Merle Oberon

  1. Loretta Young, The Crusades, 1935.     Obviously, Henry  Wilcoxon would be Richard The Lionheart  (indeed, he as known as King Richard for the rest of life).  Berengaria was not so easy…  She was a tall order, said director Cecil B DeMille.  “She must act like Helen Hayes, have the vivacity of Miriam Hopkins, the wistfulness of Helen Mack and the charm ofl Mario Davies. And as for looks, she must be a combination of all four…”  And yet after such a build-up, the head   Fox Darryl Zanuck would not loan her.  , Take Two –   Loretta Young.   Hiding the fact she was three months  pregnant by Clark Gable.
  2. 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.”
  3. Frances Farmer, Rhythm on the Range, 1935.    Producer Sam Goldwyn would not loan  Oberon  to be  Bing Crosby’s co-star in the musical that was not a muslcal. (Despite the title and “seven hit songs”). Farmer’s shining beauty and matching talent stole the movie. ”I had no idea what the picture was about …. I never did find out. I was just the tall skinny dame  while Crosby and Martha Raye and Bob Burns were having the time of their lives.  It was a long, sweet nightmare for me.” She was 21 and Louella Parsons promised she would be “as great and probably greater  than Garbo.” Within five years Parsons would be trashing her for  finding Hollywood was  beneath her!  (Paramount re-hashed it all 20 years later as  Pardners for… Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis!).
  4. 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.
  5. 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… and Nogales, Arizona. During 1960-1962, she became Mrs Marlon Brando.
  6. Janet Gaynor, A Star Is Born, 1936.
  7. Sigrid Gurie, The Adventures of Marco Polo, 1937.  Producer Samuel Goldwyn did not do anything right with his mini epic. First, even Gary Cooper knew he was totally wrong for the great Italian adventurer. Then Sam discovered Sigrid Gurie. He called her The Norwegian Garbo (although she had ever made a movie), and what did he do but drop the more appropriate Oberon in order for his “siren of the fjords” to play…  Kubla Khan’s daughter,  As daft as Cooper’s Italian hero.  Worse was to come  when the media discovered that Sjgrid came not from the fjords but Flatbush, in Brooklyn, Sam laughed, calling it “the greatest hoax in movie history.”  Did not help the movie, which went through four directors. Sigrid’s twin brother, Knut Haukelid, was a hero of the WWII Norwegian Resistance – Kirk Douglas played him (as Knut Straud) in The Heroes of Telemark,1964.
  8. Bette Davis, Dark Victory, 1938.    When still at MGM, David O Selznick bought the Bankhead play in 1935 – not for her (“too Broadway”) but for Garbo and Fredric March. However, Gone With The Wind got in the way…  Gloria Swanson swnted to be the  socialite going blind with a brain tumour. “Can’t be any good if Selznick wants to sell it,” said the Columbia czar Harry Cohn.  Swanson quit Tinseltown for New York.  Next?  Barbara Stanwyck and Merle Oberon were keen, sniffing Oscar on the horizon. Warner Bros paid $50,000 for it – for Miriam Hopkins. Or Kay Francis. They were still pondering when Bette Davis pounced, winning her  third Oscar nomination in five years, allthough the head bbro Jack Warner had said ” who wants to see someone going blind?” Hah! Warner He built three new sound stages with the profits.  
  9. 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!
  10. 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’d starred in the 1933 UK version).  Goulding said it was impossible to find the lead girl. He’d tried Bette Davis,  Wendy Barrie, Olivia De Havilland, Jennifer Jones, Joan Leslie, Eve March, Merle Oberon, 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.   Well at 25, she was, remember, playing a 14-year-old infatuated with infatuated with Charles Boyer (in her husband’s ’33 role).

  11. Bette Davis, Mr Skeffington, 1943.   David O Selznick wanted the book in 1940 for James Stephenson and Bette Davis but head bro Jack Warner won it and aimed, Tallulah Bankhead, Bette Davis, Irene Dunne, Merle Oberon,  Norma Shearer and Gloria Swanson at Mrs S., wed to John Loder, Paul Lukas or Richard Waring – after  James Stephenson died before the filming began.  (Waring instead became Mrs S’ brother, Trippy Trellis). Davis rejected her Mrs role first time around. She “couldn’t play 50 at 32“– plus lines like “You’ve never loved anyone but yourself” were way too close to home. She then insisted on Claude Rains: her favourite “actor and colleague.”  as Mr. Plus Vincent Sherman as her director., and, inevitably, had an affair with him. Which usually guaranteed more and better close-ups… and the eighth of 11 Oscar nominations The 30-day shooting schedule took 110 days. Because, said the scenarist twins Julius J and Philip G Epstein, “Bette Davis is a slow director.”
  12. 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.
  13. 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.
  14. 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! 
  15. Maureen O’Hara, The Spanish Main, 1944.     Laraine Day and Margo were also imn the rigging for Countess Francisca – stolen from her fiancé Walter Slezak by Dutch pirate (Dutch?) Paul Henreid.
  16. 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, 1937which, recalled New York Times critic Bosley Crowther, had been nothing to write home about in the first place.
  17. 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.
  18. Irene Dunne, Anna and the King of Siam, 1945.   Before being de-throned by Rex Harrison and Irene Dunne, Head Fox Darryl F Zanuck favoured William Powell as King Mongkut, with  Myrna Loy as Anna  – ie The Thin Man’s Nick and Nora Charles ruling Siam! Also up for Anna: Bette Davis, Olivia De Havilland, Vivien Leigh. Oberon and Loy were in the running when Dunne’s husband had a heart attack and filming was postponed for two months.
  19. 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.
  20. Valentina Cortese, Malaya, 1949.    Or Operation Malaya when Oberon and Robert Mitchum were due to make it at RKO.

  21. Nina Foch, The Ten Commandments, 1954.
  22. Joan Greenwood, Moonfleet,1954.  Hollywood gossip queen Hedda Hopper reported that Merle Oberon would be Stewart Granger’s female lead in Fritz Lang’s  costume romp, more puzzling than  rollicking.  The news  was in her column of May 22.  Odd that she didn’t know shooting had started on May 17.  But then Hedda was no journalist, just  an ex-actress taking her revenge  for never making stardom.
  23. 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.
  24. 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.
  25. Martha Hyer, Picture Mommy Dead, TV, 1966.   It was around the time of whatever happened to Bette Davis’  Baby Jane  and hush-hushing sweet Charlotte. Old ladies were in. (And cheap). Zsa Zsa Gabor was in; Merle Oberon and Gene Tierne, decidely not.  Hedy Lamarr was arrested for shoplifting. Hyer proved of double value by lending  some of her valuable art coillection to add some class for the horrorfest.  Didn’t help!
  26. 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.
  27. 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.


 Birth year: 1911Death year: 1979Other name: Casting Calls:  27