Merle Oberon (1911-1979)
- Loretta Young, The Crusades, 1935. Director Cecil B DeMille said: “Berengaria must act like Helen Hayes, have the vivacity of Miriam Hopkins, the wistfulness of Helen Mack, the charm of Marion Davies. And as for looks, she must be a combination of all four...” And still Fox chief Darryl Zanuck would not loan out Merle.
- Binnie Barnes, The Last the Mohicans, 1935. One London find for another as Alice Munro in, as the credits put it, “an Edward Small Production of James Fenimore Cooper's Classic of Early America.” In which, the titular Randolph Scott complained about “flowery Cooper dialogue.” Such as: “I take my leave when the sun goes down behind yon hill.”
- Frances Farmer, Rhythm on the Range, 1935. Paramount tried to get Oberon but producer Samuel Goldwyn would not loan her. Bing Crosby’s cowboy (!) had to find a new boss. And did so in spades. With the ravishing Farmer. (It was one of the few Hollywood films she enjoyed making). Paramount re-hashed it all 20 years later as Pardners for… Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis!
- Marlene Dietrich, The Garden of Allah, 1936. The collapse of Hotel Imperial meant Marlene and Charles Boyer were free to love each other “with the fierceness of those who have been denied love!” So, producer David Selznick quickly dropped Oberon-Gilbert Roland and with the fierceness of one denied a film, Merle sued - and won her $25,000. Dietrich was paid $200,000.
- Dorothy Lamour, The Hurricane, 1936. Among the hopefuls examined for the Polynesian girl, Marama, were the India-born Oberon, Filipino Chartita Alden, Mexico’s Margo and Movita, the Tahitian beauty from the 1934 Mutiny on the Bounty… andNogales, Arizona. During 1960-1962, she became Mrs Marlon Brando.
- Sigrid Gurie, The Adventures of Marco Polo, 1937. Oberon was lucky – or wise – to avoid being Princess Kukachin in what proved the then biggest flop suffered by producer Samuel Goldwyn and his s homespun Polo - Gary Cooper. He had been first sugested for the rôle by Douglas Fairbanks the year before.
- Bette Davis, Dark Victory, 1938. Although Garbo passed (preferring Anna Karenina) andJack Warner felt “no one wanted to see someone go blind,” Oberon and Gloria Swanson wanted to be Judith Traherne. Producer David O Selznick planned to produce it for Merle, and Merle alone…until selling his script(s) for $27,500 to Warners - where Davis snatched it from Kay Francis. Took her dressing room, too! This was Davis’ favourite role and her third Oscar nomination in five years. And not just for feeling her blind way up the stairs. On-set, she stopped half-way, asking who was supplying the score “Either I'm going to climb those stairs or Max Steiner is… but I'll be God-damned if Max Steiner and I are going to climb those stairs together!”
- Joan Fontaine, The Constant Nymph, 1942. Arriving for lunch at Romanoff’s, director Edmund Goulding stopped by Brian Aherne’s table to chat with his pal. (He had starred in the UK version in 1933). Goulding said it was impossible to find the lead girl. He’d tried Oberon, Wendy Barrie, Bette Davis, Olivia De Havilland, Jennifer Jones, Joan Leslie, Eve March, Margaret Sullivan. Head brother Jack Warner craved A Star. “She has to be consumptive, flat-chested, anemic, and 14!” “How about me?” said the the freckled miss sitting with Aherne. “Who are you?” asked Goulding, somehow not recognising his friend’s wife in a leather flight suit and pigtails (they had just flown into LA from their Indio ranch). “Joan Fontaine.” “You’re perfect!” She was 25. So what! She signed next day and called it “the happiest motion-picture assignment of my career.” Oscar nomination, included.
- Lucille Ball, The Big Street, 1942. No box-office appeal, said RKO, refusing to stump up for Oberon. Damon Runyon (producing his own story, Little Pinks) had to match Henry Fonda with Ball - RKO-suspended at the time for refusing to be loaned to Fox!
- Bette Davis, Mr Skeffington, 1943. Thinking, like Bette Davis that they were too young for the the 50-year-old Mrs S, Oberon, Tallulah Bankhead, and Hedy Lamarr fled from the rôle. Inevitably, the 40-somethings felt the same: Irene Dunne, Norma Shearer and Gloria Swanson. Davis thought again - she was, after all, already sleeping with the director, Vincent Sherman. - and won her eighth of 11 Oscar nominations.
- Margaret Sullavan, Cry ‘Havoc’, 1943. Hollywood didn’t make many WWI films about women. So they all wanted to be in this female Bataan - Joan Crawford wanted it called The Women Go to War. Also trying to join up as US military or civilians were June Allyson, Eve Arden, Bonita Granville, Marilyn Maxwell, Susan Peters, Donna Reed, Lana Turner, Helene Reynolds, Ann Sheridan.
- Joan Fontaine, Frenchman’s Creek, 1943. English lady. French pirate. Love at eight bells. Also up for Dona St Columb (opposite Mexican star Arturo de Córdova) were Oberon, Irene Dunne, Vivien Leigh, Katina Paxinou and Rosalind Russell.
- Joan Bennett, The Woman in the Window, 1944. Lost two movies really as German director Fritz Lang more or less played it again, hiring the same stars (Bennett and Edward G Robinson) , in his next, Scarlet Street, 1945. The Woman poster screamed: Joan Rennett. No, really!
- Joan Bennett, Nob Hill, 1944. Director Henry Hathaway was caught between Oberon and Bennett - not to mention a second bad re-tread of Alexander’s Ragtime Band, 1937… which, recalled New York Times critic Bosley Crowther, had been nothing to write home about in the first place.
- Deborah Kerr, Perfect Strangers (US: Vacation From Marriage), 1945. Kerr's MGM debut grew out of producer Alexander Korda taking too long to sign Vivien Leigh to replace an ill Oberon.
- Moira Shearer, The Red Shoes, 1948. The Powell-Pressburger classic began life as an Emeric Pressburger script in 1937 when producer Alexander Korda ordered a ballet film for his inamorata (with a dancing double). WWII stopped all that. In 1947, The Archers team bought it back for a mere £12,000. For sentimental reasons, they implied to Korda, not to film it... or Korda's price would have skyrocketed.
- Valentina Cortese, Malaya, 1949. Or Operation Malaya when Oberon and Robert Mitchum were due to make it at RKO.
- Audrey Hepburn, War and Peace, 1956. Producer Alexander Korda's obvious Natasha for the version that he and Orson Welles planned for most of the mid-1940s.
- Fay Bainter, The Children’s Hour, 1960. With (slightly) less censorship, veteran US director William Wyler re-made his These Three version of Lilian Hellman’s play about lesbian lovers. Miriam Hopkins, who had played the Shirley MacLaine role in 1936, happily returned as her own aunt, but Oberon, replayed by Audrey Hepburn, refused to be Mrs Amelia Tilford. So did Cathleen Nesbitt.
- Honor Blackman, Shalako, 1968. For Lady Julia when producer Euan Lloyd's star couple was due to be Henry Fonda and Senta Berger. Claire Bloom was also asked to play the aristocrat - suffocated with her own jewels by Apaches.
- Sheila White, I, Claudius, TV, 1976. Merle-Messalina's “almost fatal car smash” became Korda's excuse to abort the 1936 shooting - and end Charles Laughton's angst about failing to find his character. Finally, the Robert Graves classic became a superb and multi-award-winning BBC TV production.