Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Anecdote of the Week: Runaway Romance, Hollywood Style

From The Moon's a Balloon, by David Niven, the story of a cross-country trip that begins after a tryst in the St. Regis Hotel in New York. The Great Big Star was, as you probably know, Merle Oberon.

By the autumn of 1936, I was very much involved with a GBS (Great Big Star)...The GBS was gorgeous and quite adventurous.

'Let's not fly back to California--let's take the sleeper to Detroit--buy a Ford and drive it out.'

She bought the car--I drove and the first night we spent together in Chicago.

She disguised her well-known face with a black wig and dark glasses and called herself Mrs. Thompson. In the lobby nobody recognized her. Though it was highly unlikely that anyone would recognize me, I went along with the game and called myself Mr. Thompson.

The desk clerk handed GBS a telegram, 'For you, Mrs. Thompson.' I was mystified.

'How could that happen?' I said.

'I promised Jock Lawrence I'd tell him exactly where we'll be all the way across in case the studio needs me urgently, then I can hop a plane.'


'Forget it,' said the GBS. 'Call him tomorrow--it's too late now.' We went to bed.

The next night we spent in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.

'Telegram for you, Mrs. Thompson,' said the desk clerk.


We didn't want the idyll spoiled even though the new signature gave me an eerie feeling of impending doom.

In North Platte, Nebraska, the wording was crisper--


Still we pressed happily on across the country, and the telegrams became more alarming at each step. The one at the Grand Canyon was very unattractive indeed--


The GBS was made of stern stuff--'He can't do that,' she said, 'and anyway he wants me for two more pictures. We'll call him when we get to California--not before.'

I was so besotted by the GBS that I even managed to enjoy the rest of the trip except when we turned off the main road in the middle of New Mexico and got stuck in the desert at sunset.

Finally, the ten-day trip ended and we crossed the State Line into California. From a motel in Needles, with great apprehension, I called Goldwyn.

'Do you know what you're doing, you stupid son of a bitch?' he yelled. 'You're doing about a hundred and thirty-five years in jail. Ever heard of the Mann Act and taking women across State Lines for immoral purposes? Think what Winchell would do to that girl, too, if he got the story--you're through I tell're...'

His voice was pitched even higher than usual. The GBS leaned across the bedside table and grabbed the phone out of my hand.

'Sam, darling,' she purred, 'I've had a simply gorgeous time so don't be angry with David...I'll explain it all to you when we get back tomorrow...' She motioned me to go out of the room and finished her conversation alone. When she found me later, she said, 'Sam's sweet really, everything's okay again, you've been reinstated.'


Karen said...


Vanwall said...

GBS Power. Or knowledge of secrets.

Trish said...

Kind of a blow to Niven's manhood, is it not? Brave of him to admit it. I like that.

Tony Dayoub said...

3 years later, the GBS would put her producer-handling skills to good use when she married Korda, I'm sure.

The Siren said...

She was an operator, Miss Merle. This month on TCM they are once more showing LYDIA, directed by Julien Duvivier, and as Tony knows, it gets my highest recommendation. Absolutely gorgeous film that will change your mind about Merle Oberon, if your mind needed changing. She's great. It's on Wednesday 2/27 at 3:45 pm EST. Pounce.

Gloria said...

Wasn't Korda at the time kind of with Merle, too?

The Siren said...

Gloria, I believe she was, off and on. I guess this was an "off" time. It's kind of a pity she didn't marry Niven. They seem to have been kindred spirits in some ways.

Casey said...

Cool story. I've flipped through Bring on the Empty Horses, and it looked pretty interesting. Niven seems honest and forthright, and apparently doesn't feel the need to be the star of his own story.

barrylane said...


Niven is the star of his own story, as is every one. The Oberon romance is simply part of the development process.

Victoria said...

Brilliant! I can just tell how much Niven was taken with her.

Victoria said...

(That was me, Victoria of BdJ, by the way.)

DavidEhrenstein said...

TCM also screened First Comes Courage, Dorothy Arzner's last starring Merle and the ever-reliable Brain Aherne. Truy extravagant plot with Merle as an anti-Nazi Norwegian who nearly marries a top Nazi the better to undo him. Arner -- who loved to glam up her ladies -- turns the whole thing into a Merle fashion show.

Lemora said...

Oh, thank you! "The Moon's A Balloon" is a delightful book. And thank you for the wonderful photos! This brings back memories of car trips across the U.S. with my musician dad at the tail end of that pre-interstate era --two lane blacktop highways, no franchises, and motor courts where the owners got up in their pajamas to show you your room if you arrived late at night. After reading TMAB, I would urge fellow Niven fans to read Graham Lord's "Niv," published on the twentieth anniversary of his death in 2003. But do not under any circumstances read the Graham biography first. You'll see why. A favorite DN film is "A Matter Of Life And Death," filmed during WWII. Do yourselves a favor and see it.

Lemora said...

Thank you, Siren, for recommending "Lydia." Somebody said, long ago, that an actress had more changes of costume than facial expression. This has always summed up Merle Oberon for me. Maybe "Lydia" will change my mind. David Niven was in too many stinkers and too few movies that really allowed his talent to shine. But he made everything he was in better just by being there.

misospecial said...

I look forward to having my mind changed about the GBS; not liking her interferes with my ability to enjoy Wuthering Heights, for one. DN is very nice in Dodsworth, which I suppose was around the time of this story, wasn't it? And I'm crazy about Matter of Life and Death, but can't watch it unless it's convenient to bawl like a little kid. Every time.

wwwww said...

lydia is free on hulu plus the criterion collection today and tomorrow

Narmitaj said...

@ Lemora ""A Matter Of Life And Death," filmed during WWII."

It's my favourite film, but strictly speaking it wasn't filmed during WWII - but only just! Production, according to Wikipedia, was from 2 Sept to 2 Dec 1945, and 2 Sept 1945 was the day of the Japanese surrender. (The film kicks off on 2 May 1945 and is set over the few days of the ending of the war in Europe).

The Rush Blog said...

I have a few problems with that story. Why would Merle Oberon disguise her hair with a dark wig? And didn't the law commonly used the Mann Act to prosecute men for having sex with underage females or prostitutes?

The Siren said...

Rush, remember, he was trying to disguise her identity in the book or at least seem as though he was. Although the entire book is very, very, very loose with the facts so who knows.

The Mann Act was originally called the White Slave Traffic Act and the age of the female didn't matter. It was definitely used to prosecute otherwise law-abiding adulterers who crossed state lines and it's still on the books, albeit amended quite a bit.

Kendra said...

The Moon's A Balloon is my favorite!