Numerous portraits in the NFSA’s Taussig film stills collection capture the early career of glamorous Hollywood star, Merle Oberon (19 February 1911 – 23 November 1979). Ever mysterious, stunningly beautiful and with an air of the exotic, that quality of mystery carried over from her film persona to the question of her origins.
Merle Oberon was a star of British and Hollywood films in the 1930s and 40s. She rose to fame with roles opposite Charles Laughton in The Private Life of Henry VIII (Alexander Korda, UK, 1933), Douglas Fairbanks in The Private Life of Don Juan (Alexander Korda, UK, 1934) and Laurence Olivier in Wuthering Heights (William Wyler, USA, 1939).
She also received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress for The Dark Angel (Sidney Franklin, USA, 1935).
Throughout her early press tours, Oberon attributed her success to her humble Tasmanian birthplace and touted her Australian origins with pride. In a 1934 interview with Coralee Clarke Rees in The West Australian (‘Australian-born Film Star's Rise to Fame’), Oberon further detailed her biographical connections.
She said, ‘I was born in Tasmania but left there when I was a child ... Since my films have been circulated, several people in odd parts of Australia have bobbed up to claim me as a relation … I don’t know very much about them because my family quarrelled with them some time ago.'
Oberon adamantly repeated various tales of her Australian beginnings until her death in 1979. It was only later that Oberon’s Australian heritage was exposed as studio publicity fiction.
In reality, Oberon was born into poverty in Mumbai in 1911. Her twelve-year-old birth mother gave the baby to her own 26-year-old mother, to raise her granddaughter as her own. In later years, to aid her rise in British films, a London publicist engineered a deliberate attempt to hide Oberon's mixed race and lower-class background.
Angela Woollacott in her book Race and the Modern Exotic: Three ‘Australian’ Women on Global Display describes this fabrication as ‘an invoking of a safely remote, colonial location associated with white settlers …‘ and the reason being the ‘… necessity of whiteness for stardom in the early to mid-twentieth century’. Interestingly, Woollacott goes on to detail how this falsehood was ‘enabled by the eager collusion of her imagined compatriots’.
Australian audiences embraced Oberon as their own and patriotic newspapers hyped her film appearances along with other known home-grown Australians such as Errol Flynn (who was born in Hobart). Tasmanian newspaper The Mercury even went so far as to defend Oberon’s costume in The Scarlet Pimpernel as historically accurate in a 1935 piece titled ‘Tasmanian Nearly Banned’. This was in response to censors' opposition to her exposed cleavage threatening the film's distribution in America.
Throughout her life Oberon visited Australia three times. On a Qantas sponsored trip in 1965, Oberon found Australian journalists so overeager in their quest to learn more about her Aussie background that she had to rethink the entire trip. Locals noted she appeared distracted and she eventually claimed to feel so poorly she cancelled all planned appearances and was on a return flight within 72 hours of her arrival in Australia. In an oral history in the NFSA collection, journalist Edyth Langham recalls her interview with Oberon during this period.
Australian filmmaker Maree Delofsky examined Merle Oberon’s falsified Australian identity in the 2002 film, The Trouble with Merle (available for purchase from the NFSA Online Shop). The documentary, whilst a thorough dispelling of studio propaganda, also investigates Australia’s own troubling history with cultural identity, race, memory, celebrity and class. Why were Australians so keen to see themselves represented on the silver screen, so much that they ignored any misgivings they had about Oberon’s numerous and often conflicting personal fictions?
In 1978, the year before her death at age 68, Oberon made the long journey to Sydney and appeared as a host at Australia’s annual film awards. When interviewed, she again remained committed to her lifelong mantra: ‘I was really tiny when I left Tasmania, about one I think, but the people there feel I’m Tasmanian and that I belong … It's very sweet and I like that’.
From Garbo to Valentino, the Taussig film stills collection features the world's first movie stars. The NFSA now preserves this collection of thousands of American and European film stills from the beginning of cinema to the 1930s. A postwar migrant from Austria, Hans Joseph Carlsson Taussig (1907-1989) developed the collection during his early career in film and journalism in Europe.
Edyth Langham interviewed by Gwen D'Emden (1996), Oral History, NFSA title: 305115
O'Flaherty, D, The Trouble with Merle - A Study Guide, p. 7
'Pictures and Personalities' 1935, The Mercury, 11 May, p. 13 (viewed 1 February 2018)
'Screen News' 1934, The West Australian, 27 March, p. 5 (viewed 1 February 2018)
The Trouble with Merle (Maree Delofsky, 2002, Australia) NFSA title: 545271
Woollacott, Angela 2011, Race and the Modern Exotic: Three ‘Australian’ Women on Global Display, Monash University Publishing, pp. 94, 140