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Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Merle Oberon Gets More Fear For '44


Woman's Swamp Gothic: Dark Waters (1944)

Has anyone noted the two very scary movies Merle Oberon did back-to-back in 1944? This and The Lodger chilled better than Universal monsters and got near what Val Lewton was achieving at RKO. Dark Waters had Hitchcock associate Joan Harrison among producers and directing Andre DeToth to see after gothic atmosphere. Writing was goosed by uncredited John Huston, paid by the page according to a DeToth interview. Dark Waters would play better if survivor prints were other than obvious 16mm used for the Image DVD (this despite a UCLA logo which would suggest fuller restoration). Merle is victimized in a Bayou house filled with are-they-or-aren't-they relatives that include off-cast Thomas Mitchell and Fay Bainter, Water's cast number swelled by Rex Ingram and Nina May McKinney as loyal retainers. Franchot Tone is along for what heroism he can muster, and Elisha Cook supplies balance of menace. Dark Waters used to show up on a local and poverty-stricken TV channel when I was in college, another one you could call and ask them to run, that very night, and they would.

1 Comments:

Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer recounts fond memory of "Dark Waters" and Merle Oberon:


"Dark Waters" is atmospheric, well cast, not without interest but nothing very special. It was made to a price and intended to appeal to a certain type of woman who enjoyed the frisson of a darkened room, so long as nothing very frightful developed. There was a moment suggesting that it could have been much better, when the character played by Merle Oberon recounts the horror of being lost at sea, her face white and shimmering against a black background, but most of the picture does not show this care. By this point in her career, Oberon was busier than ever but less a star than a decorative leading lady. She no longer enjoyed the patronage of Samuel Goldwyn or Alexander Korda, who had cast her in a series of serious prestige pictures. For a time, she was even Lady Korda to Sir Alex. Benedict E. Bogeous, the producer of "Dark Waters," only knew the meaning of prestige when he opened a dictionary. She was still beautiful but had to be carefully photographed, her complexion ravaged by what was said to have been cosmetic poisoning and an allergic reaction to sulfa drugs. There were also facial scars from injuries sustained in an automobile accident. As an actress, she was never better than her material and sometimes not as good. She was often stunning in poignant cameos, but beyond these minatures, she never seemed to be more than a very pretty, very nice woman who had no secret passion nor any secrets at all.

When I first saw "Dark Waters," however, I was young, rather impressionable, and I adored Merle Oberon. The circumstances were somewhat similar to what you recounted, a telecast from the small UHF television station in Hickory, North Carolina, where I lived for a year between college and law school. Its signal reached perhaps to the outskirts of town and was of marginal quality. I had only a 9 inch black-and-white GE television set on which to watch it, however, so probably it didn't make that much of a difference. Besides, I had been satisfied with less. One day, when I was living in Levittown, New Jersey and in the first throes of my infatuation with her, I learned that WOR in New York was going to show "The Scarlet Pimpernal" that afternoon. Of course, I very much wanted to see it, but there was no cable then and my family hadn't an antenna that could pull in a station from that distance. In my desperation, I fashioned one out of a broomstick and some coat hanger wires as the driven elements, scrambled up to the roof of our house and pointed it in the general direction of New York. Even John Logie Baird would have disappointed with the ghostly images that flickered across the screen of our Magnvox, but for fleeting moments I recognized her features and so was content.

Daniel Mercer

10:43 AM  

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