Merle Oberon Overview:

Legendary actress, Merle Oberon, was born Estelle Merle Thompson on Feb 19, 1911 in Bombay, India. Oberon appeared in over 55 film and TV roles. Her best known films include The Scarlet Pimpernel, Wuthering Heights, The Cowboy and the Lady, The Divorce of Lady X, A Song to Remember, The Dark Angel and That Uncertain Feeling. Oberon died at the age of 68 on Nov 23, 1979 in Malibu, CA and was laid to rest in Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery (Glendale) in Glendale, CA.

Early Life and Deceptions

Merle Oberon was born Estelle Merle O'Brien Thompson on February 19, 1911 in former British India. Although many classic Hollywood stars manufactured their personal history for more popular appeal, Oberon ranks as having one of the more convoluted backgrounds in the business. Although she claimed to have born in Tasmania to aristocratic parents and raised in India. The truth is far more completed. Oberon was indeed born in India, specifically Bombay, which has since been renamed Mumbai. Although some source her parents as being Arthur Terrence O'Brien Thompson, a British engineer who worked for Indian Railways and Charlotte Selby, a Eurasian woman from the former Ceylon (now called Sri Lanka), this is also false. Oberon's actual birth mother was Charlotte's oldest daughter, Constance, who gave birth to Merle sometime between the ages of 12 and 15. Charlotte, however, would claim the baby as her own, thus making Merle believe her mother was her sister and her grandmother was her mother. It is believed Arthur Thomas was still her father.

After Thomas's death in the bloody Battle of the Somme, Charlotte, Merle, and Constance were left to deal with life in India on their own. Although few details emerge from during this period of Oberon's life, what spatters of knowledge we have is bleak. With little material wealth, Oberon's formative years were marred by poverty and prejudice due to her mixed heritage. The family eventually moved to Kolkata, where young Merle was able to attend the elite private school La Martiniere Calcutta for Girl via a scholarship. However, she was often teased due to her heritage and parentage, eventually choosing to be home schooled instead.

Early Career

At a young age Oberon became fascinated by film. She began acting with the Calcutta Amateur Dramatic Society under the name Queenie Thompson. There she met a fellow actor named Ben Finney, whom she began to date. Although the relationship did not last, as Ben was opposed to dating someone of mixed heritage, he did advise the young actress to move to France under the promise that he would introduce her to producer Rex Ingram. Oberon took the advice and Ben remained true to his word. Ingram was impressed with the young women's "exotic looks" and cast her as an extra in the silent film The Three Passions. This type of low-level extra work would continue for the next few years with uncredited roles in film such as A Warm Corner, Wedding Rehearsal and Strange Evidence.

 After years of working in relative anonymity, her luck would change upon meeting Alexander Korda. The famed director/producer took an interest in the unique looking actress and cast her as Anne Boleyn in The Private Life of Henry VIII. Although the nature of the role was small, it was prominent enough to allow Oberon to craft a memorable enough performance to cast opposite Charles Boyer in the war drama Thunder in the East. She continued to work closely with Korda, whom she would later marry. In 1934 Korda would cast his future wife opposite Douglas Fairbanks in the historical drama The Private Life of Don Juan and later opposite Leslie Howard in The Scarlet Pimpernel.

Hollywood Stardom

After her success with the Korda, Oberon made her way to Hollywood to star opposite Maurice Chevalier and Ann Sothern in the 1935 musical comedy Folies Bergère de Paris. Korda had sold "shares" of Oberon's contract to Hollywood producer Samuel Goldwyn, ensuring she would have representation in Hollywood. In 1935 Oberon was cast opposite Fredric March and Herbert Marshall in the romantic drama The Dark Angel. The performance would give Oberon her sole Best Actor Academy Award nomination. The next year she starred with Joel McCrea and Miriam in Williams Wyler's heavily edited big screen adaption of Lilian Hellmans' The Children's Hour called These Three.

Oberon's life would hit a bit of snag after being cast in the Josef von Sternberg film I, Claudius. In the middle of the film's production Oberon was involved in a car accident that damaged her face. The film had yet not finished principle photography, leaving the fate of the production up in the air. Despite Oberon's wishes to continue filming, the film's star, Charles Loughton, was unhappy with his own performance as the titular character and lobbied to cease production. Adding some more insult to Oberon's injury, surgeons were not able to reverse all the facial damage she received during the accident, permanently marring her good looks. Luckily for Oberon, meticulous lighting and make-up were able to cover her flaws and she quickly bounced back with her first Technicolor film, The Divorce of Lady X. In 1939 Oberon was cast in what remained her most memorable role as Cathy in the big screen adaption of Emily Bronte's romantic tragedy Wuthering Heights opposite Laurence Oliver. Later that year she would also marry Alexander Korda.


By the new decade, Oberon decided to focus on her Hollywood career and leave England behind for good. She began 1940 by starring in the Edmund Goulding romance 'Til We Meet Again. She then headlined the Ernest Lubitsch comedy That Uncertain Feeling. Both were forgettable. In 1943 she appeared in two films used to aid the allied War Efforts, Forever and a Day and Stage Door Canteen. She then starred in the 1944 thriller The Lodger. During production Oberon fell in love with the film's cinematographer, Lucien Ballard, who invented an on-camera light that washed away any blemishes on Oberon. After divorcing Korda, Oberon married Ballard in 1945.

By the mid-1940s Oberon's career began to wane. She starred in a series of forgettable films such as A Song to Remember, Night in Paradise and Night Song. She did manage to score a critical hit with suspense thriller Berlin Express in 1948, which was filmed in Allied Occupied Berlin. The next year she divorced Ballard. She then traveled to Europe in hopes of reinitializing her career. In 1951 she starred in opposite Paul Henreid in the farce Pardon My French, then to England for the 1952 film Affair in Monte Carlo. Her next destination was Spain for the 1954-flick Everything is Possible in Granada. Despite her best efforts, the films did little to improve her career.

Later Career and Life

Oberon returned to Hollywood in 1954 to appear in the historical-biographical film Desiree, starring Marlon Brando as Napoleon. In the film she played the supporting role of Josephine de Beauharnais. The film was success. However, after starring in the box-office failure Deep in My Heart, film offers become scarce and Oberon began working more on television. She began appearing on popular series such as The Ford Television Hour, The 10th Century-Fox Hour and The Loretta Young Show. In 1956 she managed to her in a role on the big screen with The Price of Fear, but wouldn't be seen again for six years. During this time she married her third husband, Bruno Pagliai.

By the 1960s Oberon was sparkly seen. In 1963 she starred in the melodrama Of Love and Desire. Four years later she appeared in the star-studded but aggressively mediocre Arthur Hailey film Hotel. Her final role was in 1973's Interval. The film centers around the May-December romance that develops between Oberson's character and a young artist played by Robert Wolders. In case of life imitating art, Oberon and Wolders embarked on a real life romance.  The affair ended her marriage to Pagliai and in 1975 Oberon would be Wolders. Oberon would then slip into quiet retirement.

Merle Oberon died on November 23, 1979. She was 68 years old.

(Source: article by Minoo Allen for Classic Movie Hub).



Although Oberon was nominated for one Oscar, she never won a competitive Academy Award.

Academy Awards

YearAwardFilm nameRoleResult
1935Best ActressThe Dark Angel (1935)Kitty VaneNominated

She was honored with one star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in the category of Motion Pictures.

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Born Estelle Merle O?Brien Thompson on February 19, 1911, in Bombay (Mumbai), India and she passed away on November 23, 1979. Although Tasmania, Australia laid claim to her birth as well, this was to cover her true origins (more on this later).[1] As the story goes (according to Michael Korda), Alex... Read full article

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Merle Oberon Quotes:

Cathy: I told you, Ellen. When he went away that night in the rain, I told you I belonged to him, that he was my life, my being.

Karen Wright: [referring to Mary and Mrs. Amelia Tilford] The wicked very young... and the wicked very old.

Lady Marguerite Blakeney: Can you honestly deny that you've changed?

read more quotes from Merle Oberon...

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Best Actress Oscar 1935

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Merle Oberon Facts
In 1949, twelve years after her mother's death, she commissioned a painting of her mother from an old photograph, instructing the painter to lighten her mother's complexion in the painting to hide the fact that she is part-Indian.

Two children, Francesca Pagliai and Bruno Pagliai Jr.

To hide her half-Indian parentage, she would falsely represent to visitors that her mother was the maid.

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