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Antti Alanen: Film Diary: Wuthering Heights (1939)

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Wuthering Heights (1939). Heathcliff (Laurence Olivier) and Catherine (Merle Oberon).         A KAVI 35 mm print deposited by Adams-Filmi with Finnish / Swedish subtitles.     Viewed at Vaahterasali, Lahti, 3 Dec 2017. I was asked to introduce Wuthering Heights in our film series in the city of Lahti and stayed to see the movie again. Revisited William Wyler's adaptation of Emily Brontë's 1847 Gothic novel, a story of l'amour fou beloved by Surrealists, a love story across class boundaries, between a foundling rescued from the gutter and a daughter of a wealthy farm. A story of love, hate, revenge, and death. And love beyond death. Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur wrote the original screenplay in 1935. They cut Brontë's novel in half and removed the story of the second generation. The story of love and hate was transformed more decisively in the direction of a romantic love story. John Huston, Wyler's lifelong friend, shaped the final form of the screenplay and the dialogue. Samuel Goldwyn added the final image. There were two major stages on Wyler's early career. In 1925-1935 he was a contract director at Universal, making 28 routine westerns and then more ambitious features including The Shakedown, Hell's Heroes, and A House Divided. In 1935-1946 he had a contract with Samuel Goldwyn for whom he directed These Three, Dodworth, Come and Get It (with Hawks), Dead End, Wuthering Heights, The Westerner, The Little Foxes, and The Best Years of Our Lives. After Goldwyn Wyler freelanced, directing quality films (The Heiress, his masterpiece), an Audrey Hepburn's breakthrough film (Roman Holiday) and some of the hugest blockbusters of all time (Ben-Hur, Funny Girl). To the end Wyler was happy to make controversial films such as The Children's Hour (on love between women) and The Liberation of L. B. Jones (on civil rights of blacks). Laurence Olivier had acted in films since 1930 (he is quite agreeable in The Yellow Ticket, for instance), but Heathcliff was his breakthrough role in films. Olivier clashed with Wyler during the production but was grateful for the rest of his life for the insight he learned about film acting (and gave an interesting performance later for Wyler in Carrie). Merle Oberon was an Alexander Korda protégée, his star whom he married in 1939. She was provided with high profile roles including Anna Boleyn (The Private Life of Henry VIII) and Messalina (I, Claudius). Gregg Toland was the trusted cinematographer in Wyler's Goldwyn period. Next year he would launch his deep focus aesthetique in The Long Voyage Home, followed by Citizen Kane and Wyler's The Little Foxes. Those films, together with Jean Renoir's La Règle du jeu, were crucial for André Bazin's vision of true continuity in contrast to the montage school. 1939 is widely regarded the greatest year in the history of the cinema. It was the year of the revival of the A Western (John Ford's Stagecoach and a dozen more), Young Mr. Lincoln, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Ninotchka, Only Angels Have Wings, The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind, and in France, La Règle du jeu, Le Jour se lève, and La Fin du jour, and in Japan, Kenji Mizoguchi's Zangiku monogatari. In his private life, Wyler was experiencing the great love of his life. He had divorced from Margaret Sullavan and had had a passionate affair with Bette Davis whom he had launched to a new level of stardom in Jezebel and whom he would direct also in The Letter and The Little Foxes, but David was interested in becoming a housewife. Wyler frequented the home of his best friend, the great producer-agent Paul Kohner. They had entered the Universal Studios in 1920, both at the age of 18. Wyler loved the family atmosphere at the Kohners and asked Paul to introduce him to a nice girl. Having directed an orchestra sequence featuring Jascha Heifetz Wyler was introduced to an aspiring actress, Margaret Tallichet, and this was the beginning of a lifelong marriage. Their first child was called Catherine. After the premiere of Wuthering Heights, Catherine became the third popular name for babies. *** In my opinion this film adaptation of Wuthering Heights is fundamentally miscast. Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon make a valiant effort to live their parts in this Gothic romance of doomed love, and it is an instance of movie magic that the end result works this well. Laurence Olivier is an anti-romantic actor, at his natural best in sober roles, as the voice of reason, or as a ruler or authority figure. It is fascinating to observe him as Heathcliff but impossible to really believe him. Merle Oberon's performance is a brilliant case of star acting, which can be truly moving, but it also means an external approach to a role which could call forth shattering moments of passion. The Wyler film I had seen most recently is A House Divided , a family saga set on a stormy island in the Pacific Ocean. Produced by Universal Pictures, it has affinities with the Gothic approach of the Universal horror films. As does Wuthering Heights. Walter Huston's performance in A House Divided has much of the irresistible, shattering power that is missing from Olivier's Heathcliff study. Our print looks slightly duplicated, watchable, but missing the perfect contrast that one can guess was Toland's aim.

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