Laurence Olivier found himself becoming increasingly annoyed with William Wyler's exhausting style of film-making. After yet another take, he is said to have exclaimed, "For God's sake, I did it sitting down. I did it with a smile. I did it with a smirk. I did it scratching my ear. I did it with my back to the camera. How do you want me to do it?" Wyler's retort was, "I want it better." However, Olivier later said these multiple takes helped him as a succeed as a film actor.
Merle Oberon and Laurence Olivier apparently detested each other. Legend has it that when William Wyler yelled "Cut!" after a particularly romantic scene, Oberon shouted back to her director about her co-star "Tell him to stop spitting at me!"
Producer Samuel Goldwyn felt that script was too dark for a romance movie, so he asked several writers to do a rewrite on the script, including a young John Huston, who said that the script needed no rewrite, it was perfect as it was.
David Niven dreaded the film not only because he was playing a thankless, secondary role, but because he dreaded working with William Wyler again. Merle Oberon was uncomfortable working with Niven after their year long love affair ended in 1936.
Los Angeles - April 5, 1939: Samuel Goldwyn has withdrawn "Wuthering Heights" from the entire province of Quebec. Quebec censors demanded deletions because certain sequences dealt with divorce and infidelity, situations long frowned upon by the Quebec board. Goldwyn refused to make the cuts. Whether the picture will play in other provinces is not known.
Both of the leading players began work on the film, miserable at having to leave their loved ones back in England. Laurence Olivier was missing his fiancée Vivien Leigh and Oberon had only recently fallen in love with film producer Alexander Korda.
David Niven stated that the heather, imported from England and replanted at Thousand Oaks, enjoyed the Californian sunshine to such an extent that it tripled in size and had to be radically cut back before filming could take place.
Laurence Olivier's first on-set confrontation occurred in a dispute with Merle Oberon. Although they had worked together happily on The Divorce of Lady X (1938), Olivier now resented that Oberon had the role he felt should have gone to Vivien Leigh. In one particularly passionate scene, Oberon became upset that Olivier kept letting spit fly from his mouth and land on her. "Why you amateur little bitch," Olivier responded. "What's a little spit for Chrissake between actors? You bloody little idiot, how dare you speak to me?" Oberon stormed off the set in tears, and William Wyler forced Olivier to apologize.
Suffering from a debilitating foot ailment, Laurence Olivier was often in pain and hobbled around on crutches between takes. Thinking he would get Samuel Goldwyn on his side against William Wyler, he played up the crippled act until one day Goldwyn called him over and put his arm around him. Much to his surprise, Goldwyn yelled out in front of everyone, "Will you look at his ugly face? He's dirty! His performance is rotten! It's stagy! It's just nothing! Not real for a minute. I won't have it, and if he doesn't improve, I'm gonna close up the picture." The incident had actually been cooked up by producer and director so Wyler could defend Olivier and gain his trust.
Montreal, Quebec, Canada-April 6, 1939: "Wuthering Heights" may be shown in Quebec Province if certain excisions are made, Arthur Laramee, censor chairman said yesterday. He denied that the film had been formally banned.
In one scene, William Wyler insisted that David Niven break down. When Niven told him his contract said he would never have to cry on camera, Wyler didn't believe him. Niven got the contract and the "no crying" clause was in there.
Laurence Olivier later admitted his first takes were full of overacting and "extravagant gestures." William Wyler stopped him: "Do you think you're at the Opera House in Manchester?" Olivier answered with all his disdain for films: "I suppose this anemic little medium can't take great acting." He was humbled when the entire cast and crew, including Wyler, burst out laughing.
Laurence Olivier also came to the set armed with, what he later admitted, was an abominable pomposity and conceit. Already lionized for his performances on the British stage, the young actor thought he knew everything about acting. Working with William Wyler soon beat that arrogance out of him.
Laurence Olivier dove into the role of Heathcliffe armed with the techniques he had perfected playing Hamlet on stage in 1937. Given a collection of essays on psychoanalysis by the play's director, Tyrone Guthrie, Olivier developed a staccato rhythm in his lines based on his Freudian conception of the melancholy Dane. Using that as a basis for Heathcliff, he eschewed the stock-in-trade doomed lover and sought to make something more smoldering and dangerous of the part.
Gregg Toland rejected the typical Hollywood soft-focus, one-plane depth and strove for razor-sharp black-and-white images. To achieve the maximum contrast between shadow and light on this film, he used high-powered Technicolor arc lamps and a film stock four times faster than customary without an appreciable increase in graininess. He achieved the mood Wyler wanted for the picture by using candle-like effects, keeping the characters partially in darkness before coming fully into the light at climactic moments, and shooting from a low angle to capture the ceilings of the sets, emphasizing the confining loneliness of Wuthering Heights.
The one happy relationship on the set was between William Wyler and cinematographer Gregg Toland. The two had worked together successfully on three prior pictures (and would collaborate on three more after this). They had great respect for each other and were perfectly in synch with their ideas of lyrical, fluid camera movements, long takes, and deep-focus photography that would reveal backgrounds as clearly as characters and images close to the camera.
The time-setting of the novel, the early 19th century, was updated to about 1841 because Samuel Goldwyn and his designers thought the later period's off-the shoulder gowns would showcase Merle Oberon and the other female stars to greater effect.
Animal lovers were incensed when they read in a press release, that to keep the barnyard noises from overwhelming the soundtrack, the animal trainer had snipped the vocal cords of the ducks and geese on the set.
All the actors, particularly Laurence Olivier and David Niven, were incensed by William Wyler's propensity for numerous takes. Niven quickly found that despite Wyler's earlier assurances to the contrary, the director had not changed at all. He demanded at least 40 takes for Niven's first scene in the film.
Contemporary news items note that Brontë societies worldwide wrote to Samuel Goldwyn and urged him to remain as faithful in detail as possible to the original novel, and protested the use of any one of a number of replacement titles for the story that were rumored to have been considered. Titles reportedly considered by the Goldwyn sales office were Gypsy Love, Fun on the Farm and He Died for Her.
More than once, Merle Oberon was reduced to tears by William Wyler's methods. When Cathy had to run out onto the moors in a fierce storm to stop Heathcliff from leaving, Wyler ordered the actress over and over into propeller-driven winds and rain. After many takes, she began to choke and vomit. She ran a fever and had to be confined to a hospital bed, costing the production thousands of dollars. She refused to do the scene again until Samuel Goldwyn rigged heaters to warm the driving rain.
William Wyler and Samuel Goldwyn were constantly at each other's throats; in fact, Wyler had nightmares about his producer whilst Goldwyn insisted the director was "trying to kill me." Goldwyn accused Wyler of overshooting and over directing. He was especially incensed at the number of camera angles the director used to film even the simplest scenes. Wyler kept trying to assure him that it would all be pieced together eventually. That task was handled by film editor Daniel Mandell, who did such a superb job of capturing the emotional intensity of the film by selectively splicing the best takes together. Wyler insisted, "I'm sure [Mandell] saved my job."
The production was not an easy one, and all the way through shooting what he would later say was his favourite among all the films he made, Samuel Goldwyn constantly referred to it as "a doubtful picture."
The trivia items below may give away important plot points.
In the final sequence, the spirits of Heathcliff and Cathy are seen walking their favorite pathway. This was added after filming was complete, and because Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon had already moved on to other projects, doubles had to be used.
In a departure from the novel, there is an afterlife scene in which we see Heathcliff and Cathy walking hand in hand, visiting their favourite place, Penistone Crag. William Wyler hated the scene and didn't want to do it, but Samuel Goldwyn vetoed him on that score. Goldwyn subsequently claimed, "I made 'Wuthering Heights'; Wyler only directed it".
David Niven remembered the filming of Merle Oberon's deathbed scenes (recorded in his bestselling book, The Moon's a Balloon) as less than romantic. After telling William Wyler he didn't know how to 'sob', he had been given a menthol mist substance to help it appear as if he were crying, which instead had the effect of making "green goo" come out of his nose. Oberon immediately exited the bed after witnessing it.
William Wyler and Samuel Goldwyn clashed over Merle Oberon's deathbed scene. Because of the somber sadness of it, Goldwyn wanted her to be beautifully gowned and shown in glamorous close-ups. Wyler thought that was ridiculous and kept her in less glamorous long shots as much as possible. When he saw the finished product, Goldwyn told Oberon it was the finest work she had ever done in pictures.