Perhaps it was a matter of being caught young. I first saw Merle Oberon when I was about 12 or 13 and A Song to Remember (Charles Vidor, 1945) came to rural Victoria some years after a very long run at Melbourne’s Savoy Theatre. I have never forgotten how she looked in that, and every time I’ve seen it since it brings back that indelible, life-changing image she imprinted on my young mind. Hers was a face of great delicacy, exquisitely oval, framed with lustrous dark hair, with eloquent eyes and bright red lips – and she was unforgettably dressed in pale grey trousers, scarlet waistcoat, generous bow-tie, black cutaway coat and grey top hat on first appearance. As novelist George Sand, she swung down a Parisian street (that’s Paris, Hollywood) with ‘friend’ Liszt (Stephen Bekassy), and came into a café where Chopin (Cornel Wilde) and his mentor-teacher, Professor Elsner (Paul Muni), sat at a table. She said little in this scene, but as she and Liszt move on to their own table she inclined her head to look provocatively at Wilde to say, “I hope you will like Paris, Monsieur Chopin. I’m sure Paris will like you.” Simple words of courtesy maybe, but on Merle’s lips charged with subtle sexual promise.
Curiously, A Song to Remember has never become a cult classic. Perhaps it goes in for too much ‘dignity’ and high-mindedness rather than camp excess. It is quite often very silly and its depiction of Chopin as a political refugee from Poland under the heel of “tsarist swine” who composes for the sake of the motherland, even to the point of endangering his health, doesn’t bear close inspection. The one thing that people recall when it is mentioned is “the blood on the keys” when Chopin is about to collapse at the end of a patriotically inspired concert tour. But for me the great moments in this film all involve the fabulous Merle at the very peak of her beauty, the film having been made when she was about 33. I think of the recital she has arranged at the mansion of the Duchess of Orléans (Norma Drury). Everyone has been expecting Liszt to play and the lights have been turned down to satisfy who knows what artistic whim associated with him. At the open windows, listening menials are whispering “Ssh! Liszt!” As the pianist’s performance draws to a close, Merle, her hair now swept up the better to reveal her incomparable forehead and her body encased not in trousers but in a swirling long white gown, walks down the aisle between the rows of the audience, holding a candelabra aloft to reveal that the performer was none other than her protégé, Frédéric (aka Frederick) Chopin. This is a turning point in his fame and she carries off this epiphanic moment with stunning assurance and poise, until she stands beside him at the piano. Every budding composer surely needs such a patroness; my guess is that few have had one who looked like Merle.
There’s an even bigger climax when she turns on him in wild apologia, her eyes blazing with anger, with “No one knows this human jungle better than I.” We know she (i.e., George Sand) is a writer but the film is not very interested in, say, La Mare au Diable (neither was I when it was prescribed for French I at Melbourne University a few years later), and it was nothing like as memorable as Merle’s outburst: “No one knows this human jungle better than I. Who ever fought more bitterly to survive in it? To have had some talent and ambition and to be a woman – in the eyes of men something slightly better than a head of cattle. I wore men’s trousers, to remind them I was their equal …”, etc. I’m quoting that from memory, but am pretty sure I haven’t made any mistakes. Merle was ablaze with gender-based fury (why haven’t the feminists lit upon this flare-up?) and alight with sexual challenge. Anyway, she lures Chopin away from the distractions of Paris to her island fastness, predicting alliteratively, “You could write miracles of music in Majorca.” All does not go smoothly on the island: the rain is incessant and Frédéric is very chesty by this time. Merle is getting a bit testy with him, perhaps incredibly he is not paying her enough attention, and she orders him to “Stop this so-called polonaise jumble you’ve been working on for days” and pay more attention to her. After all, she has given him – in her own words – “what artists have been crying out for down the ages”: that is, solitude in a picturesque setting with someone who looks like her.
Well, as I say, the damp climate has played havoc with his chest and, bravely defying advice, he undertakes the fund-raising tour for beleaguered Poland that leads to the-blood-on-the-keys, after an extensive montage of concert halls and iconic monuments of cultured Europe. Merle is having her portrait painted when old Professor Elsner, who has always been wary of her, dodders in and says that Frédéric is dying and that he has asked to see her. Without a tremor of her matchless profile, she simply says: “Frederick was mistaken to ask for me … Please continue Monsieur Delacroix.” Not many actresses could carry off a line like that as if they meant it – and without laughing aloud.
There were a lot of other beautiful women in films when I was first getting interested in films – and in beautiful women. There were gorgeous redheads like Rita Hayworth, Maureen O’Hara and Geraldine Fitzgerald, and brunettes like Ava Gardner and Jane Greer, all predating the more obvious sexiness of Marilyn Monroe a few years later, and all staying clearly with me over five decades. But Merle was something else: the challenging eyes, the forehead, the handsome bosom, the sheer elegance, the romantic intensity with which she imbued all she said and did.
It used to be thought that Merle was born in Tasmania and this myth was not exploded until after her death. In fact, she was born in India of mixed British-Indian parentage and, when she went to racially conscious England in the 1930s, she suppressed her Eurasian heritage in the interests of pursuing a career. All this suppression is by now well-documented, and it’s a bit surprising that she was able to maintain this secrecy about her background. As late as 1980, my son was working as dogsbody in a big Australian firm when an elderly Indian colleague told him about having been involved in an Indian dramatic society with Merle in the late 1920s and very early ’30s. But such people, and there must have been plenty who remembered her, remarkably kept their counsel and never in her lifetime contradicted the Tasmanian myth. The racial mix, of course, accounts in no small measure for the astonishing uniqueness of the beauty.
After several tiny, uncredited roles in British films of the early ’30s, she got herself noticed in Zoltan Korda and Leotine Sagan’s Men of Tomorrow (1932), and even more thoroughly noticed the following year in brother Alexander Korda’s The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933). Not having for some years now seen this epoch-maker (for British films, not just for Merle), I’ve never forgotten how she, as doomed Anne Boleyn, asks as she comes up for execution (“Chop and change”, as a lady-in-waiting rather crudely says), “Will my hair sit straight when my head falls?” She manages to invest her few moments with a touch of real poignancy, which is as much due to the contrast between her youthful perfection and the hideous cruelty of the axe as to Anne’s historical situation.
By now, following the international success of Henry VIII and The Scarlet Pimpernel (Harold Young, 1934), in which she was a ravishing Marguerite to Leslie Howard’s Percy Blakeney,Hollywood had Merle in its sights. In Goldwyn’s 1935 romantic melodrama, The Dark Angel (Sidney Franklin, 1935), she won an Oscar nomination as the woman whose lover is blinded in World War I, but it was really William Wyler who made her a star with a worldwide following. In fact, in a reversal of the received wisdom about how Hollywood takes nice natural British actresses and turns them into artificial glamour pusses, Wyler somehow ‘naturalised’ Merle, who, notwithstanding how breathtaking she looked, was in danger of becoming a resident ‘exotic’ in British cinema. Never an actress of exceptional range, she nevertheless held her own with a scene-stealing Miriam Hopkins (“very bitchy”, Merle recalled thirty years on) in These Three (1936), adapted from Lillian Hellman’s play about the dangers of gossip and the possibility of lesbianism among teachers at a girls’ school. Sam Goldwyn, apprised that the play touched on lesbians, is reputed to have said merely, “Make ’em Nicaraguans.”
But it was her next film for Wyler that cemented her reputation as an international star. She played Cathy in the 1939 film version of Emily Brontë’s passionate Wuthering Heights. Looking at this sixty years later, I must say how impressed I was not merely with the beauty, here exhibited in both ‘natural’ wind-swept mode and in the ‘civilised’ couture of her residence at Thrushcross Grange, having settled for dull Edgar Linton when her heart and soul belonged elsewhere (that’s how they talked in 1930s Hollywood – and in Emily Brontë), but also with the quality of performance she brought to bear on Cathy. She would later say that Spencer Tracy had told her that the Oscars would never again be worth attending to when she wasn’t nominated for Cathy. That may be an extreme reaction, but she does exhibit an emotional range that was not often asked of her.
We see her in ecstatic profile as she contemplates running away with Heathcliff (Laurence Olivier); she is persuasively furious with Edgar (David Niven) and then rips off her fine-lady clothes to run out on to Penniston Crag, where it must be said she does her best with some dreadful dialogue: “Let the world stop right here … Standing on this hill with you, this is me forever.” However, she does differentiate convincingly between the romantic child of nature in her scenes with Heathcliff and the conventional lady of the manor at Thrushcross Grange. In one of the scenes set in the latter, Merle suggests intimations of her later imperiousness as she treats the now rich Heathcliff with icy dismissiveness. She contrasts effectively with that other great beauty, Geraldine Fitzgerald, as Edgar’s sister Isabella, who reveals the shy eagerness of her infatuation with Heathcliff. And she is finally both exquisite and touching as she lies on her deathbed, her face irradiated as Heathcliff arrives. Olivier has a fine brooding presence, but Merle’s unflinching delivery of the film’s often-excessive dialogue (by Ben Hecht and Charles Macarthur, who should have known better) can sometimes leave him sounding stagey by comparison.
To see what I mean by Wyler and Hollywood’s having ‘naturalised’ her, one needs only to look at some of her 1930s British films. Some of these British roles are really charming, particularly that in The Divorce of Lady X (Tim Whelan, 1938). The film is saucily engaging piffle, certainly, but Merle in Technicolor was a great bonus, and she showed a feeling for romantic comedy that she would hardly ever again get so good a chance to exercise. Other British films of the period such as Over the Moon (Thorton Freeland, 1939) and the embarrassing flag-waver The Lion Has Wings (Adrian Brunel, Brian Desmond Hurst and Michael Powell, 1939) are best forgotten, and show little of the fruits of the burgeoning Hollywood career which had made her a compelling romantic star.
However, it must be said that, apart from the Wyler films and A Song to Remember, Hollywood hardly ever gave her anything very worthwhile to do. She ages convincingly as the eponymous Lydia (Julien Duvivier, 1941), vacillating between three suitors (it seems restrained of her that there were only three); she has some touching moments with Gladys Cooper and Roland Young at the end of the all-star story of a house, Forever and a Day (Edmund Golding, Cedric Hardwicke, Frank Lloyd, Victor Saville, Robert Stevenson, Herbert Wilcox and René Clair, 1943), showing that she could wear glasses with impunity; she dances the can-can in The Lodger (John Brahm, 1944)and shows of a pair of very shapely legs in doing so; but the rest of the ’40s films require a high level of devotion to the Oberon allure. She struggles with screenplay and quicksand in a minor noir thriller, Dark Waters (André De Toth, 1944); swishes her way through Temptation (Irving Pechel, 1946) as Ruby Chepstow, a divorcée of murderous bent in period London and Egypt (“Men are just begging to be lied to … so I lie”, says Ruby); did her romantic best in a couple of really sudsy romantic dramas, This Love of Ours (William Dieterle, 1945) and Night Song (John Cromwell, 1948), and in a truly preposterous fantasy romance as the Princess Delarai (“Heaven was in her Eyes … And her lips were Paradise”, the publicity promised), who ends up as wife to Æsop (he of Fables fame) in A Night in Paradise (Arthur Lubin, 1946). Post-war Hollywood had other things on its mind than the lush romantic drama that was Merle’s forte.
No matter. In the 1950s, when she was just 40, she played a couple of character roles that seemed to suggest a new career. In short order, she played the Empress Josephine to Marlon Brando’s Napoléon in Désirée (Henry Koster, 1954), and the patroness of Sigmund Romberg (José Ferrer) in Deep in My Heart (Stanley Donen, 1954). Though Jean Simmons had the title role and superior billing in the former, Merle created, in her first character role, a potent sense of the woman of fine feeling who senses her time is passing and that a younger woman is displacing her, and contrived to be not just surpassingly elegant but surprisingly moving as well. In Deep in My Heart, as Romberg’s influential friend Dorothy Donnelly, she again cedes romantic pre-eminence to a younger actress (Is there anyone else alive who has now heard of Doe Avedon? What was Ferrer/Romberg thinking of?), and she dies gracefully on a chaise longue. As in Désirée, there is a new authority in her playing. The sexy challenge of her earlier years is still there but now allied to a new maturity, which seemed to point to a possible new career direction. This didn’t eventuate and maybe the famous beauty got in the way of developing other gifts more fully.
The astonishing thing about the legendary beauty was how it seemed to keep adjusting itself to the decades. Even in the mid-1960s, and her mid-fifties, there is a still palpable sensual quality, especially in Hotel (Richard Quine, 1967) as a duchess who succumbs to blackmail to protect her husband’s name. The first glimpse of her is of her feet as she mounts the hotel’s back stairs after being involved in a motor accident. Gradually, the camera makes us privy to the fact that her figure (encased in ‘gowns’ by Edith Head) is still a thing of beauty, the face miraculously resisting time’s imprints and fully exposed with the lustrous black hair pulled back and up in an ambitious cluster. She is the most vivid character in this multi-story plot derived from Arthur Hailey’s novel, and she is the only thing that makes it worth sitting through the trash of The Oscar (Russell Rouse, 1966), in which she guest-stars as herself.
Her other significant appearance in the ’60s was in the documentary The Epic That Never Was (1965), in which she and others (Emlyn Williams, Flora Robson, etc.) recall the aborted filming of I Claudius of 30 years earlier. Producer and future husband Alexander Korda called a halt to this production, starring Charles Laughton, Merle and Robert Donat, when Merle was involved in a motor accident of her own, though she expressed the view that, if all had been going well, he wouldn’t have abandoned the film. The surviving footage is stunning, partly for Laughton’s histrionic feast as the shy and awkward Claudius – and for Merle as Messalina, flitting sumptuously through Denham’s Rome as Messalina in flowing diaphanous gown, and refusing to marry lumpish Claudius because “My family has other plans.” Well, for all we know that’s how they talked in ancient Rome. What remains on film makes one wonder if director Joseph Von Sternberg could have done for her what he did for Marlene Dietrich?
Because of her supposed Tasmanian origins, there were frequent references in the Australian papers to her movements. In one of these reports, she was said to be staying at London’s Savoy Hotel in 1955, so I took advantage of having a reliable address to send her a letter. To my surprise and gratification, she not merely replied but, unasked too, enclosed a large handsome signed photograph of herself – which I still have, and will of course leave to the nation. In 1969, there was an account in Melbourne’s The Herald of a proposed film, Private War of Mrs Darling, about an illiterate Scots woman who takes on the bureaucracy in the matter of tearing down (or was it putting up?) a bridge in rural Scotland. “Now, could I really play an illiterate woman?”, she asked – asked me, that is. And that brings me to the happy climax of nearly a quarter-century of adoration.
With wife and children, I was in America on a Fulbright grant for the northern academic year of 1970-1. A student at Trinity Grammar where I had been teaching had passed on to me an article from Life magazine in 1967 about Merle’s idling her life away in Acapulco, in a house called “El Ghalal (from an ancient Mexican-Indian phrase meaning ‘to love’”), with bouts of entertaining visiting royalty. I thoughtfully filed this piece, with its provocative title, “In a Swinging Resort the Star Is Merle Oberon” (3 April 1967). When I knew we were going to America, I wrote to her at El Ghalal, suggesting that she and I should take advantage of our being in the same continent for once to meet. To my surprise and huge gratification, I had a reply saying she’d “be delighted to meet” me, and giving phone numbers and addresses. After an exchange of letters, one of which from her charmingly included my wife and children in the invitation, I finally secured these latter in a motel room in San Antonio and made my way south of the border. This jaunt was finally conducted alone because my wife (who looked like Merle when we were married) generously, if sardonically, felt “A man’s gotta dream” and, less generously but more pragmatically, looking at our kids, decided they were only moderately well-behaved and would probably knock over a valuable artefact or catch a disease.
Merle’s chauffeur arrived at my hotel to transport me to the House of Love. Over precipitous and lumpy roads we arrived at the Pagliai mansion (Merle was then married to Italian industrialist Bruno Pagliai), to be met at the door by the lady herself. After, as I say, nearly a quarter-century of helpless adoration, it seemed scarcely possible, but there she was, looking fabulous in, my diary says, pink slacks and shirt, with long dark hair hanging loose, the face a thing of olivine perfection and the figure as gracefully sculpted as ever. She escorted me through the house to sit beside the pool, shaded with banana trees and palms, and to absorb the stunning vista of the bay. She had been having trouble with architects (the house was put up for sale shortly afterwards), servants (so hard to get decent staff in Mexico) and health. As to the latter, she’d been diagnosed by her doctor over the phone as having hepatitis, and, while there was no one I’d rather have caught it from, I was hoping it wasn’t contagious. I began to feel I should leave in case she was getting tired, but she insisted she wasn’t and I stayed nearly three hours, during which some of those unsatisfactory servants plied us with cool drinks. She offered lunch but this seemed too much for someone who was meant to be unwell.
I’m glad I hadn’t read some of the stories about her, or Charles Higham and Roy Moseley’s 1983 biography, Merle, before the visit: they certainly would have punctured my more or less innocent vision of this miraculous beauty. They might also have lessened my wife’s willingness to send me off alone on this pilgrimage. As it was, I simply sat there drinking in the beauty – and enjoying the talk. She was relaxed, kind, well-informed and had lots of firm opinions (see earlier references to Tracy and Miriam Hopkins); she liked talking about her films and those of others and was neither the conventional charmer nor the bitchy socialite the gossip columns sometimes suggested. She probably had a higher opinion of A Song to Remember than most critics would feel able to share, but who cared about historical verisimilitude when Merle was on screen? And she warded off potential criticism (as if I were about to offer any!) by praising Columbia’s ogre-boss, Harry Cohn, for buying up a Polish film about Chopin just so that he could reproduce one scene.This scene was the one I’ve mentioned above involving Liszt, Chopin and candelabra. When I asked if I could take some photos of her, she said yes, and added that “Prince Philip had been there only a week or so earlier with such a cunning little camera, no bigger than your finger.” My resulting photos are only a little blurred and as good as you could expect from a shaking hand.
While I was there, I urged her to get back to the movies that so sorely needed her in grungy 1970, and I strongly recommended that she enlist the support of George Cukor to direct and Henry Fonda to co-star with her in a screen version of Henry James’s The Ambassadors. She wasn’t familiar with this subtle and glittering work, but I assured her she was born to play Madame de Vionnet who so effortlessly captivates men across a wide age-spectrum. On return to Michigan, I sent her a copy (she wrote thanking me for “the Henry James book”). She was unusually absent from the gossip columns over the next few months and I pointed this out to my wife who simply, if perhaps not wholly kindly, said, “Don’t be silly, she’s at home with a tutor trying to read The Ambassadors.” The other roles I wanted her to play were the title role in a version of Angus Wilson’s The Middle Age of Mrs Eliot, though I didn’t quite like to name it in case it seemed rude in the face of her ageless beauty, and Jocasta in Œdipus Rex. I mean, how many woman are old enough to be your mother but ravishing enough to make you want to marry them? In the event, of course, she followed none of my suggestions but made an ill-fated comeback in Interval in 1973, divorced her industrialist husband and married her co-star, Robert Wolders, who as my wife pointed out to me, again not all that kindly, “is even younger than you are”. She made one last film, Interval (Daniel Mann, 1973), a May-December love story in which she played May and he played December. It was unkindly reviewed and has never come my way. Is there anyone out there who …?
Merle has been dead now for nearly thirty years, and I’ve met quite a number of film stars since, several of them quite gorgeously beautiful, but I suppose that having been caught young by Merle’s dark charms helps account for the fact that none has ever dislodged her image from my mind. It was worth taking up a Fulbright for the chance to meet her – and to feel my youthful infatuation had been vindicated. I still feel this every time I re-see, say, Lydia or Dark Angel, and, sensing the need for another viewing of A Song to Remember coming on, I recently acquired and watched a DVD. I can only say my youthful judgment was spot on. She established for me a standard of subtly sexy beauty that no other screen star has surpassed. Others may have things in common with her, but not all these elements are to be found in any one other. She may not have been the screen’s greatest actress, but, hell, anyone can act.