(1911-79)                             Actress


Merle  Oberon

merle oberon
Promo Photo (1943)

    b. Estelle Merle O'Brien Thompson

      I defy anyone to say they have seen a more exotic and stunningly beautiful actress than Merle Oberon. Don't believe me? Well, if you have never seen her work then check out one of her movies from the early '30s like The Scarlet Pimpernel. I remember seeing her for the first time and the impression she makes will stay with me forever. Her beauty was something I wanted to know, experience, but knew it would always be far, far beyond me. If beauty were a tower then I would forever be consigned to a ground floor bedsit while Merle Oberon would always be a thousand floors above me.

      And she wasn't a bad actress either.

      Born in India to an Indian mother (something she remained self-conscious about for the rest of her life) and an Indo-Irish father, Estelle Merle O'Brien Thompson spent an impoverished childhood in the subcontinent, before coming to England in 1928 where, among other things, she worked as a dance hostess before starting to pick up bit parts in movies in the early '30s, beginning with Alf's Button (1930). It was Hungarian-born film mogul Alexander Korda who first spotted Oberon's screen potential, and began giving her parts in his pictures, building her up toward stardom with role such as Anne Boleyn in The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933). Although she was an actress of very limited range, Oberon acquitted herself well in movies such as The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934), as Sir Percy Blakeney's wife, and her exotic good looks made her extremely appealing.

      In 1937 she sustained facial scars in a London car crash. To combat these scars, her future husband, cinematographer Lucien Ballard, designed a compact spotlight that he coined the "Obie" (Oberon's nickname). Mounted on the side of the camera, the device lights the subject head on, thus reducing the incidence of unflattering facial lines and shadows.

      She was cast opposite Laurence Olivier in the 1938 comedy The Divorce of Lady X, which was shot in Technicolor and showed Oberon off to even better advantage. Seeking to build her up as an international star, Korda sold half of Oberon's contract to Samuel Goldwyn in America, who cast her as Cathy in Wuthering Heights (1939).

      She moved to America with the outbreak of war, and also married Korda (1939-1945), but despite some success in That Uncertain Feeling, The Lodger, and A Song to Remember, her star quickly began to fade, and the Korda vehicle Lydia (1941), a slow-moving melodrama that had her aging 50 years, didn't help her career at all. Even a good acting performance in the Hitchcock-like chiller Dark Waters (1944) failed to register with the public.

      Oberon re-emerged only occasionally after the early '50s, until 1973 when she starred in, produced, and co-edited Interval, a strange romantic drama that co-starred her future husband Robert Wolders, that failed to find good reviews or an audience.

      Afterwards, Merle lived in quiet retirement until her death of a massive stroke on November 23, 1979 in Malibu, California. She was 68 and had kept her beauty to the end.


    • With his then wife, Merle Oberon, Alexander Korda received his knighthood at Buckingham Palace on 23rd September 1942.

    • 1938 was the year romance blossomed between Merle and Alexander Korda. Several times he had obtained loans from London Films of about £3,000 each. One of these loans was made ust about the time he presented Merle with a piece of jewellery estimated to cost the same amount.

    • Korda and Oberon attended the premiere of The Prvate Life of Don Juan together on 5 September 1934.

    • In 1939, Merle attended a special preview performance of Wuthering Heights in the presence of America's First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt.

    • After Wuthering Heights, she returned to Europe via the ship, Normandie and arrived in Le Havre on 6th April 1939 where she was met by Alex. They ten had a brief holiday in the South of France.

    • They attended the premiere of The Four Feathers on 17th April 1939 in London.

    • At their wedding, Alex presented her with a necklace once worn by Marie Antoinette.

    • Korda and Oberon were married in Antibes on 3rd June 1939.

    • They found a large house in Denham which was later owned by Sir John Mills. Alex persuaded his brothers and their families to move into the house too. It was a shock for Merle who went to bed early, did not smoke and had a small appetite to adjust to Alex's insomniac life-style with its heavy dependence on rich foods and cigars.

    • David Niven and Merle had once gone out together.

    • Madeleine Carroll had been the initial choice for Dark Angel before Oberon got the part.

    • Growing up in Calcutta, her main reason for wanting to become an actress was having seen Vilma Banky in the silent movie of Dark Angel. Well, that was what she told Samuel Goldwyn when she wanted the part in the talky.

    • Merle's life was moulded by her determination to bury her impoverished background and to move in the highest society.

    • By the time she had finished shooting The Scarlet Pimpernel in England, she was in the middle of an affair with Leslie Howard.

    • Source: Korda: The Definitive Biography.

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merle oberon
Film Weekly (1933)

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