ^ McKinney, John (2013). HIKE Ventura County. The Trailmaster, Inc. Page 85. ISBN 9780934161534.
  4. ^ O’Brien, Tricia (2017). Thousand Oaks and Westlake Village. Arcadia Publishing. Page 24. ISBN 9781439661956.
  5. ^ Fleming, E.J. (2010). The Movieland Directory: Nearly 30,000 Addresses of Celebrity Homes, Film Locations and Historical Sites in the Los Angeles Area, 1900–Present. McFarland. Page 48. ISBN 9781476604329.
  6. ^ "NY Times: Wuthering Heights". The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-12-12.
  7. ^ "Music for the Movies," (1973) by Tony Thomas, P. 55
  8. ^ Purse, Marcia (2006-06-18). "Vivien Leigh – Actress". About.com. Retrieved 2008-01-11.
  9. ^ a b c Dirks, Tim. "Wuthering Heights (1939)". Filmsite.org. Retrieved 2008-01-11.
  10. ^ a b Herman, Jan (1997). A Talent For Trouble: The Life of Hollywood's Most Acclaimed Director, William Wyler. Da Capo Press. ISBN 0-306-80798-X.
  11. ^ Olivier, by Philip Ziegler, 2013, p. 66`
  12. ^ a b Is Heathcliff a Murderer?: Great Puzzles in Nineteenth-century Literature. John Sutherland. Oxford University Press, 1996. ISBN 978-0-19-282516-2.
  13. ^ Nuggehalli, Nigam. "Wuthering Heights (1939)". CultureVulture.net. Retrieved 2008-01-11.
  14. ^ Nugent, Frank S. (April 14, 1939). "Movie Review - Wuthering Heights". The New York Times. The New York Times Company. Retrieved September 21, 2015.
  15. ^ "Film Reviews". Variety. New York: Variety, Inc. March 29, 1939. p. 14.
  16. ^ "Reviews". Film Daily. New York: Wid's Films and Film Folk, Inc.: 9 March 28, 1939.
  17. ^ "Wuthering Heights". Harrison's Reports. New York: Harrison's Reports, Inc.: 59 April 15, 1939.
  18. ^ Mosher, John (April 15, 1939). "The Current Cinema". The New Yorker. New York: F-R Publishing Corp. p. 99.
  19. ^ ""Ten Best" of 1939". Film Daily. New York: Wid's Films and Film Folk, Inc.: 1 January 12, 1940.
  20. ^ Screen Style: Fashion and Femininity in 1930s Hollywood. Sarah Berry. University of Minnesota Press, 2000.ISBN 978-0-8166-3312-8.
  21. ^ "Raymond Massey and Sylvia Sidney in 'Wuthering Heights'". Harrisburg Telegraph. October 11, 1941. p. 26. Retrieved July 21, 2015 – via Newspapers.com.  
  22. ^ "Those Were the Days". Nostalgia Digest. 42 (3): 34. Summer 2016.

External linksEdit

Streaming audio