Merle Oberon, Happy Birthday! Born February 19th; 1911-1979


Born Estelle Merle O’Brien Thompson on February 19, 1911, in Bombay (Mumbai), India and she passed away on November 23, 1979. Although Tasmania, Australia laid claim to her birth as well, this was to cover her true origins (more on this later).[1] As the story goes (according to Michael Korda), Alexander Korda and Ms. Thompson met on the production of, The Private Life of Henry VIII, and changed her name to Merle Oberon and then married her in 1939.[2]

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As many actors have Ms. Oberon began her film career with uncredited roles, she having 9 non-designated appearances from 1929 through 1932.[3] Then in late 1932 Merle Oberon had a clutch of 4 films, 2 with credits and 2 without,[4] but it was with her characterization of Anne Boleyn in The Private Life of Henry VIII., which premiered on August 17th, 1933, that set her on the road of Success.

Quickly, other memorable roles followed: The Private Life of Don Juan, Vagabond Violinist, The Scarlet Pimpernel, all released in 1934. Then in 1935 she received her only Academy Award nomination, which was for Best Actress for her interpretation of Kitty Vane in The Dark Angel. These Three, 1936, saw her more improved than in her Oscar nominated role from the year before and 1938 was another boon year for Oberon, with turns in The Divorce of Lady X and The Cowboy and the Lady. But it was with Wuthering Heights, 1939, alongside Laurence Olivier and in the hands of director William Wyler that she achieved her greatest film performance, her most memorable scenes and her acting legacy all wrapped up in about 9,360 feet of celluloid.

It seems that Wyler as director worked well with Merle Oberon, providing her an environment destined for immense accomplishment, clearly, her best work came in These Three and Wuthering Heights.[5] This not to say that she was not effective in subsequent roles, only that Wuthering Heights was her acting pinnacle, with These Three close behind. The 1940’s had Ms. Oberon in some good solid movies, such as ‘Til We Meet Again, 1940; That Uncertain Feeling with director Ernst Lubitsch and Affectionately Yours, 1941; Dark Waters, 1944, directed by André De Toth;  A Song to Remember, 1945; Night Song, 1947 and Berlin Express, 1948. In the 1950’s Oberon took work in television and had few film roles, but Désirée and Deep in My Heart, 1954 and The Price of Fear, 1956 were highlights for that decade.

In 1937 Oberon was involved in a near fatal car-wreck which left her with some facial scaring, leaving cinematographers to come up with ideas to obscure her scars. During filming of The Lodger, 1944, cinematographer Lucien Ballard (married Oberon in 1945, 3 weeks after her divorce from Alexander Korda) developed a special spotlight to help conceal the scaring of Ms. Oberon, the spotlight is known today as the “obie”.



Merle Oberon, an often overlooked actress when the best of Hollywood are mentioned, was a very talented, albeit fearful individual, afraid of her mixed-heritage (her father Welsh, her mother half-Indian from Cylon [now Sri Lanka] India), going to extremes to keep her partial Indian-parentage a secret. Many are highly offended by her actions and that is understandable but I believe we should show some kindness toward her memory for it was an era when a lot of people had their prejudice in the open, their bigotry taking form in laws and customs, which at its worst could lead to the death of people of color, devastation of the lives of women and men of color and at its least it could prevent persons of color from their chosen professions, their homes of choice and frequently enough kept from their education of choice. Often our early impressions and experiences guide the rest of our life-decisions. While still in India Ms. Oberon had her relationship with former actor Colonel Ben Finney end once he realized she was of mixed-race.[6] That is quite a lot for anyone to handle then deal with, let alone a young woman of 18 years to overcome. So today, February 19th, let us remember a gifted woman, of uncommon beauty: Merle Oberon.


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By C. S. Williams

[1] Who’s Who in Australia, 1938

[2] Charmed Lives, by Michael Korda, Published by Random House, Inc., 1979

New York Times Book Review (New York, New York) November 4, 1979

[3] The Three Passions, 1929  / The W Plan, 1930 / Alf’s Button, 1930 / A Warm Corner, 1930 / Fascination, 1931 / Never Trouble Trouble, 1931  Reserved for Ladies, 1932 / Ebb Tide, 1932 / Aren’t We All?, 1932

[4] Wedding Rehearsal and Men of Tomorrow, with credit for her performances, both released on, October 1st, 1932 / For the Love of Mike, December 1932 / Strange Evidence, January of 1933

[5] William Wyler began as director for The Cowboy and the Lady, 1938 but left the film early on for creative differences with producer Samuel Goldwyn; of course we will never know if The Cowboy and the Lady would have been a better comedy-romance if Wyler had remained at the helm for the duration, but it is an interesting speculation none the less.

[6] Princess Merle: The Romantic Life of Merle Oberon by Charles Higham and Roy Moseley, published by Coward  Mc Cann, 1983, pages 28-29.



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