Merle Oberon: From Mystery Past & Hollywood Stardom to Shah of Iran Connection

Merle Oberon mysterious British and American cinema star was unfair Marion Davies Syndrome victimMerle Oberon: 'Exotic' and mysterious star of British and American cinema was a victim of the 'Marion Davies Syndrome.'

Merle Oberon movies: 'Exotic' and underrated actress with mysterious past is Star of the Month

Merle Oberon is Turner Classic Movies' Star of the Month of March 2016. The good news: The elegant, exquisite, and vastly underrated actress, whose early life and ancestry have been a matter of conjecture for decades, makes any movie worth a look.

Never a top box office draw in the United States, Oberon was an important international star all the same, having worked with many of the top actors and filmmakers of the first half of the 20th century.

Now for the bad news: There are no TCM premieres in the offing despite the fact that a number of Oberon's films can be tough to find, especially in good condition. These include Men of Tomorrow (in which she has a small role), Thunder in the East, Temptation, Night in Paradise, Pardon My French, the Spanish-made Todo es posible en Granada, and her final effort, Interval.

Below is a brief overview of Merle Oberon's life and career, with an emphasis on some of the movies to be presented on TCM.

That uncertain ancestry

One curious thing about Merle Oberon is that the off-screen stories about her are no less intriguing than those she acted out on screen.

Throughout her life, Oberon – perhaps following mentor, lover, and later husband Alexander Korda's advice – claimed to have been born on the Australian island state of Tasmania. Her records were supposed to have been destroyed in a fire.

In truth, as found in records from the British Raj made available online via the ancestry website, she was born Estelle Merle Thompson on Feb. 19, 1911,[1] in Bombay (now Mumbai). Her father was railway worker Arthur Thompson (not an army officer as Oberon had always claimed), from the northeastern English town of Darlington; her mother was named Constance Selby.

Things get murky from here on.

Constance Selby is supposed to have been either the 12- or the 15-year-old daughter of Charlotte Selby – Thompson's 26-year-old girlfriend from Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and of “Eurasian/Maori” background. Estelle Merle, nicknamed Queenie, was raised by Charlotte Selby as if she were her daughter; the girl believed that Constance was her older sister.

High-priced sex worker?

If that weren't all, in A. Scott Berg's 1989 Samuel Goldwyn biography, an unidentified man claims that Merle Oberon used to be a high-priced sex worker – apparently while still a teenager, as she began landing sizable film roles in British films at age 21 in 1932.

My suggestion: Everything is possible, but take this high-priced sex worker story with a boulder of salt. This is in no way a moral judgment on Oberon or how she conducted her life; instead, I just find it hard to believe someone who unceremoniously names the celebrity he (purportedly) paid for sex – as we all know, sex workers still have a tough time finding acceptance and respect – while ensuring that the privacy of his own person would be maintained.

Oberon, of course, had been dead – and unable to tell anyone her version of the story – for nearly a decade before Berg's book was published.

Now, fast-forward to the post-1933 Estelle Merle Thompson, by then reborn, with a different name, as an international movie star.

Merle Oberon movies unfair victim Marion Davies SyndromeMerle Oberon movies: Alexander Korda discovery went on to become a long-lasting international star.

'Marion Davies Syndrome'

Merle Oberon is one of those actresses who have unjustly suffered – and continue to suffer – from what I call the Marion Davies Syndrome.

As I explained a few years ago in a post about Jennifer Jones, I believe that many (most?) film critics and so-called “historians” have dismissed actresses such as Davies, Jones, Norma Shearer, Joan Bennett, and Norma Talmadge because they had powerful backers.

Admittedly, Davies' two-decade film career was indeed a direct result of her relationship with publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst, while Jennifer Jones became an Oscar-winning star (The Song of Bernadette, 1943) thanks to the efforts of Gone with the Wind producer and independent mogul David O. Selznick.

Norma Shearer had MGM's second-in-command Irving G. Thalberg. Joan Bennett had top producer Walter Wanger. And, in case film “scholars” have ever heard of her, 1920s superstar Norma Talmadge was boosted by independent mogul Joseph M. Schenck.

The possibility that Marion Davies and Jennifer Jones might have become even bigger stars had their Svengalis been less controlling and more discerning, or that Norma Shearer and Norma Talmadge might have reached superstardom heights even without Thalberg or Schenck is ignored by those who refuse to accept the fact that a person can have both an influential patron and talent – in addition to, of course, luck, ambition, and/or professional acumen.

Walter Wanger may have been the one to insist that his future wife keep her dark locks acquired during the making of the 1938 adventure comedy Trade Winds, but from then on, former blonde ingenue Joan Bennett was the one giving her all under the direction of Fritz Lang, Jean Renoir, Max Ophüls, and others.

Starmaker Alexander Korda

As for Merle Oberon, her dedicated patron was Alexander Korda, a Hungarian émigré (rich people's immigrant status must be spelled out in French) who happened to be one of the most important figures in the first two decades of British sound cinema.

With a guy like that backing her up, so the thinking goes, how could Oberon have failed to become a movie star?

Well, just ask Maria Corda, whose international film stardom didn't go very far despite husband Korda's widespread connections in Europe and Hollywood.

Now, I'm not saying that Alexander Korda wasn't a key element in the development and evolution of Merle Oberon's career. But even if Korda did everything behind the camera to catapult his lover and protégée (and wife from 1939–1945) to film stardom, ultimately it was Oberon's presence in front of the camera that made her secure that position for nearly two decades.

Merle Oberon Greer Garson Rosalind Russell 12 Best Actress Oscar nominationsMerle Oberon, Greer Garson and Rosalind Russell: 12 Best Actress Oscar nominations among them.

Only one Oscar nomination despite wide range of roles & performances

In all fairness, Merle Oberon – like every other performer, no matter how prestigious – had her thespian ups and downs.

Sometimes she was weak, e.g., Ernst Lubitsch's That Uncertain Feeling (1941), telegraphing her (off) comic timing by means of pouts and glares. Sometimes she was good, e.g., William Wyler's These Three (1936), conveying her small-town teacher's emotional travails without resorting to tricks or gimmicks despite fierce competition in the acting department from co-star Miriam Hopkins.

Sometimes Oberon was outstanding, e.g., Wyler's Wuthering Heights (1939), losing herself inside Emily Brontë's love-struck Cathy to create one of the most indelible performances of the 1930s. And sometimes she was fascinating, e.g., Charles Vidor's A Song to Remember (1945), in which, as George Sand, she steals the movie from co-stars Cornel Wilde and Paul Muni merely by looking more manly than they do.

In fact, Merle Oberon – in pants, rococo gowns, or modern dress – was always fantastic to look at, whether…

  • Pining for Leslie Howard in the aftermath of the French Revolution in Harold Young's enjoyable The Scarlet Pimpernel (1934).
  • Suffering as a noblewoman in love with Irish rebel Brian Aherne in H.C. Potter's effective romantic/political drama Beloved Enemy (1936).
  • Dancing onstage as a (potential) Jack the Ripper victim in John Brahm's atmospheric The Lodger (1944).
  • Or, as Anne Boleyn, about ready to have her head chopped off in Alexander Korda's enormously successful The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933) – the first British production to receive a Best Picture Academy Award nomination.

Somewhat surprisingly, during her four-decade film career Merle Oberon received only one Academy Award nomination: in the Best Actress category for her work in Sidney Franklin's great-looking (cinematography by Gregg Toland) but slow-moving 1935 period melodrama The Dark Angel (1935), an expensive Samuel Goldwyn production co-starring Fredric March and Herbert Marshall. (For the record, the winner that year was Bette Davis for Alfred E. Green's Dangerous.)

'Over the Moon': An eye on the American market

On March 18, TCM's Merle Oberon movie schedule consists of six movies released in the first half of the 1940s: Over the Moon, Lydia, 'Til We Meet Again, That Uncertain Feeling, First Comes Courage, and A Song to Remember.

Over the Moon (1940) is a British effort directed by North Dakotan filmmaker Thornton Freeland, he of the Eddie Cantor comedy Whoopee! and the Ginger Rogers-Fred Astaire musical Flying Down to Rio (which, incidentally, actually starred Dolores del Rio and Gene Raymond). Freeland began making movies in the U.K. in the mid-1930s, and would remain on the other side of the Atlantic for the remainder of his career.

Merle Oberon, by then already a Hollywood star, has the lead role in Over the Moon: a pretty country girl. A pre-Hollywood Rex Harrison is her country doctor love interest, while a gigantic windfall – an inheritance so humongous that it makes our heroine one of the richest women in the United Kingdom – just about wrecks the country couple's relationship.

Merle Oberon Lydia Hollywood remake of French movieMerle Oberon in 'Lydia': Hollywood has been using French cinema as inspiration for decades.

Forward to the past: 'Lydia' & 'Til We Meet Again'

These days, it has become fashionable to bitch about Hollywood studio heads and filmmakers having lost their imagination, as they proceed to remake and reboot and readapt what has been done before. Needless to say, we all know that back in The Golden Age of the Hollywood studios, these things didn't happen, did they?

Warner Bros.' 'Til We Meet Again (1940) is the less well-received remake of the studio's own One Way Passage (1932), a Tay Garnett-directed romance classic from an Oscar-winning Robert Lord story. In the original, Kay Francis starred as a doomed socialite and William Powell as a doomed criminal who meet and fall in love aboard an ocean liner.

In 'Til We Meet Again, Merle Oberon – replacing Marlene Dietrich and a recalcitrant Miriam Hopkins (the latter at odds with both Jack Warner and Samuel Goldwyn) – has the old Kay Francis role. George Brent is her fellow star-crossed lover, while con man Frank McHugh reprises his One Way Passage comedy relief role. Edmund Goulding, who could be a solid actors' director (e.g., Joan Crawford in Grand Hotel, Miriam Hopkins in The Old Maid), handled the proceedings.

As further evidence of Golden Age originality, Merle Oberon stars as a woman attempting to revive the passion of youth in Lydia (1941), the Hollywood reboot of Julien Duvivier's 1937 classic Dance of Life / Un carnet de bal, which was based on a story by Ladislaus Bus-Fekete. Produced by Oberon's then husband, Alexander Korda, and directed by Duvivier, Lydia also features Alan Marshall, Joseph Cotten, and George Reeves as three of the men in the title character's past. The great-looking production reportedly had a not inconsiderable $1 million budget.

Marie Bell starred in the generally better-regarded 1937 version, which has several elements in common with Leonard Merrick's novel Conrad in Search of His Youth, pleasantly filmed as Conrad in Quest of His Youth by William C. de Mille in 1920, with Thomas Meighan as the titular character.

Merle Oberon That Uncertain Feeling Melvyn Douglas Lubitsch Touch goes awryMerle Oberon in 'That Uncertain Feeling,' with Melvyn Douglas: Lubitsch Touch goes awry.

'That Uncertain Feeling': 'Inhibitionistic' pianist

Based on Victorien Sardou and Émile de Najac's 1880 play Divorçons! (“Let's Get a Divorce!”), That Uncertain Feeling (1941) is an uncertain Ernst Lubitsch comedy in which the director's famous light Touch feels a tad heavier than usual. That's quite a (puzzling) disappointment, considering that the screenplay is credited to a couple of quality Hollywood scribes: Donald Ogden Stewart (Dinner at 8, Love Affair) and Walter Reisch (one of Lubitsch's collaborators on Ninotchka).

In That Uncertain Feeling, Merle Oberon plays Melvyn Douglas' insomniac, hiccuping wife, who discovers – or thinks she does – that she and her husband may not have been made for each other after all. That realization is the result of psychoanalysis sessions with, of all people, Alan Mowbray.

A woefully miscast Burgess Meredith – best remembered these days as Sylvester Stallone's trainer in the Rocky movies – plays another one of Dr. Mowbray's patients: an artistically inhibitionistic pianist. Curiously, that would have been an ideal role for someone like … Melvyn Douglas (who had previously collaborated with Lubitsch on Angel and Ninotchka).

Meredith, in fact, is a key problem in That Uncertain Feeling, which goes to show how casting is crucial for a movie's success. And in all honesty, Oberon doesn't fare that much better.

For the Golden Age reboot record, Ernst Lubitsch had previously filmed this farce back in 1925 – as (the now lost) Kiss Me Again. Marie Prevost and Monte Blue were the two leads.

'First Comes Courage': Anglo-Indian Norwegian resistance fighter

First Comes Courage (1943) is notable as the last film handled by Dorothy Arzner (1897–1979), the only woman director working in Hollywood during the studio era. Also worth noting, Arzner remains the only known lesbian filmmaker to have succeeded in finding steady work in the American film industry, directing top talent (Esther Ralston, Clara Bow, Ruth Chatterton, Fredric March, Sylvia Sidney, Katharine Hepburn, Joan Crawford, Claudette Colbert, Clive Brook) in important studio releases (The Wild Party, Sarah and Son, Merrily We Go to Hell, Christopher Strong, The Bride Wore Red).

Like most other Dorothy Arzner movies, First Comes Courage revolves around its female protagonist. Set in Nazi-occupied Norway, the film stars Merle Oberon as Norwegian underground agent Nicole Larsen who, despised by the local population, has an affair with a Nazi officer (Carl Esmond) so she can learn the enemy's secrets. Brian Aherne is the British agent out to kill the high-ranking Nazi.

Surely, the politically correct crowd won't be offended by the olive-skinned, sloe-eyed, Bombay-born Oberon's unethnical casting – even though had it been the other way around, they would just as surely have had a serious problem with what's now referred to as “whitewashing.”

Either way, that would have been a waste of outrage, for the part-British, part-Indian (and/or part-Sri Lankan) Oberon could easily pass for just about any ethnicity. Besides, only the mentally ill would be offended by such a minor detail in a story replete with absurdities – “shoddy romantic hokum,” in the words of the New York Times' Theodore Strauss.

Merle Oberon A Song to Remember George Sand male drag box office hitMerle Oberon in 'A Song to Remember': George Sand in 'male drag' in this major box office hit.

Androgynous Merle Oberon in 'A Song to Remember'

But the “hokum” found in First Comes Courage feels like something out of Vittorio De Sica's neo-realist Bicycle Thieves when compared to what you get to witness – in lush color (courtesy of Tony Gaudio and Allen M. Davey) – in Charles Vidor's A Song to Remember (1945).

Embraced by audiences, Columbia Pictures' 100 percent phony biopic of Frédéric Chopin starred an absurdly miscast (and Oscar nominated) Cornel Wilde as the Polish composer who sacrifices it all for his Fatherland. At his cutesiest, Paul Muni was equally miscast as Chopin's mentor, Józef Elsner.

From the first scene to the last, the cliché-ridden A Song to Remember is as appalling and as intriguing as a train wreck, but Merle Oberon, parading around in men's attire, acquits herself shockingly well as George Sand – even though she looked nothing like the quite plain and quite androgynous Sand, née Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin in Paris.

Despite Oberon's effectiveness in the role, it would be nice to have access to alternate universes where they show versions of this tale starring Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich as Sand; both actresses had at some time or other been considered for the role. (And Frank Capra had been slated to direct the project back in 1938.)

A huge financial success, A Song to Remember was possibly the biggest box office hit of Oberon's career. Think of it as the Straight Outta Compton of 1945.

Merle Oberon actress empress in DesiréeMerle Oberon: Actress as Empress – in this particular case, Joséphine de Beauharnais – in the big-budget historical drama 'Désirée.'

Merle Oberon as Empress Josephine in 'Désirée': First supporting role in two decades

Turner Classic Movies' Merle Oberon month comes to an end on March 25. The scheduled titles are: Désirée, Deep in My Heart, Hotel, Affectionately Yours, Berlin Express, and Night Song.

Oberon's presence alone would suffice to make them all worth a look, but these films have other qualities to recommend them as well.

Directed by Henry Koster, best remembered for his wildly popular Deanna Durbin musicals (e.g., Three Smart Girls, One Hundred Men and a Girl) and for the 1947 Academy Award-nominated fantasy comedy The Bishop's Wife, the historical drama Désirée (1954) is a sumptuous production that, thanks to its big-name cast, became a major box office hit upon its release.

Yet Marlon Brando is laughably miscast as Napoleon Bonaparte, while the talented Jean Simmons is little more than a pretty face in the title role: the Corsican Conqueror's one-time fiancée Désirée Clary, later Queen of Sweden and Norway – and, in real life, more of a Flora Robson type. But hey, that's Hollywood; and audiences (then or now) surely couldn't care less about facts or reality.

In a supporting role – her first non-lead since the early 1930s – Merle Oberon plays the Empress Joséphine de Beauharnais. And what a luminous screen presence.

Besides Oberon, the real stars in Désirée are its production values: color cinematography by Milton Krasner; art direction/set decoration by Lyle Wheeler, Leland Fuller, Walter M. Scott, and Paul S. Fox; costume design by René Hubert and Charles LeMaire.

All-star box office hit 'Deep in My Heart'

Released the same year as Désirée, Stanley Donen's Deep in My Heart (1954) was another major box office hit, earning Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer $3.98 million in rentals (or approx. $76 million in 2016).[2] In terms of prestige, however, the all-star musical is hardly considered a Donen effort on a par with On the Town (1949, co-directed by Gene Kelly), Singin' in the Rain (1952), or the 1954 Best Picture Oscar nominee Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.

A lavish production about operetta composer Sigmund Romberg (played by José Ferrer), Deep in My Heart features Merle Oberon as Dorothy Donnelly, a Broadway star (Candida, Madame X) who collaborated with Romberg on the libretto for The Student Prince.

One of the musical's highlights is Ann Miller singing and dancing not just a storm but a furious hurricane while performing Romberg, Oscar Hammerstein II, and Otto A. Harbach's “It” from the 1926 operetta The Desert Song.

Merle Oberon actress empress to duchess in hotelMerle Oberon: Actress downgraded from empress in 'Désirée' to duchess in 'Hotel.'

'Hotel': Downgraded to duchess in 'Grand Hotel' reboot of sorts

Based on Arthur Hailey's bestseller and set in a struggling New Orleans establishment, Richard Quine's Hotel (1967) features a stellar cast that includes Rod Taylor, Catherine Spaak, Richard Conte, Michael Rennie, Kevin McCarthy, and Best Supporting Actor Oscar winners Melvyn Douglas (Hud, 1963; and later Being There, 1979) and Karl Malden (A Streetcar Named Desire, 1951).

Thirteen years after Désirée, Merle Oberon found herself downgraded from empress to duchess – a bejeweled, immaculately coiffed and attired one who has been involved (with husband Michael Rennie) in a hit-and-run road accident.

Although this Grand Hotel reboot of sorts has its admirers, it failed to achieve the popularity and prestige of its Edmund Goulding-directed predecessor, one of Greta Garbo's (and Joan Crawford's) biggest hits and the winner of the 1931-32 Best Picture Academy Award. (An out-and-out remake was released in 1945, Robert Z. Leonard's Week-End at the Waldorf.)

Three years after Hotel, which turned out to be Merle Oberon's final appearance in a major motion picture, the Hollywood/Arthur Hailey combo would hit the big time with George Seaton's all-star near-disaster drama Airport.

Merle Oberon Berline Express Paul LukasMerle Oberon in 'Berlin Express' with 1943 Best Actor Oscar winner Paul Lukas ('Watch on the Rhine').

More Merle Oberon films

Costarring Dennis Morgan and Rita Hayworth, Lloyd Bacon's Affectionately Yours (1941) would probably have been a funnier light comedy had it been directed by Ernst Lubitsch, while Jacques Tourneur's serious-minded spy thriller Berlin Express (1948) unfortunately doesn't quite live up to expectations (Tourneur, Oberon, Robert Ryan, Paul Lukas).

John Cromwell's romantic melodrama Night Song (1947) – with shades of Magnificent Obsession – stars Merle Oberon as a socialite who pretends to be both blind and poor in order to gain the love and confidence of an embittered piano player (Dana Andrews), left blind after a car accident.

Released by RKO at a time of turmoil – Howard Hughes took over the studio that year – Night Song lost a reported $1.04 million (approx. $10.4 million in 2016).[3]

Lucien Ballard

Although neither Berlin Express nor Night Song did anything to enhance Merle Oberon's standing as either star or actress, both movies – along with three other titles – have a special place in her Hollywood career. They were shot by Lucien Ballard, Oberon's husband from 1945–1949 and now best remembered for his collaborations with Sam Peckinpah (e.g., Ride the High Country, The Wild Bunch, Junior Bonner).

The couple were married the year after Ballard photographed Oberon in The Lodger. Their other two joint efforts were William Dieterle's melodrama This Love of Ours (1945) and Irving Pichel's period thriller Temptation (1946).

Final curtain call: 'Interval'

Merle Oberon's final film appearance was in the little-seen, independently made Mexican-American co-production Interval (1973), a May-December romantic drama produced by Oberon herself, directed by veteran Daniel Mann (Come Back Little Sheba, The Rose Tattoo), and written by Gavin Lambert (The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone, Inside Daisy Clover).

Oberon's love interest was played by Dutch-born (sometime) actor Robert Wolders (Beau Geste, Tobruk), 25 years her junior and described at the time as a “protégé of Noël Coward.”

According to a July 1973 report, prior to Interval she claimed to have turned down “50 scripts,” explaining, “I'd rather be a forgotten actress than become a freak on film.” She then added, “I considered myself passé – someone the world had passed by.”

That view changed somewhat when Hollywood powerhouse attorney Greg Bautzer sent her the Interval screenplay with a “must-read” note attached to it.

Bruno Pagliai

During the making of Interval, Merle Oberon was in the process of divorcing Italian-born Mexican steel industrialist Bruno Pagliai. Their 16-year union came to an end the year the film was (briefly) released. Her take on the matter was the following:

Everything I did made news and that, you see, wasn't really allowed. That's No. 1. Besides Pagliai was as busy as all high-powered, highly creative, goal-oriented husbands. There was little time for us to be together.

At breakfast I'd ask if he thought I should star in a picture or decorate a house. He'd pick the latter, of course. It would keep me busy for a while. Then the same question would pop up again when boredom set in with a vengeance.

In the same interview, Oberon declared, “I don't like to live alone. I like to be looked after by a man. I'm very feminine that way. And I'm always drawn to the qualities of kindness, tenderness and intelligence.”

Two years later, she married her tall, dark, and young Interval leading man.

Shah of Iran & Merle Oberon Acapulco connection

In spring 1979, Merle Oberon became world news after the deposed Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, found temporary refuge in Mexico following intervention from former U.S. secretary of state Henry Kissinger, who had close ties with the Iranian despot.

One of the wealthiest men on the planet and a moving target for Islamic revolutionaries, the shah had two “magnificent mansions” in Acapulco, one of which had been built for the Wuthering Heights and A Song to Remember actress during her marriage to Bruno Pagliai.

As explained in the Chicago Tribune, four years prior to the shah and Empress Farah's arrival in Mexico – with 6½ tons of luggage “including much gold and silver” – his sister[4] had bought Pagliai and Oberon's $2.5 million (approx. $11 million in 2016), three-bedroom Acapulco house, described as having been “made of giant glass bubbles for viewing Acapulco Bay.” Oberon herself called it a “choice ruby.”

As money was hardly an issue, the shah was spending $2 million to revamp the house.

The other Acapulco abode belonging to Pahlavi was a $3 million property above and next to the Oberon home, which, during the course of three years, had been “built into the side of a mountain.”

As it turned out, the shah ended up not staying at Oberon's old place, renting instead a mansion in Cuernavaca during his Mexican sojourn.

The End

In late fall 1979, Merle Oberon was world news once again after suffering a massive stroke at her Malibu home. She died at age 68 on Nov. 23.

Following Oberon's death, Robert Wolders took up with another veteran Hollywood actress, Roman Holiday Oscar winner Audrey Hepburn. The couple would remain together until Hepburn's death in 1993.

Wolders would later have his name linked to Henry Fonda's widow, Shirlee Fonda, and to An American in Paris and Lili actress Leslie Caron. He turns 80 on Sept. 28, '16.

Alexander Korda died at age 62 on Jan. 23, 1956, in London. Lucien Ballard died at age 84 on Oct. 1, 1988. Bruno Pagliai died in 1983 in Mexico City.

'Straight Outta Bombay'

Now, what's the story behind Merle Oberon's self-proclaimed Chinese-Tasmanian mother?

How much of Queenie, a novel by Alexander Korda's nephew Michael Korda (also a 1987 miniseries starring Mia Sara), is based on fact?

How accurate is the biography Merle a.k.a. Princess Merle, co-written by the notoriously unreliable Charles Higham?

Considering the lives she led both on and off screen and how much of the information about her background and private affairs remains obscure, conflicting, and/or embellished or downright false, Merle Oberon would be a great subject for a scholarly, non-sensationalistic biography.

So, forget about an N.W.A./Dr. Dre/Ice Cube movie sequel. What we need is Straight Outta Bombay – an Oberon biopic faithful to the facts. And with Chopin music, to boot.

More Merle Oberon articles

Below are a couple of other Merle Oberon articles found at Alt Film Guide.

'Merle Oberon: From Mystery Past & Hollywood Stardom to Shah of Iran Connection' notes

[1] In decades past, the lack of hard documentation about Merle Oberon's early years may have helped her to become increasingly younger with the passing of time. In some old sources, the ever youthful-looking actress' birth date is listed as 1918.

Additionally, numerous sources list her birth name as Estelle Merle O'Brien Thompson.

'Deep in My Heart' box office

[2] Deep in My Heart box office figure according to online sources referencing the Eddie Mannix Ledger, found at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' Margaret Herrick Library.

The 2016 approximation – to more accurately reflect the film's popularity/ticket sales – was calculated according to the (however iffy) National Association of Theater Owners' annual reporting on U.S. film ticket price averages.

Rentals refer to a film's box office gross minus the exhibitors' share. It's unclear whether the Deep in My Heart figure includes only the domestic market.

[3] Based on the U.S. Department of Labor's inflation calculator.

[4] According to a brief UPI report, in early 1979 the shah himself bought Merle Oberon's Acapulco house for an undisclosed sum from her by then former husband Bruno Pagliai.

However, the aforementioned July 1973 article (likely UPI or AP) states that Pagliai actually gave the Acapulco house to his soon-to-be ex-wife. “You know divorce doesn't mean you stop loving the other person – and vice versa,” Oberon remarked at the time.

Merle Oberon movies

Below is a list of Merle Oberon films discussed in this article. Titles listed in chronological order.

OVER THE MOON (1940). Dir.: Thornton Freeland. Cast: Merle Oberon. Rex Harrison. Ursula Jeans. B&W. 79 mins.

'TIL WE MEET AGAIN (1940). Dir.: Edmund Goulding. Cast: Merle Oberon. George Brent. Pat O'Brien. Geraldine Fitzgerald. Binnie Barnes. Frank McHugh. Henry O'Neill. Eric Blore. Frank Wilcox. Doris Lloyd. B&W. 100 mins.

THAT UNCERTAIN FEELING (1941). Dir.: Ernst Lubitsch. Cast: Merle Oberon. Melvyn Douglas. Burgess Meredith. Alan Mowbray. Olive Blakeney. Eve Arden. Harry Davenport. Sig Ruman. B&W. 83 mins.

AFFECTIONATELY YOURS (1941). Dir.: Lloyd Bacon. Cast: Merle Oberon. Dennis Morgan. Rita Hayworth. Ralph Bellamy. George Tobias. James Gleason. Hattie McDaniel. Jerome Cowan. Butterfly McQueen. Frank Wilcox. Carmen Morales. William Haade. Pat Flaherty. James Flavin. Uncredited: Frank Faylen. Faye Emerson. Alexis Smith. Craig Stevens. Mary Field. William Hopper. Stuart Holmes. Creighton Hale. George Meeker. Douglas Kennedy. B&W. 88 mins.

LYDIA (1941). Dir.: Julien Duvivier. Cast: Merle Oberon. Edna May Oliver. Alan Marshal. Joseph Cotten. George Reeves. Hans Jaray. Sara Allgood. John Halliday. Billy Ray. Frank Conlan. B&W. 99 mins.

FIRST COMES COURAGE (1943). Dir.: Dorothy Arzner. Cast: Merle Oberon. Brian Aherne. Carl Esmond. Isobel Elsom. Fritz Leiber. B&W. 86 mins.

A SONG TO REMEMBER (1945). Dir.: Charles Vidor. Cast: Cornel Wilde. Merle Oberon. Paul Muni. Nina Foch. Color. 112 mins.

NIGHT SONG (1947). Dir.: John Cromwell. Cast: Dana Andrews. Merle Oberon. Ethel Barrymore. B&W. 102 mins.

BERLIN EXPRESS (1948). Dir.: Jacques Tourneur. Cast: Merle Oberon. Robert Ryan. Charles Korvin. Paul Lukas. B&W. 87 mins.

DÉSIRÉE (1954). Dir.: Henry Koster. Cast: Marlon Brando. Jean Simmons. Merle Oberon. Michael Rennie. Cameron Mitchell. Elizabeth Sellars. Evelyn Varden. Charlotte Austin. Cathleen Nesbitt. Isobel Elsom. John Hoyt. Alan Napier. Uncredited: Carolyn Jones. Lester Matthews. Color. 110 mins.

DEEP IN MY HEART (1954). Dir.: Stanley Donen. Cast: José Ferrer. Merle Oberon. Walter Pidgeon. Paul Henreid. Helen Traubel. Doe Avedon. Tamara Toumanova. Paul Stewart. David Burns. Jim Backus. Rosemary Clooney. Gene Kelly. Jane Powell. Ann Miller. Vic Damone. Cyd Charisse. James Mitchell. Howard Keel. Tony Martin. Joan Weldon. Uncredited: Russ Tamblyn. Douglas Fowley. Color. 132 mins.

HOTEL (1967). Dir.: Richard Quine. Cast: Rod Taylor. Catherine Spaak. Merle Oberon. Melvyn Douglas. Richard Conte. Kevin McCarthy. Karl Malden. Michael Rennie. Carmen McRae. Alfred Ryder. Roy Roberts. Color. 125 mins.


Information about Miriam Hopkins and 'Til We Meet Again via Allan Ellenberger's in-the-works Hopkins biography.

Merle Oberon quotes related to Interval, Bruno Pagliai, and the Acapulco house via The Salina [Kansas] Journal.

Melvyn Douglas and Merle Oberon That Uncertain Feeling image: United Artists.

Image of A Song to Remember with Merle Oberon as George Sand: Columbia Pictures, via Doctor Macro.

Merle Oberon Lydia image: United Artists.

Image of Merle Oberon as Empress Josephine in Désirée: 20th Century Fox.

Paul Lukas and Merle Oberon Berlin Express image: RKO, via

Merle Oberon Hotel image: Warner Bros.

Merle Oberon: From Mystery Past & Hollywood Stardom to Shah of Iran Connection © 2004–2018 Alt Film Guide and/or author(s).
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2 Comments to Merle Oberon: From Mystery Past & Hollywood Stardom to Shah of Iran Connection

  1. Joan Chandler

    I love Merle Oberon. I think she had a lot of pressure in her life having to hide her background - I read that when she actually did go to Tasmania, she said she was sick so she wouldn't have to answer questions. It's amazing what people went through to hide their ethnicity.

    I am in possession of a letter written by Skip Hathaway, wife of Henry, who mentions that, sadly, Lucien Ballard broke Merle's jaw.

    Oberon was very upfront about her plastic surgery. Unfortunately, as beutiful as she always looked, it was a hard lesson. Very glamorous older women back then had a hard time finding roles. It was actually better to become a character actress.

  2. Hassan Bjornstrom

    The most beautiful woman ever, with the classiest most regal personality. Small wonder the most admirable Englishman alive Prince Charles admires her with affection. He must have known, like I learnt in Karachi in the mid-60s, that she was Anglo-Indian. Thank goodness for that because it has become part of her “mystery” and will keep her memory alive for ages!
    Her true mystery was in her Eyes which could convey tons of emotion and make her the most extraordinary actress of all times, and her soulful mouth and exquisite gestures. And her most wonderful English! Her life itself was a time in paradise. She smote me when I was a boy and saw her in a Swedish new première of “A Song to Remember”, and she has been my guiding star ever since!
    I sort of associate with Merle Oberon every day, she is constantly on my mind. I was lucky enough to see a revival of “Affair in Monte Carlo” in glorious colour in the biggest movie house in Karachi. She got rave reviews from Swedish critics under the film's original name, and I thought she was at the height of her Beauty… But she only got more and more Beautiful and her performances more touching and captivating. Truly the most extraordinary actress of all times!!!