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    Magnificent Merle

    Posted by Mike Finnegan on

    Turner Classic Movies’ star of the month for March is one of the screen’s great beauties, Merle Oberon (1911-1979), and starting tonight and on the next three Fridays, two-dozen of her movies, several numbering among the best ever made in Hollywood or England, will be shown. Her stardom was cemented by her relationships with two legendary producers, Britain’s Alexander Korda, whom she would marry as the first of four husbands, and Tinseltown’s Samuel Goldwyn, who “shared” her contract with Korda and shepherded her way into the Hollywood elite with his production of The Dark Angel (1935), earning her a Best Actress Academy Award® nomination. Though she was effective in the contemporary settings of These Three (1936), That Uncertain Feeling (1941), Dark Waters (1946), Night Song and Berlin Express (both 1948), her striking allure in lavish period costumes made her particularly attractive to audiences as early as her Anne Boleyn in The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933) and continuing through her sojourns as Cathy Earnshaw in Wuthering Heights (1939), the haunting title role of Lydia (1941), the imperiled Kitty Langley in The Lodger (1944) and George Sand in the Frederick Chopin biopic A Song to Remember (1945). Biographer Charles Higham revealed in Princess Merle that Oberon’s loveliness came at a price: he notes that “Oberon suffered damage to her complexion in 1940 from a combination of cosmetic poisoning and an allergic reaction to sulfa drugs. Korda sent her to a skin specialist in New York City, where she underwent several dermabrasion procedures. The results, however, were only partially successful; without makeup, one could see noticeable pitting and indentation of her skin.” But thanks to the wizardry of makeup and photography, she continued to work, and her next husband, cinematographer Lucien Ballard, “devised a special camera light for her to eliminate her facial scars on film. The light became known as the ‘Obie.’” One could argue that her beauty and costuming were never more ravishing on film than for her performance as Joséphine de Beaumarchais, wife of the military genius Napoleon Bonaparte (Marlon Brando), in the glittering Cinemascope epic Désirée (1954). Her Empress of France is a simultaneously crafty yet poignant creation, made all the more tragically moving by her inability to provide a royal heir, resulting in her spouse becoming romantically obsessed with the married Désirée Clary (Jean Simmons). The trappings are lavish but one of Désirée’s crucial effects is Oberon’s wounded heart. TCM airs Désirée Friday March 25, but is available anytime in resplendent 1080p high definition on Twilight Time’s beautiful Blu-ray.