Friday, March 12, 2010

Merle and Sarah Jane

Imitation of Life and The Oscar lead, in the Siren's convoluted mental Hollywood, to Merle Oberon, the lady who gives out the Oscar in the latter's finale. In her early roles, like The Private Life of Henry VIII and These Three, Oberon had one of the most exquisitely, symmetrically beautiful faces in the history of movies. A perfect oval shape, a nose and mouth balanced just so and breathtaking eyes.

But here is the Imitation of Life twist, no great secret anymore: Oberon's mother was a dark-skinned Ceylonese woman named Charlotte Selby. Some say Charlotte was actually her grandmother, complicating matters; but she raised Merle, and Merle appears to have thought Charlotte was her mother. In any event, Oberon, née Estelle Merle Thompson, spent her life hiding her heritage from Hollywood and the world.

A modern person gazes at the features that columnists called "exotic" and can't figure out how Oberon managed a 40-year career without anyone wising up to the fact that she was half-Asian. And, in fact, she didn't keep it from everyone. The rumor about Oberon's parentage was around for years before it was confirmed in the 1980s by writers Charles Higham and Roy Moseley and by Michael Korda, her nephew by marriage, among others.

Unlike Sarah Jane, Oberon didn't abandon the woman she thought was her mother. She provided for her, stashing her in a flat in London, visiting her and paying all her bills. Oberon lived in glamourous digs that contained no nostalgic pictures of little Queenie, as she was nicknamed in childhood, in her mother's arms. When in London, Merle never said to a friend, "I'd like you to meet my mother." It is said that when visitors asked, Merle pretended Charlotte was the maid.

The Siren likes actors, and even when she doesn't, she admires them. Most of them. When I trouble to write at length about an actor, occasionally I start out rather cool, but I almost always end by feeling affection.

I feel no such affection for Oberon. But she intrigues me no end. How do you reach that point in your ambitions--the point where you'd deny your own mother?

Wikipedia has a odd little phrase in its lengthy and tortuous Merle Oberon entry: "She believed the truth would have destroyed her career prospects." Believed, rubbish. Without question the truth would have kept her from playing leads, thanks to the Production Code's miscegenation clause. No Anglo-Indian woman would ever have played Catherine Earnshaw in 1939. In fact, that casting would cause grumbling in some quarters in 2010, albeit carefully phrased in terms of history and plausibility.

Lena Horne tells of how in her early days, showmen said she was light-skinned enough to play Latina or white. Horne snapped back that she was also dark enough to be what she was. Horne had the courage. But Oberon had the stardom.

If Oberon would not acknowledge her mother in public, neither did she leave her to fate. Her mother was cared for, but concealed. And the Siren will always wonder, how did Charlotte feel, day by day? Was it enough to be provided for by her dazzling daughter, or did that make it worse?

She had a hardscrabble childhood, did Merle, one that she pulled herself out of by becoming a companion to older, wealthy, well-connected men. Whether that extended to outright prostitution is another Oberon mystery. But she worked her way to London and hitched her wagon to Alexander Korda, marrying him some years later.

Oberon became a star, but not a great actress. Oh, she was just right on occasion. Under William Wyler's steel hand she was perfect for These Three, impossibly lovely and poised, the very essence of the things that will always elude Miriam Hopkins. Her character is the sort of woman to whom fate will always lend a hand, because she is beautiful, because men adore her.

She played the same kind of part in The Scarlet Pimpernel, yet made Marguerite more sympathetic than she was in the book. She had a brief affair with Leslie Howard and a more serious one with David Niven. The Siren can't tell you whether Niven, a canny mortal and a world-class gossip, knew. If so, it did nothing to diminish her appeal for him at the time; but he didn't marry her.

During the 1937 filming of I, Claudius Oberon, who'd been cast as Messalina, was in a car accident that sounded the production's death knell and gave us one of the great "what ifs" of movie history. Her face was badly cut and required surgery. In later movies she is still a great beauty, but the pure perfection is gone.

The decade wound down with The Divorce of Lady X and closed with the biggest role of Oberon's career, Cathy in Wuthering Heights. She is appealing in that romantic movie, enough to make Laurence Olivier's love believable, but she lacks the wild, deeply unnerving passion that is the essence of Bronte.

Later good parts for Oberon came in That Uncertain Feeling and Lydia. Some sources claim an allergic reaction to sulfa drugs, compounded by dermabrasion afterward, further marred her looks. She made movies throughout the 1940s, including a preposterous piece of biopic casting as George Sand in A Song to Remember. She also made the very good Jack the Ripper thriller, The Lodger, where she met the great cinematographer Lucien Ballard and eventually married him. He invented a light to help keep the illusion of Oberon's beauty. Still, toward decade's end she began to experience the fading appeal that is the lot of most actresses.

Charlotte Selby, whether mother or grandmother, died in 1937.

As her roles dwindled Merle had compensations. She collected jewelry, she had parties, she painted pictures of flowers. She eased into a jet-set lifestyle, adopted children, and finally moved on to retirement with the Dutch actor who eventually moved on to Audrey Hepburn.

Her filmography consists of roles as love objects of varying degrees of fragility and refinement. You have to look hard in an Oberon performance to find any glint of the iron will that could take a woman from squalid beginnings, to Calcutta nightclubs, then to London, then to Hollywood, and finally to international society, all the while living Sarah Jane's lie. The Siren has never managed to spot it. Each time I see an Oberon movie, I get a thrill from her beauty, but no hint of the riddle's solution. Was she a Scarlett O'Hara who was never going to go hungry again, one to be pitied for the choices racism foisted on her? Or just a Fane-type conniver plying her primary gift, her face, for whatever advantage it would bring?

June Duprez had an opinion, and she expressed it at length in John Kobal's People Will Talk. Duprez had memorable roles in two of the Siren's favorite movies, The Four Feathers and The Thief of Baghdad, but her stay in Hollywood was a miserable one partly, she said, because Oberon backstabbed her. Oberon went out of her way to snub Duprez, and may also have done her best to see that the rest of Hollywood society snubbed the young actress as well. Maybe, said Duprez, it went back to the time that they both showed up at a party in London wearing a white lace dress and a diamond necklace.

Well, Duprez resembled Oberon, but Duprez was seven years younger. That alone could earn an actress's grudge.

Or maybe Duprez needed to cast a single villain in a role that belonged to sheer bad luck. By the time Duprez talked to Kobal, Oberon had been dead for six years, felled by a stroke in 1979.

Now we all hear a lot about the pain and pathos of stardom. Some stories are tragedies by any definition: Wallace Reid, Clara Bow, Rita Hayworth, Gene Tierney, John Garfield, Canada Lee. Other actors' laments leave you thinking that ordinary people make sacrifices, too, only with less fuss and far fewer rewards.

Oberon's life was no tragedy; her mother's, perhaps, was.


John said...

Great, great piece. Thanks.

Arthur S. said...

I've never been a Merle Oberon fan, and frankly can't think of a single great film she's in(though I haven't seen ''That Uncertain Feeling'' which is by Lubitsch). I think the word tragedy vis-a-vis Hollywood depends largely in relation to the level of talent. ''I Claudius'' is tragic because with Korda, Laughton and Sternberg you'd expect it to be a film of some quality, instead the three of them cancelled each other out.

Wyler's ''Wuthering Heights'' is decent in a lot of respects, it gets the brutal nature of the class relations in the book and Olivier is Heathcliff but Merle Oberon is too innocent and too nice which Cathy wasn't.

The Siren said...

Thanks John!

Arthur, I can't call myself a fan either although such are her looks that I will happily watch an Oberon movie nonetheless. I wouldn't call John Brahm's The Lodger a great film but it is, as I say, very good--fabulous atmospheric cinematography via Ballard--and Cregar is marvelous in it. Sanders is kind of wasted but it's one of his dashing-hero roles and I always like those. I believe David Cairns likes Lydia, the remake of Un Carnet du Bal. I have not yet been able to see it, been trying for yonks. My feelings on Wuthering Heights are pretty much the same, it's Olivier's movie and the first of his great screen performances.

As for That Uncertain Feeling, it's comparatively weak Lubitsch but still has the Touch.

estienne64 said...

Nice to hear a reference to June Duprez. Her beauty is one of the many reasons I love Thief of Baghdad so much. She has a tiny part in another favourite, Michael Powell's The Spy in Black (probably called something else in the US), largely because of her vague resemblence to the heroine, Valerie Hobson. But I mostly find myself thinking about Duprez because she has the most insanely posh voice I've ever heard! It makes it impossible for a Brit to believe anything she's saying. (I'm not sure if its sheer weirdness is as apparent to Americans.)

Edward said...

Thanks Siren, I have been thinking about Oberon since seeing The Oscar the other day. Back in the late 60s my mother always commented on how great she was holding up (in Hotel, specifically) and I suppose I agreed. But the other night all I saw was a suntan and a will of iron -- not to mention the absurdity of her presenting the Best Actor Oscar in 1966, 25 years past her heyday.

I agree it's nuts that she could have a 40-year career with the public unaware of her heritage -- aside from her looks, her voice is a dead giveaway. And now I even wonder if she was really that beautiful. Such is the power of movie stardom, especially old-style stardom.

The Siren said...

I love Duprez's voice as well but no, it never seemed weird to me, just pure pleasure. If you love Duprez the Kobal interview makes for incredibly sad reading. Whatever the cause, she was hard done by in Hollywood and wound up very bitter.

The Siren said...

Edward, in her early pictures Oberon is insanely beautiful, at least to me. I've been known to pause DVDs just to get a better look at her in something like Henry VIII. I must have looked at 100 pictures of her for this piece and what the accident did was to eliminate the symmetry of her face. She had a bad cut to her left eye and in full-on shots you can see that the eyes no longer match. But she is still a vision in Wuthering Heights; cinematographers back then were a wonder. HD would ruin her now, probably. Are you British? To me her voice is very upper-crust in that Hollywood Brit way, but perhaps I just miss the accent. She always claimed she was from Tasmania and in my old bios that lie is repeated with complete acceptance.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Cue Noel Coward singing "Half-Caste Woman."

Very nice Merle-o-rama, Siren.

I've been thinking a lot about her lately as I've been engaged to write the liner notes for the Criterion Collection's new improved The Red Shoes. While filmed in 1947 and released the following year, P & P's masterpiece began its life back in the 30's when Alex Korda thought a ballet story might do for Merle. Pressburger was engaged to write it (Ludwig Berge was Korda's first choice to direct) and he immersed himself in the world of ballet. But as Korda's passion for Merle cooled, so did the project. So P & P bought the rights for what Pressburger had written from Korda, and rewrote it completely for the film we now know and love. The Big Difference is their decision to star a REAL ballerina -- rather than have some famous actress do the part and splice in a dancer for the dancing.

Interesting too, according to Powell (in his posthumously published Million Dollar Movie) Korda has a homophobe --something Powell considered quite bizarre in light of Korda's taste, sophistication and the fact that he was working in show business and wanted to make a film about ballet. Consequently, Powell notes, had Korda gone foward with his Merle-starred production he would never have cast Anton Walbrook (in what I consider to be the greatest perfomence in the history of the cinema, with Jean-Louis Trintignant in Those Who Love Me Can Take the Train coming in a very close second) as Lemontov (ie. Diagilev.) Powell says Walbrooks's gayness was the very thing that made him perfect for the part.

DavidEhrenstein said...

As a kid I fell for Merle in A Night in Paradise -- a WAY cheezy confection in which she's paired with Turhan Bey.

The thought of Merle crossing paths with Maria Montez in the Universal commisary is simply too delicious.

The Siren said...

David, I remember Powell saying that and also thought it was insanely odd. I get the impression that most Hollywood people, whatever kind of casual slurs they might utter, just sort of shrugged it off--when they weren't sleeping with both sexes like rabbits in heat, that is. (That's not a criticism, mind you, I think the rabbits-in-heat part is one of Hollywood's great charms.) I have seen the Turhan Bey extravaganza and seeing Oberon in costume for it just makes you think that people were consciously ignoring the obvious. It was all about deniability, I guess.

The Siren said...

P.S. Warmest congrats on The Red Shoes gig!! That will be a pleasure to read.

estienne64 said...

To celebrate the bicentenary of Chopin's birth this year, I'm hoping to track down and re-watch A Song to Remember, with Cornel Wilde as Chopin and Queenie herself as George Sand, always trying to steal Chopin away to Majorca. I recall it as a truly terrible film, but I'm not quite the snob I was when I saw it (or perhaps a different sort of snob). It does have at least one priceless scene, though: while Chopin, newly arrived in Paris from Poland, is being told he's too old to be a child prodigy (which he certainly is), he hears his music being played in the room next door. Who should be playing it but the world's greatest pianist, Franz Liszt? Chopin joins in the performance, and as the two men shake hands, they go on playing the music, one hand each... Absurd. Marvellous.

DavidEhrenstein said...

My fave rabbit-in-heat has always been Burt Lancaster.

The Siren said...

David, my favorite RIH is Oliver Reed. He was so unapologetically sleazy it becomes really endearing.

Estienne, I saw the Chopin flick ages and ages ago, and I don't recall that scene. I do remember Paul Muni going to see Oberon-as-Sand when Chopin is dying. She's posing for a painter (wait for it) and icily tells Muni she isn't about to go running off to some deathbed. I can still remember her snapping, "Continue, Mr. Delacroix!" But that's about all I can dredge up from memory. I bet it looks great, though.

Anyone seen Queenie in This Love of Ours, dir. William Dieterle? Might be worthwhile, with him at the helm.

Peter Nellhaus said...

Reflecting on what happened with Oberon, things haven't changed that much. The Hawaiian born Maggie Q had to go to Hong Kong to become a movie star. She's only gotten a couple of supporting roles in big Hollywood films, although a revival of the TV series Nikita might alert the masses to what us Hong Kong film watchers have known for years. Nor is the call for racially correct casting limited to this side of the hemisphere, as there were complaints regarding Ms. Quigley's starring in the period epic Three Kingdoms.

X. Trapnel said...

Ah, but Song to Remember has many priceless scenes (though I hope my memory isn't playing tricks): "If he goes on this concert tour it will literally and actually kill him!" "Discontinue that so-called polonaise nonsense!"


Ida Lupino as Cathy, though I hear Yojimboen clucking skeptically 3,000 miles away.

X. Trapnel said...

In point of fact, Delacroix's portrait of Sand was a double portrait with Chopin (this is the famous one on innumerable Chopin recordings). He later cut the canvas in two.

The Siren said...

Peter, when Lincoln Center revived Carousel a while back they cast a black woman in a key role and you wouldn't believe the whining from some people. Maggie Q is indeed great, she has that don't-fuck-with-me-I'm-a-goddess quality that I revere in all my female stars.

XT, I didn't even realize Delacroix really painted Sand, I thought that was the moviemakers saying, "let's slot in another period celebrity!" the way they so often did. Now that I cast back my memory I seem to recall that there is an awful lot of "should Chopin FIGHT for Poland!" stuff. Is it on DVD, I wonder?

Flickhead said...

Siren, did you ever get to see The Epic That Never Was? If I recall, we discussed it here a few years ago.

I'm with you on the Merle appeal. Very beautiful, but little draw.

June Duprez, on the other hand, put the whammy on me years ago. Back when American Movie Classics showed American movie classics (without interruption, no less), I watched (and re-watched) June in the faux horror film, The Brighton Strangler (1945). No major achievement, but it had a weird aura about it.

Forgive my stupidity, but what's a rabbit in heat?

Raquelle said...

I read a bit about Merle Oberon's denial of her mother in the Norma Shearer biography. I couldn't help but hate her a bit.

I have pale skin and so does my mother but my grandmother is a dark-skinned Dominican woman with mixed heritage of Spanish, Taino and African. My mother (nor I for that matter) would never deny her, or hide her, or refer to her as anything other than what she is. I understand that Merle Oberon comes from another time, but I can never reconcile the denial of one own's heritage. To me it's just plain wrong.

Great post! Thank you.

X. Trapnel said...

Siren, if I were adept at these things I'd provide a link to D's Sand portrait. Delacroix was a very close friend of Chopin and Sand.

I think we all agree that the filming of creative genius (ok, not Sand, though she was an extraordinary woman) is hopeless. The reason, I think, Impromptu worked so well was that it portrayed contemporary "creative" types masquerading as Chopin, Liszt (Julian Sands, for God's sake!), Delacroix, Sand (don't remember if Musset made the cut).

The Siren said...

Flickhead, that's just me picking an animal that seems to have an active love life. I suppose I could also have gone with cats or dogs or even pigeons.

Raquelle, this whole piece was me deciding whether or not to hate Merle. I still haven't made up my mind and maybe I never will.

Jennythenipper said...

I would take everything written by Higham and Moseley with a huge grain of salt, frankly. Oberon was a very good actress. Wuthering Heights was great and her performance in Divorce of Lady X showed her comic talent as well. I also like Beloved Enemy and First Comes Courage with Brian Aherne. I don't know why Oberon is so frequently maligned, frankly. I often seen her referred to as merely beautiful and that bothers me. Obviously everyone is entitled to their opinion, but I wonder how much gossip about her treatment of her mother effect people's judgment of her talent.

Nice to see some shout-outs to June Duprez. None but the Lonely Heart is a far better film for her being in it.

Juanita's Journal said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Juanita's Journal said...

I think that Cathy in "WUTHERING HEIGHTS" was one of her best roles. Oberon was wild enough in the role without going over-the-top. And I doubt that Wyler would have allowed her to portray Cathy in such an over-emotional manner.

Have I ever been a major fan of Oberon? No, I have not. But I still believe that she was a pretty damn good actress when the role demanded it.

Wyler's ''Wuthering Heights'' is decent in a lot of respects, it gets the brutal nature of the class relations in the book and Olivier is Heathcliff but Merle Oberon is too innocent and too nice which Cathy wasn't.

Oberon's Cathy was nice? I don't think so. She was childish, spoiled and self-involved. And Oberon bought out those aspects of Cathy's personality beautifully.

As for Oberon's decision to keep her Indian heritage a secret . . . well, it was her decision. Perhaps she wasn't as brave as Lena Horne, but I'm not going to condemn her for what she had done. I refuse to.
She may not have acknowledged her mother publicly, but she did take care of the woman. And for all we know, her "mother" (who may have actually been her grandmother) may have supported her decision to participate in the charade.

rudyfan1926 said...

First off, Mr. E, congratulations on the Criterion project. Oh my, this will be something like my 4th or 5th iteration of The Red Shoes on home media. Oh well, a MUST have.

Oberon has always left me cold. While I adore The Scarlet Pimpernel, it's not because of her. She has one moment of truth in that film for me, at the moment she realizes her husband is the Scarlet Pimpernel and she cries our "Percy!"

I find her looks to be arresting, but not classically beautiful. Just my opinion. There is an undercurrent of vanity to all of her performances I've seen and combined with the remote, vapid, flat acting. In short, she does little for me. Might have worked in the silent era. Much as Jetta Goudal had such a career in the silent era.

I wept buckets the first few times I saw Wuthering Heights, now I almost cannot bear to view it. Olivier and Flora Robson are by far the best things in it.

Vanwall said...

Personally, I prefer "like crazed weasels" to RIH, but each to his own. I, too think Oberon had a strange trip through life, but it started very early for her family, I seem to recall, and it was by no means completely one-sided. I think the fact she was talented enough to go with her exotic looks to pass for so long, with the explicit cooperation of a legion of people, that it can be viewed as a gigantic subversion of then-contemporary society's mores, more so than almost any other actress ever.

I always view her life through the lense of time - movies can make it seem that it was only 80 years or so and thus approachable and almost-contemporary, while in reality, it was a cruel, vicious, nasty, exploitive time and place that none of us can really understand, tho some of can come close.

Her choices are still being made, and it's sad that had to happen. Hollywood has a curious way of making actors into what it wants, and it's not always pleasant, but it becomes accepted and that's a sad fact of the movie-goers' complicity in the whole charade.

Frank Silvera was an interesting comparison from just a few years later - Hollywood used his light-skinned complexion to mold him into a variety of roles, most of which had nothing to do with his ethnicity.

Oberon was a survivor, and she became the guardian of her own existence in ways I hope never to find - if she was nasty and cruel under the surface, she hid it so well, but I can imagine the desperation she must have lived with - her entire life was indeed that very thing, and if you measure acting by the level of dissembling, she was Oscar quality.

The Siren said...

Jenny, re: Moseley and Higham -- I do, believe me, I do. But in this regard I believe they were on the money; stopped clocks and all that. The first link goes to a story about an Australian documentary where the filmmaker claims to have tracked down her birth certificate. We also have Korda's word and a number of others. Where all I have to go on is Higham, I've tried to hedge because I don't trust him as a sole source.

I think that for years her role as the much-older Korda's main squeeze was what damaged her rep more than anything, actually; the Marion Davies syndrome.

panavia999 said...

I don't blame or dislike Oberon for hiding her mother in plain sight. Things were so much different then - neither in England or the USA would she have had any success if her Asian heritage was a known fact. (Known fact as opposed to unproven - as long as she had money making star potential, the money men would probably keep their suspicions to themselves. They all played the game together.)
Most Admired Siren, you are looking too much at the Sarah Jane analogy and maybe thinking Oberon's mother was also humble and self-effacing like the Annie/Delilah Johnson character.
We don't know Oberon's mother's thoughts on the situation at all. They may have been in complete agreement on how to handle it. After all, her mother might have been just as ambitious for Oberon's success - she might have been a driving force too. We just don't know, and it's hard to speculate on a time where class and racial distinctions were overwhelming.
As for the backstabbing the fantastically beautiful June Duprez - that may have been enhanced by her secret, but she was already an ambitious and vain woman.
"Song to Remember" is pure musical cheese and WW2 propaganda. The music is great but, Cornel Wilde as the sickly composer? Paul Muni doing his patented "Paul Muni as a historical character" role? Merle Oberon was the best thing in the movie.
We used to watch it often when I was a kid because my mother was fascinated with the life of George Sand (and we loved Chopin's music.)

panavia999 said...

My favorite Merle Oberon movie is "Lydia". I always think of "Lydia" and "Flame of New Orleans" as a great double feature. They have continental flair. Both directed by french directors: Rene Clair and Julien Duvivier respectively.
There are lots of movies with Merle Oberon which I like very much: Wuthering Heights, Dark Angel, These Three 'Til We Meet Again, The Lodger. But it's the acting ensemble I admire more than just Oberon's presence.

The Siren said...

"Most Admired Siren, you are looking too much at the Sarah Jane analogy and maybe thinking Oberon's mother was also humble and self-effacing like the Annie/Delilah Johnson character."

Ah, but no, I am not -- I ask whether her mother was just happy for the creature comforts. There is a story in Graham Lord's Niven bio that clearly spells out heartbreak--Charlotte is with a friend and starts sobbing, "Look at my brown hand in your white one. That's why I can't be with my Queenie." However, since Lord doesn't do source notes I didn't feel comfortable putting that inflammatory anecdote in when it's bound to make everyone think ten times worse of Oberon. It seemed a bit fanciful to me, but who knows? (A phrase I use a lot about Oberon.)

It's taken me ages to write about her because I am always "on the one hand - BUT on the other" when it comes to Merle. Raquelle is right but so are you and Juanita and Vanwall, none of this is mutually exclusive, and it could be that the lie started one way and ended another. I do love the notion of her as subversive.

I also think that your point about the money men is dead on. Interestingly, the exact same rumor was around about Kay Francis for years, that her mother was black and employed as the maid. In Francis's case we have the word of a couple of well-researched bios that this wasn't true, but it was kept quiet even back then.

Trish said...

What a great piece of writing, Siren!

I like Merle Oberon well enough in her glam costume roles. But to me she can't hold a candle to the earthy and flustered Miriam Hopkins.

The Siren said...

Thanks Trish. And I'm with you on the great Miriam; I wrote about her a while back too.

Yojimboen said...

Here you go, X, George & Fred.

Ida as Cathy? Cute. Anybody know how to get coffee-spritz out of a keyboard?

The Siren said...

Vivien Leigh wanted the part of Cathy very badly and would have hit it out of the part. Poor Viv, she wound up playing whatsherface in that other '39 costume pic.

Trish said...

Ida as Cathy (pulling a gun):

"Listen, you big dumb lug! You're gonna love me whether you like it or not!"

X. Trapnel said...

Y, we know you for a wag. That's just some dauber's reconstruction.
(Now you'll make a fool of me by revealing that you discovered the original in the posession of Otis M. Twisby of Union Furnace, Ohio who had no idea of the true value of the canvas he was using to wrap freeze-dried sheep dip.)

Ida L. had just the right feral quality for Cathy, she was English, and made, I think, a credible Emily B. in Devotion.

Spitz Nichols said...

I wonder if Merle ever met Anna Kashfi?

Jennythenipper said...

"Jenny, re: Moseley and Higham -- I do, believe me, I do. But in this regard I believe they were on the money; stopped clocks and all that. The first link goes to a story about an Australian documentary where the filmmaker claims to have tracked down her birth certificate. We also have Korda's word and a number of others. Where all I have to go on is Higham, I've tried to hedge because I don't trust him as a sole source."

Not that you need my approval, but you've taken exactly the right approach. In my books I'm always very careful about using multiple sources. If I can't confrim something said in H&M's book (or any movie star biographer, for that matter) through another source such as an interview transcription or something than don't use it. All those biographies have too much gossip in them presented as fact.

I think that for years her role as the much-older Korda's main squeeze was what damaged her rep more than anything, actually; the Marion Davies syndrome."

I agree. Had she been more the self-made back stabbing bitch, people would have remembered her more fondly. Luckily for Oberon Korda had far more realistic ideas about her abilities than Hearst did with Davies.

Sondermann said...

While I don't feel qualified to comment on Mrs. Oberon's character, I actually think she is terrific in "Wuthering Heights" (well, save for her death scene that is, where she nearly ruins it).
She may not be the Cathy envisioned in the novel, but then again it's a movie that doesn't seem to have the ambition or intent to faithfully translate its literary source into the language of film.

It creates a world of its own and having seen the movie before having read the novel I didn't find anything lacking (actually it's still one of my favourite films), I'm not even sure whether a more faithful adaptation would make a better movie, I find Wyler's film pretty much perfect (let's not talk about that final shot).

But I'd agree that as an actress Oberon seemed to be highly dependent on good directors and good scripts (as in "The Scarlet Pimpernel", "These Three" and "That Uncertain Feeling" which I seem to like more than most other people do), and probably even on her stunningly good looks which strangely and just as stunningly started to fade during the forties. In most of her later roles I felt that she doesn't exactly light up the screen with her presence.

As to June Duprez, I liked her a lot in "And then there were none", but unfortunately cannot say the same for "The Thief of Baghdad" (a movie whose charm somehow more or less completely eludes me). Such is taste, a truly strange thing.

With "Four Feathers" the message behind the movie somewhat spoiled my enjoyment. But if one doesn't mind that, it's surely a very enjoyable and beautifully filmed movie.

Yojimboen said...

Another dazzling piece of prose, chère Madame (this is becoming tiresome). Oberon has always been a source of some confusion for me. Growing up in post-war Britain – in a distinctly non-intellectual household - it was known and accepted Merle was Anglo-Indian. Even my father, who went to the cinema perhaps once a year in his life, knew it. Whenever her name came up, he would lower his newspaper and interject, “She’s a half-caste, you know.” And we children would answer, “Yes, we know.” So if a British Army non-com had picked up that bit of intelligence on his WWII travels (to India and Africa) how could Goldwyn not know? When “Queenie” came out, my only surprise was that people were surprised. Maybe it’s because the Anglo-Indian face was more common on the streets of the UK and, impossibly beautiful though she was, she had that distinctive look. (cf Norah Jones; Anna Kashfi; Gabrielle Anwar; Diana Quick.)

Sad to learn she put the shiv in June Duprez’s career, but that sort of behaviour’s been going on since the invention of greasepaint. But learning from “Queenie” that she probably spent some time as a Mumbai B-girl, doing lite-hook work to put papadum on the table didn’t diminish her in my eyes – quite the reverse: my respect for
Merle cranked up to eleven.

I vaguely remember attending the premiere of The Epic That Never Was at the NFT in London, I’m not sure if it’s in the film or from producer Bill Duncalf’s Q&A after the screening, but it was admitted that MO’s facial injuries weren’t that severe (nowhere near as bad as Monty Clift’s and Raintree County got finished); she could have recovered and gone on, but Korda grabbed the taxi accident with both hands as an excuse to cancel I, Claudius and get out from under the daily screaming matches between Laughton and von Sternberg. It was a massive insurance settlement, and in a perverse kind of legacy to the movie business, Merle Oberon will live on forever in the high cost of premiums for production insurance.

Yojimboen said...

Compared to some (X), I know nothing about art, but I do know what I like.
And I like to think this Delacroix’s portrait of George Sand waiting for the tailor to finish her new suit.

DavidEhrenstein said...

A couple of years back a DVD boxed set of the great TV I Claudius was released that included as an extra The Epic That Never Was. The real clash was between Sternberg and Laughton. Obviously Laughton was thinking about directing even then -- and no one tells Sternberg what to do, so that was that, though the rushes are lovely, and Emlyn Williams is a SCREAM as Caligula.

My fave George Sand is Judy Davis in Impromtu -- with Hugh Grant coughing delicately as Chopin.

X. Trapnel said...

More likely D's girlfriend of the moment. According to contemporary reports Delacroix, normally an elegant, reserved, intellectual sort, turned into a fire breathing demon in the presence of the model.

Marie d'Agoult, Liszt's mistress, went Sand one better by adding iron shavings to the cigars she smoked.

Dan Callahan said...

Though her life is certainly fascinating, Merle Oberon seems to me one of the dullest of the big stars of that time. I think you hit on what's so wrong with her; she gives absolutely nothing to the camera but a face and a "ladylike" image. A united front of Phony and Hidden. And what she's hiding is more phoniness and probably some nastiness, too.

The Duprez story sounds true to me because it's so detailed; how Robert Wolders could move from cold-fish Merle to warmest-of-warm Audrey is beyond me.

I think the only movie I like her in is "The Lodger"; the scene toward the end where Laird Cregar is terrorizing her is done in a punishingly long take, and he's so scary that you feel Merle herself must be at least a little scared, too.

Sylvia Sidney for Cathy! Or Bette Davis. Or, gosh, anyone but Merle.

X. Trapnel said...

Geraldine Fitzgerald for Cathy. Merle O. all mask, no mystery.

MrsHenryWindleVale said...

I remember nodding through "This Love of Ours" when it appeared on AMC in the middle of the night. My main interest was that it's an adaptation of a Pirandello play. It was late, and I was inclined to sleep, but I remember thinking that (a) male lead Charles Korvin was dullness personified, and (b) there was some nice *louche* nightclub stuff in the flashbacks detailing the heroine's background. Perhaps a way of dealing-yet-not-quite-dealing-with Oberon's own background?

I never did see "Song to Remember." Nevertheless, I remember Steve Allen on TV making a funny allusion to it. Wasn't there a late scene involving Cornel Wilde coughing up blood while performing? Allen said that, because of this, the picture was known as "Catsup on the Keys."

panavia999 said...

In the 60's when I was a kid in California watching "Song to Remember" with my mother, she mentioned that Oberon was anglo-indian. Finding confirmation in the book Queenie is like when k.d. lang 'finally' told us she was gay - like we didn't know.

MrsHenryWindleVale said...

June Duprez had a stretch acting with Shakespeare expert Margaret Webster on stage in New York in the late '40s. Among her roles was Lavinia in Shaw's "Androcles."

Part of the reason I mention this was that Duprez also, in a production of the Shakespeare "Henry VIII," played the Oberon role of Ann Bullen (to borrow their spelling of the name).

Yojimboen said...

Duprez’s wiki entry also mentions her stiff-arm rejections of two of the most powerful Rabbits-In-Heat in H’Wood (and for my money two of the ugliest), David O’Selznick and Harry Cohn. That didn’t help her career. Cohn’s grave is about seven minutes from my house.
I think I’ll go over and piss on it.

The Siren said...

Look on the bright side, those who dislike Merle's Cathy. (I'm not really one of them; she's uneven, but she's mostly just fine and in no way does she sink the movie.) It could have been Maureen O'Sullivan. (shudder)

Call me crazy but I like the idea of Wendy Hiller as Cathy. Then again I just like Wendy Hiller. Margaret Lockwood's another idea.

I seem to change sides on WH every time I see it. One time I'll see it and be sobbing into my scented hanky and another time I'm thinking "hmm, maybe this is getting dated." I never think it's anything less than visually lovely, though.

And it seems everyone else knew Merle was Anglo-Indian. Well, I grew up in Alabama and I sure didn't. I thought she was "exotic." What can I say; Alabama in that era was not exactly the crossroads of the world.

Aside to Dan: Maybe Wolders moved to Audrey not despite but *because* of Merle.

XT, methinks we need a Delacroix biopic with lots o' sex.

Goose said...

I never understood including Merle Oberon in the list of great beauties. In fact I find her at her best-looking in the 40's. Maybe because she attained a relaxed type of (lukewarm) appeal at that stage. She even learned to smile. She was excellent in These Three back in 1936, I'll admit, but her work in Wuthering Hts. leaves me cold, she's all petulance.

I'm glad there was a reason for June Duprez' failure to sustain a career. I wondered how someone could vanish so fast.

David E, interesting to hear that Alex Korda was a homophobe, although he initiated The Red Shoes. I think I once ran across the notion of Emeric Pressburger also was a homophobe, and had ambivalence toward the casting of Anton Walbrook in the P&P films. Can you verify?

gmoke said...

Merle Oberon is ravishingly beautiful in "The Scarlet Pimpernel" but the prototype for the pickled plastic face holding back the years at the end of her life. Whatever was there at the beginning is gone by the end of the 1940s. She stayed on the frame like a coating of dust and gave nothing to the camera let alone the viewer beyond it.

Honestly, I think there is something to the idea that a photograph steals part of your soul.

Yay for June Duprez and her plummy voice. Sorry she didn't achieve more success. I wonder about John Justin and would like to see "The Man Who Loved Redheads" some day

Yojimboen said...

June Duprez wasn’t naturally plummy, but she had good teachers, whoever they were. I just put up TTOB and listened carefully. She’s very good, but there are definite tendrils of “how now, brown cow” elocution lessons. The main giveaway, among many, is the word ‘again’. She pronounces it to rhyme with ‘a pen’; the real (soi-disant) aristo pronounces ‘again’ to rhyme with ‘disdain’.

Arthur S. said...

I wonder if you can make a movie of that, Laughton vs. Sternberg, an irrestibable force against an immovable object, and you can't tell which is which.

Korda was a man of sophistication but he was also fairly old-fashioned. A great producer of course but a man of limits. Interestingly although he went to bat for the Archers on ''Colonel Blimp'' against Churchill, he and the other brass were skeptical about ''The Red Shoes'' and they didn't do much to promote it. It became a surprising box-office success in New York where it played for more than a year. When ''The Tales of Hoffmann'' was made, Korda was cool about that too and even cut out some scenes(which have fortunately been restored). So it wasn't an entirely chummy relationship between auteurs and producers vis-a-vis Korda and Archers.

I don't know about Pressburger's homophobia though. Lermontov is based on Diaghilev, one point of research was Nijinsky's diaries of being his lover/muse. Of course Korda/Pressburger changed that to a girl. Casting Walbrook and using his gayness means that the erotic obsession of the mentor with his muse(which is the Marion Davies-Hearst, Kane-Susan Alexander, Selznick-Jones and Korda-Oberon story) gets shifted to the aesthetic obsessiveness and devotion which fascinated Powell. Or rather the aesthetic becomes the erotic which is a key subject of ''The Red Shoes''. Whereas Korda was likely focused on the erotic obsession with the muse. This is just conjecture, I had no idea what Korda initially intended to do with it and how much of the ur-ideas entered the final film. That's for the new DVD and David E's research to tell us.

cgeye said...

Anton Walbrook, gay? Gay?

I merely thought he was sophisticated.

(and congrats, D.E.)

The Siren said...

Oh cute CGEye. Yes, that's what I thought in Alabama too; look at that sophisticated Anton Walbrook. Like I said, my town was light on cafe society back then. I will say I knew there was crucial information missing about Clifton Webb in Laura.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Not true, Goose. Pressburger was over-the-moon over Walbrook from nanosecond one. Don't forgt He gave him the big patricotic speech in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. Churchill was the one who was most annoyed by this -- giving the most important pro-Englanf speech in the film to a German.

In my essay I'll be dealing with the complexity of the gayness factor in The Red Shoes. The inspiration was Diaghilev and Nijiinsky. But making the latter female doesn't really change much in that gay men obsessed with ballet adore women. And leave us not forget that after Nijiinsky got out of Dodge, Diaghilev consoled himself with . . .Massine!

I like Merle in Wuthering Heights. But it's always a surefire property. Bunuel's Mexican cheapie version Abismos de Passion is quite a sight -- especially for the grand finale where Heathcliff breaks into Cathy's tomb, the better to ravish her corpse, and meets his end while the "Liberstod" from Tristan und Isolde lets loose on the soundtrack.

Jacques Rivette's version, Hurlevent with Fabienne Babe and Lucas Belvaux is gorgeous. Set between the wars it's very much a Rivette-style dance film -- like Noroit. Plus it cops its visual style from the painting of Balthus (Pierre Klossowski's brother.)

And don't forget Robert Fuest's rendition with Timothy Dalton, Anna Calder-Marshall and a great Michel Legrand score, whose main theme becomes the "Title" song "I Was Born in Love With You" (the best version of which was sung by the great Sarah Vaughan.)

Arthur S. said...

"Sophisticated" was never my feeling towards Walbrook, what I found most fascinating was his smoldering intensity. He was distant but earthy. In the 40s, he became known for intense moody character performances, an intensity that seems comparable to the DeNiro of ''New York New York'' and ''Raging Bull'' although the performance and film styles are, needless to say, different.

Thorold Dickinson's ''Gaslight'' was his breakthrough but the Archers initially cast him against type in ''49th Parallel'', as the gentle pacifist Hutterite farmer in Canada and as a dashing Prussian soldier in ''Colonel Blimp'', although there's an intense side again in the darker portions of the film which is associated with his character and not Roger Livesey.

With ''The Red Shoes'' they gave him his most intense role yet. Another intense role is again with Dickinson, an adaptation of Pushkin's ''The Queen of Spades'' as Herrmann Suvorin who's willing to sacrifice love, honor and respectability just to learn a secret card trick that will make him top man in the barracks. The sense of self-loathing, loneliness, alienation and class and sexual suppression is really palpable in that film. Criterion should release the film, it's a Scorsese favourite, it's an obscure British film of the 40s and it's a literary adaptation, it's their kind of film.

His most well-known film in his lifetime was ''La Ronde'' which was an international hit and brought Ophuls to the limelight(although I find it a lesser work in relation to the other French films) and then again as the Bavarian king in ''Lola Montes''. I also like his character turn as Pierre Cauchon in Preminger's underrated ''Saint Joan'', he's ironically the most sympathetic of all of Joan's persecutors even if he presided her trial and saw fit to burn her at the stake.

DavidEhrenstein said...

A capital idea. Queen of Spades and Gaslight should be released as a two-disc set.

The Siren said...

I would love to see The Queen of Spades.

Brynn said...

Can't believe the timing of just posting a piece on Montgomery Clift on Moving Image Source and then discovering that Merle, whom I just enjoyed a tad more than usual in "The Cowboy and the Lady," suffered a symmetry scalding as well. I've been ruminating a lot on the audience's relation to the movie star's loss of perfection and the varying conditions of audience acceptance. When I see Monty in my mind's eye, it is definitely the later, handsomely damaged rendition that appears time and again. While I greatly treasure the Gene Tierney's of the world I have a great predilection for the recognizable postures of Miriam Hopkins, and someday hope to put my finger on entrancing mixture of beauty and bumbling of Gary Cooper, whom I find to be one the most erotic presences to ever grace the screen. And then of course one day I will actually do my epic investigation into the enigma of Ruby Keeler and how some people find her subpar talent impossible to love, while others - particularly audiences at the time - couldn't get enough of her sparkling gumption.

Arthur S. said...

Maybe an entire Thorold Dickinson boxset, they could also release ''Secret People'' to round it off. That has a continental cast of Serge Reggiani and Valentina Cortese and in her first role of real significance, an Anglo-Dutch ballerina turned actress by the name of Audrey Hepburn. It was Dickinson who shot the screentest that convinced Wyler to cast her in ''Roman Holiday'', he did it on the set of ''Secret People''.

''The Queen of Spades'' is one of those amazingly beautiful productions that the British made their specialty. It was shot fast and on a low budget but the film has a genuine feel for period detail and a sumptuous elegance nevertheless. You can compare it to Val Lewton's films as in this case the supernatural is treated with comparable ambiguity and enigma.

The 40s were Britain's Golden Age, you had the Archers, you had Reed, early David Lean. But also lesser known talents like Robert Hamer(who's best known for ''Kind Hearts and Coronets'', but now also for ''It Always Rains on Sunday!'', my favourite is ''Pink String and Sealing Wax''), Dickinson, Launder & Gilliat. Then you have Humphrey Jennings whose wartime documentaries are closer to avant-garde films than anything from the John Griersen unit.

I believe ''The Queen of Spades'' is out on R1 DVD on a double-bill with the Ealing horror ''Dead of Night''. That's also a great film.

MikeT said...

Another very fine piece, Siren. Oberon was so bewitching that she evidently became the only woman ever to make James Cagney stray from his wife Frances. It happened on a WWII morale-boosting tour for the troops. Cagney, stricken with guilt halfway through their fling, got up and walked out. Or so the story goes.

Vanwall said...

For Brit 40s films, don't miss Cavalcanti's "Went the Day Well?", one of the most amazing war films that transcended the propaganda it was meant for, and become something sublime and real - I believe the words "grimly realistic" could not be applied to any film from that period better then this one. It was all the more frightening in its depiction of the relentless savagery of desperate people, for the fact it could be someone in today's world, whom you might know.

As I once said, "Red Shoes" is really about Walbrook's portrayal of Lermontov, the rest is juicy side dishes. Speaking of Shearer, the ballet segment of "The Story of Three Loves", one of the best of the omnibus films, has her with James Mason as two obsessionals - Mason has an interesting Lermontov-ish turn, and Shearer has some nice dance sequences to Rachmaninoff.

Yojimboen said...

Much as I love Mr. Cukor’s version, I’ve always preferred the Dickinson Gaslight. The main reason, without hesitation, is Walbrook, whose screen presence could knock Boyer’s into the left-field bleachers on a check-swing. Magnificent as Bergman is, the MGM film suffers from its studio/Gothic art direction. The earlier, lower-budgeted Dickinson version is realer and less strained; and thus the menace more effective. Plus, any movie which opens with a scream from Katie The Ladykillers Johnson, can’t be bad.

Vertigo's Psycho said...

Arthur, you're right about the Dead of Night/Queen of Spades twofer set- I have it, but have trouble watching the films, as England sure does know how to do creepy (Dead of Night ranks very high on my "scariest films" list).

I'm willing to cut Oberon some major slack, due to her time and situation. I kept thinking of Rock Hudson in Hollywood during the early 1950's when reading the piece- like Oberon, he wanted a career, and had to be equally dishonest (about his sexuality) to make it big. Can't blame him, really, as even today few stars will risk coming out at the expense of alienating their fan base. Too bad people don't and didn't embrace diversity more- the ordinary can be so boring.

Yojimboen said...

“…and Shearer has some nice dance sequences to Rachmaninoff.”

“Nice”, he says? Tread carefully round my Moira, M VW, this is holy ground.

Yojimboen said...

Joking aside, David E – I’m very pleased you’ve been given the Red Shoes assignment; Moira, Anton et al, couldn’t be in safer and more capable hands.

The Siren said...

I prefer Boyer/Bergman despite Walbrook's large appeal; the Cukor version is much sexier. The Brit version is all psychology. Wynyard I don't get at all; that was one ice-cold halibut of an actress.

The Siren said...

VP, Hudson is a pretty good analogy; and the fallout from his publicist-arranged marriage was not pretty, as the woman felt bitterly about it to the day she died.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Merci, Yojimboen!

DavidEhrenstein said...

Very nice Clift pice, Mr. White However, as jack larson would be sure to tell you if you asked, Monty had more than "homosexual impulses." He had a full-fledged gay sex life -- until the crash detroyed just about everything. Before that he was, accordign to Jack, "a very happy drunk." The crash introduced him to "painkillers" -- and I think we all know where it goes from there.

I saw Monty the night he died.

I was working as an usher at the Baronet/Cornet theaters on Third ave., a block away from his place. There would be occasional sightings, nit this evening one of the managers came in from a brek and decalred "OH my God, Mongomery Clift's coming down the stree -- it's awful!" So we discreetly peeped out. He was dissheveled, looked decades older than he was, and limped like The Mummy in the Universal Mummy sequels. The nextday we were in no way surprised to learn he had passed during the night.

That tale of Brando coming to see him and offering encouragement rings absolutely true. Wacked out as he often was, Brando had a heart

The biggest heart of all was Elizabeth Taylor's. She wanted him to co-star with her in Reflections in agOlden Eye. When the insurance company balked at payig the cost she offered to pay herself. It was all set to go -- but then he died.
And Brando stepped in giving one of his most interesting performances.

Monty's work continues to fascinate. Especially The Heiress and A Place in the Sun. In that great film he and Taylor are the most beautiful creatures the cinema has ever known.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Phyliss claimed to have felt bitterly about it. And maybe she did insofar as it didn't provide her with the fame she sought. But as she was a lesbian, and married Rock for the same reason he married her, she had nothing to complain about.

The Siren said...

David, of course I course I can't know if she was lying, but she gave interviews complaining about how she thought it was a real marriage.

I wrote up Montgomery Clift myself, in a completely diferent vein, for Nathaniel Rogers' blogathon a while back. I like White's piece a lot.

Simon said...

This is a great piece. I've never really cared for Oberon's movies, but I never really had any strong feelings towards her either way. Now, she does seem like she was a bitch (if I'm gonna be blunt).

That George Sand thing baffled me.

Brynn said...

Much thanks for the kudos D.E. and Siren - I definitely referenced your Clift piece during my preparation and was a huge fan. I had to cut the section where I went into the Hawks troupe's he-man doubts of Clift's ability to throw a worthy punch.

And David, as I've skimmed the marvelous Bosworth bio many times
I am all too aware of Clift's homosexual dalliances but didn't want to structure my view of him through that lens, as many are inclined (and to an extent justified) to do. Its seems like a lot of his cult status is built on the anguished homosexuality facet and I wanted to broaden the view of his legacy a bit, which I felt that the Siren did quite beautifully in her piece. Clift mostly seemed to just want to reach out to people, he loved to have profound chats til sunrise. It does seem he was most sexually satisfied by men, but it doesn't seem he could ever translate that to a relationship built on the equality and respect of his with women. Very sad. I don't even have words for your near-mortem glimpse of Monty...

I'd like to sometime just do a case study of his collaborations with Taylor. Reflections in a Golden Eye is an interesting film across the board. Brando added the weight-lifting habit and that notorious face cream application himself - its not in the McCullers text. But I have to say that Clift, with his inherent unaggressiveness, would have have put forth a fascinating build up to the climactic murder.

And it is, for the record, Miss White.

DavidEhrenstein said...

I understand that it's traditionla to claim it was anguished, but according to Jack it wasn't. And he should know. He got up in the morning and made Movie Love to Elizabeth Taylor all day and then went home and made Ral Love to Jack all night.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Here's Jack Today

DavidEhrenstein said...

Here's Jack (in striped T-shirt) back when he and Monty were fuckbuddies

DavidEhrenstein said...

I read those interviews. But a lot more has come out about Phyliss since her passing. She was quite the Gold Digger.

And being that she was Henry Wilsson's secretary her Little Miss Innocent act re Rock's love life laughable in the extreme.

OldMayfly said...

Ethel Waters, in her autobiography, "His Eye Is On the Sparrow", writes about meeting Merle (before she was Merle Oberon) on some island (I've forgotten where) near India.

The young Merle-to-be says to Ethel, "Should I go to Hollywood?" Ethel Waters replies with a resounding, "Yes!"

Re: the mixed race, hidden mother thing, I know that in the US South of that time it was not unusual for a family to put forward a light-skinned talented child to succeed in the white world. The child then led a double life and aided the family in ways that would otherwise have been impossible.

OldMayfly said...

Meant to add, "Song to Remember" plot of Chopin as a patriot and George Sand as a climber via the arts, is not accurate historically.

George Sand was the romantic patriot and Chopin was focused on music--not politics.

Also George Sand was famous for caring for and nursing her lovers. The problem is that some of them had TB and she was always settling them down in damp places.

DavidEhrenstein said...

That Story of Three Loves scene is gorgeous. Mason was celarly Walbrooks rival when it came to playing "magnificent brute"(s)

More Moira

DavidEhrenstein said...

"George Sand was an authoress
Who all thorugh her life had great success
Not only with her books
But also with her looks.
Among the boys who gave her fun
Young Alfred de Musset was the one
That Goergia loved the most
For he was such a good host.
Ev'ry night that beau of George's
Gave an affair that would scare the Borgias,
French champagne and Russian ballets,
Ellington's band and Rudy Vallees's.
All went well till one fine night
That favorite of of males
Gave a ball and to shock them all
Georgia came in tails.
When he saw his best girl in trousers,
Alfred nearly died
And in front of all those carousers
Alfred loudly cried:
'George Sand
Dressed up like a gent
George Sand
What do you represent?
Whre are your frills
That gave me such thrills?
Where are those undies
That made my Saturdays-to-Mondays?
George Sand,
Can't you understand
Though I worship you
You're a little too
Plump, I fear
To pull a Marlene Dietrich dear
George Sand go home and change !' "

-- Cole Porter

Vanwall said...

Say, I knew there was something I'd read some'rs a few years back that seemed to push the boundaries of the Cone of Silence surrounded Merle Oberon, and I finally found it. Considering the many people who knew and assisted in the creation and continuation of the fiction of Merle Oberon, a kind of H'wood omerta they used on a lot of occasions including this one, it's rather interesting to read the NYT September 6, 1935 review of her only Oscar-nominated performance in "The Dark Angel" that has a rather curious spotlight: Sennwald states, "Miss Oberon, abandoning the Javanese slant of the eyes for the occasion". Those in the know read deeply into that statement, no doubt, and those that suspected before or after reading the review probably looked twice at her eyes next time, looking for something Oberon was working hard to expunge from existence.

As a last Merle curiosity, her stage name was an intriguing decision, and as her life was so much a thing of myth and speculation, she was truly a daughter of Oberon, thus and so, regardless of O'Brien or Faerie claims to the cont'ary.

The Siren said...

Miss White, I am immensely flattered that you liked my Clift piece; it was written from the heart about an actor who has always meant a lot to me. I had spent a week or so reading up on Clift and found myself increasingly irritated by suggestions, not just from colleagues, but from writers who should know better, that he came off as fey or something. I find him quite the opposite on screen.

David, do you have any links regarding later revelations on Phyllis? Would love to see them. She was so, so bitter, an intriguing bit of collateral damage from Hollywood hypocrisy.

The Siren said...

Simon, A Song to Remember is indeed baffling, as many Hollywood biopics are. My favorite in that vein is Song of Scheherazade, where you get the suave Jean-Pierre Aumont as hairy Russian nationalist Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov, trying to compose and be a good Russian sailor, making mad love to Yvonne De Carlo and dealing with Eve Arden as her ambitious mama.

Old Mayfly, I haven't read much about passing in the South so your comment is especially interesting. I wonder how Asian and black performers regarded Oberon at the time; was it "who does she think she is?" or "you go, girl!"

Vanwall, thanks so much for the '35 ref, which really does seem coded. Fan magazine interviews can often strike me the same way. They were interdependent, the entertainment journalists and the studios, working together to sell the same fibs on occasion. Well, I guess that continues to some degree although the Internet is the new Confidential in some ways, blasting stories that the publicists can bury in mainstream outlets.

Arthur S. said...

"Say, where did I see this guy?
In Red River?
Or a place in the sun?
Maybe the Misfits?
Or From Here to Eternity?

Everybody say, "Is he all right?"
And everybody say, "What's he like?"
Everybody say, "He sure look funny."
That's...Montgomery Clift, honey!"
- ''The Right Profile'' by The Clash,
from London Calling.

My favourite Clift is ''Wild River'', perhaps Kazan's best.

Tom Block said...

I feel the same way about Wild River--my favorite Kazan, my favorite pic about the South, my favorite Clift & Remick performances, the list goes on. Can't believe it's not available on R1.

And someone up there mentioned Geraldine Fitzgerald. To which I can only reply, "Oh, my god. Oh, my god. Oh, my god."

P.S. That's a beautiful piece about Oberon, Ms. S...

Gloria said...

In The Epic That Never Was, Oberon makes a remark which reveals a bit of self-consciousness about her looks, I wonder if due to her awareness of her origins:
...The first day shooting (of The Private Life of Henry VIII), when we were all in our costumes and taking publicity stills, I looked at some of the other girls and I thought they looked all so pretty with their natural curly hair, and here was I with my very straight (...) hair and headdress, and I mumbled something about "I'm going to make my hair all curly" and Charles (Laughton) said "you dare... and I'll kill you!"

Since I have mentioned The Epic That Never Was, what Yojimboen said: I've read that Merle's facial injuries were not too bad, but Sternberg was -to paraphrase Almodovar- on the verge of a nervous breakdown, and Korda, fearing that even with Oberon able to resume work it would be difficult to finish the film, seized the occasion to make good use of the insurance. I wouldn't say, as David E. has written, that Laughton had directing in mind then: the trouble was more of fighting to be allowed to do his actor's work properly under the orders of an autocrat of the sets.

DavidEhrenstein: "Interesting too, according to Powell (in his posthumously published Million Dollar Movie) Korda has a homophobe"

If so, it's ironic that he started his empire with the valuable help of Laughton: The Private Life of Henry VIII owes much of its success to him. Furthermore, one of the film projects he had for Laughton was to have him playing Diaghilev in a film about Nijinsky...

Arthur S. "Korda was a man of sophistication but he was also fairly old-fashioned"
Indeed, he hired Leontine (Mädchen in Uniform) Sagan to work in "Men of Tomorrow", and then became afraid that Sagan would make a too daring film for British audiences.... As for a film on Laughton vs. Sternberg in Claudius: sounds like an interesting idea, but today's Hollywood moguls would cast any guy doing perfume ads in the CL part, missing the point terribly, of course.

Campaspe: "Where all I have to go on is Higham, I've tried to hedge because I don't trust him as a sole source.
Hear, hear... I could write at large about some blatant innacuracies in one book of his (some day I will)

DavidEhrenstein said...

Siren, re. Phylliss I suggest you consult Robert Hofler's The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson for the basics. I know he wrote about ehrafter that for The Advocate but I'm not sure if his piece is on line.

It was easy for Korda to deal with Laughton as he was deeply closeted. And Elsa guarded the closet door like a pit bull. (In his later years he'd have frequent fits about her and rush to Santa Monica canyon to get "moral support" from Chris and Don.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Marguerite Duras awas over the moon about Wild River, and had Cahiers arrange for her to interview Kazan about it.

For Duras it suggested her Ideal Romantic Relationship -- a gay man in thrall to a straight woman to whom he turns for solace when his relationships with men fail.

Gloria said...

David, yes I am aware of Charles closeted status, but then... Korda wanting Charles to play Diaghilev...

Yojimboen said...

Herein an informative review of TETNW which mentions certain other rumours surrounding the I, Claudius production (e.g. Sternberg’s admission to a psychiatric clinic following the shutdown).

Some more vague memories of the Bill Duncalf Q&A I mention above have floated to the surface (I’m reasonably certain these points are not from the film, but I may be completely wrong - it was more than 40 years ago):

Clearly there were two choices open to Korda after Oberon’s taxi accident (which some suggested may have been staged – see review):

1) He could have suspended production and waited for Oberon to recover, and 2) he could have replaced her – not that much of her part had been shot yet, so it was well within economic sense to cast another actress.

He chose 3) To grab the opportunity to shut down the film and collect the insurance; thereby also (as an added bonus) allowing his soon-to-be wife Merle Oberon to believe, for the rest of her life, we presume, that she was so uniquely vital to the success of the venture that it couldn’t possibly proceed with her.

Gloria said...

I can't locata the source now, but I recall someone jokingly saying that Korda himself must have driven the car that fateful day

bitter69uk said...

Fascinating piece. I remember reading the Charles Higham biography when it keep out in the late 1980s (when I was a teenager). Even after reading the facts of her life and the compromises she made, Merle Oberon seems completely unknowable, just as onscreen she's often ladylike and remote. That's probably why you find it hard to sympathise with her plight. Interesting that apparently Dietrich couldn't stand her (she loathed Paulette Goddard too). That could be because Dietrich perceived Oberon as a romantic threat, or blamed her for de-railing Von Sternberg's career with I, Claudius? That Uncertain Feeling is nothing special: very disappointing, tepid as screwball comedy. I've read that much later in her career she was excellent opposite Brando in Desiree. Maybe her acting improved with age?

The Siren said...

Well how do you like that?? I try to comment on my own dang blog and the comment gets eaten. Phooey. I do believe that Merle's injuries weren't that bad, esp. since the crash was in March 37 and she moved right on to Divorce of Lady X, released in Jan. 38, and still looked beautiful. But there is a definite difference between Merle pre- and post-crash, if you look at pictures, and lord knows I did last week. It's a question of the two halves no longer matching perfectly as they did; one example is here.

I also read the Higham bio when it came out. Like Gloria I could go on about Higham as biographer but won't since it seems we all have the same view. She could use a carefully sourced and researched biography but in this case the life would be more interesting than much of the work.

The Siren said...

Adding here that I don't believe the accident was staged; exploited, it seems yes, but not staged.

DavidEhrenstein said...

I agree. And I don't believ a word of the claim that Sternberg had a nervius breakdown. Everyone may well have wanted him to have a nervous breakdown, but it's presstty obvious from The Shanghai Gesture that when he was poperly supported by a production crew that was up-to-snuff and a cast that knew how to take direction there was no stopping him.

No suprise that Dietrich disdained Paulette. She was much too lively and snarky for The Goddess. And I'm certain she must have taunted her with the fact that she'd snagged Chaplin and Dietrich hadn't.

Yojimboen said...

David E.: Was Marlene ever seriously involved with Chaplin? I can find very few photos of them together – this one - an accidental first meeting in Berlin in 1931 - is the exception. (She was basking in the afterglow of Lola-Lola and he was on a world junket selling City Lights).

I would have thought Chaplin’s unconcealed preference for young flesh would have excluded Marlene (who was 36 when Chaplin married the 25 yr-old Goddard)?

Besides wasn't Marlene already married (and not to the beard Rudolf Sieber)?

Joe Thompson said...

This is a wonderful essay, and I learned a lot from the copious comments. Merle Oberon never moved me, but I am more interested after reading about her early struggles and her hidden background. Passing was something many people felt they had to do to get anywhere. I can't judge them.

gmoke said...

If I recall correctly from a PBS documentary, Jerry Robbins had a thing with Monty Clift as well.

Jack Larsen did a quite affecting turn on _Law and Order: Criminal Intent_ within the last year or two. Quite a leap from Jimmy Olsen where I always found him to be insipid which was probably the point of that role anyway.

Saw "Queen of Spades" years ago on TV once. Very atmospheric and the great Edith Evans as well. I love that speech Anton Walbrook gives in "Colonel Blimp" and looked it up as we began our descent into becoming a torture nation, a fact of life like the two wars of aggression we are currently fighting that seems to have been politely forgotten.

Penfold said...

Quoting DE;"Not true, Goose. Pressburger was over-the-moon over Walbrook from nanosecond one. Don't forgt He gave him the big patriotic speech in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp."

More than that, the speech at the alien tribunal, delivered to AE Matthews, is Pressburger's speech; his love letter to the country that was gave him refuge and was busy adopting him. That the refugee experience was common - abd current - to the writer, the actor and the character gives it that resonance, and its deceptively simple cinematic handling frames it just perfectly.
Siren; I think you're being a mite harsh on Merle; in an era when gay men were being ushered into marriages by studio bosses, and names being changed from defiantly 'ethnic' to ones far more WASP, being evasive about having a mixed-race origin, and possibly illegitimate at that - the 'mother/grandmother' confusion is generally a sign of there being an unmarried much older sister being just out of frame - well, surely it's no more than self defence, and of course the parental figure would have to be, at the very least, complicit.
Or can you name any other openly illegitimate mixed-race star in 30's Hollywood??
June Duprez' case is sad, but I think it has many causes; she simply looked too much like a younger Oberon to be able to get a distinct grip on a fanbase; her speaking voice (to an English listener) is as false as Jessie Matthews'; I'm not actually convinced she's any better an actress than Merle anyway; and finally, she was just a few years out-of-time; she would have been a natural in the Hollywood tales of Empire films in the mid-late 30's, as an alternative De Havilland, indeed, as she is in The Four Feathers; but by the time she reached Hollywood, those days were gone. I don't think you can put her relative lack of success down to Merle alone.

The Siren said...

Penfold, I can't bring myself to actually like Oberon, and that probably shows; but I was trying really hard to be fair to her, pointing out that there is simply no way she'd have had the same career, or maybe any career, if her background were public knowledge. That's why I rap the Wikipedia writer, whoever s/he was, for weaselly phrasing.

And I also don't buy that Oberon's jealousy alone torpedoed Duprez, which I also tried to convey without rendering a definite verdict. I buy the story, just not the idea that one star's petty jealousy--and even by the early 40s Merle wasn't quite as hot as she'd been--could completely sink another. All the reasons you give probably played a large role as well, but for poor Duprez in 1985, facing up to that may have been too painful.

DavidEhrenstein said...

"I would have thought Chaplin’s unconcealed preference for young flesh would have excluded Marlene."

Precisely Yojimboen. When Goddess meets God something's got to give. And I have not the slightest doubt that Marlene thought about giving Charlie a roll in the poverbial hay. But he (the Roman Polanski of his day) was otherwise engaged.

Jerry Robbins? THAT SLUT!
Yes he was interested in Monty -- as a notch on his gun. The love of Jerry's life was...Jerry.

X. Trapnel said...

Must register a dissent on Old Mayfly's assertion concerning Chopin. He was indeed an ardent Polish patriot and this is reflected in the Mazurkas and Polonaises and the Mickiewicz-inspired Ballades.
Speaking of nationalists, Siren, Rimsky-Korsakov's hair was always neatly trimmed (though well short of the Rachmaninoff buzz cut), though the beard was probably the longest among the great composers, not excluding Brahms. Nikolai Andreyevich was a rather prim, professorial type, not movie material, though Mrs. R-K was a beauty.

Yojimboen said...

“…the 'mother/grandmother' confusion is generally a sign of there being an unmarried much older sister just out of frame…”

Good point, Penfold, there’s always been a lot of that going about. My favourite is the delicious irony of Jack N.; yes, he who slapped Faye Dunaway into her classic ‘she’s my sister she’s my daughter’, was himself slapped upside the haid shortly after when he discovered his older sister was actually his mother.

Vanwall said...

Jack Nicholson's dilemma was precisely what I was alluding to earlier - The world is what we say it is, sometimes; then suddenly it's not.

MrsHenryWindleVale said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
MrsHenryWindleVale said...

> "Chaplin's unconcealed
> preference for young flesh"

You might consider these lines from a '40s Cole Porter song called "A Humble Hollywood Executive":

"... though I was still a saplin',
"And barely old enough;
"He used to cast for Chaplin,
"So he knew his stuff."

bitter69uk said...

Re my earlier post: I think Dietrich hated Paulette Goddard because she married Erich Maria Remarque, whom Dietrich had earlier been involved with for a long time herself. Plus (according to her daughter) Dietrich perceived Goddard as a gold digger. Why she disliked Oberon I don’t know (although I read that in the Higham biography so it might not even be true!). I’d love to know just how badly scarred Oberon was from the car accident and the later allergic reaction / make up poisoning (whichever version you believe). So many sources go on about the special lighting she required in films after her car crash, but then you see candid shots of her in nightclubs, etc without special lighting and she looks fine. She certainly wasn’t disfigured, or her appearance wasn’t transformed like how Montgomery Clift’s was.

Karen said...

Gosh, I'm coming late to this party! I've just finished reading all the comments, and have probably forgotten all the responses I wanted to give, but I'll do my best.

First: Delacroix's George Sand.

Second: Merle's background. I've been watching classic Hollywood films obsessively since I was 8 years old, so over 40 years, and I had never heard anything other than that Oberon was Anglo-Indian. I have no memory of where this factoid came from; it was just one of the things I knew--maybe I'd read it in a film book (although we all know I don't read many of those!) or my sister (an equal devotee) had mentioned it or something. But I had always known it.

Third: Merle's family life. Well, here's the thing. I tend to agree with St Augustine on this one: no one can ever accurately judge what's in another's heart. I have no idea why Oberon did what she did. Charlotte's tearful cry over her brown hand could have been genuine even if she DID want to hide herself for her daughter's sake. I don't know. None of us can. It doesn't affect the way I feel about her--or maybe I just resist the way it ought to make me feel about her, the same way I've resisted the reaction I should have felt upon learning that Chevalier and Darrieux were collaborators.

Fourth: Merle's acting. Personally, I find The Divorce of Lady X to be one of the most delightful films to come out of the 1930s, with every actor in it firing on all cylinders (I tend to prefer Olivier in comedies than in Shakespeare, anyway). And as for the steeliness some have doubted Oberon had in her, I think Leslie Steele (note her NAME) had it in spades. A masterful performance.

Finally: oh my gosh, David, I can't wait to read your piece on The Red Shoes on the new DVD release! Heartfelt congratulations, and I can't begin to imagine a better choice for them to have made. Although I've seen the film countless times on the small screen, it was only in December that I finally saw it the way it was intended, when Film Forum screened the remastered version. I think that the large screen is required to do it justice. In one scene, Walbrook conveys more information with the infinitesimal rise of one eyebrow than most actors do with their whole bodies.

And, yes, Arthur S., I think you've nailed it with the consequences of changing the dancer from Nijinski to Vicky. Lermontov's obsession never comes across as sexual, but it's never less than consuming.

Buttermilk Sky said...

I'm trying to read all the comments and organize my thoughts...I have no strong feelings about Oberon as an actress, but I refuse to judge people who had to "pass," sexually or racially, to have any kind of a life, much less a public career. For instance, did you know Ted Williams was half Mexican? When he came up in 1939, the Red Sox GM told him he was lucky he "didn't look Mexican," and he should say nothing about it. And he didn't.

"A Song To Remember" -- oh my. This is worthy of a takedown like the one you gave "The Oscar." They even worked Balzac in there, for a second. (BTW, in "Impromptu," Musset is played by Mandy Patinkin, which is probably why nobody can remember him. The man leaves no impression on film, like a vampire in a mirror.)

"The Epic That Never Was" is probably more fun than the movie would have been, especially catty Emlyn Williams. ("Mr. Sternberg -- I beg his pardon, Mr. VON Sternberg.") I believe he started the rumor than Korda was driving the car. And I could listen to Dirk Bogarde narrate an industrial film about sheetrock.

The "mother/grandmother" conundrum: Didn't I read that Ted Bundy had a similar family dynamic? We're lucky Nicholson took up acting instead.

X. Trapnel said...

Karen, the issue of who collaborated or what constituted collaboration under Vichy/Occupation was and is ambiguous, politicized, and frought with rumor and legend. Picasso, for example, regularly received German officers and officials in his studio but no opprobrium attaches to his name. Simone de Beauvoir worked for German-controlled radio and her reputation is untainted. Neither, of course had any Nazi sympathies. Cocteau was an enthusaistic collaborator at a social level but never denounced anybody and tried to help friends who had been arrested. Pierre Fresnay on the other hand was a lifelong Petainist. As for Chevalier (who I don't care much for) and Darrieux (who I worship above and beyond reason, unreason, and points north, south, east, west, unto infinity or eternity, whichever comes first), the former had a Jewish wife to protect and toured Germany in exchange for the release of some French POWs; Darrieux's brother had been threatened with deportation to Germany and her (admittedly worthless) fiance had been detained for allegedly voicing anti-German sentiments. Her trip to Germany was to secure his release. The costs of resistance in France was high, especially via the shooting of hostages. Many French actors or performers sincerely believed that by continuing to work they were 1) helping to preserve French culture and 2) keeping up their compatriots spirits. Most French just tried to lie low and get by, but fame had a way of attracting Nazi attention.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Very good point re Remarque, bitter69uk! I hadn't thought of that but I think you've nailed it.

Merci, Karen.

Walbrook's Lermontov is the abiding mystery of The Red Shoes and the source of its continued fascination. What does Lermontov want? That is the question.

Clearly it's more than making Vicky a star. For something about the procress of creating the ballet and centering it on her fulfills him. Aesthetically? Emotionally? Romantically? Sexually? All of the above? Or maybe none. Or maybe something else.

Once of the truly neat things I've discovered is that Walbrook wore dark glasses all the time -- just as every swell in Rome would do a decade later during "Il Boom." Powell cannily wedded his star's mannerisms to the character said star was playing. Consequently Lermontov is Diaghilev, Korda, AND Walbrook himself all at the same time. The image of Lermontov collapsed, after the great final curtain speech is indelible. It's a death beyond death. Total Obliteration.

What makes Lermontov such a compleling figure isn't his obsession with Vicky but Walbrook's contrast to Massine.
He is as warm as Walbrook is cold. That he's cast as the demonic shoemaker in the ballet consequently makes him dual-purpose figure. The Shoemaker is Lemontov Unleashed.

Goose said...

Re: Pressburger's aversion to homosexuals, maybe this is what I was thinking of - - - from this website

From "Secret Dreams: A Biography of Michael Redgrave" by Alan Strachan, Weidenfeld & Nicolson (ISBN: 0297607642)

"Powell was [...] uncomfortable about homosexuality; Walbrook was gay and he and Michael [Redgrave] had 'Foff' LeGrand in common* (a serious relationship for Walbrook, a fling for Michael). Powell became, curiously and erroneously convinced that 'Anton and Mike were in love with each other'."

DavidEhrenstein said...

Well I find that hard to believe too. Nothing Powell wrote -- or told me personally -- about Walbrook would indicate that he was "uncomfortable" with anythign about the man. He worshipped him like a God.

Yojimboen said...

Karen –a lovely, thoughtful comment, as always – your voice has been missed (where you been, girl?) The issue of Vichy/Nazi collaboration became the most tortuous cancer in post-war French society. In a kind of reverse McCarthyism many lives were destroyed (and many terminated), some were completely innocent victims of personal vendettas while many real Petainist swine re-styled themselves ‘communist informants’ and found shelter in the American ‘green zone’ of new collaboration; in most cases, genuine justice was an elusive commodity.

I have a close friend in Paris who's close to 80 now, a film and music-hall historian; he’s also Jewish and survived in Paris throughout the occupation. I once broached the topic of celebrity collaboration. He dismissed it with the words, “You weren’t there. We all, all of us, collaborated to some degree. You did what you had to do to survive.” Which was also the story of Merle Oberon, I suppose.

Beyond that, I won’t add to what XT said, except to say that, next to mine, his love for Darrieux is a paltry, ephemeral thing.

Note to David E: Thank you for the foretaste of your coming Red Shoes monograph. The anticipation builds.

X. Trapnel said...

Y, how shall we duel this out? Compared to my adoration of DD your's is merely a sub-atomic particle of a molecule of a midget paramecium's atrophied cilia

The Siren said...

I also greatly appreciated Karen's thoughts, as always. Sometimes my commenters are so on-the-ball I feel superfluous. This whole thread is astounding, if I may say so.

"I have a close friend in Paris who's close to 80 now, a film and music-hall historian; he’s also Jewish and survived in Paris throughout the occupation. I once broached the topic of celebrity collaboration. He dismissed it with the words, “You weren’t there. We all, all of us, collaborated to some degree. You did what you had to do to survive.” Which was also the story of Merle Oberon, I suppose."

Yes indeed.

Yojimboen said...

My love for DD is
“…a sub-atomic particle…?”
You mean the stuff of the universe? The building block, the very foundation of everything which exists or has existed or will ever exist? Why thank you! I couldn’t have put it better myself.

X. Trapnel said...

My dear Y, you are confusing a mere nail with a structure (i.e., my passion for DD), tout entiere, surpasses Chartres cathedral, the hanging gardens of Babylon, the original McKim, Mead, and White Penn Station, and my first report card at school in its splendour.

Yojimboen said...

Okay, you win.
(But Mom always liked me better!)

DavidEhrenstein said...

The greatest of all survivor stroes, IMO can be found in Paragraph 175. It concerns Gad Beck -- a marvelously randy gay Jew who lived undergound in Berlin throughout the war, espcaping the camps by all manner of means. Being blonde and cute, Beck looked like the Aryan Ideal -- a fact he exploited to the max. The greatest story he tells is when he found out that a boyfriend of his was about to be shipped off. So Beck got into a Nzi uniform he;d stolen from a trick, went over the house, pretended that he was an official and demanded that the kid come forward. And so he did. But no sooner were they a few feet away from the house than the boyfriend said "OH no, Gad -- I can't leave my family." He turned aroudn and went back and they went striagth to the extermination camp where on arrival they were immediately killed.

X. Trapnel said...

Well, you were the pretty one; I was the smart one.

Karen said...

Thanks for the welcome back, Yojimboen and Siren! (I was in Egypt.) And thanks to X.Trapnel and Yojimboen for the context. I confess I didn't know much about the nature of the collaboration I'd heard tell of, and Yojimboen's friend's comments make it clear that Augustine's philosophy applies widely.

We bought a CD-ROM for the library a few years back called "Images de guerre, 1940-1945" which is a massive collection of WWII-era propaganda ("Cinq années parmi les plus noires de notre histoire: la défaite face à l’invasion allemande, la mise en place de l’État français sous la coupe des nazis, l’occupation. Aujourd’hui réunies pour la première fois en DVD-Rom, les actualités filmées de cette époque nous en font revivre tous les aspects: vie quotidienne, batailles militaires, Résistance, etc. Toutes ces images, soigneusement contrôlées par le régime de l’époque, offrent un intérêt documentaire exceptionnel. Elles relèvent bien sûr de la propagande. C’est pourquoi elles sont présentées avec un appareil pédagogique et historique.")

The rep from the publisher who came to pitch it to us was very adamant about making it a disc-only database rather than on-line, because his company was so concerned that material would get downloaded and used without the "This is propaganda!" warnings that precede each item on the CD-ROM.

I remember looking at the Chevalier footage when I was poking around, and the rep being rather disparaging about Maurice's behavior. And it hurt, because I simply adore Chevalier.

But I am pleased greatly by this contextual information, because my passion for Darrieux would be boundless if it weren't bounded by Y.'s and X.T.'s pissing contest.


X. Trapnel said...

Karen, Y and I are lowly, back-of-the-room jesters and bow before you. On your say-so I will revisit Maurice Chevalier.

On this oh-so-French day my WV is Prout

Vanwall said...

I really can't speak personally for the patriotism versus survival story in WWII in the occupied countries - it's a long, variegated and vicious nightmare, and yes, survival was a chancy thing.

My mother-in-law survived escape from Yugoslavia by the quick wits and brazen courage of her father, who successfully bluffed half a trainload of refugees past the Ustashe. The other half, men, women and children, had already been been pulled from the other cars and shot on the embankments and hillsides. The train continued past the piles of corpses to get out, but most were doomed anyway - the war caught up with everyone and they made choices that we can't appreciate fully.

My mother-in-law's bicycle was an excellent smuggling tool for the Resistance when they made it to France - she, too was a blonde, beautiful little child - and passed through sentry lines quite easily; her father made the choice to resist, knowing the consequences better than most, as he had been in the intelligence services for many years already.

I have several silk kerchiefs in the form of maps from RAF flyers they hid on their farm as part of the escape route out of Vichy. I often wonder what happened to them all. Some choices were more difficult than others, and people paid the ultimate price far too often.

Merle Oberon's choices were certainly not that extreme, but survival, of one kind or another, is what you see in it, and not necessarily what others see. Collaboration is one way. My wife's grandfather's was another - Melville's "L'armée des ombres" does a good job of illuminating the payment demanded of some - and he was lucky. That's the real measure of Merle Oberon as well.

The Siren said...

Since we are on the topic, sort of, has anyone read the Lena Horne biography? Thinking of springing for it.

Karen said...

Yojimboen, thank you for that story. What a moving and horrifying tale. I can't imagine anyone hubristic enough to say they know how they would have behaved under such circumstances.

X.T., I believe that Chevalier is probably not for everyone, so I will not fault you if you don't go for him. But I recommend very early and very late Maurice: he is sheer deliciousness in Gigi and likewise in early Lubitsch: The Smiling Lieutenant, One Hour with You, and the sublime The Love Parade. He also spices up Jeanette MacDonald in The Merry Widow.

The Siren said...

Karen, I am also fond of Chevalier in Love in the Afternoon.

panavia999 said...

"Catsup on the Keys"
In "Song to Remember", Chopin as the patriot raising money for the Polish Cause, staggers across Europe playing the Heroic Polonaise. (Montage of swift carriage rides and various European cities). His complexion grows very pale, his handkerchiefs get bigger. In scene he coughs blood on the keys, but of course bravely carries on for the Cause, until finally he collapses of TB. Doesn't the girl he left behind in Poland nurse him on his deathbed while George Sand refuses his dying request to see her?

Karen said...

Yes, he is also quite wonderful in Love in the Afternoon--a film I truly adore.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Not only did I read the Lena Horne biography -- the author is a friend of mine. Incredible book. He labored mightily on it. Horne's story is a lot more complex and multi-facted than most people would imagine. Even at the height of her fame she was beseiged by racism.

She's totally withdrawn from the world today, and sees next to no one.

X. Trapnel said...


I just sent for a cd of Chevalier (1920s) in an operetta called Dede, later filmed with...Danielle Darrieux (how I love typing that melodious name). There's a nice clip from it on youtube with a very catchy tune.

I know we both love Rage of Paris; I read recently that DD ad libbed and improvised much of the comic stuff.

The Siren said...

All righty, so the Horne book is a must then. When I was in school in Alabama, the parents of a friend of mine went to Horne's famed one-woman show. When they came back, naturally I was all eager to hear about it. Their verdict? "She did too much complaining. Was it really that bad?" This from people who hailed from Montgomery, mind you. I was a polite kid so I couldn't say to my friends' parents anything quite apposite enough, such as, "Are you fucking well kidding me?" So yeah, it doesn't surprise me that Horne's struggles went on and on.

rudyfan1926 said...

Please forgive my ignorance, which Lena Horne biography?

Karen said...

X.T. I'm not a bit surprised to learn that DD improvised the comedy in The Rage of Paris; I don't think I can imagine any writer coming up with the room-service breakfast scene, or her odd little tongue-clucking that follows it. She was sheer delight.

X. Trapnel said...

I've been trying to transcribe that tongue cluck. Impossible; it must be the language of paradise. I'm sure her (very funny) mimicking of Fairbanks' walk was her idea rather than the auteur of The Sinning Nun. Likewise the fountain of French on meeting Louis Hayward.

DavidEhrenstein said...

You forgot Love Me Tonight, Karen. One of the Very Greatest of All Musicals, IMO -- right up there with Good News, Singin' in the Rain, Marat/Sade and I Love Melvin.

Karen said...

You're absolutely right, David! A great film. Delicious. I find early Chevalier simply delicious. One of the most infectious smiles in show business.

X.T., I suspect the torrent of French in Fairbanks' office--as well as all that about the "draps"--was the two of them playing as well. In fact, I find myself wishing I could see a copy of the shooting script!

X. Trapnel said...

I've had the same thought. The sad thing is the basic film (and I suspect the script)is really nothing. What we have is like a delicious, highly seasoned sauce with nothing underneath it. I took a look at Fairbanks' memoir and according to him Henri Decoin, DD's husband and director of Battement de Coeur et al. was fanatically jealous during the making of R of P and once gave her a black eye. The soul shrivels.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Here's some Absolute Perfection for you.

Phillip said...

"The Lodger" is one of my favorite Oberon films. I always thought she was beautiful was rather limited in acting.

I'm curious if you've ever seen "Of Love and Desire"? It is deliciously awful. It was filmed at Oberon's villa in Mexico and I think she may have funded the film or part of it. Terrible writing and plot but beautiful to look at. I have a copy on dvd if you are interested.

bitter69uk said...

Of Love and Desire certainly sounds lurid and interesting. Apparently bits of it were filmed in Oberon's own mansion in Mexico. Her last film made ten years later in 1973 was called Interval and I think it was self-financed. It also sounds like a misguided vanity project, co-starring her decades younger then-lover Robert Wolders (who went on to marry Audrey Hepburn).

The Rush Blog said...

Vivien Leigh wanted the part of Cathy very badly and would have hit it out of the part. Poor Viv, she wound up playing whatsherface in that other '39 costume pic.

William Wyler would have probably had a great deal of trouble keeping Vivian Leigh's perception of Cathy under control. Leigh was a better actress than Oberon. But I believe that Oberon did a superb job as Cathy.

CookieFavorites said...

Ah, my love for Merle Oberon can be compared to yours for Danielle Darrieux. She was so beautiful. Her features were so exquisitely FINE, so sweet and yet strong. She was elegant to her fingertips. Sure, she wasn't the most gifted actress, but honestly, I could watch her reciting the phone book and be enthralled.
I couldn't possibly fault her for 'passing' - she inhabited the earth in a time when racism ruled. (How many millions were put to death over the alleged 'purity', or lack thereof, in their blood?) It's all made up for the cameras and the fans anyway. Her beauty was her ticket out of the slums and prejudices that would have been her inevitable lot.
It's always painful to deny part of oneself. We can't know how she felt about the deception. But we do know she had her mother/grandmother's portrait painted and it hung in her bedroom in every home she had until her death.
She was beautiful beyond belief, but she was also a human being from an utterly 'outsider' background trying to fit in. I'm just glad and grateful that she succeeded, so that the world could see her beauty and be warmed by it.

Carla Davis said...

Merle Oberon's biography was entirely constructed by the various press agents and studio system. Apart from her being half British/half Indian, there is little truth to the stories she regurgitated to the press in her interviews. She was born in India and came to America with her mother/grandmother around the age of 12 or 13. She found employment in California as an exotic dancer and prostitute. Soon after, she was taken out of the canteen where she danced by a "blue movie" silent director who had a large fortune and began to support her and her mother. However, he was an alcoholic and would frequently beat and abuse her in all kinds of ways. In the early 1920's he built a Spanish mission style mansion in the hills above Los Angeles about where Valencia is today. This was to be a place where his unsavory Hollywood friends could escape from the studio spies for a time and drink and sexually cavort in peace. However, at one of these parties he became extremely intoxicated and murdered one of his guests because he was paying to much attention to "his" Queenie, which was the name Merle went by in her youth. Of course the party ended in his arrest and any guest that was even slightly famous hightailed it outa there. This event will not be found in any newspapers of that time because when the studios found out some of their contract players had attended the party, the whole thing was covered up and people paid for their silence. Standard studio practice back then. The director went off to prison for some time, but they still had Queenie to deal with. Queenie had always dreamed of being an actress, which is way they probably came to America in the first place. They made a deal with her that if she left LA and sailed to England and forever kept her mouth shut, they would get her bit parts in English movies and after she learned her craft they promised her a screen test and a return to America if she showed any talent. Alexander Korda did not just suddenly spot her one day and give her parts in his movies. Who believes that anyway? Little too convenient don't you think? As far as the rest goes, it's all history. She didn't just keep her mother hidden because of her race, it was because her whole life before becoming famous was a lie that her mother also wanted kept hidden. I write about this because I think some people are too hard on Merle. She picked herself up from squalor in India and survived any way she could until she was able to teach herself a craft and become a success. Also, Merle was well known for her charities such as donating some of her movie paychecks to build an orphanage for homeless Mexican children and adopting two of them herself with her third husband , who was Mexican. She also financed the building of an Actor's Studio in LA. Merle had a well known reputation as one of the happiest, most childlike, and honest actresses in Hollywood in her prime and after. She was well liked by almost everyone in the business which is why no one one would go to the press and spill the secrets of her past, even though some of them recognized her when she came back here from England. Quite an accomplishment in a snarky back stabbing town. I mention all this because of course she's been dead a long time as are most of her actor contemporaries. I learned all this in the 1980's when I went to an open house of the Spanish Mission house, which is still there as far as I know, and the realtor gave us the whole story as part of the history of the house. A lot of people up in Valencia knew this story, but it was no big deal to them to talk about it because they considered it an ancient old Hollywood story. No wonder she was always considered a woman with a "mysterious past", huh?

Carla Davis said...

By the way, the book "Queenie" which was written by her nephew Korda, is a work of fiction not a biography , probably written to further obscure the true events of her past.