Stream On: ‘Til death shall you part? Not!

By on December 2, 2021

A glooming peace this morning with it brings; The sun, for sorrow, will not show his head: Go hence, to have more talk of these sad things; Some shall be pardon’d, and some punished: For never was a story of more woe Than this of Juliet and her Romeo.

Romeo and Juliet has become the gold standard of stories about doomed love. But isn’t all love doomed? At least by time? Not necessarily!


/Amazon.com /Prime Video /Streaming /Trailer /1939 /NR

On the barren Yorkshire moors in England, a hundred years ago, stood a house as bleak and desolate as the wastes around it.

Only a stranger lost in a storm would have dared to knock at the door of Wuthering Heights.

Producer Samuel Goldwyn considered this the favorite of all his productions. It’s a sound choice; it has everything, from Laurence Olivier, Merle Oberon and David Niven to a gothic black and white palette, and, of course, that story! Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur (The Front Page) and an uncredited John Huston[^] wrote the screenplay from the first 17 chapters of Emily Bronte’s 1847 best-seller about the obsessive but doomed romance between a rich girl and the gypsy stablehand adopted by her father, and its untimely interruption by a neighbor.

Oberon plays the imperious Cathy to Olivier’s Heathcliff, a lad with a huge chip on his shoulder. Smart but foul-tempered, Heathcliff was practically a feral child in Liverpool when he had been taken in by Cathy’s father. The present story opens as a new neighbor staggers into the mansion at Wuthering Heights, lost, from the snow, and is given a room for the night by the surly, middle-aged Heathcliff, now the master of the house. That night a banging shutter disturbs the visitor’s rest, and he dreams of a figure, crying, “Help! Let me in! It’s Cathy!” at the window. When he tells his host, Heathcliff throws him out of the room and runs out into the dark, snowy night without so much as a cloak. A servant tells the visitor that Cathy was “a girl … who died…”

The visitor interrupts, saying “Oh, no, I don’t believe in ghosts,” but the servant counters, “Maybe if I told you her story, you’d change your mind about the dead coming back. Maybe you’d know, as I do, that there is a force that brings them back if their hearts were wild enough in life,” and begins a flashback that comprises the story. “It began 40 years ago, when I was young, in the service of Mr. Earnshaw, Cathy’s father.”

And quite a story it is! The children, adopted Heathcliff, and Cathy, seem soul-mates, but Heathcliff comes to blows with Cathy’s entitled brother, sneaks into a party at the neighbors’ with Cathy, who is injured by a guard dog, and resents Cathy’s attraction to the son of the household when she recovers at the neighbors’. She finally marries scion Edgar (David Niven); Heathcliff curses her and her family and takes off, only to return years later with enough money to buy Wuthering Heights from Cathy’s now dissolute brother, who had inherited it from his father, Heathcliff’s original benefactor.

Goldwyn, along with director William Wyler and cinematographer Gregg Toland (Citizen Kane) pulled out all the stops, earning many accolades–in 1939, generally considered Hollywood’s greatest year, in which such films as Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Jesse James, etc., etc. were released. Frank S. Nugent of The New York Times compared it favorably to the book, calling it “a strong and somber film, poetically written as the novel not always was, sinister and wild as it was meant to be, far more compact dramatically than Miss Bronte had made it … It is, unquestionably, one of the most distinguished pictures of the year, one of the finest ever produced by Mr. Goldwyn, and one you should decide to see.”[^]


/Amazon.com /YouTube /Streaming /Trailer /1946 /PG

In peace, Love tunes the shepherd’s reed; In war, he mounts the warrior’s steed; In halls, in gay attire is seen; In hamlets, dances on the green. Love rules the court, the camp, the grove, And men below, and saints above; For love is heaven, and heaven is love.
(Sir Walter Scott, “Lay of the Last Minstrel”)

According to the book Cross Connections (2006), after World War II, “A spate of movies appeared … including It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) and Stairway to Heaven (1946), perhaps tapping into so many people’s experience of loss of loved ones and offering a kind of consolation.” The latter of these, released in Britain under the title A Matter of Life and Death, fit the bill to a T.

The production company of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (also responsible for one of my favorite films, The 49th Parallel, about which I’ll write at some point) spent the 1945 equivalent of 12.5 million pounds sterling on their fable of RAF bomber pilot Peter Carter (David Niven, Wuthering Heights) who has to bail out over the English Channel after a mission to Germany–without a parachute. He’s not expecting to walk away. Just before, he makes radio contact with June (Kim Hunter), a USAAF base officer on the coast, and, filled with adrenaline, pours out his heart–and wins hers. “I love you, June; you’re life and I’m leaving you. I’ll be a ghost and come see you. You’re not frightened of ghosts, are you?”

After he leaps from his burning plane, he comes to on a misty beach, believing it to be Heaven. When a dog barks on a dune, he says, “I always hoped there’d be dogs!” But when a British light bomber flies by, low, he realizes he’s still on earth. And when he meets June, cycling home on the beach, he and she are both very relieved that he is.

Meanwhile, in Heaven, Peter’s “sparks,” his radio operator who died on the bomber, is awaiting him. In the crowds of servicemen arriving every minute, he sees an American bomber crew who discover a Coca-Cola machine just inside the Pearly Gates and a Frenchman describing his last moments to a British soldier who can now apparently understand French–but no Squadron Leader Carter. When it’s determined that Carter is indeed AWOL, a Conductor (a French aristocrat who had fallen to the guillotine) is dispatched to earth to collect him.

Peter, having recognized in June his soul-mate, demands a hearing. It’s not his fault he’s not dead, and furthermore, he’s fallen in love! But when he recounts this to a skeptical June, she sets him up with a friend, a brain surgeon, who arranges exploratory surgery. So, while Peter is on the operating table, he is also in court in Heaven, fighting for his right to remain alive.

When I first saw Stairway to Heaven, in my twenties, I found it stylized, stiff-upper-lipped in the style of other British war films, and brilliant, and rewatching it recently, it was even better than I remembered. The acting, the sets, the direction, the cinematography (sepia in Heaven, Technicolor on earth) and the plot, with an epic twist and numerous historical “Easter eggs,” are all great. For instance, the prosecutor is colonial American Abraham Farlan (Raymond Massey, summoning up all of his considerable gravitas), who hates the British for making him a casualty of the American Revolutionary War.

97% critics/93% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes (or To-mah-tos as the case may be.)

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