“Heathcliff, make the world stop right here...”
Laurence Olivier had doubts. He asked Ralph Richardson for advice. "Yes. Bit of fame. Good."
All but conned into making it, producer Samuel Goldwyn also had certain doubts about what proved to be his favourite film. Doubts about... the title! His staff suggested...Bring Me The World, Gypsy Love, He Died for Her, The Wild Heart And whoever suggested Fun on the Farm was probably fired!
Producer Walter Wanger had it first and always planned it for Charles Boyer and Sylvia Sidney - until she refused to play second fiddle to Hedy Lamarr and Boyer in Algiers. Wanger's next choice did not last long - Katharine Hepburn was suddenly, absolutely, box-office poison.
Sylvia's fierce row - not in the Yorkshire accent she was learning - meant she lost Cathy through "absolute vengeance." Wanger sold Heights to Sam Goldwyn - in exchange for Sigrid Gurie to replace Sylvia Sidney in Algiers !
His scenarists, Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, had started to worry when Wanger requested some "laughs in the picture." They took their first adaptation to Goldwyn - "the finest writing that was ever handed to me." Too grim, though, until he heard director William Wyler wanted it for his lover, Bette Davis. She asked Jack Warner to buy it for her - prompting Goldwyn to snap it up and ask Wyler: "Can Meryl play the part?"
Hecht had no doubts about Olivier. "He could recite Heathcliff sitting on a barrel of herring and break your heart." Oberon liked Larry O, but he didn't rate her. She suggested Douglas Fairbanks Jr, who confesses his test was so horrendous it became a joke.
“People would run the test at their private houses,
like getting the new Disney film or something.
It was very funny because it was so bad.
I enjoyed it, myself.”
Betweenwhiles, Ronnald Colman and Tyrone Power were contacted. Goldwyn opened negotiations with James Mason. And in London, Wyler found someone "much better than Olivier" - Robert Newton. Goldwyn thought Fairbanks weak and Newton ugly . OLIVIER ADMITS NEWTON BETTER , ran Wyler's next cable. WHY CAN'T YOU AGREE...? AM YOUR AGENT, NOT HIS.
Sam agreed to more tests, though never accepting Wyler's idea of Newton as Heathcliff and utilising Larry O's "unavoidable weakness" as Cathy's weak brother Hindley (Hugh Williams).
Olivier played hard to get because his lover, Vivien Leigh, had never been offered Cathy, merely the smaller role of Heathcliff's wife - ultimately, Geraldine Fitzgerald in her Hollywood debut. So, Larry and Merle detested each other.
After one take, Oberon yelled at William Wyler:
“Tell him to stop spitting at me!”
"Then, I don't want any role," snapped Viv, determined on Hollywood stardom. She relented, then asked for too much money. With a classic entry in the annals of Famous Last Words, Wyler told Viv. "For your first role in an American film, you're never going to get a better part than Isabella." D'oh!
During the shooting of what Goldwyn called Withering Heights , agent Myron Selznick took the future Oliviers to witness the burning of Atlanta as Gone With The Wind finally got underway and he introduced Viv to his brother, producer David Selznick. "Hey, genius, meet your Scarlett O'Hara."