In spite of a neverending parade of Heathcliffs & Cathys over the years, the classic William Wyler/Ben Hecht-Charles MacArthur adaptation (abridgement is more like it) with Laurence Olivier & Merle Oberon holds up extremely well. Better, in fact, then you may recall. The surprise of the thing, especially for 1939, is the wildness of it, the mad, brooding passion, it's no sedate Masterpiece Theatre picturebook edition. Olivier famously, and generously, always gave Wyler full credit for opening his eyes to the possibilities of screen acting, but what exactly did he mean? Physically, he’s transformed, broader and, in the early sections, almost wildly unkempt & dangerously handsome. A new sense of abandon added to control. But then, everyone is at their best, though Oberon is over-parted and not quite as apt as she was in THESE THREE/’36, also for Wyler. David Niven, as the nice young man who marries Cathy but can’t replace Heathcliff in her heart, has a dog of a part, yet shows an emotional involvement rare for him. And you could say similar things for much of the cast, even the aging make-up is above par for the period. All of it gorgeously shot by Gregg Toland, who shows many of the techniques that landed him CITIZEN KANE/’41. (The slightly clunky, mystical ending isn’t Wyler’s. Producer Sam Goldwyn stole it from his own THE WEDDING NIGHT/’35 and found some flunky to shoot it.)
DOUBLE-BILL: Wyler got even more out of Olivier in CARRIE/’52, from the Dreiser novel SISTER CARRIE. It's possibly his greatest film perf. Alas, Wyler had less success coaxing much out of Jennifer Jones in that one, even her diction is soggy. Only Ernst Lubitsch seemed able to manage that particular trick, and in a light romantic comedy no less, CLUNY BROWN/’46. On the other hand, Lubitsch got auto-pilot out of Merle Oberon on the indifferent THAT UNCERTAIN FEELING/’41.