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Wuthering Heights (1939) – Obsessive, Destructive Love

2d12ebee08d87e1ad3836ff31ed48921I’ve wanted to see Wuthering Heights for a very long time. I’d heard about it and read about it and understood that it is one of those films that made 1939 the greatest year in film history. And because I like a good gothic tale (especially if it is a movie) I was predisposed to love the film.

So I was quite disappointed when I didn’t love it, though it had nothing to do with how the movie was made and everything to do with the story. It is a beautiful film, finely acted, but I could not view the film as a great romance, which seemed to be how the story was presented.

I have to admit here, however, that I have not yet read the book, so I cannot compare how well the movie follows Emily Brontë’s 1847 novel and don’t know if my difficulties with the story stem from her original book or from how it was adapted to film.

The movie is constructed as a flashback. A man named Lockwood (Miles Mander) has sought shelter at Wuthering Heights during a snowstorm and is told the story of the ghost who haunts the house and particularly haunts the master of the house, Heathcliff (Laurence Olivier). The story is told by Ellen (Flora Robson) who now serves Heathcliff, but used to serve the young lady who haunts the house, Cathy (Merle Oberon).

Wuthering Heights 1

Heathcliff and Cathy

Before everything went to rack and ruin, she says, Wuthering Heights was a fine house that belonged to Mr. Earnshaw (Cecil Kellaway), who had two children, Hindley and Cathy. He goes to London and when he returns he has a small gypsy boy who was starving in London. Mr. Earnshaw calls him Heathcliff and he and Cathy treat him like one of the family, but Hindley resents him and when Mr. Earnshaw dies, Hindley becomes the master of the home and relegates Heathcliff to stable boy.

As they grow up, Heathcliff puts up with all sorts of ill treatment and refuses to leave so he can remain near Cathy. The two of them are like flower children of the moor, retreating to their place on the moor called Peniston Crag, which they call their castle. However, as Cathy grows into a woman she becomes more interested in fine clothes and their elegant neighbors, the Lintons, especially Edgar Linton (David Niven).

As Cathy finds herself attracted to the world of Edgar, Heathcliff grows angry, possessive, and even physical, evening hitting Cathy several times when she insults him as being hired help with dirty hands (this man is definitely the type that would kill his wife in a rage of jealousy). However, they both tell Ellen at separate times that they need each other, that they are essentially one person. But Cathy comes to this realization a little too late, when Heathcliff goes off to find his fortune (which is what Cathy had been urging him to do all along so that he could come back and take her away). Convinced that he’ll never return, Cathy marries Edgar.

Cathy with Edgar

Cathy with Edgar

Ellen tells Lockwood that Cathy managed to forge a happy life for herself, not exciting or grandly passionate, but a good one. However, Heathcliff comes back a very wealthy man and acquires Wuthering Heights from the alcoholic and disintegrating Hindley by buying up all his debts. He also still wants Cathy, but Edgar’s sister, Isabella (Geraldine Fitzgerald) falls in love with him and pursues Heathcliff. Cathy begs Heathcliff not to marry Isabella because she knows he does not love her, but Heathcliff imagines that in doing so it will be revenge on Cathy, because, I guess, she will be jealous that she is not married to him.

The marriage is a tragedy, Isabella is so desperate for Heathcliff’s love that she welcomes the news that Cathy is dying. Hindley continues to drink himself into an early grave and the doctor (Donald Crisp) can only look on while people he helped bring into the world self-destruct, with Heathcliff the self-destructor-in-chief.

If it had been presented as being about destructive love, than I might have enjoyed it more. I don’t mind having a character like Heathcliff; I just mind being told he’s our romantic lead. He’s a narcissistic, jealous, obsessive stalker. If the movie acknowledged that, I’d be fine. But he comes back, like the Count of Monte Cristo, fabulously wealthy to wreak revenge on all people who did him harm in the past. And he blames Cathy for having rejected him and she even agrees with him when she is on her deathbed.

Even his love is narcissistic. When Cathy dies at the end, he says that now she is his. He says that she broke his heart, she’s a part of him, he can’t live without her. And because no one else, apparently, has even a fraction of the feeling, love and passion that he has, those people don’t count. Heathcliff has no sense of personhood, that perhaps people exist apart from him with their own feelings, motivations and lives. He doesn’t even see Cathy as a real person who exists apart from him, but just someone who’s one with him, who rejected herself when she rejected him and instead chose Edgar and society over Heathcliff and the moor.

Cathy and Heathcliff with their heather

Cathy and Heathcliff with their heather

I watched the film with my sister, who has read the book, and she tells me that there are children in the book. Cathy and Edgar have a daughter, Hindley has a son and Heathcliff and Isabella have a son. Cathy apparently dies in the middle of the book and the rest is taken up quite prominently with Cathy’s daughter. My sister felt that with removing the children, it changed the story significantly. Now, the story is just about Heathcliff and Cathy and not about Heathcliff’s attempts to control and destroy the second-generation, and how, despite his attempts, the second generation does achieve a kind of redemption at the end.

According to the critic John Sutherland the 1939 movie is largely responsible for the romantic interpretation of the book and that people in Brontë’s time might not have been likely to see Cathy as haunting Heathcliff because she was waiting for him to join her, but because she was angry and didn’t want him to steal her daughter’s inheritance. Interestingly, the director William Wyler did not want to include the famous ending with the ghost of Heathcliff and Cathy walking off towards Peniston Crag (I guess so they can be perpetual flower children with their heather), which cements the film’s romantic status. It is a rather upbeat ending for a man who destroyed everyone else’s lives.

I’m ranting a bit. As I said, it’s really not a bad movie; I was simply frustrated. Perhaps I will be able to enjoy it more on a second viewing now that I have gotten my rant out of my system. I am really curious, though, to read the book and see how Brontë portrays Heathcliff. I have it coming now from the library!

thCKCSG6YONotes: The score by Alfred Newman is simply lovely and haunting, with his theme for Cathy being especially notable. Here is a link to the violinist Itzhak Perlam performing the theme with the Boston Pops Orchestra.

Olivier credited Wyler with showing him him how to adapt his acting style for the stage to that of the screen. He helped him tone down some of the expansiveness of his acting and also to get over his initial contempt for the movies, as opposed to the stage. Wyler thought that making movies was a wonderful art form and Olivier apparently came to agree with him.

 
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Posted by on November 24, 2014 in Movies

 

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The Letter (1940) – Bette Davis and Her Unsympathetic Roles

lett2Bette Davis liked playing unsympathetic roles; she actually preferred it. Her first one was in 1934, her breakout role, as Mildred Rogers in Of Human Bondage with Leslie Howard. She was so impressive that her name was written as an add-in on the ballot for Best Supporting Actress, though she lost. She went on to play so many of these roles that it was all I ever heard about  when I first began to watch her films. But in the first fifteen movies that I saw her in, she was thoroughly sympathetic in them all.

Of course, I even sympathized with her in Jezebel, so perhaps I just have the wrong perspective on things. I kept hearing about how bad her character was in that movie, but really, she just seems extremely proud, stubborn and willful – her own worst enemy – but not especially evil.

However, I am happy to say that I have finally seen a movie where she plays a genuine Jezebel type. The Letter, directed by William Wyler, is based on a short story by W. Somerset Maugham. Set in Malaya, it is about Leslie Crosbie (Bette Davis), wife of a rubber planter, who shoots gambler Geoff Hammond because he was drunk and assaulted her…or so she says. Her husband (Herbert Marshall) is devoted and protective and gets his lawyer (James Stephenson) to defend her at the trial- everybody thinking the trial will be a mere formality. Local opinion is strong against Hammond, especially when they find out that he had a Chinese wife (Gale Sondergaard).

still-of-bette-davis-and-herbert-marshall-in-the-letter-(1940)-large-picture

Bette Davis with Herbert Marshall

However, it soon comes to Mr. Joyce’s attention that there is a letter, in the possession of Hammond’s wife, that she is willing to sell. A letter that indicates that perhaps Leslie’s relationship with Hammond was not what she said it was and might cast doubt on her story in court. Every instinct of professional ethics is against it, but friendship with Leslie’s extremely devoted and trusting husband convinces the lawyer to buy it.

This is one of the finest performances I have seen Bette Davis give. She plays Leslie Crosbie so demurely, so properly, ladylike, watchful, always working on her fine lacework, but still managing to convey the inner passion underneath it all that no one else can see, except the lawyer and only because the letter demonstrated to him that she is not as she appears.

I read a fascinating article on the blog The Hollywood Revue, called “The Significance of White Lace in The Letter (1940),” that talks about Leslie’s penchant for lace work. Leslie is always working on lace projects and at one point even goes out wearing a shawl of white lace when she goes with the lawyer to get the letter from Hammond’s wife.

Sen Yung, Bette Davis and James Stephenson

Sen Yung, Bette Davis and James Stephenson

The Hollywood Revue points out that white symbolizes innocence and “it’s as though she’s trying to create a shroud of innocence for herself” with her constant wearing of white clothes and making white lace, as well as demonstrating her “attention to detail” in her lies. I think the lacework is also a symbol of irony. Lacework seems very domestic and tranquil, but highlights the difference between Leslie’s apparent employment and her secret life. Yet another possible meaning of the lacework is that Leslie uses lacework to channel all her pent-up energy into something that requires tremendous focus and concentration to create something highly intricate. Or is it “the tangled webs we weave?”

I could probably go on forever about the lacework, but it is a wonderful detail in the film, highlighted repeatedly by the camera and by comments made by other people.

Leslie’s husband is played by Herbert Marshall, who has one of the loveliest speaking voices in cinema. His love for Leslie is so strong, but curiously blind. He would forgive her anything and seems, as his lawyer notes, to have lived ten years with his wife and hardly known her at all. He doesn’t, apparently, love the real woman… or even know her. Joyce is played by James Stephenson, who was a relatively unknown actor at the time and did a marvelous job. He is torn by his conscious and utterly fascinated by the obscure depths of this woman he has to defend.

Bette Davis, lace in hand, with James Stephenson

Bette Davis, lace in hand, with James Stephenson

Not only is the acting is good, but it is a beautiful film visually, and is full of memorable moments, most notably the opening scene, when the quiet night is broken with the sounds of gunfire, then we see a man stagger out of a house, with Bette Davis behind him, shooting repeatedly.

I do have one complaint, however, regarding this marvelous film, which is the ending. Sometimes censorship makes a movie better (like Double Indemnity), but in this case I think it weakened the film. In the play, Leslie Crosbie lives out the rest of her life without her husband. However, since crime could not go unpunished under the Hays Code, William Wyler had to change the ending. What happens instead is that Leslie is murdered by Hammond’s widow. The widow is seen by a guard (presumably so the audience is assured that she, too, will be identified later and pay for her crime – I must say that Hammond sure picked a murderous lot of women to love) and the camera pans over to Leslie’s lace, laying over her chair in her room.

My problem with this ending is that the film seemed to me to be building to something else. There is a dramatic scene near the end when Leslie admits to her husband – after he forgives her and asks if she loves him – that she still loves the man she killed. The very bleakness of this statement, however, is undercut by having her murdered very soon afterwards, a convenient out that saves her from having to live with what she did. I was expecting her to turn into the crazy lace lady, always doing her needlework, without soul, without thought, living her days out having killed her own heart. The actual ending of the film, I felt, is deflating and not consistent with what came before.

The ending does not, however, detract from a very good film. And I did still find it in my heart to feel for her, despite her evilness. Perhaps I’m just chronically in sympathy with her.

 
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Posted by on August 20, 2014 in Movies

 

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Propaganda in American Films During WWII: and a brief review of Five Came Back (2014) by Mark Harris

Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon in William Wyler's Mrs. Miniver

Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon in William Wyler’s Mrs. Miniver

I’ve always been fascinated by the presence of propaganda in Hollywood movies made during WWII. It fascinates me because the propaganda is supposed to be for a good cause (to defeat the Nazis – what could be better than that?), but it always faintly annoys me when I encounter it in movies. Is this because it doesn’t fit in the story? I’ll be watching a movie and then suddenly, from way out in left field, somebody will start preaching and I’ll nod my head and say, “Yes, this is so a WWII movie.” Is it because the propaganda is so heavy-handed, obvious, and poorly incorporated into the film? Is it because I do not connect with the message they are preaching because I didn’t live through the war? Or is it because propaganda is, in and of itself, a bad thing?

I haven’t decided. I do like the movie Mrs. Miniver (1942) and that movie was purposed expressly by director William Wyler to be a propaganda piece, all about the brave British resisting and standing firm, who are made stronger when attacked. Even Hitler’s Propaganda Minster, Goebbels, thought it was an excellent example of propaganda. Wyler himself seems to have been mildly embarrassed by it (partially because he later went to Britain and was embarrassed by certain inaccuracies in his portrayal of the British). It seems to have been a movie that resonated with the movie going public, however. Is propaganda necessary? Was it necessary to win the war, to keep the American people engaged throughout the war?

I suppose what complicates the propaganda issue is the clumsiness of it. Because, of course, America not just fighting the Nazis. They were fighting the Japanese. Caricatures of the enemy, especially the Japanese, could be quite crude, if not outright racist. Appeals to patriotism, although estimable, provide an often rosy and inaccurate view of warfare.

And then there’s the obvious question of aren’t all movies just a form of propaganda anyway? George Steven, I read in Mark Harris’ book Five Came Back, came to believe that was the case. If that is the case, is it merely a question of how obtrusive the propaganda is? Is it only obvious propaganda that is bad, or propaganda that we happen to disagree with? According to The American Heritage Dictionary propaganda is “the systematic propagation of a doctrine or cause or of information reflecting the views and interests of those people advocating such a doctrine or cause.”

In that sense, I think I disagree with Stevens. I do agree that there is no such thing as a movie free of bias, opinion, belief, doctrine, but I think a useful way of looking at it would be a movie that is about the characters (or even just about the story) as opposed to a movie that is about a doctrine or belief with characters to support it…or perhaps I’m simply falling into the trap of saying that if the propaganda is well done, you won’t notice because the characters make sense and therefore it’s okay.

Frank Capra

Frank Capra

I’ve always liked to think about this topic, but what made it slightly more urgent to consider was reading Mark Harris’ book Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War. It is about the way that Hollywood responded to the war, but mostly about five directors who put on hold their careers so they could enlist in the military. John Ford, John Huston, Frank Capra, William Wyler and George Stevens all enlisted, though their jobs turned out to be a little different than what they had anticipated. It turned out that the military was also interested in propaganda. It wasn’t meant to be malicious, but it was meant to align with military goals (such as not blaming Emperor Hirohito too much for the war because they thought they might need to keep him as emperor after the war and they didn’t want Americans to hate him). The military didn’t want to show too much death and loss to the American public, or to dwell on military reversals. Compromises were repeatedly made and all of the directors found themselves staging reenactments of battles to present to the public as fact.

The war changed them all, though perhaps Frank Capra less so. He remained in Washington D.C. and put together his famous Why We Fight series. However, John Ford was at the Battle of Midway and at Normandy. John Huston made a documentary at the Aleutians and was in Italy some. William Wyler flew on bombing missions to get film and lost his hearing as a result. But no one was more affected than George Stevens. He was known for his delightful comedies, such as Woman of the Year, but when he returned he never made another comedy. He was at Normandy, as well, and he was there to film the liberation of Paris. But he was also there when America liberated Dachau and he was the one to put together the films that were shown during the Nuremberg trials as evidence of the atrocities committed against the Jews and also to show that the atrocities were part of long-established policies.

When he returned, he never talked much about what he saw and he could never go back and watch any of the footage that he had taken.

Although the book is mostly about the five directors, Harris does also deal a bit with the movie studio’s reaction to the coming war and to the war itself. Before WWII, Hollywood studio heads tended to avoid any reference to the European situation. This was partially because they sold a lot of movies overseas and they didn’t want to alienate any of their foreign markets (such as Nazi Germany) and also because many of the studio heads were Jewish and were leery of being accused of not being sufficiently American and dragging America into foreign affairs and only being interested in Jewish concerns – accusations that they had heard before.

Harris implies that the studios, actors and directors were essentially burying their heads in the sand because their movies did not reflect the very real international concerns, specifically regarding Nazism and their treatment of the Jews. There was virtually no mention of Nazism in any of the films until the war began. This, I thought, was an interesting question. Does the movie industry have a duty to address social issues or international issues or only certain issues that are particularly pressing and how do we judge which issues are particularly pressing? Should the movie industry have also addressed the Ukrainian Famine in 1932-1933 when millions of Ukrainians died during a famine that was caused deliberately by Stalin’s regime? Should they have addressed the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931? Mussolini’s invasion of Ethiopia in 1935-1936?

Of course, what most movies during WWII were doing was not highlighting world realities but attempting to rally Americans to the cause and pep them up with patriotism. They rarely ever saw any of the disturbing images that were taken by Steven’s team during the landing at Normandy or afterwards at Dachau. John Huston’s documentary about veterans returning from the war who were suffering from psychological trauma was also suppressed by the military.

Of course, it is also true that documentaries containing reality can be structured for propaganda purposes. Even George Stevens’ footage of the liberation of Dachau could be used for propaganda, thought it is not itself propaganda. It is reality; harsh, horrifying, inescapable reality.

 
 

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