Reviewed by Colin Jacobson
Wuthering Heights: HBO, standard 1.33:1, languages: English Digital Mono, subtitles: none, single side-single layer, 24 chapters, Interview with Geraldine Fitzgerald, Cast bio, Original theatrical trailer, rated NR, 104 min., $24.99, street date 12/3/97.
Love Affair: Madacy, standard 1.33:1, languages: English Digital Mono, subtitles: none, single side-single layer, 9 chapters, Lobby Poster, Biography, Interactive trivia, rated NR, 89 min., $9.99, street date 8/4/98.
Wuthering Heights: Directed by William Wyler. Starring David Niven, Merle Oberon, Laurence Olivier, Geraldine Fitzgerald.
Academy Awards: Won for Best Cinematography. Nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor-Laurence Olivier, Best Supporting Actress-Geraldine Fitzgerald, Best Screenplay, Best Art Direction, Best Original Score, 1940.
Laurence Olivier, Merle Oberon, and David Niven star in this internationally-acclaimed masterpiece based on Emily Bronte's classic story of passion, hatred and revenge. Olivier and Oberon are brilliant as Heathcliff and Cathy, whose tortured love affair ends when Cathy marries the wealthy Edgar (David Niven). Heathcliff's savage retaliation upon the woman he loves explodes in a stunning climax. Directed by William Wyler and Academy Awards winning cinematography, Wuthering Heights remains a masterpiece in filmmaking.
Love Affair: Directed by Leo McCarey. Starring Charles Boyer, Irene Dunne, Astrid Allwyn, Maria Ouspenskaya.
Academy Awards: Nominated for Best Picture, Best Actress-Irene Dunne, Best Supporting Actress-Maria Ouspenskaya, Best Original Story, Best Art Direction, Best Song-"Wishing," 1940.
The original version of An Affair To Remember about a shipboard romance whose continuance on shore is interrupted by an unforeseen mishap. Two people, each engaged to someone else, meet aboard a ship and instantly fall in love. To test their true love for each other they make arrangements to meet again in six months, but heart-breaking complications occur altering their plans.
My bizarre quest to watch all ten of the 1939 Best Picture nominees on DVD continues. Unfortunately, since only eight of them currently appear in the format, I was doomed to fail before I started, but impossible odds and an illogical goal never halted me before, so why should it matter now?
As such, today I cover DVDs five and six in the series, Wuthering Heights and Love Affair. At first glance, these would seem to be very dissimilar films, since WH is a tragic drama whereas LA falls more firmly into the romantic comedy genre.
Upon closer examination, however, a number of common qualities emerge. Both deal with semi-tragic romances in which the people who clearly are meant to be together are kept apart for various reasons. Okay, that's really the only similarity, but hey! It's a big one, since the frustrated romantic aspects of the tale are what drives it.
Both films have also been remade a number of times. Actually, I guess one can't call other version of WH "remakes" since it is a film version of the 1847 Emily Bronte novel; it's actually the second movie of the story, the first coming in 1920. According to IMDB, seven more versions of the tale have appeared on film or on TV since this project, which is probably thought of as the best of the bunch.
I don't know if I'd like the other versions more, but I have to say that this edition of Wuthering Heights did little for me; I found it to be a fairly stale, unaffecting film. While I never read the novel, I couldn't help but feel that the movie offered a very shortened "Cliffs Notes" telling of the tale. It seems as though we zip through the story, and little happens for any logical reason.; events occur out of nowhere, and the characters react without much apparent logic. It all appears very capricious to me.
The execution of the story seems okay but not special. Laurence Olivier may be a legend, but his work here did little for me, and Merle Oberon makes for a pretty but unmemorable presence. This edition of Wuthering Heights certainly isn't a bad film, but it simply left me cold.
Wuthering Heights appears in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.37:1 on this single-sided, single-layered DVD; because of those dimensions, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Although it appears that the transfer of the film was nicely done, the picture itself nonetheless has some serious problems that greatly mar the end result.
Sharpness generally looks quite good, with most scenes seeming fairly crisp and defined. Some scenes appear a bit soft - especially more distant shots - but these are infrequent. I noticed no signs of moiré effects or jagged edges. The print itself seems worn but not terribly so. Speckling occurred periodically, thin vertical lines were more frequent nuisances, and on rare occasions, I saw some more substantial flaws (like a big black mark circle during one late scene); still, the print quality seems relatively good for the film's age.
Black levels consistently appeared very strong, with some wonderfully rich and deep tones; every once in a while a scene would seem overly bright, but for the most part, contrast was good. Shadow detail appeared fine as well, with no tendencies toward overly opaque scenes.
At this point, you may be wondering why I gave this picture - one that's earned pretty favorable comments so far - such a low rating. One word: artifacts. This DVD crawls with digital artifacts. At least I think they're artifacts; to be frank, it can be very tough to discern the difference between digital artifacts and grain. However, I've watched so many old movies recently that I think I'm getting good at figuring which is which, and WH looked like it was plagued with artifacts.
Although the many dark scenes obscure them to a degree, these artifacts mar virtually every scene in the film. The screen simply looks inundated with these hundreds of tiny spots, and it really takes away from the image. It's a terrible shame because the transfer otherwise looked pretty good, but the poor mastering makes the ultimate appearance relatively poor.
Even worse is the film's monaural audio. All I really want from a 60-year-old soundtrack is consistently intelligible and fairly natural speech, but that doesn't happen during WH. Dialogue sounds harsh and edgy and often comes across as distorted. I could usually make out what the actors said, but I had to replay a number of segments, often with the aid of subtitles. Music and effects bear the same shrill quality. Background noise - hiss and pops, mainly - isn't terrible but it's often quite noticeable. I've heard worse soundtracks, but not many; even for its age, it's a weak mix.
WH offers a few supplements, but one is worth note. A nine-minute interview with actress Geraldine Fitzgerald appears. It's unclear when this was recorded - though clearly late in her life - but she provides some very lucid and compelling details of her participation in the film. Best of all is the fact that she's not shy about relating some stories that may not seem complimentary toward the other actors and the director; she doesn't slam them, but she offers her honest viewpoint, which I appreciated. I don't require interviewees to provide "dirt" but too many of these retrospective programs stick solely to extremely positive comments, with no signs of anything other than complete perfection. Fitzgerald makes it clear that she had some differences with others, and that factors makes her positive comments - which dominate the interview - all the more believable.
In addition to the Fitzgerald interview, we get the original theatrical trailer plus some pretty good biographies of four of the actors (Olivier, Oberon, David Niven and Fitzgerald) and director William Wyler. I don't know if the package includes a booklet, since I rented my copy from Netflix and they don't forward those kinds of materials.
Love Affair has also made many reappearances, but not as many as WH. The first remake retitled it An Affair to Remember and starred Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr in 1954. 1993's Sleepless in Seattle didn't directly remake the film, but it certainly drew strongly on it, while 1994's Love Affair was a more blatant retelling. Popular consensus seems to feel that An Affair to Remember is the most memorable of that stable, although it didn't receive the same Academy Awards recognition accorded to its predecessor.
While I simply found Wuthering Heights to be bland and undeveloped, Love Affair more actively dissatisfied me. While parts of WH seemed illogical, the vast majority of LA comes across that way; whereas in most romances, the principles try hard to come together, here it seems like they attempt to find as many ways as possible to stay apart. The entire vehicle seems amazingly contrived, as though the filmmakers worked as hard as they could to keep the two lovers separate until their (inevitable) romantic conclusion.
It didn't work for me. Most of their reasons for avoiding each other made virtually no sense, and the whole plot grew incredibly tiresome before too long. Early scenes when we see Terry McKay (Irene Dunne) and Michel Marnet (Charles Boyer) fall in love during a cruise are reasonably compelling and sweet, but once they separate, it all goes downhill from there.
I don't want to discuss the plot twists and turns the occur from that point on - in case you want to see it and be surprised - but I found them to be unconvincing and usually overly sentimental and saccharine. Boyer and Dunne are perfectly competent in their roles, but the silliness of the story renders that point moot. By the end of the film, I could not have cared less if the two reunited - I was completely bored with their inanities by that point.
Actually, only one part of this movie really amused me, but it wasn't something the filmmakers intended to be funny. Terry teaches a kid's choir, and at one point she asks one of the little boys - Aloysious, who will forever be anonymous since the credits don't list the actor's name - to act as a "pitch pipe" and sing an "A" note. The kid tucks his head down to concentrate, pauses, and then lifts his head and opens his mouth wide to "sing" his perfect "A". I put quotes around "sing" because it's obvious the kid's vocals were dubbed, which makes the scene even funnier. The whole bit reprises a minute or so later.
It ain't much, but I thought it was the most entertaining part of the film. Without little Aloysious and his poorly-dubbed vocals, the movie would be almost entirely a bore, between the contrived plot and the sickly sentimental and overbearing tone. I don't know if the sequels improve upon this one, but 1939's Love Affair is one to avoid.
One point I must concede: it's entirely possible that some of my dissatisfaction with the film may have resulted from the unpleasant experience of watching this DVD. Love Affair also appears in its original theatrical aspect ratio of 1.37:1 on this single-sided, single-layer DVD, and it also has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions for the same reasons such a process was irrelevant for WH. While I found both the picture and sound of WH to be unsatisfying, they're terrific compared to the mess that is Love Affair.
What's wrong with this DVD? How much time do you have? Sharpness is completely atrocious; this is probably the softest picture I've ever seen. At no point does the image look better than "almost okay", which it achieves during a few close-ups; otherwise, it's very hazy and fuzzy. The thing was so blurry that I instinctively squinted through the whole film, which left me with a headache! Well, at least the softness means I saw no moiré effects or jagged edges; that's as close to a compliment as I can conjure.
The print itself is in pretty bad shape. At the start and for the first 15 or so minutes, it actually doesn't look all that terrible - or maybe it did, but I was so whacked out about the softness that I wasn't able to scan for flaws just yet. In any case, most of the film suffers from defects, and often pretty bad ones, too. Scratches, speckles, grain, various markings and other problems so unusual that I don't even know how to describe them - all greet the happy viewer of this DVD. Strange electronic interference occurs at times, something I believe occurred because there's an excellent chance this DVD was mastered from a VHS tape - and a bad one at that! This DVD packs an abundance of flaws.
Although contrast levels are terrible - the entire movie looks faded and washed-out - perversely, black levels often look semi-decent. How this happened I don't know; so much of the film is overly-bright that I can't figure out how it manages some passable blacks, but they're there. Shadow detail is a non-issue because of the elevated light levels; I had no problem making out nuances in dark scenes because there were virtually no dark scenes - even those that should have been in low light were fairly bright.
The film's monaural audio fails as well. First lesson if you tempt fate and watch the DVD of LA: do not turn up the volume on your receiver to normal levels. Keep the knob very low and slowly raise the volume until you find a comfortable level. Why the precautions? Because the geniuses at Madacy transferred this sucker at far too high a volume level; as a result, it's much louder than most films. Madacy seem to do this with many - if not all - of their DVDs; the Abbott and Costello set I reviewed suffered from the same problem.
Once you've settled in with the correct volume level, you can then deal with the second issue: whether to listen to the movie with your surround sound on or off. For the vast majority of mono films, this isn't an issue because the soundtrack will play back as appropriately monaural no matter what, whether through just the center channel or via the "big fat mono" method of using the right and left front speakers to create a "phantom" center image. I prefer the true mono of the first way, but both work fine.
Madacy can't do anything that logically, so if you watch LA with the surround sound "on", you'll actually get an pseudo-surround mix. That is, the same monaural track will emanate from all five channels! This is a tremendously annoying and disconcerting effect and is not recommended.
That doesn't mean the alternative's much better. If I turn off the surrounds, I get audio that comes from the right and left forward speakers. No problem, right? Just another way of managing "big fat mono," right? Wrong. The audio seems strangely balanced and veers toward the left for the most part. At no time does it appear even remotely centered; it sounds like each speaker is slightly out of synch with the other, so the track never creates that appearance of offering audio that's localized in the correct place. I preferred this method, because it seemed more sensible and it sounded slightly better than the "surround" mix, but it nonetheless was a poor option.
Once I set the volume and figured out the surrounds, then I could fully experience what a miserable soundtrack LA offers. All I ask of a 60-year-old mono mix is to provide decently intelligible audio, but that doesn't happen here. The dialogue consistently sounds edgy and distorted and it presents a strange echo effect throughout the film. As a result, I had a devil of a time understanding what the characters said. Unfortunately, no subtitles are included, so I couldn't rely on those to help.
Dialogue wasn't the only part of the soundtrack to suffer; both music and effects also seem badly distorted and almost unlistenable. Much background noise occurs during the film, and I also heard some very strange audio effects. At one point, I detected odd whistling from the left channel, and near the end of the picture, I discerned what sounded like backwards tape loops vaguely emanating from the background. (I played the movie backwards; they're saying, "I buried Paul... Muni".)
Actually, my videotape theory comes into play again in regard with some of these odd sounds. If you've ever recorded over an audio tape one too many times, you may hear an old program bleeding through and interfering with the current one. I think that's what happened here; the happy folk at Madacy were too cheap to invest in a new tape so they used the same one they utilized to make their other awful DVDs when they recorded this version of LA from the tape they rented at Blockbuster. No, that's probably not right; Madacy are too cheap a company to rent a tape - they probably just recorded it off of AMC on cable one night and made the DVD from that.
Get the feeling I'm not too wild about the pathetic offerings that come from Madacy? After the horrible sound and picture of LA, the supplemental features appear better, but that's all relative; they're still very weak. In the "Movie Art" area, we get to see what the case bills as a "lobby poster" (looked more like a lobby card to me, but maybe I'm picking semantical nits). Another gives us a biography for Irene Dunne. Why only her? I have no idea. It's extremely brief and even manages to misspell "general" as "genereal". Finally, the "interactive trivia" section provides one of those lame games which have five multiple choice questions. Correct answers are "rewarded" with the corresponding clip from the film, while errors are punished by some light jazz and a big red "WRONG" the comes toward you on the screen. Very odd!
You want to know how bad Madacy are? They can't even get the cover on the case correctly! Mine was upside-down, so that if you opened the case in the usual manner - that is, like a book with the front cover initially facing you - the disc would be on the left of the box. Yeah, this is easily fixed, but it still seems indicative of the shoddy quality from this company. I didn't plan to view another Madacy DVD after the horrors of the Abbott and Costello set, but since I wanted to check out as many of the 1939 Best Picture nominees as possible, I had to bite the bullet here. Hopefully, this will be the last time a Madacy product enters my DVD player.
Of the six 1939 Best Picture nominee DVDs I've watched to date, Wuthering Heights and Love Affair are easily the least compelling films and the worst DVDs. WH is a tolerable but lackluster film, and the disc presents it poorly but not atrociously. LA, on the other hand, seemed sticky sweet and sentimental and really left me cold, and the DVD is the worst I've ever seen. Wuthering Heights might be worth a rental, but Love Affair is one to leave on the shelves completely.
Current as of 4/5/2000
Greatest Films: Wuthering Heights--A comprehensive analysis of the film.
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