Who was Merle Oberon? The family background of the Alexander Korda discovery and star of “Wuthering Heights” (1939) and many other films of the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s is explored in this intriguing but frustrating documentary which raises almost as many questions as it answers. Though prime fare for fests and TV programmers, “The Trouble With Merle” promises more than it achieves.
At the time she was cast in her first film, “The Private Life of Henry VIII” (1933), as the ill-fated Anne Boleyn, Korda’s publicists announced that the exotic beauty had been born in Tasmania, the Australian island state which was also the birthplace of Errol Flynn. Only after Oberon’s death, in 1979, did biographer Charles Higham reveal that Oberon was not from Tasmania but was, in fact, an Anglo-Indian. Yet, a year before her death, Oberon had made a “homecoming” visit to Tasmania.
Higham’s knowledgeable, slightly sardonic, presence gets the film off to an intriguing start as he states the case for Oberon’s Indian antecedents. But filmmaker Maree Delofski is curious about the Tasmanian connection, and travels to the island to investigate.
Here she finds plenty of people who claim, unhesitatingly, that Oberon was, indeed, Tasmanian. Though the stories conflict in the minor details, the essence is that she was born in 1911, the daughter of Lottie Chintock, a Chinese maid who worked at the Hotel Weldborough in a village near St. Helen’s. Interviewees include the granddaughter of the midwife who attended the birth, and Lottie’s nephew, who has a fuzzy photograph of his aunt in which she does look, a bit, like the movie star.
Who, then, was the father? The case is put for J.W. Thompson, owner of the hotel, a family man and pillar of the community. But a search turns up no record of the registration of birth, perhaps not surprising if the child was the illegitimate offspring of a powerful businessman and his Chinese servant. Lottie Chintock died in 1951, and a woman remembers a big black automobile pulling up at her house on one occasion. Lottie said the car belonged to her daughter, Merle Oberon, who was visiting.
Tasmanian locals differ as to how Lottie’s daughter wound up in India. Some say a family of traveling players called O’Brienwas given permission by Lottie to take the child with them to India — the name “Oberon” stemmed from “O’Brien” in this theory. Another school of thought is that the child was adopted by a military man en route to India.
In Calcutta, Delofski discovers that Estelle “Queenie” Thompson, later Merle Oberon, had attended a smart private school. But the school has no record of her attendance. Other witnesses in Calcutta and Mumbai (Bombay) remember the young Queenie, one of them suggesting she traveled to London (where she arrived in 1929, aged 18) with a much older man she called “Uncle.”
Another piece of the puzzle is revealed in an interview with Harry Selby, a Toronto resident who always believed he was Oberon’s nephew, that she was his mother’s half-sister. However, when a birth certificate, which seems genuine, is discovered, it only serves to deepen the mystery.
If Oberon was really Indian after all, why did she go to Hobart for “homecoming ceremonies,” and why are the Tasmanians so certain about her Chinese-Australian background? These questions go largely unanswered, as does the vital question of what happened to Lottie Chintock’s daughter if Oberon was really born in India?Delofski is more interested in Oberon’s background than in her career, and the fact that not even a clip from “Wuthering Heights” is included diminishes buff interest in the film. The few film clips used are not only presented in the incorrect ratio, but are also unidentified (apart from two in which the opening title card is shown). Thus, clips from “The Divorce of Lady X,” “Over the Moon” and “I Claudius” are thrown in without context.
In the end, “The Trouble With Merle” leaves the viewer wanting more: Too many loose ends are left dangling, and not enough of Merle Oberon, movie star, is on display.