Waters That Run Deep: Reflections on Merle Oberon

When Joan Harrison began co-writing and co-producing (though uncredited) Dark Waters in 1944, she already knew leading lady Merle Oberon from shared social circles. The actress’s successes on the British screen and her marriage to famed producer Alexander Korda meant that the two women were familiar. Oberon’s thick mane of raven hair, sparkling eyes, and delicate features belied her tenacious personality, but Joan wasn’t fooled.

Harrison had already worked with Oberon one year prior on First Comes Courage, which she had scripted for director Dorothy Arzner. Joan knew firsthand the actress suffered from bouts of emotional unrest, exacerbated by insecurity about her appearance. (She had facial scars resulting from a 1937 automobile accident and the harsh skin treatments that followed.)1 But she was never one to shy away from moody personalities.

Harrison glimpsed Oberon’s extreme vulnerability while on the set of First Comes Courage when the actress was devastated by the loss of Richard Hillary, a Royal Air Force pilot with whom she had fallen deeply in love. Merle had recently met the young man on an American goodwill tour, forming an immediate bond with him as he recovered from extensive burns to his face and hands sustained when his plane crashed during the Battle of Britain. Four days into principal photography, on January 8, 1944, the actress received word Hillary had been killed when his personal plane went down in icy weather. According to biographers Charles Higham and Roy Moseley, Hillary “had touched Merle more deeply than any man.”2

One of his friends surmised that Hillary’s crash was not an accident but suicide, born out of his fragile physical condition and feelings of ineffectuality during wartime.3 Oberon, playing up her role as the high-strung romantic — and claiming to know her soul mate better than anyone — cursed the only possible cause: divine providence. She felt the tragedy was fated. (And would blame fate again several years later when she witnessed the plane carrying another lover, Count Giorgio Cini, crash during take-off from Nice.) During filming, Oberon secluded herself for several days; upon her return, she had trouble focusing.4

First Comes Courage was beset with problems. Dorothy Arzner would eventually be shown the door by Harry Cohn, as would Harrison.

Dark Waters held more promise, given that Harrison now had more clout. A lot hinged on Oberon’s performance. The film’s director, Andre De Toth, recalled that it was a challenge to convince the actress to lower her defenses. Because the Dark Waters protagonist arrives to a family she doesn’t know (strangers on a Louisiana bayou), after barely surviving a shipwreck, she starts the story as an amnesiac. De Toth felt strongly that Oberon’s early scenes should be played without makeup, to counter any sense of glamour the actress might bring to the role.

Oberon fought the director on this point. It was only decades later that hidden truths emerged about her early life, shedding light on why Merle lived and died by the masks she wore (on and off screen). According to Hollywood publicists (and a story probably fabricated by husband Korda), Oberon was the Eurasian daughter of a British army officer, born in Tasmania on a family stopover. The truth, as revealed in Charles Higham and Roy Moseley’s Merle: A Biography of Merle Oberon, was that, as the daughter of a Māori mother from Sri Lanka, she had experienced an impoverished childhood in India, and had been passing as white in Hollywood. In fact, it was confirmed in 2015 that Oberon’s “mother” Charlotte Selby was actually her grandmother; her biological mother was her “sister” Constance Selby, who had given birth to her at age twelve. By the time she was gracing the pages of Hollywood fan magazines, she had become well versed at lying about both her mixed-race lineage and family cover story.5

On the set of Dark Waters, as they neared the first day of shooting, Oberon and De Toth were still wrangling over whether she would wear makeup for the opening scene. Her character was supposed to wake up in a hospital bed (according to the script, “plucked from the sea”), he pleaded, and so she should leave her face bare. In his struggles to convince her to put herself in the shoes of an amnesia sufferer, he explained, “You have to think of yourself as lost. Lost. Have you ever in your childhood been scared, deprived, unable to have something you wanted, suffered so intensively that you blotted the whole thing out since then?”6

She suddenly changed her demeanor and asked him to close her dressing room door. According to the director, “She began to talk to me about her childhood [and poverty in India]…. She spoke of the horror of violence, deprivation, cruelty or mental suffering that followed her experiences. She said that she had indeed cut all that off from her memory. That all her life she had hidden everything even to herself in a kind of amnesia, a block in the brain.”7

It’s very unlikely that she shared all of her secrets with De Toth, especially given how feverishly she tried to conceal them as she neared the end of her life. But it’s clear that she revealed more to him than to most. Their conversation brought into focus for him – and likely for her — her reasons for wanting to so badly to make Dark Waters.

Bonus Sources

Andre de Toth. Fragments: Portraits from the Inside NY and London: Faber and Faber, 1994.

Andre De Toth and Anthony Slide. De Toth on De Toth: Putting the Drama in Front of the Camera London: Faber & Faber, 1996.

“Merle Oberon as George Sand,” Life February 5, 1945, 68.

Helen Hanson. Hollywood Heroines: Film Noir and the Female Gothic Film. New York: I.B. Tauris, 2008.

  1. Joseph Walker, ASC and Juanita Walker, The Light on Her Face (Hollywood, CA: The ASC Press, 1984), 245
  2. Charles Higham and Roy Moseley, Merle: A Biography of Merle Oberon (London: New English Library, 1983), 152.
  3. Charles Higham and Roy Moseley, Merle: A Biography of Merle Oberon (London: New English Library, 1983), 152.
  4. Charles Higham and Roy Moseley, Merle: A Biography of Merle Oberon (London: New English Library, 1983), 200.
  5. https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2549874/Wuthering-Heights-actress-Merle-Oberons-secret-took-grave-sister-mother-gave-birth-aged-12.html
  6. De Toth quoted in Higham and Moseley, Merle, 166.
  7. De Toth quoted in Higham and Moseley, Merle, 166.