Monday's Glamour Starter --- Merle Oberon
A friend of mine from school used to be a dedicated fan of Merle Oberon. He thought she was sheer perfection. Back in the late sixties, he’d order stills of her from Movie Star News in Manhattan, and when her movies turned up at 4:00 a.m. on some obscure New Jersey TV station, he’d either stay up all night, or set his alarm, to see them. When Hotel surfaced at a local drive-in around 1968, he celebrated his recent acquisition of a driver’s license to go there alone, during a rainstorm, to watch his idol. Because his windshield wipers tended to obstruct a clear view of Merle, he got out and stood beside his car to watch the show, all the while holding his umbrella to guard against the elements. Now that story is by way of illustrating just how powerful an effect some of these actresses had in their day. For my friend, at least, the Magic Of Merle reached years beyond her own era of prominence, for she was well into semi-retirement when he first discovered her. Merle’s biggest problem lay in the fact that she didn’t make many important pictures. If you take away Wuthering Heights, the woman’s pretty well stripped naked. I personally like Divorce Of Lady X, Lydia, A Song To Remember, and a few others --- and of course, The Lodger is an all-time favorite I could watch every day. Now if they had put Merle’s real-life story on the screen, they would have really had something. As a matter of fact, they did tell it once --- in the TV movie, Queenie --- which was actually a fictionalized story suggested by her life.
Good luck trying to figure out the origins of Merle Oberon. All the evidence suggests Merle didn’t even know who she really was. One thing was certain. This woman had lots to hide about her background, especially in a day when an uncertain racial heritage could absolutely wipe out a career. Poor thing was still dishing out the fiction about her beginnings right up to the end, way beyond the point when it could have possibly mattered. That was 1978, when she was invited "back" to her supposed birthplace in Hobart, Tasmania, where her hosts were alarmed to find that there was absolutely no record of Merle having been born there. The local press went nuts, and Miss Oberon beat a hasty retreat back home, avoiding the prying inquiries that awaited her now-cancelled appearances. Within a year she was dead, having withdrawn from public life with her last husband, much younger actor Robert Wolders. Some Australian producers later got interested in her story, and eventually came to reveal an even more convoluted account of her early years. It had been rumored she was "half-caste", with an Anglo father and an Indian mother. Merle even brought her dark-skinned mother to Hollywood after the career took off, and passed the woman off as her personal maid! --- and this charade went on for years! Wowzers --- what they wouldn’t do in those days to stay on top. Well, in a way, you can’t blame Merle too much --- after all, she’d grown up on the "shabby streets of Bombay" (anyhow, it was one of those places us pampered stateside dwellers would not want to end up). So she spent the formative years living by her wits, and living off some rich guys, as she took the name of Queenie O’Brien and assumed the role of club hostess at a U.K. hotspot. Well, that’s one story, if you choose to believe it. The other is that she was born in Tasmania --- to a Chinese woman named Lottie Chintock. Got that straight? Good, because now I’m hopelessly confused. Seems there was a sister who turned out to be the mother, and two or three guys who might have been the father (one thing’s sure, Merle was born out of wedlock). The woman had to put in extra closets for all her skeletons. Why couldn’t she have been born fifty years later so she could go on Oprah with all this stuff?
This first still shows Pixie-Cute Merle as one of those irresistible sprites that disrupts the staid life of a pre-major stardom Laurence Olivier in an Alexander Korda (her at-the-time husband) comedy, The Divorce Of Lady X, which I really like because she looks great in Technicolor, and Larry is haughty, priggish, and arrogant, and that’s how I prefer him too. Nothing irritates this writer more than Larry doing accents. He must be lordly and British --- at all times --- unless he’s ancient Roman, which is OK, because everybody knows ancient Romans were really just like British aristocracy, only with togas. Here they are again in the same year’s Wuthering Heights, and the story is that Larry was mean to Merle during that one because he'd wanted paramour Vivien Leigh to play opposite him. Larry could be priggish in real life too, as he would readily admit in elder statesman interviews. That mighty pretty color shot is from Lydia, a super-lush woman’s pic she made (also for Korda) in 1941. She’s pursued for years in that one by a brace of suitors that include Joe Cotten and that wonderful actor whom it’s always a pleasure to see, George Reeves (in one of his most substantial feature roles!). Merle’s caught in a Laird Cregar chokehold in this shot from The Lodger --- I can still visualize that one on the little TV set in my Grandmother’s house some forty years ago, and me struggling to keep the volume low enough so as not to wake the house. Is it any wonder this is an absolute personal fave of mine? Please, Fox, reunite me with Laird --- bring out that elusive DVD now!
Here’s one I’m waiting for Sony to release (what a shame we can’t call them Columbia anymore) --- A Song To Remember, with Merle in mannish attire as George Sand and robust Cornel Wilde as frail and sickly Frederic Chopin. I always liked Chopin because his music plays great with 8mm silent films. When I was fourteen, I’d break out those waltzes and etudes for everything from Griffith Biographs to Fatty Arbuckle Keystones. Old Fred never let me down. Take it from me, his stuff is ready-made for every musical occasion. As Tim Holt said about radio in His Kind Of Woman, I think it’s here to stay! Okay, a little side tribute to wrap up the Merle story. Here she is in a run-down-at-the-heels vid series she hosted entitled Assignment – Foreign Legion in 1957. Don’t bother looking for it on TV Land. The negatives are probably baking in one of those sweatbox units out in Burbank somewhere, if the landlord hasn’t already junked them for non-payment of storage fees. Anyway, that’s poor old Tom Conway in the role of a "fortune hunter" --- his own fortunes none too promising as he had only recently finished a gig in AIP’s Voodoo Woman, and class work of the sort he’d known not too many years before at RKO would sadly not come Tom’s way again. He was estranged from brother George Sanders (everybody got estranged from George sooner or later), and was barely surviving in lonely dipso squalor on the fringes of our wonderful industry that always remembers its own. Tom would wrap it up in the mid-sixties doing sympathy turns on old friend Ray Burr’s Perry Mason series. Too bad, cause he was really a good actor, and even toward the end, always turned in a pro job. Sorry Merle, we still love you, but we just had to give old Tom the final salute. He didn’t get to die a millionaire like you did.