In 1939, William Wyler transformed Emily Brontë's 1847 gothic tale of obsession into one of the most romantic films of all time. Although Wyler cut some violent scenes and toned down the morbidity, the charm of his film was due primarily to his excellent choice of cast. Anyone willing to suspend prejudice for the book will find Wyler's Wuthering Heights a satisfyingly dark tale buffered by the romance of more moderately-tempered lovers
Thanks to heartthrob Laurence Olivier, the otherwise despicable character of Emily Brontë's Heathcliff will forever be a "Romeo" in the public eye. No other actor could have so well portrayed the rapscallion-turned-gentleman. Olivier can command a room in one moment with his dark, brooding eyes and condescending air, and the in the next second melt into a tender and passionate embrace. Even the operatic resonance of his voice lends gentility to his fierceness. All these qualities, combined with his masterful acting skills, serve to keep his Heathcliff forgiven (at least by female viewers) for all his sins.
Edgar's more subdued love for Cathy is naturally eclipsed by the force of Heathcliff 's obsession. However, David Niven gives a no-less brilliant performance as Edgar Linton. His fine, pale features and gentle voice do justice to Linton's milder character, yet he emanates the inner strength that keeps Linton loving Cathy through the turbulence of her life.
Cathy is played by Merle Oberon, whose eyes seem to flash naturally with the appropriate fire. Oberon swings easily from the spells of stiff affectation to the carefree wildness that afflicted Cathy. Cathy's clothing plays in important role in the movie, and she looks as radiant in the moor-roaming skirt and blouse as she does in her elegant evenings gowns.
Isabella is one part that could have been played by anyone, but that's the point: Geraldine Fitzgerald was merely pretty, possessing no unusual feature or quirk, and anyone more unique would have been wrong for the part. It is as Cathy said, "There's nothing to be gained by being lovely." The character of Isabella was meant to gain nothing. Fitzgerald was convincing as a pampered, inexperienced girl who is lured by a "vagrant" to reject her prim and proper roots.
Wyler's choice to leave out the children was a wise one: without the abuse and manipulation of the children by Heathcliff there would have been no plot. With the abuse, Wyler would have failed in romancing the American public as he did.
William Wyler's Wuthering Heights has been solely responsible for bringing Emily Brontë's book to life for the general public, and it is likely that few who have seen the film can read the book without envisioning the 1939 cast. Had Wyler been true to the novel, Wuthering Heights would not have been the hit it is today.