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 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. The film won the 1939 New York Film Critics Award for Best Film. It earned nominations for eight Academy Awards,[3] 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."[4]

Wuthering Heights
Theatrical release poster
Directed byWilliam Wyler
Produced bySamuel Goldwyn
Written byCharles MacArthur
Ben Hecht
John Huston
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.[5][6][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".


The film opens with a text panel setting the stage with the words “On the barren Yorkshire moors in England, a hundred years ago, stood a house as bleak and desolate as the wastes around it. Only a stranger lost in a storm would have dared to knock at the door of Wuthering Heights.” A man staggers through the blizzard and pushes his way into the house through the unlocked door. The hall is occupied by four people: An aged man and an elderly woman sitting at a table, a slovenly woman slumped in a wing chair, and the master of the house a tall, strong middle-aged man, standing on the hearth. No one moves to help the stranger, Lockwood (Miles Mander), who introduces himself to Heathcliff (Laurence Olivier), as his new tenant at the Grange. Lockwood receives a cold welcome but is grudgingly shown to an upstairs room by Joseph (Leo G. Carroll), the aged servant. Joseph tells him it was once a bridal chamber and that no one has slept there for years. Later that night, Lockwood is awakened by the outside window shutter banging in the wind. He reaches through a broken window pane to close the shutter and hears a woman's voice calling faintly, “Heathcliff, let me in! I'm lost on the moors. It's Cathy!" Lockwood frantically summons Heathcliff, thinking someone is really out in the storm but when he tells Heathcliff he must have been dreaming, the enraged Heathcliff throws him out of the room, flings the window open and leans out into the storm, frantically calling to Cathy. Distraught, Heathcliff runs out into the blizzard. Lockwood asks where he is going, and the elderly housekeeper Ellen (Flora Robson) replies “She calls him.” Lockwood describes his dream to Ellen, and when she tells him that Cathy was “a girl who died,” Lockwood says he does not believe in ghosts. Ellen replies that if she told him Cathy's story he would believe that there is a force that can bring the dead back, “if their hearts were wild enough in life.”

And so the main story begins as a long flashback, narrated by Ellen: “It began 40 years ago...” Mr. Earnshaw (Cecil Kellaway) finds the boy Heathcliff on the streets of Liverpool and brings him home to live with his own children, Cathy and Hindley. At first reluctant, Cathy eventually welcomes Heathcliff, and they become very close, spending as much time as they can on the moors and on Peniston Crag, which Cathy calls their castle. Hindley jealously despises Heathcliff and treats him as an outcast, especially after Mr. Earnshaw dies. Young Heathcliff promises vengeance on the cruel Hindley.

About 10 years later, the now-grown Heathcliff and Cathy (Merle Oberon) have fallen in love and are meeting secretly on Peniston Crag. Hindley (Hugh Williams) has become dissolute and tyrannical, and he passionately hates Heathcliff. One night when Cathy and Heathcliff are out together, they hear music and realize that their neighbors, the Lintons, are giving a party. Cathy and Heathcliff climb over the Linton's garden wall and spy on the party through a window, but the dogs are alerted and Cathy's foot is badly bitten. Heathcliff is forced to leave Cathy in the Lintons' care; she tells him to run away and bring her back the world. Enraged that Cathy would be entranced by the Lintons' glamour and wealth, he blames them for her injury and curses them to their faces, vowing to leave the country to make his fortune and return to bring the house down around their heads.

Months later, Cathy is fully recuperated and Edgar takes her back to Wuthering Heights, wearing a handsome outfit borrowed from Edgar's sister, Isabella (Geraldine Fitzgerald). She hears Ellen calling for Heathcliff and learns that he has returned, unable to bear life without her. Disappointed, she is unkind to Heathcliff and he storms away. She then quarrels with Edgar who is horrified at her affection for Heathcliff. She pulls off the borrowed dress, puts on her own simple clothes and runs to Peniston Crag where Heathcliff is waiting. They embrace . Cathy asks him to fill her arns with heather and he does, caressing her face; she pulls his hand to her breast. They kiss and the scene fades out.

Ellen continues, “As time went by, Cathy again was torn between her wild passion for Heathcliff...” Edgar Linton (David Niven) has fallen in love with Cathy and after weeks of misery is counting the hours until they meet again. Cathy dresses beautifully for their meeting, which bewilders and angers Heathcliff. She scorns him for his dirty hands and he slaps her face. In the stable loft a weeping Heathcliff thrusts his hands through the window glass. After a long visit, Edgar leaves and Heathcliff comes to the kitchen, where Ellen tends his hands. Hearing Cathy's voice, Heathcliff hides in the doorway. Edgar has proposed, and when Cathy tells Ellen what has happened Ellen asks how and why she loves Edgar. When Ellen reminds her of Heathcliff, Cathy says sadly that he gets worse every day, that it would degrade her to marry him. Heathcliff leaves. Cathy then confesses her true feelings to Ellen, that she has no more business marrying Edgar than of being in heaven. Heathcliff, she says, “is more myself than I am. Ellen, I am Heathcliff.”

The sound of hoofbeats echoes as Heathcliff rides away. Cathy realizes with horror that he has been listening and that he left before she spoke of her deep love for him. In despair, she runs out after him and into a raging rain storm. Two hours later, Hindley arrives home and refuses to search for Cathy. Edgar finds her on Peniston Crag and takes her to his home. The Lintons nurse her back to health once again, and he and Cathy marry, “ in possession of a deep and growing happiness,” according to Ellen.

Heathcliff is thought to have disappeared forever but returns two years later, now wealthy and elegant and according to Isabella, who is smitten, “very distinguished.” He is also ready to execute his plans for vengeance. (There is no explanation of his sudden wealth.) He appears unheralded at the Lintons and announces his plans to stay in the neighborhood. He has bought up Hindley's debts: He now owns Wuthering Heights.

Hindley has become a degenerate gambler and alcoholic. Heathcliff allows him to live at Wuthering Heights, where he can better observe his degradation. Isabella comes to call, and Heathcliff sees her loneliness and his opportunity to further spite Cathy and Linton.

At a ball at the Grange, Heathcliff and Cathy talk on the terrace. He proclaims his love for her; his heart is breaking. He would have been willing to be her secret lover, living in her shadow, but she is too proud. She forbids him to speak and angrily tells him to go away, but he insists nothing can separate them, not even Cathy herself. That night Cathy warns Isabella that Heathcliff is using her to be near Cathy. Isabella tells her they are going to be married, and Cathy cries out “Heathcliff's not a man, but something dark and horrible to live with.” Isabella counters with the accusation that Cathy loves Heathcliff and is mad with jealousy, wanting to make him suffer while she lives in comfort.

Heathcliff and Isabella elope. Edgar is appalled at Cathy's passionate reaction to the news; the brokenhearted Cathy soon falls gravely ill. Isabella is miserable but still in love with Heathcliff. Edgar sends Ellen to Wuthering Heights to bring Isabella home; Heathcliff realizes that Cathy is dying. Heathcliff rushes to her side against the protests of the now disillusioned and bitter Isabella, who wonders if Cathy's death might bring her back to life. Cathy, frail and feverish, has sent Edgar to her beloved moor for some heather, and Heathcliff finds her alone and asleep. She does not realize at first that he is real. He takes her in his arms, and asks her why she killed herself, what right did she have to throw their love away? Linton is coming and Heathcliff refuses to go. Cathy reminds Ellen in Heathcliff's presence of what she said the day he went away, that he was her life, her being. (The camera is almost always on Cathy, and we do not see Heathcliff's reaction to this news.) Cathy asks him to carry her to the window to look at the moors again. She tells him she will wait for him at Peniston Crag. Cathy dies in Heathcliff's arms. He returns her body to the bed, and as Edgar, the doctor and Ellen pray for her, Heathcliff stands and calls on Cathy's spirit to haunt him, to haunt her murderer and drive him mad, crying “do not leave me in this dark alone... I cannot live without my life, I cannot die without my soul.”

The flashback ends. Lockwood asks if it was then Cathy's ghost he saw and Ellen says, “Not her ghost, but Cathy's love, stronger than time itself, still sobbing for its unlived days and uneaten bread.” The family doctor, Dr. Kenneth (Donald Crisp), bursts in, saying that he must be stark raving mad: He has just seen Heathcliff in the snow, walking with his arm around a woman. Ellen exclaims, "It was Cathy!" and Dr. Kenneth pauses and says "No, I don't know who it was.” He tried to get closer but his horse reared and threw him. As he climbed up after them, he found Heathcliff alone, and only Heathcliff's footprints in the snow. 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 last scene in the film shows the ghosts of Heathcliff and Cathy, dressed as they were when they were young, walking in the snow, up the slopes of Peniston Crag.

Novel sections omitted in film

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 initially was 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 film-making. 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 adaptations

Wuthering Heights was presented on Philip Morris Playhouse on October 17, 1941. The adaptation starred Raymond Massey and Sylvia Sidney.[21] It was also presented on Screen Guild Players on February 25, 1946. That adaptation starred Merle Oberon, Cornell 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. "NY Times: Wuthering Heights". The New York Times. Retrieved 2008-12-12.
  4. "Music for the Movies," (1973) by Tony Thomas, P. 55
  5. McKinney, John (2013). HIKE Ventura County. The Trailmaster, Inc. Page 85. ISBN 9780934161534.
  6. O’Brien, Tricia (2017). Thousand Oaks and Westlake Village. Arcadia Publishing. Page 24. ISBN 9781439661956.
  7. 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.
  8. Purse, Marcia (2006-06-18). "Vivien Leigh – Actress". About.com. Retrieved 2008-01-11.
  9. Dirks, Tim. "Wuthering Heights (1939)". Filmsite.org. Retrieved 2008-01-11.
  10. 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. 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.

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