Merle Oberon

Active - 1930 - 1973  |   Born - Feb 19, 1911 in Mumbai, India  |   Died - Nov 23, 1979   |   Genres - Drama, Romance, Comedy

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Biography by Bruce Eder

Born in India to an Indian mother and an Indo-Irish father, Estelle Merle O'Brien Thompson spent an impoverished childhood in the subcontinent, before coming to England in 1928 to pursue an acting career. Because her bi-racial parentage would have been a subject of immense prejudice, Oberon began telling others that she was born to white parents on the Australian island of Tasmania -- a story she would keep up until almost the end of her life.

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. 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 costarred her future husband Robert Wolders, that failed to find good reviews or an audience.

Oberon would marry three more times, to cinematographer Lucien Ballard in the late forties, to Italian industrialist Bruno Pagliali throughout the 60's, and finally, to actor Robert Wolders from the mid 70's until her death in 1979 at the age of 68.

Movie Highlights

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  • Propagated the story that she was born to a Colonial English family in Tasmania, Australia in order to hide her bi-racial parentage, which was a subject of prejudice. 
  • Performed under the name Queenie Thompson early in her career.
  • Was involved in a car accident that left her face scarred in 1937, forcing director Alexander Korda to shut down production on I, Claudius, which was filming at the time.
  • Husband cinematographer Lucien Ballard designed an extremely flattering light for her known as the Obie, which is still used today.