“Affair in Monte Carlo”:
Merle Oberon’s Powerful Film Contributions
by Sheri Warren Sankner

1. Affair in Monte CarloParis, Casablanca, London, Rome, and Monte Carlo have been the settings of some of the most classic, romantic films of the last century. Monte Carlo is the background for this week’s MovieZoot.com Watchlist film, “Affair in Monte Carlo” (1952). It is also known as “24 Hours of a Woman’s Life” starring Merle Oberon, Richard Todd, and Leo Penn.

2. Monte Carlo coastlineMonte Carlo, one of Europe’s leading tourist areas, lies on an escarpment at the base of the French Alps. It is home to the world-famous Place du Casino, the gambling Mecca, which has made Monte Carlo an international symbol of extravagance and wealth. It is also the location of the Hôtel de Paris, the Café de Paris, and the Salle Garnier, the theatre of the Opéra de Monte-Carlo.

Based on Stefan Zweig’s novella, “24 Hours of a Woman’s Life,” the film is the quintessential 50s love story with angst. The plot follows Monsieur Blanc, the middle-aged proprietor of an Antibes café, who is preparing for his wedding to Henriette. However, Henriette runs away with a young man she apparently only met the day before, leaving her betrothed heartbroken. In response to the sad event, Robert Sterling, a writer and one of the café patrons, tells the others in the café that he has seen the same thing happen before: someone falling in love with a complete stranger. As the story unfolds, he tells of hosting Linda, a beautiful, young widow whom he knew well, and three other guests aboard his yacht in Monte Carlo. After visiting the casino one night at his urging, she became irresistibly attracted to an unstable, compulsive gambler who became suicidal after losing all his money at the roulette table. He describes how they fell deeply in love, and how they then had to face difficult decisions about the future.

3. Merle Oberon photoOberon was born Estelle Merle O’Brien Thompson in Bombay (now Mumbai) to a 12-year-old mother (who was raised as her sister) on February 19, 1911. She was nicknamed “Queenie” in honor of Queen Mary, who had visited India in 1911 with King George V. For much of her lifetime, she hid the truth about her lineage, even claiming that she came from Tasmania, Australia, and that birth records had been destroyed in a fire. The fact is, Oberon was the first biracial actress.

4. As Anne BoleynDuring her 45-year career, which spanned from 1928 to 1973, Oberon starred in some 50 films. The Anglo-Indian actress began her long career in British films, but soon found an audience in Hollywood. Director Alexander Korda, whom she later married, cast her in the small but significant role of Anne Boleyn in “The Private Life of Henry VIII” (1933) opposite Charles Laughton. Following the film’s major success, many leading roles came her way, including Lady Blakeney in “The Scarlet Pimpernel” in 1934 with Leslie Howard, who became her lover.

Oberon soon traveled to the United States to make films for Samuel Goldwyn. She was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance as Kitty Vane in “The Dark Angel” in 1935. Her work in that film resulted in offers for more quality pictures, and she appeared in several well-received films, such as “These Three” (1936), “Over the Moon” (1939) and ”The Divorce of Lady X” (1938).

A serious car accident in 1937 caused facial injuries that could have ended her career, however, she recovered and remained active in film and television until 1973.

Oberon’s most memorable roles included Cathy Linton in the highly acclaimed 1939 film “Wuthering Heights” (playing opposite Laurence Olivier’s Heathcliff), George Sand in “A Song to Remember” in 1945 and the Empress Josephine in “Désirée” in 1954.

5. Merle OberonOberon became Lady Korda when her husband was knighted in 1942. After divorcing Korda in 1945, she married cinematographer Lucien Ballard, who devised a special camera light for her to eliminate her facial scars on film. The light became known as the “Obie.” She married two more times to Italian industrialist, Bruno Paglia, and Dutch actor Robert Wolders. She retired to Malibu, California, where she died at 68, following a stroke.

Oberon has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for her many contributions to Motion Pictures.

Check out “Affair in Monte Carlo” now on MovieZoot.com for a taste of Oberon’s many talents.