Wuthering Heights (1939)
By Charles Cassady Jr.,
Common Sense Media Reviewer
Common Sense Media Reviewers
Best version of the Gothic-romance revenge tale.
A Lot or a Little?
What you will—and won't—find in this movie.
Heathcliff and Cathy are two wildly flawed heroic lovers. He's rash, vindictive, and often cruel. Cathy, though seemingly a "nicer" character, is still distracted by luxury and status. Heathcliff is constantly reminded of his "gypsy" birth by a class-bound society.
Violence & Scariness
Characters are attacked by mastiff hounds. Heathcliff (as a boy) gets hit with a rock. As an adult he slaps Cathy (surprisingly daintily), and later breaks a window with his hand.
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Drinking, Drugs & Smoking
Wastrel brother Hindley drinks his way into chronic alcoholism, Heathcliff assisting. This is not glamorized, though, but clearly part of Heathcliff's revenge.
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Parents Need to Know
Parents need to know that kids might try to watch this movie as an alternative to reading the novel for English class, but it only covers a portion of the overall story. And while it's framed as a ghost story, it's not really for young horror fans -- though the spooky angle might get some kids to sit down and watch a classic they wouldn't otherwise. Heathcliff has summed up a "romantic" hero for generations of schoolgirls, but he is rarely heroic in the traditional movie sense. Rather, he's vindictive and obsessed, and determined to make the woman he loves suffer because of his heartache. A lot of Heathcliff's negatives are attributed to his "gypsy" ancestry, a bit of racism and classed-based discrimination from the old days.
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What's the Story?
In the 1800s English countryside, a traveler caught in a furious snowstorm is forced to seek shelter at Wuthering Heights, a mansion full of unhappy souls presided over by unfriendly Heathcliff (Laurence Olivier). When the visitor glimpses a phantom woman outside his window in the blizzard, an old maid tells the story of passion and unforgiving loss that has left Wuthering Heights haunted, quite literally, by obsessive love. Heathcliff was a homeless "gypsy" boy who was adopted by the kindly lord of Wuthering Heights to be raised alongside his own children, Cathy (Merle Oberon) and Hindley (Hugh Williams). Cathy grows to love Heathcliff, but Hindley, jealous and snotty, hates the adoptive sibling. When Mr. Earnshaw dies, Hindley inherits the estate and treats Heathcliff like a peasant-servant. Promising Heathcliff she'll be his always, Cathy goes off to school, only to return to Wuthering Heights with a fiance from her own elevated social class, snobbish Edgar Linton (David Niven). When she denounces Heathcliff as unworthy, he runs away to America, amasses a fortune, gives himself a makeover as a dashing gentleman, and returns with a vengeance to take over Wuthering Heights and enact a cruel strategy to pay back Cathy for his broken heart.
Is It Any Good?
The oft-assigned-in-English-Class Emily Bronte novel of romance gone sour and not-so-sweet revenge on the Yorkshire moors inspired this exquisite classic from the golden age of Hollywood. WUTHERING HEIGHTS came out the same year as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, The Women, Goodbye Mr. Chips, and Stagecoach, among others. No wonder film fans consider 1939 one of the American film studios' best years ever, and some partisans give Wuthering Heights a vote as the best from that celluloid harvest, even though some of its elements (most notably a lot of weepie violin solos) haven't aged too well. Wuthering Heights offers young viewers today a much-needed reminder of the great beauty in black-and-white films. It won an Oscar for cinematography, and indeed it's impossible to imagine the somber melodrama of the moors being very effective in color.
Younger viewers may only know Laurence Olivier from his unimpressive, late-career character roles, in fantasies like Clash of the Titans and a weird after-death cameo in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. Watch this for Olivier in his prime, and you'll understand why his name was synonymous for generations with the finest in screen acting. It's really hard to imagine anyone else bringing off one of literature's greatest bad-boy male sex symbols. Though the script simplifies a lot of the book, the essential idea of love tortured and twisted into hatred (that is, in itself, a strange form of devotion) comes through loud and clear.
Talk to Your Kids About ...
Families can talk about the dysfunctional relationship Heathcliff has with Cathy. How many of their problems are family and social pressures trying to force them apart -- she's aristocratic and he's a virtual peasant -- and how much of the trouble is their own making? How might they have found happiness together or separately? You could compare the movie's narrative with the Emily Bronte novel, which covers a longer time span and has many more twists and turns. Do you see any battle-scarred love affairs like this in the movies made today?
- In theaters: April 7, 1939
- On DVD or streaming: October 29, 1997
- Cast: David Niven, Laurence Olivier, Merle Oberon
- Director: William Wyler
- Studio: Samuel Goldwyn Company
- Genre: Classic
- Run time: 104 minutes
- MPAA rating: NR
- Last updated: April 8, 2023
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