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Race and the Modern Exotic: Three ‘Australian’ Women on Global Display

Chapter 3

Merle Oberon

Nationalism and Negotiating the Exotic

In early twenty-first century Australia, curiosity about racial mixing is sufficiently pervasive that one commentator has declared: ‘Eurasians are “in”, “they’ve got the look” and they are all over the place … In Australian media Eurasian young women increasingly appear on catwalks, stages and advertisements. They have the “Look”, the red-hot fantasy-fused “Look” eagerly sought by fashion, music and advertising agencies’.1 It is as though Eurasian women have come to represent global modernity, as a Eurasian or East-West look did in 1920s Japan, a style to which Annette Kellerman was linked. Yet, as Julie Matthews argues, it would be erroneous to assume that this demand for Eurasians as models in contemporary Australia is the product of any post-racist cosmopolitanism. Interest in what Matthews terms ‘happy hybridity’,2 rather, still depends on the hierarchies of race and sex established historically by colonialism, not least the desirability of whiteness or near-whiteness, and the ubiquity of representations of the female body as spectacle for visual consumption.

Colonialism has depended upon the plasticity of class status and racial categories, even as colonial elites sought constantly to shore up the boundaries and markers that sustained their elite status. As Homi Bhabha has helped us to understand, colonialism fostered subject positions in which the colonised were supposed to emulate the colonisers, only to be mocked for their mimicry of their superiors.3 For the mixed-race, such as the Anglo-Indian community in late colonial India, any aspirations to be accepted as fully British were constantly checked by structural exclusion and marginalisation. For the young woman who would become mid-twentieth century film star Merle Oberon, transnational mobility, her imperial access to the metropole, was a way of escaping those constraints and reinventing herself as part of the colonial ruling elite. That she did so through a fabrication of herself as another kind of colonial – Tasmanian – suggests the connections between transnational mobility, racial hierarchies and pretence, as well as the necessity of whiteness for stardom in the early to mid-twentieth century.

If some transnational life stories have hinged upon secrecy, suppression and even lies, in Oberon’s case there was yet another element – the willing participation in belief of a colonial audience from a country in which she never set foot until three brief visits late in life. Oberon’s lifelong pretence to be Tasmanian – an invoking of a safely remote, colonial location associated with white settlers – was enabled by the eager collusion of her imagined compatriots. Thus, a film star whose life was lived in the Northern hemisphere, purported to hail from a distant Southern hemisphere location, trusting in that very distance to preclude the possibility of detection. While Oberon and the London studio publicists who invented her story saw that geographic distance – close to the exact other side of the world – as a buffer, at the same time it strengthened the desires of Tasmanians and other Australians to claim her. The transnational imaginations – or the transnational lives of the mind – of those southern fans stretched around the globe to incorporate someone none of them had met, as one of their own.

Merle Oberon’s life was transnational in real ways: she moved from Calcutta to London to establish her career, then back and forth between London and Hollywood before settling in the latter, later to Mexico, and back to Hollywood. We know these basic elements from the work of biographers Charles Higham and Roy Moseley, whose book Princess Merle was published in 1983. From them we know too about the propaganda work of the London studio publicists who in the 1930s invented her ‘Tasmanian’ birth in order to locate her as a colonial and at once to obscure her lower-class and mixed-race origins. From Cassandra Pybus’s 1998 essay ‘Lottie’s Little Girl’, and Maree Delofski’s 2002 film The Trouble with Merle, we know about the tenacious Tasmanian mythology of Oberon’s imagined Tasmanian birth to Chinese hotel worker Lottie Chintock. In the late 1980s and the 1990s Pybus followed stories and leads in northeastern Tasmania. Confronted with the clear absence of a Tasmanian birth certificate for Oberon, and a remarkable set of variations of the Tasmanian story, in her essay Pybus muses on the power of narratives.4

Delofski conducted both archival research and oral interviews in the process of making her documentary. One startling result of her research was a revision of Higham and Moseley’s biography. Higham and Moseley had consulted Harry Selby, an Anglo-Indian Canadian resident who said at the time that he was Oberon’s nephew, and who provided the biographers with much of the material on her early years in Bombay. Selby shared with Delofski some key facts he had not been prepared to tell the earlier researchers because of his then concern for his own family. With a birth certificate to prove it, he claimed that he and Oberon had had the same mother – that he was not Oberon’s nephew but half-brother. Their mother Constance Selby had become pregnant by her stepfather, was 15 at the time of Oberon’s birth, and had given her daughter to her own mother to raise.5 Yet this archival revelation was only one of the film’s concerns. The heart of the film is the late-twentieth century and continuing mythology that denies Oberon’s birth in Bombay and locates her instead as Tasmanian. Through interviews with descendants of Lottie Chintock and other Tasmanians, Delofski evokes the emotional investments of the storytellers. As Delofski wrote in an article about making the film: ‘The Tasmanians’ stories of Oberon’s upbringing had been, in the main, second- or third-hand accounts exchanged across generations and, generally, outside the lived experience of the storytellers. Ultimately, their significance lay more in what they revealed about the tellers’ struggle for identity than as authenticated information about Oberon’s provenance’.6

Both Pybus and Delofski’s work documents the cultural processes in which the mythology of Oberon’s Tasmanian birth has been shaped and sustained in recent decades, and the attachment of some Australians to it. Even in the early twenty-first century, some Australians – particularly Tasmanians – perpetuate the mythology of Oberon’s Antipodean birth in part because of the transnational cultural legitimacy it lends them. In recent years that process has had a boost from an unrelated source, the celebrity of Tasmanian Mary Donaldson, now Crown Princess of Denmark; another story of a Tasmanian attaining international glamour, albeit a demonstrably true one. It should be added that this tenacious mythology was supported by Oberon’s own lifelong adherence to the studio-publicity fiction of her birth; she never admitted to her mixed-race, Indian origins, and herself provided various versions of her life that linked a Tasmanian birth with brief time spent in India. One instance is the version she provided The Washington Post in March 1935, according to which: ‘I was born Estelle Merle O’Brien Thompson in Hobart, on the island of Tasmania, February 19, 1911. My father, who died before I was born, was an English army officer; my mother is English and French-Dutch’. In this account, Oberon travelled from Tasmania to Calcutta, where she lived with her mother and an uncle, was educated in the style of army families, and graduated at 16 from ‘La Martinere College’. After college, she performed with the Calcutta Amateur Theatrical Society (a fashionable set known as the ‘Cats’), and at 17 toured Europe with the aforementioned uncle. This imagined uncle was supposed to be quite rich: wealthy enough that, when she purportedly informed him that she did not want to return to India, he allowed her to go to England and provided her with the security of a ticket home and some cash. In London, according to this story, when her money ran out she worked as a cabaret dancer at the Café de Paris, before she began to get work in films. In this representative version of her life, as in others she gave at other times with minor variations, Oberon blended a few elements of truth into a largely fictional story that specifically sought to locate her as a white colonial from the privileged classes of the mobile imperial elite. That her stories failed to allay completely the concerns to do with her origins is underscored by the fact that the Washington Post article in which this one appeared referred to her as ‘an alien’, and called her ‘one of the most exotic of the cinema’s contemporary decorations’.7

In this chapter I consider how Australians in the 1930s – including but not only Tasmanians – participated in the construction of Merle Oberon as Tasmanian. Rather than the mythology of recent decades, I examine the Oberon story as it was first being spread and elaborated through the popular press. The Oberon story is connected to Kellerman and Quong’s stories as yet another variation of the racial interpretations of ‘Australian’ female celebrities from the 1910s to the 1930s; how in making themselves recognisable, a few women performers created newly modern, racially ambiguous Australian femininities, and how those ambiguities played out in popular culture. This essay is about an imagined transnational life story more than an actual transnational life. It is also concerned with how popular culture shaped such stories, how lives have been transnational in fictitious as well as material ways, and how a belief that whiteness was necessary to success underpinned both colonial cultures and the emergent world of film. The geographical mobility facilitated by colonialism, such as the colonial pilgrimage to the metropolitan ‘Home’, enabled some mixed-race colonial subjects to reinvent themselves as quite ‘white’.

Oberon was in fact born Estelle Merle O’Brien Thompson in Bombay in 1911; her mother was Anglo-Indian (actually from Ceylon), and her father English. It is unclear whether Oberon knew that the woman whom she called her mother (Charlotte Selby Thompson) was in fact her grandmother, and that the woman she regarded as a half-sister (Constance Selby) was her mother. Charlotte and Constance had a fraught relationship, partly due to Constance’s Irish father’s rejection of them both, due to which Charlotte had left Colombo where Constance was born, and moved to Bombay. Their relationship was not helped by the fact that Charlotte’s lover (and later her husband) Arthur O’Brien Thompson, a railway engineer from Durham, became sexually interested in Constance and in fact impregnated her. After Oberon’s birth when Constance was only 13 or 14 years of age, Charlotte and Constance became estranged; Constance married a Goanese man and remained in Bombay. Constance resented what she regarded as Charlotte’s favouring of Queenie (as Oberon was known during her years in India, as were other girls her age due to the 1911 royal visit); disabled by a stroke at age 30, in later life Constance became bitter and importuning. After Oberon became successful and wealthy, Constance wrote her unhappy letters requesting money; Oberon occasionally sent her small amounts, but avoided seeing her. In 1917 Queenie and her (grand)mother moved to Calcutta, where for a while Queenie attended the prestigious boarding-school La Martiniere as a charity student. She left school early, attended business school, became a typist and telephone switchboard operator, and performed with the Calcutta Amateur Theatrical Society. In 1929, Oberon sailed for London, with a brief stop in Nice, her sights set on film acting. At first she resorted to work as a dance hostess, but before very long began to get work at Elstree Studios.8

Merle Oberon as Anne Boleyn

Source: Special Collections, Cleveland State University Library, with permission of ITN Source.

Very briefly, Oberon’s first film was Alf’s Button in 1930 – a bit part. She had a few more bit parts before she was picked up by producer and director Alexander Korda in Wedding Rehearsal (1932). She was first really recognised as Anne Boleyn in The Private Life of Henry VIII by Korda in 1933. Then she was reasonably successful in, for example, The Battle 1934; The Broken Melody 1934; The Private Life of Don Juan 1934; and The Scarlet Pimpernel 1934. Oberon’s first big hit was The Dark Angel in 1935; which was followed by These Three in 1936 by Sam Goldwyn co-starring Joel McCrea; Beloved Enemy in 1936 by Goldwyn co-starring David Niven; Over the Moon in 1937 by Korda, co-starring Rex Harrison; The Divorce of Lady X in 1938 by Korda, co-starring Laurence Olivier; Wuthering Heights in 1939 by Korda and William Wyler, in which she played Cathy opposite Olivier’s Heathcliff, and many more. She featured regularly in films into the 1950s; made a few late films in the 1960s, and starred in a last one in 1973, six years before her death at age 68.9

Merle Oberon seated between Fredric March and Charlie Chaplin

Source: Charles Higham and Roy Moseley, Princess Merle: The Romantic Life of Merle Oberon (New York: Coward-McCann Inc., 1983), with permission of Culver Pictures, Inc.

As befitting any film star, gossip and press coverage made much of Oberon’s romantic life. In the northern summer of 1934 reports swirled of her engagement and supposed marriage to Hollywood film producer Joseph Schenck of Twentieth Century Pictures, soon followed by stories of a rift with Schenck and a romance with ‘a handsome young member of the British nobility’.10 By the end of the year, further stories involved Douglas Fairbanks Senior, Leslie Howard, and the film producer Alexander Korda.11 Later gossip would suggest an affair with David Niven. In June 1939 Oberon married Korda in a civil ceremony in Antibes, France. The press had reported innumerable times that it was Korda’s previous wife, Maria, who had first spotted Oberon’s beauty when she was working as an extra at Elstree studios in London, because of which Korda gave her her first real opportunity.12

Alexander Korda was a Hungarian-born film entrepreneur who had a remarkably successful career, more in England than in Hollywood though he worked in both places. His first film work was in Europe, in Hungary, Germany, Italy and France; he brought his earlier experience and various European associates to London when he settled there, finding it congenial and determined to make British cinema competitive.13 He was considered to have done so much for the British film industry from the early 1930s that in 1942 he was knighted, at which point Oberon became Lady Korda. Korda’s two younger brothers Vincent and Zoltan both worked for him, so that his productions were very much a family enterprise. Michael Korda was the son of Vincent Korda, the film-set designer, and the actress Gertrude Musgrove; they separated when he was young, and Michael’s childhood was divided between America and England. His own mobility combined with the fact that Oberon and Korda’s marriage only lasted six years meant that Michael did not see a great deal of his Auntie Merle. Nevertheless, he became so obsessed with her that he wrote about her in his 1980 family memoir Charmed Lives, published only a year after Oberon’s death, though twenty-three years after Alexander’s. More significantly, he used her as the subject of his 1985 sensational novel Queenie. The fictional character assassination that Korda enacted on Oberon in Queenie is perhaps best understood as shaped by the Korda family dynamic in which Oberon was reviled as having used Alexander to build her career. Higham and Moseley suggest that Zoltan and Vincent’s wives, who were also actresses, were more accepted by the brothers because they were not as striking or successful as Oberon. Zoltan’s resentment was such that he did not even attend Alexander’s marriage to Oberon, despite being at the same hotel.14 Zoltan also prevented her involvement in Korda productions in which she was interested; her own difficult behaviour on film sets as an actor perhaps contributed to the brothers’ resentment.15 Michael Korda notes that, despite their various pathological psychological dispositions, the three Korda brothers shared an exclusive closeness resulting from the hardships of their Hungarian childhoods, a closeness that exceeded their relationships to their wives and children.16

Michael Korda went on to a very successful career in publishing, both as a writer and as editor-in-chief at the New York publishing house Simon and Schuster. As an editor, Korda published highly commercially successful writers such as Jacqueline Susann and Harold Robbins. His own writing in the 1970s included commercially oriented advice books on power and success. His interest in power and success may have stemmed from his relationship with his domineering uncle Alexander. His book Charmed Lives: A Family Romance is essentially a biography of Alexander, interwoven with Michael’s recollections of growing up in the Korda family and the movie world; one of its main concerns is to establish Michael’s credentials as part of the famous filmmaking family. Alexander, as the eldest brother and head of the family enterprise, was a self-conscious patriarch, as well as being so influential that he was closely connected to Winston Churchill before and during World War II. It is not surprising then, especially given his own parents’ separation and his shuttling between them, that Alexander was a powerful father figure for Michael, and in some ways more of an actual father than Vincent. Michael acknowledges at the end of Charmed Lives that ‘a very large part of my life was built around Alex: he was somehow the central figure of my own myth’.17

Despite his obsession with Alexander, Michael Korda acknowledges in the book that his own social status among his peers derived more from Merle Oberon being his aunt. As an adolescent at school in New York, it was his connection to Oberon, not the Kordas, that won him kudos. Later as a teenager at an elite boarding school in Switzerland, where some of his classmates ‘expected to inherit thrones’, Oberon was so much the key to his winning status that he ‘kept a photograph of Merle on my desk’.18 In this family memoir, Korda is quite complimentary to Oberon, acknowledging that she was the most successful of Alexander Korda’s three wives and perhaps the one for whom he displayed the most passion. He also credits Oberon with having worked at getting on with Vincent and Zoltan, and with entertaining him and his cousin at her house in Bel Air – even if his memory of the house includes his own awkwardness and discomfort, not least at breaking one of her china tea cups.19 Oberon’s biographers support this picture of amity with the claim that she was actually fond of Michael Korda, entertaining him at her house of her own volition.20 Above all, there is no hint in Charmed Lives of Oberon’s mixed-race or Indian origins.

Korda saved that explosive topic for his 1985 commercially oriented novel Queenie. The perceived scandal of Oberon’s provenance is so much the core of the 773-page novel that he opens it with an epigraph from Noel Coward:

… Half-caste woman,

Living a life apart,

Where did your story begin?

Half-caste woman,

Have you a secret heart,

Waiting for someone to win?

Were you born of some queer magic,

In your shimmering gown?

Is there something strange or tragic,

Deep, deep down?21

In the novel, the young woman who grows up in the Anglo-Indian community of Calcutta as Queenie Kelley moves to London and becomes the famous movie star Dawn Avalon, and the film producer who makes her a star and marries her is the Central European-born David Konig. Konig, who of course represents Alexander Korda, is unquestionably the hero of the novel; as one reviewer commented, Konig is the only character in the novel with any depth.22

While Queenie’s mixed-race birth and her desperate attempts to cover it up and pass as white are the central plot device, Korda goes even further in his incriminations of his fictional Oberon protagonist. A key figure in the story is her Uncle Morgan, an Anglo-Indian who makes a living as a nightclub musician. In fact, Oberon had no uncle, though her usual story of how she managed to get from Calcutta to London involved an imaginary rich uncle who paid her way and escorted her to Europe. Biographers Higham and Moseley suggest that the ‘rich uncle’ who actually funded her journey though did not accompany her may have been Sir Victor Sassoon; Oberon’s story thus made this benefactor a literal relative.23 Korda not only includes a fictional uncle in his story, but represents Uncle Morgan as incestuously in love with Queenie. In order to raise the considerable sum of money involved in leaving Calcutta for London – a sum she could not have raised on her own small earnings – Queenie goads Uncle Morgan into stealing a very expensive bracelet from his wealthy mistress. Once they reach London, their relationship deteriorates. Morgan rapes Queenie, and finally, in self-defence against his enraged and drunken assault, she kills him. Thus Korda saddled his Oberon character not only with her lower-class, mixed-race colonial background, but with the serious (and invented) offences of being an accomplice to theft and, later, of manslaughter in self-defence. These two offences, from both of which she escapes without punishment though not without fear, constitute Queenie’s worst actions. Yet there are other moral indictments as well. Oberon admitted to having started work in London as a nightclub dance hostess; the fictional Queenie is a stripper. Throughout the novel she is also portrayed as greedy, ambitious, self-absorbed and uncaring. Kristin Helmore comments in her review: ‘The worst thing about Queenie is not that she’s ruthless, selfish, shallow, conniving, and cold – all that we could handle in a heroine. Her gravest, truly unforgivable fault is that she’s made of cardboard’.24

Queenie may have sold well (with a printing of 150,000) but it was panned by reviewers. Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times noted that, given the quality of Charmed Lives, she had expected a book with some merit; instead the ‘novel is quite devoid of interesting language, great characters, terrific dialogue or even insights into the workings of Hollywood’.25 Nevertheless, the novel was turned into a television mini-series broadcast in the United States in 1987; it took even further liberties with the story, and also received poor reviews.26 Given Michael Korda’s success with earlier books, the shortcomings of Queenie as a novel are perhaps surprising, especially considering the potential of the dramatic elements with which he had to work. It is as though the emotional imperative behind the book, to expose Oberon’s racial secret, and to satisfy his own personal motivations, overwhelmed his writing style. The novel is clearly based on detailed knowledge of Oberon’s life, though Korda has jumbled elements of her biography in order to fictionalise it. Thus, her marriages are presented somewhat out of order and with some conflating and mixing of her husbands’ and lovers’ characteristics; a car accident she had in London is transposed to Hollywood; a light-plane crash in the south of France that killed a man she planned to marry is shifted to the United States; and an episode of medical treatment is moved from New York to Mexico, among other inventions.

Yet what emerges powerfully from the novel, perhaps because it lay at the heart of Korda’s purpose, is the sense of shame and secrecy that drove Queenie to cover up her Anglo-Indian past. The fictional Queenie is haunted throughout her life by the fear of being exposed by someone who knew her in India; she keeps running into people she desperately wishes to avoid. Oberon must have had similar fears, given her lifelong pretence to have been born in Tasmania. More than this, Queenie’s first chapters vividly evoke the subordination of Anglo-Indians in Calcutta. They describe the social hierarchy in which Anglo-Indians insisted on their respectability and Europeanness, in contrast to the Indians whom they employed as servants. Subordinated in material terms by the British, they formed their own sizable communities, and were customarily restricted to certain areas of employment. Anglo-Indian men worked on the railways and in clerical jobs; they were often favoured for the latter because they were fluent in both English and Indian languages. From the first decades of the twentieth century, Anglo-Indian women worked particularly as nurses and teachers, and in office work.27

In the nineteenth century, the term ‘Anglo-Indian’ signified the British resident in India. It was the Indian census of 1911, the year of Oberon’s birth, that redefined the term to indicate the Eurasian or mixed-race community.28 Anglo-Indians were known by the British as ‘chee-chees’, a highly derogatory term; they themselves used the term ‘domiciled Europeans’. The community had its origins in the marriages and sexual relationships between British men (who took advantage of the myriad jobs in the colonies) and Indian women, and the offspring they produced. Korda evokes a sense of Anglo-Indians’ longing for the absent husbands and fathers who left them behind when they returned to Europe (as indeed Oberon’s father had done, when he enlisted soon after World War I erupted, only to die during the Battle of the Somme). He conveys a plausible concern with skin colour and sun avoidance, as well as all of the fine distinctions and spatial exclusions enacted daily in British colonial life in India, by which Anglo-Indians were relegated to a life below the British. They themselves equally insisted on their place above Indians, who in fact rejected Anglo-Indians as outside their own communities. Not surprisingly, some Anglo-Indians thought of England as ‘Home’ even though most had never been there – just as did white-settler colonials in other imperial sites, including Australia.

Mark Haslam comments on the ways in which the Queenie television mini-series portrays stereotypes of Anglo-Indians, such as that they were ‘lackeys’ of the British – a stereotype represented in the weak character of Uncle Morgan. This stereotype derived, he observes, from Anglo-Indians’ dependence ‘economically, culturally, psychologically, spiritually and socially’ on the British colonisers. Other stereotypes of Anglo-Indians that the series retailed include that of their desire for their British ‘Home’, and that of the sexual desirability of Anglo-Indian women. Anglo-Indians themselves, Haslam (an Anglo-Indian from Calcutta) suggests, have participated in this third stereotype through their own claims for their women’s beauty – despite the fact that it includes connotations of sexual availability and even promiscuity.29 As Alison Blunt points out, this stereotyping of Anglo-Indian women as exotic and objects of desire, and as more morally lax than European or Indian women, invokes ‘assumptions about past inter-racial sex and its illegitimate progeny’.30 Blunt further points to the complex gendering of Anglo-Indians’ communal self-identity in the first half of the twentieth century, as Indian nationalism gained ground, independence became more likely, and the place of Anglo-Indians in an independent India loomed as an issue. Whereas ‘a British imperial lineage was imagined through the figure of a British forefather’, that of an Indian maternal ancestor was overridden by the nationalist conception of Mother India, and a reemphasis on Anglo-Indian women’s place as in the home. Despite their notional restriction to domestic roles, Anglo-Indian women’s importance to the community was shored up by conceptions of Anglo-Indians’ homes and domestic life as foundational to their being more European than Indian, and thus at least some Anglo-Indians’ resistance to inclusion in the new Indian nation.31

The depth of Oberon’s fear of her mixed-race origins being discovered is most poignantly reflected in the widely reported fact that, while her (grand)mother lived with Oberon in her early years in London, she largely kept her out of sight and, when necessary, introduced her to others as her maid or ayah.32 Oberon’s desire to become ‘white’ was such that she used a common bleaching cosmetic, a forerunner of the product still marketed in India today, by the Indian subsidiary of the British company Unilever, called ‘Fair and Lovely’. According to biographers Higham and Moseley, while she used this bleaching makeup to lighten her skin, it did her considerable harm and caused her major medical problems for years. They record that even in her youth in India she was already suffering negative effects from it, and in London in 1934 she began to suffer rashes on her face, especially near her mouth. Despite her later use of special nonallergenic makeup, Higham and Moseley narrate a dramatic episode in 1940 in which Oberon suffered such a severe rash on her face and neck that she had to stop filming immediately and flew to New York for very painful and extended dermabrasion treatment. A specialist attempted to remove the scarring on her face, but it was not completely successful.33 Oberon’s second husband, Lucien Ballard, was a film cameraman who developed a special light to compliment her, which both whitened the appearance of the skin and removed signs of scarring; he patented it and called it ‘the Obie’.34 Further evidence of Oberon’s skin eruptions comes from the autobiography of Irene Mayer Selznick, daughter of Louis B. Mayer of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and wife of Paramount producer David O. Selznick. In her recollections of mixing with the Hollywood elite, Mayer Selznick includes that of Oberon failing to attend a dinner party at the last minute because her skin had become unsightly.35

Merle Oberon in an advertisement for Max Factor cosmetics

Source: The Australian Women’s Weekly, 10 July 1937, p. 66.

Early in her career, when she struggled against the label ‘exotic’, detailed descriptions of Oberon’s appearance commonly noted her white skin, which is also apparent in photographs of her from the period – presumably partly due to the cosmetic bleaching. In 1934, for example, one Sydney paper described it as ‘a creamy magnolia skin’.36 Later in life, Oberon’s skin often appears darker in photographs – perhaps partly from accumulated exposure to the sun in California and Mexico, and partly from her having abandoned the cosmetic bleach that had eventually damaged her skin, both of which may have been because by then she had less to fear from being perceived as dark-skinned. Oberon’s third husband was a very wealthy Italian-Mexican industrialist, Bruno Pagliai, and their opulent lifestyle included homes in Mexico City, Cuernavaca and Acapulco, as well as Beverly Hills. Photographs from this stage of her life show Oberon with a marked suntan, which she blamed on ‘that Acapulco sun’. By that stage Oberon was sufficiently relaxed about this issue – unlike earlier in her career – that she could even tell a reporter: ‘I don’t really like black. I like to wear white – like Empress Josephine – because I’m dark, I suppose’.37

Oberon’s resort to skin-lightening cosmetics was hardly unusual; rather, they were widespread in both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In the nineteenth century, when many women made their own cosmetics from household and herbal ingredients, one of the perceived general benefits of cosmetics was that of lightening the skin, even for those regarded as ‘white’. A white complexion was seen as an index of gentility as well as racial status; sun exposure was linked to outside, manual work such as agricultural labour, which women of the poorer classes undertook. Cosmetics were thought to help reduce the effects of the sun or other damage. Nevertheless, skin whiteners were used from the mid-nineteenth century onwards by non-white women to lighten their skins.38 In the United States, from the 1870s ‘Laird’s Bloom of Youth’ was marketed as a skin lightener, and, as historian Kathy Peiss shows, the lead it contained was known to cause lead poisoning. In the later decades of the nineteenth century, face bleaches that were commonly advertised caused skin blotches and sometimes permanent injury. Such advertising included targeted messages of racial masking.39 Concerns about the harmful effects of skin bleaches led to investigations by the American Medical Association in the 1920s, and the US Food and Drug Administration in the 1930s, which found that products on the market contained concentrations of ammoniated mercury sufficiently strong to cause serious skin irritation and damage.40 While the manufacturers and product names were very likely different in India in the 1920s when Oberon was a teenager, it is quite possible that a skin bleaching cosmetic she used there may have contained similar levels of ammoniated mercury. That women resorted to such destructive products shows the impact of racial categories on individual lives, the exclusions and subordination that non-white women struggled against, and how important it was to them to pass as white if they could.

An examination of the 1930s Australian popular press shows racial ambiguities in representations and reports of Oberon, perhaps because gossip and uncertainty about her origins circulated in transnational popular culture despite the official studio publicity story. Australians were drawn to Oberon partly because of her imagined exoticism, which suggests that their collusion in the myth of her Tasmanian birth was based on ambivalence about racial categories. Stories from the mid-1930s in papers and magazines including The Australian Women’s Weekly, The Australian Woman’s Mirror, Everyone’s, The Sydney Morning Herald, and the Hobart Mercury show Australians struggling with racial ambiguities in relation to Oberon. They instantly accepted the claim that she was Australian, yet found themselves negotiating the ambiguities of her appeal in order to make her fully so.

My research has focused on the very early years when she was becoming known, in order to discover what Australians made of her when they first learned of her. In the 1930s the White Australia policy, which restricted immigration to Australia through the mechanism of a dictation test in any European language, was in its heyday. Chinese and other Asian immigration had dropped from various high points of the nineteenth century, not least because of the restrictions put in place from the 1880s, yet small communities existed, as did scattered and itinerant workers of Asian descent. As Debjani Ganguly has noted, traffic between India and Australia dates from European Australia’s first founding. In the nineteenth century, Anglo-Indians in Australia included Colonel William Light, the surveyor who planned Adelaide, and the lawyer and journalist Henry Cornish who published a travelogue about Australia in Madras in 1879. One migration scheme was the shipload of Anglo-Indians who arrived in Sydney in 1854, including passengers from a military orphanage in Madras; a few years later, after the ‘Mutiny’ of 1857, under another scheme Anglo-Indians were granted farming land in Tasmania. With the 1880s introduction of immigration restrictions, that would become the White Australia policy, the arrival of Anglo-Indians in Australia was curtailed.41 Popular Australian fears were fed from the late nineteenth century by pulp horror narratives of Asian invasion, as well as by widespread debate over Australia’s ‘empty’ inland and north, putatively an incentive for such invasion.42 By the interwar decades, racism and popular eugenics made miscegenation a hot topic. Governmental policy now included the removal of Aboriginal children from their mothers. As David Walker discusses, in these years Australians’ racist talk of degenerative ‘half-castes’ included Eurasians – not least Anglo-Indians.43

The Australian press instantly accepted Oberon as a ‘Tasmanian girl’

Source: The Sydney Morning Herald, Women’s Supplement, 21 June 1934, p. 8.

Tellingly, in making Oberon Australian, Australians happily stressed her Englishness or Britishness. Australianness became blended with Oberon’s ‘belong[ing] to a very great extent, to the Empire’. But in as far as that imperial belonging was a product of her ‘working acquaintance with two of the largest countries in the British Empire’,44 Australia and India, it was entangled with questions of racial classification. Partly because they embraced Oberon as part of the empire, Australians sought to clarify her status as ‘white’, as part of the imperial ruling class. Australian fans’ desire for Oberon to be ‘white’ reveals some of the complex, global cultural processes in which racial categories and hierarchies have been constructed.

Three main points are evident from the Australian press between 1934 and 1937. One is the instant and unquestioning eagerness with which Australians claimed Oberon as one of their own, despite the variations in stories about her provenance even then. A second point is their awareness of racial ambiguity surrounding her and her imagined ‘exoticism’. And thirdly, the press reports show a transition that Oberon herself seemed to claim and that Australians participated in, from a worrying dark siren image, to becoming the English ‘girl next door’.

As early as October 1933 the Australian press proudly drew attention to the fact that the cast of the highly successful Korda film about Henry VIII included ‘two Australians in Judy Kelly and Merle Oberon’.45 A representative press item about the new ‘Australian’ star soon after her emergence was typically proud, even as it raised the issue of recognition:

Some of the mystery surrounding the identity of Merle Oberon, who leapt to fame in a hundred feet of film as Anne Boleyn in ‘The Private Life of Henry VIII’, has been dispelled by Stephen Watts in FILM WEEKLY – the English one. The actress is Estelle Merle O’Brien Thompson, aged twenty-two, Tasmanian born of Irish-French parentage with Indian associations. The Oberon of her new stage name is a modification of the family O’Brien. Taken by her Indian uncle for a holiday in England, she tried her luck in films. Australians have seen her (but not recognised her) in ‘Aren’t We All?’ and ‘Wedding Rehearsal’. She is now being featured in England in ‘The Broken Melody’, and will share feminine leads in Fairbanks’s forthcoming ‘Exit Don Juan’. Then America wants her. So the world is at her feet.46

At first, there was a bit of uncertainty about how her name should be rendered. In August 1934 Everyone’s review of Don Juan referred to ‘our little Tasmanian, Estelle Thompson, known to the public as Merle Oberon’.47 They soon dropped the Estelle Thompson.

Yet the accounts of her Australian childhood varied:

Just 13 years ago a small girl of seven called Merle Thompson O’Brien was living the life of any youngster her age in Hobart, Tasmania.

She went to school every day; she became film-struck, and adored ‘going to the pictures’, where she could glory in her beloved Mary Pickford, Pauline Frederick, Louise Lovely, Theda Bara, Mary Miles Minter, and all the other big stars of the day.

To-day in London, at the age of 21, that small cinema enthusiast has blossomed into Merle Oberon – the girl who was chosen as leading lady for Douglas Fairbanks as the direct result of her performance as Anne Boleyn in the British film, ‘The Private Life of Henry VIII’…

You do not find a trace of that small girl who lived in Hobart in the soignée, sophisticated young woman who is Merle Oberon to-day. Since then she has lived with her parents in Calcutta for several years; has had four years’ experience in London of the life of a struggling aspirant to film fame. She talks with perfect poise, and deprecates with delightful modesty any praise and congratulation.48

While these early reports sought to explain her Australian origins, soon she was just reported as Merle Oberon, the Tasmanian girl, or the Australian actress, Merle Oberon, as a matter of fact. The repeated assertions of Oberon’s Australianness may also have been intended to dispel imagined errors in some contemporary media accounts, such as the July 1934 assertion in The Los Angeles Times that Oberon was from New Zealand, followed the next month in the same paper by a reference to her as a ‘young English film actress’.49 It was all very well for Oberon to be considered English and British as well as Australian, but the Australian media wanted to make sure this last designation appeared regularly. One solution was to refer to her as ‘the Australian-British film star’.50

Yet however automatic and standard the identification of Oberon as Australian became, worries about her racial identity were aired repeatedly. In the 1934 film The Battle, Oberon was cast as Japanese, not surprisingly exacerbating the anxieties about her so-called ‘exoticism’. The film, which had overtones of Madame Butterfly, was set in 1904 during the Russo-Japanese war, and Oberon played opposite Charles Boyer as the Japanese wife of a naval commander who falls in love with a British official, leading her husband to commit suicide. The film was a tragedy in which Oberon’s character loses her lover as well as her husband. Some reports sought to suppress the worry about her playing a Japanese role:

Merle Oberon, the Tasmanian girl … looks fascinating with her artificially elongated Oriental eyes; and she brings conviction to the heroine’s mingling of Japanese and European traits in her movements and gestures.51

Other reports mixed Australian pride in Oberon’s acting with anxiety about the ease with which she could appear ‘Oriental’.

Interestingly, in this period in particular, descriptions of her often emphasised her affinity with and fondness for the colour brown, a theme that could well be read as an expression of racial ambiguity. The Australian Women’s Weekly, for example, sought to balance these racial worries with an emphasis on Oberon’s education and intellect, as though that would counteract the concern:

Merle Oberon, the Tasmanian girl … is very petite, with bright brown hair. Her eyes are dark and almond shaped, so that she needed very little make-up to obtain the Oriental effect in the part of a Japanese beauty, which she took in ‘The Battle’, soon to be released in Australia.

Merle is intelligent, and is always poring over history books.

Everyone in the film world is enthusiastic about Merle Oberon. She is not only a very beautiful and appealing girl, and a fine little actress, she is a well-read and charming woman. More than that, she is reputed to be the best-dressed woman on the English films. She gets almost everything from Schiaparelli, and is particularly fond of an unusual shade of brown, which brings out all the bronze of her rich brown hair.52

But it was Oberon’s imagined Australianness that trumped any such worries on the part of her Australian fans. Everyone’s magazine even managed to turn Oberon’s colouring into proof of her Australian identity: commenting on The Private Life of Henry VIII, it noted that the two ‘Australian’ actresses’ ‘brunette beauty registers vividly against the blonde preponderance of the English stars’.53 When The Battle opened in Sydney on 3 October 1934, ‘the fans flocked to the Prince Edward to see this magnificent product of the Apple Isle at work. They were not disappointed. As the beautiful Japanese wife, Mitsuku … she displayed the superb delicacy which had sent her to the top, giving depth to the passionate love which grows between her and the Englishman’. As the report exclaimed, Oberon was not only ‘tiny, natural, beautiful’, she was – crucially – ‘Australia’s first famous film star’.54

Merle Oberon, featured in The Australian Women’s Weekly article, ‘A Specialist Rarely Escapes’

Source: The Australian Women’s Weekly, 30 January 1937, p. 4.

The Tasmanian press did not actually need the injunction from Everyone’s magazine that ‘Tasmania should feel mighty proud of Merle Oberon’.55 Not surprisingly, the Hobart Mercury was particularly strident in its enthusiasm for the film. Its October 1934 advertisement for The Battle lauded it as ‘undoubtedly the finest naval film ever made’, and ran a banner headline: ‘Tasmania is proud of you….. MERLE OBERON. Your performance in “THE BATTLE” is superb!’56 Another advertisement billed her as ‘The Tasmanian Star’, and by May 1935, The Mercury was boasting of ‘Tasmania’s Success’ in relation to Errol Flynn, with the prediction that ‘another Tasmanian is to join Merle Oberon among the stars of Hollywood’.57 The paper even adopted a defensive tone with its protesting headline the same month: ‘Tasmanian Nearly Banned’. The article reported that The Scarlet Pimpernel was nearly refused distribution in the United States, because the American League of Decency objected to Oberon’s ‘cleavage’ in evening dresses in the film; The Mercury pointed out that historical accuracy was at stake, because despite Victorian women’s moral propriety ‘apparently they wore dresses cut too startlingly for Chicago’.58

The Sydney Morning Herald’s note on Oberon’s appearance in the 1934 film The Scarlet Pimpernel at once combined serious racial concern with the view that this was merely a cosmetic issue:

Merle Oberon makes Lady Blakeney a personage of exceptional loveliness and of delicate sensibilities, in keeping with this proud but generously impulsive character. The only disturbing feature is her tendency strongly to orientalise her appearance by means of facial makeup, and the slant of black brows.59

An advertisement for the film in the same paper’s Women’s Supplement endorsed it as ‘The Best British Film of the Year’, which perhaps reassured audiences.60 The combined messages of these Australian press reports – despite the Tasmanian boosting – added up to clear unease with Oberon’s origins, an unease that was reiterated in the very process of its apparent alleviation.

The American press went so far as to print the charge that Oberon was ‘Eurasian’, while also quoting her denial. According to The Los Angeles Times, Oberon refuted the charge, saying it was the product of ‘odd coincidences’, including that ‘her eyes slant upward, she has lived in India and her studies have included Hindustani’. Yet the journalist comments that the impression of her being Eurasian persists on the film production set, partly because of her make-up; he sums up the impression by noting that, with her ‘affected’ or ‘very English’ accent, she ‘looks like an aloof, oriental Fay Wray’, invoking the actress who made her fame through her on-screen tussle with King Kong.61 Into the middle of 1935, American newspaper reports continued to refer to Merle Oberon as ‘exotic’, and to allude to her ‘slanting eyes’.62 It was in 1935 that she first went to Hollywood, though she would continue to return to London to make films for Korda. Her first American film was Folies Bergere, in which she played opposite Maurice Chevalier; the The Sydney Morning Herald Women’s Supplement thought her part in it ‘more cheerful’ than previous roles, and that it ‘gives more scope for her acting ability’.63 Everyone’s, on the other hand, considered that in the film Oberon ‘once more looks exotic and clever’.64

It was the 1935 film The Dark Angel, a remake of a successful silent film, which allowed Oberon and her Australian fans to whiten her, and turn her into ‘an ordinary British girl’. An iconic story of the tragic losses of War War I, Oberon played the respectable English sweetheart at home, with Fredric March and Herbert Marshall playing the two male leads. The three are childhood friends in the provinces, the two boys being cousins who vie for Merle’s [Kitty’s] affections. When they grow up and the war erupts, the two young men valiantly go off to the front while Merle takes the quintessential female wartime role, waiting with her mother and aunt. Fredric March as Alan is captured and blinded in France; when he returns to England he refuses to disclose his name and tries to hide so that Kitty won’t marry him out of pity. Merle as Kitty Vane is on the verge of marrying Herbert Marshall as Gerald instead but accidentally finds Alan, and the plot suggests that her true love for Alan overcomes his blindness. Merle/Kitty’s self-sacrifice in accepting his blindness is linked to her class status and respectability, which for Oberon could be translated as whiteness – despite what seems now the irony of the film’s title. Clearly, it was a boon to Oberon that the film was set ‘in a lovely, quiet corner of rural England’.65

Merle Oberon in The Dark Angel (1935)

Source: Everyone’s, 8 June 1936, p.12.

The film was a box office success in Australia and elsewhere. In the United States, Oberon was hailed as ‘the sensational star’ of the film.66 According to an Australian press report, the London premiere was considered the season’s ‘most glamorous’, as well as popular. The crowds at the Leicester Square Theatre were reportedly so dense that the police had to divert traffic before the screening, and after it ‘police aid was necessary to control the crowds endeavouring to obtain a glimpse of the star’. All in all, Everyone’s thought, ‘Merle Oberon [was] Tops in “Dark Angel”’.67 For the Australian media in the interwar period, not long after the emergence of the Anzac mythology that held the nation was born in the blood and sacrifice at Gallipoli in 1915, and when Australian society included significant numbers of returned soldiers who were maimed or disabled, it was a role that vindicated Oberon’s Australianness and deflected concerns about her racial identity. No doubt it helped Australian audiences’ reactions that Oberon was nominated for an Academy award for her role in the film. The Sydney Morning Herald Women’s Supplement interviewed Oberon and shared her apparent pleasure at her newly British role:

On the strength of her performance in ‘The Dark Angel’, Merle Oberon, the young Tasmanian girl, has been mentioned as a likely winner of the gold statuette presented by the Academy of Arts and Sciences for the best film acting of the year …

And it is not the Merle who, after she came to America, characterised exotic and mysterious sirens. She has entirely changed her screen personality. Interviewed during the production of her latest picture, she said, ‘I’ve given up those sirenish roles, and am going in for real honest-to-goodness human being parts. Mr Goldwyn feels that I can transfer my real self to the screen if I’m given the chance.’ So, when ‘The Dark Angel’ comes to the Regent Theatre on Friday week you will have your first opportunity of seeing her minus those bizarre coiffures and that air of mystery with which she has been surrounded in her recent pictures. For the first time you will see her as a normal British girl – ‘Which I really hope I am’, says Merle.68

For The Australian Women’s Weekly reporter Cassie Marshall, ‘an Australian in Hollywood’, recorded her surprise and pleasure at Oberon’s new persona with the subtitle ‘No Longer Exotic’:

I was first introduced to Merle when she was working on ‘The Dark Angel’. Previously, I had seen her pictures, of course, and had always remembered her as creating exotic roles. As Kitty Vane in this new production, she surprised me. For the first time, I saw her playing a normal English girl of good family and social position. And, judging by her work on the lot, she was doing it brilliantly.69

The Hobart Mercury seemed particularly relieved that ‘[s]horn of exotic make-up, Merle Oberon is revealed as a natural and charming little actress’, as ‘a young English girl’, a role that ‘is far removed from anything she has attempted before the camera’.70

Oberon herself was very conscious of the stakes involved in consolidating her image as ‘white’, to ‘reverse her type completely’71 and thereby shake off the continuing concerns about her dark exoticism. She knew that her level of success depended on entrenching her white imperial Britishness, which would anchor her claims to respectability as well as dispelling the racial shadows. She spoke to the press about how much she had wanted Samuel Goldwyn to give her the role in The Dark Angel, and how together they were plotting her image transformation, including ‘working on a new coiffure to supplant the so-called exotic ones she has used in the past’. Oberon claimed that as a small girl in Calcutta, she had seen the silent version of the same film, and it had remained with her, which made it all the more meaningful to her as a role. Above all, she saw it as the chance to move beyond the ‘roles of sirens and exotic women’ in which she had been cast to date, and ‘to play a simple human honest British girl, without any of the exoticism I have been forced to assume in other pictures’.72 Blaming her previous roles and hairstyles for being perceived as exotic was one strategy for deflecting racial doubts. Oberon’s success was characterised by The Los Angeles Times as her being ‘[f]reed of the restrictions of exotic make-up’ and instead of being limited as ‘a type’, now becoming a proper actress of importance and with a promising future.73

Oberon’s vehemence and repeated commentary to the press on this topic indicate her full awareness of the sexual as well as racial implications of being labeled ‘exotic’; the extensive press coverage of the issue also shows journalists’ belief in the public interest in this coded topic. In one interview in September 1935, she exclaimed, in a formulation that inverted the past she wanted to leave behind with a future she feared: ‘I detest “exotic” women! They represent everything I’d hate to be and that I’m scared to death of becoming’. Questioned by the journalist as to why she felt this way, she continued: ‘They’re so artificial … They’ve got no character. There’s nothing normal about them. It’s all a pose’. Defending herself, Oberon pointed out that the only role she had had that could fairly be labeled ‘exotic’ was that of the Japanese woman in The Battle (released in some places as Thunder in the East). The interviewer, determined to milk this issue as far as he could, pressed Oberon even further, asking what the term ‘exotic’ meant to her. She replied: ‘Oh – you know. Smell of burning incense. Jasmine blossoms. Or heaps of gardenias all over the place. Pretty sticky. And a long, slinky black dress’. When she had been labeled ‘exotic’, she felt that she had been seen as both a ‘foreign interloper’ and a ‘vamp’.74 Evidently, for Oberon, the term ‘exotic’ held dangerously Oriental meanings that could potentially expose her Anglo-Indianness, as well as suggesting sexual availability that may for her have been linked to the vulnerability of a lower-class and a mixed-race background. Dissociating herself from the term must have been linked to covering up her past, which was why playing a ‘normal’ respectable Englishwoman in The Dark Angel was such a milestone.

Nevertheless in February 1936, there was still a little anxiety expressed by The Australian Women’s Weekly Movie World supplement. On the one hand, on 8 February 1936 it breathlessly announced:

Here’s Hot News from all the Studios! …

Merle Oberon likes to be surrounded by lovely things and doesn’t hesitate to indulge herself. She has a most elaborate portable dressing room, and loves to entertain. At the entrance to her dressing-room is a table, and on it stands a small British flag. Australia’s fair daughter is loyal.75

Yet three weeks later the same paper published an overtly racist cartoon obviously designed to unmask Oberon as Anglo-Indian. In a cartoon feature corner titled ‘Screen Oddities by Captain Fawcett’, with other jokes including one about Charles Laughton trying to lose enough weight to be able to play Captain Bligh, there is a caricature of Oberon. A pen drawing, it shows Oberon as very dark-skinned, with her hair in what would have been considered an Indian style (parted in the middle and with plaits wound around the back of her head), and wearing characteristically Indian jewellery. The cartoon is explained with the oblique caption: ‘Merle Oberon wears earrings clasped to the side of her ear instead of the lobe’.76 While the words ‘Indian’ or ‘Anglo-Indian’ are not used, the reference is very clear.

Just prior to this racist unmasking by another organ of the press, The Sydney Morning Herald was definitive that Oberon’s transition to English respectability had been made. In its review of The Dark Angel the paper declared:

Merle Oberon as the subject of a cartoon, ‘Screen Oddities’

Source: The Australian Women’s Weekly, 29 February 1936, p. 40.

a good deal of interest is added to the picture by the appearance of Merle Oberon surprisingly and very successfully transformed from the exotic, Oriental creature of her earlier films into an inhabitant of the everyday world. Except in the small part she played in ‘The Private Lives of Henry VIII’, Merle Oberon was never a complete success in her former character. This picture reveals that her real talent is in a diametrically opposite direction – that she is at her best not as a slant-eyed frail blossom from an Eastern garden, but as a natural, tender girl. The lotus flower has been changed (under the magic wand of make-up artists and an astute producer) into a cornflower.77

Thus even at the moment that Oberon achieved her first great success, and some Australians celebrated her triumph and her arrival as a properly British star playing ‘white’ roles, malicious gossip about her origins continued to be printed.

The transition from ‘lotus flower’ to ‘cornflower’ was key for her career, yet even as it was declared complete it was still shadowed. Ambiguity and doubts about her racial identity lingered, eventually fuelling the Tasmanian mythology of her birth to Lottie Chintock, the Chinese hotel worker. Such ambiguities, scandals and anxieties circulated around the world in gossip columns. The Australian Women’s Weekly Movie World supplement could run the cartoon because it would be instantly comprehensible to Australians.

Oberon’s success both as an actress and in overcoming the racial anxieties about her that circulated in both coded and overt ways in the transnational popular press was consolidated by further roles that cast her as ‘white’ as well as respectable, or even elite, in other ways. It was similarly reassuring when the press reported, for example, that Oberon lived in a ‘very modern and comfy flat near Baker Street’ in London, and was affluent enough to head off to the Continent for holidays.78 Her success in another Samuel Goldwyn production, the 1936 film These Three, following on the heels of The Dark Angel, was timely. These Three was a critical success and a significant film in that it was directed by William Wyler and the screenplay was written by Lillian Hellman. The plot revolves around two young women, friends from college, who set up a small school together, and hinges upon their relationships with both each other and the local doctor. For Oberon, it was significant that her character was not only college-educated, but supposed to be descended from a line of New England gentry. Indeed, her impoverished but elite pedigree is in contrast to the other female lead, Miriam Hopkins’s socially more marginal character. Oberon’s character’s respectability and status as the first of the two female leads is confirmed by the plot when she wins the heart of the doctor, played by Joel McCrea. The primacy and respectability of this leading role in such a successful film boosted Oberon’s newfound status as a serious actor, and helped her to put the worst fears of being labeled ‘exotic’ behind her. Despite her success innoculating her against innuendo to some extent, gossip mongers never completely abandoned references to her ‘exotic beauty’, the ‘oriental slant’ of her eyes, and the fact that when she first arrived in London it was from Calcutta.79 Some commentators on Oberon’s career explained her transition from the doubts that clung to her early on, to her later transcendent stardom, as due to the fact that she had left behind the ‘exotic Oriental roles’ of the ‘early days of her career’, as though the problem had sprung from the roles rather than Oberon’s origins.80

Even following These Three, Australian commentaries on Oberon’s acting refused to relinquish the issue of her exoticism. One November 1936 review of her performance in a film titled Hurricane suggests connections between Oberon’s career and both Kellerman and Quong’s. Just as Kellerman could market herself as a South Seas islander, so apparently could Oberon; and like Quong, her exoticism was considered to make her ethnically versatile. John B. Davies and Judy Bailey imply that such versatility is an asset given the film world’s demand for a range of roles: ‘Merle Oberon again takes on her exotic personality for “Hurricane”, where she plays a South Seas girl. The uncanny versatility of this dark-eyed beauty makes it possible to cast her in any type of role. Remember how beautiful and appealing she was as the young Japanese wife in “The Battle”, and her finest playing was done in “These Three” as the typical American girl’.81 On the one hand, this comment equates range with nationality (from Japanese to American); on the other, linking the terms ‘dark-eyed beauty’ and ‘exotic’, especially with ‘South Seas girl’, was an obvious reminder of concerns about that very exoticism. Interest in Oberon’s looks was sufficient that The Australian Women’s Weekly Movie World supplement ran full-page portrait studies of her in both May and August 1936.82

In 1937 Alexander Korda decided to produce a film version of Robert Graves’s novel I, Claudius, to be directed by Josef von Sternberg (who had made a star of Marlene Dietrich), with Oberon to play the role of Messalina opposite Charles Laughton. Some of the film was shot, but it was never completed, largely because in March that year Oberon was in a car accident in the centre of London, receiving serious cuts to her face and head. She recovered after several months, with minor scars that did not impede her career, but the interruption to filming meant that I, Claudius was never finished.83 Despite this setback, Oberon would soon star in other successful films, including The Divorce of Lady X and as Cathy opposite Laurence Olivier’s Heathcliff in Wuthering Heights. By July 1937, she was in the press again with an official invitation from the French government to attend a gala event at the Comedie Francaise.84

By 1938, Oberon was earning $US100,000 for each film she made, and dividing her time between Hollywood and London, where she had bought a house at Regent’s Park. Contractually, she was shared between film directors Korda in England and Goldwyn in America, making two films for each per year. She complained to the press about her tax burden, with both the British and United States governments taking 70 percent of her earnings, because of her British residency status combined with her American income.85 Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper reported that Oberon’s affluence was such that she did not actually know how many fur coats she owned (somewhere between one and two dozen), as well as ‘an emerald and diamond necklace once owned by Napoleon’.86 In 1940 Oberon starred in her first technicolour film, Over the Moon, opposite Rex Harrison; the film was largely a vehicle for Oberon, with her changing clothes approximately fifty times.87 By 1943, she began to speak of retiring from acting; by then her film career had passed its peak and, perhaps not coincidentally, her marriage to Korda would only last two more years.

The Australian press continued to track Oberon’s career. When in 1973 at age 61 she financed, edited and starred in her own comeback film, Interval, the Melbourne Herald’s reporter commented that the ‘Tasmanian-born Miss Oberon’ did not look more than 35, that she ‘is the youngest-looking old woman I’ve ever met and still a stunning looking woman’. The article described the film and summarised Oberon’s career and some of her life, assuring readers that she was such a part of the ‘jet set’ that her ‘Acapulco house has been a meeting place for royalty and world dignitaries for many years’, an assertion presumably intended to convey the level of success this ‘Australian’ had attained.88 The Australian Women’s Weekly, which had had a long-standing interest in Oberon, reminded its readers that she had become ‘Mexico’s highsociety movie star. untouchable and unattainable since she married Mexico’s richest businessman and retired into secluded luxury’ at her palatial home overlooking the Pacific Ocean in Acapulco. Journalist William Hall further pointed out that the film, the script of which had been written especially for Oberon, was about an older woman on holiday in Mexico, who falls for a younger man. And of course, his article included the gossip that Oberon’s relationship with young Dutch co-star Robert Wolders was off-screen as well as on-screen.89 The Sydney Daily Mirror soon announced: ‘Fairy-tale marriage is over for the girl from Tasmania who became a movie queen’.90

Merle Oberon on the cover of The Australian Woman’s Mirror

Source: The Australian Woman’s Mirror, 14 May 1940.

Woman’s Day soon boasted a feature article with photographs of Oberon and Wolders taken in New York. It informed readers of the ‘Australian-born actress’s romance that had bloomed while Interval was being shot in Mexico. Oberon explained to the interviewer that her marriage to Italian-Mexican industrialist Bruno Pagliai had failed because he was always working rather than spending time with her, and she could not live in Mexico City, his work base, because the altitude made her ill. Indeed, she said, ‘I even thought of buying a ranch in Australia as a second home to get away from Mexico City’. Oberon also pointed out that, in the garden at her new house in Malibu, she had an Australian Christmas bush. In response to a question about whether she would visit her ‘homeland’, Oberon replied: ‘I’ve always wanted a connection with Australia and I love the fact that Australians still consider me one of their own. That’s certainly a good reason for wanting to go and visit the country again. But now I’ve got even more interest there – I’ve bought into a British company that owns a sheep station, but I can’t remember where. I definitely would love to go back soon’.91 Even if she was vague about the location of the sheep station, Oberon seemed keen to convince Australians of her continuing loyalty.

Not surprisingly, in late 1978 and 1979 the Australian press covered the story of Oberon’s final illness and death. In November 1978, the Brisbane Courier-Mail reported that ‘Australian-born actress’ Oberon was recovering well in Cedars-Sinai hospital in Los Angeles after a coronary-bypass operation that included replacement of a heart valve.92 A year later, when she died following a stroke at her Malibu home, The Canberra Times ran an article noting her passing, and that the actress was ‘Tasmanian-born’ though ‘educated in India’.93 The obituary in The Australian called her a ‘Taswegian’, while that in The Sydney Morning Herald was titled ‘Merle Oberon: “A star beauty in a golden age”’.94

Geographer Alison Blunt has shown, from her research on Anglo-Indian communities and migrations, that Anglo-Indians were unwelcome in 1930s Australia. Moreover, there was a general belief that they could be judged from visual appearance – a belief that must have fuelled the gossip and anxiety about Oberon’s origins. After all, by the mid-1930s Oberon’s face was one of the best known in the Anglophone world. The White Australia policy, entrenched by the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901, in practice prohibited the immigration of Indians or Anglo-Indians. The depth of resistance to Anglo-Indians, and the stress placed on appearance, became apparent in the 1940s when many Australians, British and Anglo-Indians sought to leave India during the turmoil surrounding independence. In August 1947, at the height of the upheaval, an Australian ship sent to evacuate Australians and British returned to Western Australia with more than 700 Anglo-Indians on board. While this group of Anglo-Indians was admitted, an investigation blamed the inability of immigration officers to screen properly those embarking in Bombay. In response, immigration restrictions were further tightened. In 1947, a new form was introduced for applicants from India, including questions about the applicant’s parents’ and grandparents’ race, with applicants required to specify whether they were ‘wholly European’, or if partly Indian, whether that fraction was a quarter, a half, or three-quarters. Photographs were required with applications but not always considered sufficient proof; interviews were sometimes required as well. From 1949, applicants for migration to Australia had to prove that they were ‘predominantly European in race or descent’, as well as ‘predominantly European in appearance’.95 Before, during and after the 1930s, immigration policy reflected Australia’s obsession with whiteness, and was regarded as one of, if not the, most restrictive in the British Commonwealth.

It was not until the late 1960s and the 1970s, when the White Australia policy had been relaxed, that Anglo-Indians were admitted into Australia in significant numbers. At that stage, Australia became a major destination for them because of its familiarity as part of the British Commonwealth, as well as its relative proximity; by 1970, 50,000 Anglo-Indians had left independent India, half of whom went to Britain in the late 1940s and 1950s, and many of the remainder coming to Australia, particularly forming a community in Perth. Yet even then, Anglo-Indians often faced racism from other Australians who regarded them as ‘black’.96 In the 1970s, the former immigration minister Arthur Calwell made racist remarks about the Anglo-Indian community of Highgate in Perth, derisively calling it the ‘Durban of Australia’. Such attitudes existed despite the fact that, as shown in the 1981 Australian census, of the 41,657 Indian-born Australians counted, 75 percent were Anglo-Indian.97

It was not until after Oberon’s death in 1979 that word of her Anglo-Indian origins began to circulate in the Australian press. In 1982 an article by a London journalist was printed in the Adelaide Advertiser, quoting a report from the London Daily Mirror, with the news that ‘it seems she may not be a Tasmanian after all’. The report was based on the testimony of an Englishwoman living in California, who claimed to have been a ‘lifelong companion’ to Oberon. Phyllis Beaumont actually had her facts somewhat wrong, announcing that Oberon had not been born in Tasmania, but in Calcutta. She debunked the official publicity story of Oberon’s birth and childhood, revealing that Oberon’s real name was Queenie Thompson, asserting (wrongly) that Oberon had never been in Tasmania in her life, and was ‘a “chi-chi” girl, as the children of mixed parentage were contemptuously called. She was the illegitimate daughter of an Indian mother and British Tommy. She never knew her father, only that his name was Thompson. Life was hard for Queenie. Until she managed somehow to get to England and into films’. Beaumont claimed that one of the sadnesses of Oberon’s life was that she would have liked to become an American citizen, but could never do so because she would have had to produce a birth certificate.98

Apparently some in Australia either did not read this debunking of the myth of Oberon’s Tasmanian birth, or did not accept it. Two years later, The Northern Territory News printed a long biographical article on Oberon titled ‘Australian-born movie star spent life seeking love’. The Northern Territory News at least was aware that Oberon had visited Australia, reporting that: ‘In 1978 Merle Oberon visited Australia and spent four days in her birthplace. She was given a civic reception in Hobart and also took time out to visit two sheep properties in NSW in which she had interests’. But its long account of her origins was the publicity-story version of her birth in Hobart, to parents of British and other European origin, her father dying before her birth, her mother staying in Hobart until Merle was seven, at which point she took her to Bombay, and later to Calcutta. According to this writer, it was Merle’s ‘mixed – French, Dutch and Irish – ancestry [that] accounted for her unusual, almost inscrutable, oriental look’.99 Thus in the 1980s, the myth of Oberon’s Tasmanian birth retained currency, yoked as it still was to this Orientalist interpretation of her beauty that insisted on her exoticism at the same time as announcing her complete Europeanness. The retelling of this myth, only two years after The Advertiser had printed its debunking, shows how tenacious it was, and the fact that these two papers were printed in Adelaide and Darwin respectively reveals the nationwide basis of the interest in Oberon. The circulation of conflicting stories about her provenance has enabled the Tasmanian believers to defend their account of her birth to Lottie Chintock to this day.

The ways in which Australians accepted Oberon as an Australian in the 1930s, based on the film studio propaganda, tell us about the transnational imaginations of even those who never left Australia’s shores. The Australian popular and women’s press, at least, and presumably their readers, leapt at the idea of an Australian on the global silver screen, especially such a famous and glamorous star. As one reporter put it: ‘Many Australians, male and female, have achieved success in Hollywood and the English studios. But Merle Oberon is the first to have won for herself a place in that small group of stars whose names are known to millions, and whose photographs are recognised by film fans in New York or London, Oshkosh, Pa., [sic] or Little Huddlecombe – to say nothing of the cities and towns of the six states of the Commonwealth’.100 For Australians, it was a mixed blessing when the English paper The Morning Post referred to Oberon as ‘probably England’s best known screen actress’, because they wanted her to be not just famous but known as Australian.101

Jill Matthews has described the process in which movies, fans, and fan magazines became part of Australian modernity in the decades from the 1910s. As elsewhere in the world, Australians rapidly became movie-goers, embracing the fantasy world of the screen as an exciting new form of leisure and escape. They too became appreciative and discerning film audiences, and part of the global market for films and film-related commodities. Integral to the development of transnational film culture in the 1920s and 1930s was the cult of individual stars, a commodification of actors which fan magazines and movie studios both encouraged. Australian audiences participated in the construction of the glamorous film star as much as audiences elsewhere, through locally produced magazines as well as American imports.102 Part of the appeal of film stars were their stories of emerging from anonymity and rising to celebrity, their embodiment of the magical possibilities of success. Curiosity about their background and origins, then, was inherent to the cult of individual stars, their stories and reputations. Fans were drawn to the stars through their visual appeal, the characters they played, the romance and opulence of their private lives, and through fascination with the question of what it took to become famous. The cult of celebrity has been an element of modernity, evidence of the possibility not only of self-transformation but also of individual success and wealth. That stories of stars were a staple of the women’s press in the early twentieth century shows the popular appeal of women having successful careers and earning independent incomes – though feminist principles were compromised by the overwhelming emphasis on heterosexual romance in film plots.

Stage actors had long used make-up, but with film there were now two layers of illusory visual effects for audiences to conjure with: the make-up and the camera. As Liz Conor has shown of Australian culture within its broader transnational contexts, in the 1920s femininity became even more closely linked to visual spectacle and the female body than it had been. Fashion revealed the female body more than in any earlier period in cultural memory, at the same time that women newly transgressed cultural boundaries of space and public behaviour, feeling free to take advantage of urban amenities, as well as driving cars and smoking in public. Women office workers – themselves encroaching on urban and public spaces – consumed fan magazine articles about movie stars, as they sought to dress, look, act and dance like them. The female screen star was the very model of feminine spectacularity, even as her ‘illusory qualities were used as evidence that the spectacularised modern feminine was not to be trusted’.103 If even Mary Pickford was regarded as visually deceptive because of her heavy makeup, then Oberon’s ethnic identity was only another matter for speculation and curiosity – perhaps all the more so because her beauty was universally acclaimed. Yet Oberon’s career hinged upon her passing as ‘white’, a fact her fans would fully have appreciated, just as she herself never wavered from the story of her Tasmanian origins. Thus, in largely accepting her as Australian, Australian fans played a crucial role in helping Oberon to secure her whiteness and consequently her career.

Australians negotiated racial ambiguities in order to claim Oberon as Australian through imagining her as quintessentially English or British. It did not undermine their conception of her as Australian when a 1936 reviewer of These Three commented of Oberon’s voice: ‘It is worth going to this show just to hear how charmingly English can be spoken’;104 rather, this would have been widely interpreted as evidence that an Australian could, in fact, be British.

Susan Courtney, in her recent book on Hollywood and miscegenation, suggests that the Production Code’s refusal of cinematic representations of miscegenation in the 1930s and 40s marked a particular phase of racial thinking. She argues that racial thinking moved away from earlier discourses of ‘blood’ and ancestry, as cinema itself became partly responsible for increasing belief in visible bodily markers of racial difference. The ‘dominant cultural assumption that racial difference is in fact visible’, Courtney argues, ‘[was] an elaborate cinematic production’.105 Racial ambiguity on screen was augmented by the widespread practice of overtly using actors to play racial identities other than their own; in the 1956 film Bhowani Junction, for example, ‘white’ actors in blackface were used to play Indian and Anglo-Indian characters.106 The pervasive use of blackface in theatre and film from the nineteenth century onwards, and the layers of irony it enabled, meant that cinema audiences were accustomed to racial ambiguity. Courtney’s argument is a useful frame within which to consider Oberon’s acceptance as white. It is clear from the coverage of her films in the Australian press that there was early anxiety and doubt surrounding her racial identity, but that these were largely overcome because – once she was playing proper, respectable British and American roles – she looked sufficiently Anglo to pass. Of course, the facts that she was beautiful, successful and cultivated an English accent all helped. In their eagerness to claim an Australian movie star, Australians set aside their doubts and bought into the studio propaganda. Yet in doing so, at some level, they showed that the category of white Australianness was negotiable. Through the transnational cultural imaginary, Australians grappled with and embraced racial ambiguities, in order to celebrate an extension of themselves on the global silver screen.

1 Julie Matthews, ‘Eurasian Persuasions: Mixed Race, Performativity and Cosmpolitanism’, Journal of Intercultural Studies Vol. 28 No. 1 (February 2007), p. 43.

2 Matthews, ‘Eurasian Persuasions’, p. 44.

3 Homi K. Bhabha, The Location of Culture (London: Routledge, 1994), pp. 86–87.

4 Cassandra Pybus, ‘Lottie’s Little Girl’, in Till Apples Grow on an Orange Tree (St. Lucia, Qld.: University of Queensland Press, 1998), pp. 91–111.

5 Maree Delofski, ‘Storytelling and Archival Material in The Trouble with Merle’, The Moving Image Vol. 6, No. 1 (Spring 2006), p. 91.

6 Delofski, ‘Storytelling and Archival Material’, p. 94.

7 Nelson B. Bell, ‘An Exotic Young Star of the Screen Breaks Down and Confesses All, at Last’, The Washington Post 22 March 1935, p. 22.

8 Charles Higham and Roy Moseley, Princess Merle: The Romantic Life of Merle Oberon (New York: Coward-McCann Inc., 1983), pp. 17–42; Delofski, ‘Storytelling and Archival Material’.

9 From the filmography in Higham and Moseley, Princess Merle, pp. 218–20.

10 ‘Schenck Announces Troth to British Film Actress’, The Los Angeles Times 6 August 1934, p. 1; ‘Joseph Schenck Marries British Screen Actress’, The Los Angeles Times 8 August 1934, p. 1; ‘Engagement Called Off: Schenck-Oberon Romance Fails’, The Los Angeles Times 24 October 1934, p. 1.

11 Philip K. Scheuer, ‘Intriguing “Myths” About Merle Oberon All Exploded’, The Los Angeles Times 30 December 1934, p. A1.

12 ‘Merle Oberon Bride of Alexander Korda’, The Los Angeles Times 4 June 1939, p. 1.

13 ‘Stage and Screen’, The Sydney Morning Herald, Women’s Supplement, 21 March 1935, p. 9.

14 Higham and Moseley, Princess Merle, p. 113.

15 Higham and Moseley, Princess Merle, pp. 132–4.

16 Michael Korda, Charmed Lives: A Family Romance (London: Allen Lane, 1980), p. 10.

17 Korda, Charmed Lives, p. 419.

18 Korda, Charmed Lives, pp. 11, 239–240.

19 Korda, Charmed Lives, p. 158.

20 Higham and Moseley, Princess Merle, p. 154.

21 Michael Korda, Queenie (New York: Warner Books, 1985), frontispiece.

22 Kristin Helmore, ‘Korda’s novel has the right ingredients, but the recipe flops’, Christian Science Monitor 6 May 1985, p. 34.

23 Higham and Moseley, Princess Merle, p. 34.

24 Helmore, ‘Korda’s novel has the right ingredients’, p. 34.

25 Michiko Kakutani, ‘Books of the Times; Climbing the Ladder’, The New York Times 6 April 1985.

26 John J. O’Connor, ‘“Queenie”, Based on Korda Novel’, The New York Times 11 May 1987.

27 Alison Blunt, ‘“Land of our Mothers”: Home, Identity, and Nationality for Anglo-Indians in British India, 1941-1947’, History Workshop Journal Issue 54 (Autumn 2002), p. 53.

28 Alison Blunt, Domicile and Diaspora: Anglo-Indian Women and the Spatial Politics of Home (Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2005), p. 1.

29 Mark Haslam, ‘Queenie: Smudging the distinctions between Black and White’, http://www.alphalink.com.au/~agilbert/queenie.html accessed 27 April 2006.

30 Blunt, Domicile and Diaspora, p. 54.

31 Blunt, ‘“Land of our Mothers”’, pp. 51, 64, 67–69.

32 Clive Barker, ‘Oberon, Merle’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2004) http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/printable/56978accessed29September2005; Higham and Moseley, Princess Merle, pp. 56–7.

33 Higham and Moseley, Princess Merle, pp. 32, 59, 80, 120–25, 157; also on this topic see Nicholas Shakespeare, In Tasmania (London: The Harrill Press, 2004), pp. 296, 298.

34 Higham and Moseley, Princess Merle, p. 161.

35 Louise Sweeney, ‘L.B.’s daughter, Selznick’s wife’, Christian Science Monitor 24 June 1983, p. B2.

36 ‘Tasmanian Girl Wins Screen Fame. Important Role for 21-Year-Old Actress’, The Sydney Morning Herald, Women’s Supplement, Thurs. 21 June 1934, p. 8.

37 Marilyn Hoffman, ‘“At home” with Merle Oberon’, Christian Science Monitor 20 December 1965, p. 6.

38 Kathy Peiss, Hope in a Jar: The Making of America’s Beauty Culture (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1998), pp. 9, 41.

39 Peiss, Hope in a Jar, pp. 10, 42, 85.

40 Peiss, Hope in a Jar, p. 212.

41 Debjani Ganguly, ‘From Empire to Empire? Writing the Transnational Anglo-Indian Self in Australia’, Journal of Intercultural Studies Vol. 28 No. 1 (February 2007), pp. 32–33.

42 David Walker, Anxious Nation: Australia and the Rise of Asia 1850–1939 (St Lucia, Qld: University of Queensland Press, 1999), Chs. 8 and 9.

43 Walker, Anxious Nation, pp. 183–189.

44 Cassie Marshall, ‘Australian Merle Oberon Wins Fame! World Star Now’, The Australian Women’s Weekly 18 January 1936, p. 24.

45 ‘“Henry VIII” Smashes New York Record’, Everyone’s 18 October 1933, p. 38.

46 The Australian Woman’s Mirror February 27, 1934, p. 20.

47 Constance Cotton, ‘The Doings of Doug in “Don Juan”’, Everyone’s 22 August 1934, p. 10.

48 ‘Tasmanian Girl Wins Screen Fame’, p. 8.

49 ‘Merle Oberon Lead Opposite Howard’, The Los Angeles Times 30 July 1934, p. 7; ‘Schenck Announces Troth to British Film Actress’, The Los Angeles Times 6 August 1934, p. 1.

50 ‘Some Old Friends …’, The Australian Women’s Weekly 14 July 1934, p. 15.

51 ‘“The Battle”’, The Sydney Morning Herald 8 October 1934, p. 5.

52 ‘Australian Stars Abroad!’ The Australian Women’s Weekly 25 August 1934, p. 20.

53 ‘Everyone’s at the Box Office’, Everyone’s 22 November 1933, p. 2.

54 1934 advertisement for and report on ‘The Battle’, reprinted in The Daily Mirror 15 February 1972, p. 26.

55 Cotton, ‘The Doings of Doug in “Don Juan”’, p. 10.

56 ‘Amusements, Etc.’, The Mercury 30 October 1934, p. 8.

57 ‘Amusements, Etc.’, The Mercury 27 October 1934, p. 10; ‘Pictures and Personalities’, The Mercury 4 May 1935, p. 12.

58 ‘Pictures and Personalities: Tasmanian Nearly Banned’, The Mercury 11 May 1935, p. 13.

59 ‘Film Reviews … Scarlet Pimpernel’, Sydney Morning Herald Monday 25 March 1935, p. 6.

60 Advertisement for ‘The Scarlet Pimpernel’, The Sydney Morning Herald’s, Women’s Supplement, 21 March 1935, p. 9.

61 Scheuer, ‘Intriguing “Myths” About Merle Oberon All Exploded’, p. A1.

62 Lydia Lane, ‘Nature Gives Make-up Code’, The Los Angeles Times 12 July 1935, p. A5; ‘Actress Will Broadcast’, The Los Angeles Times 31 July 1935, p. 14.

63 ‘Chevalier’s Leading Lady: Strikes a New Note’, The Sydney Morning Herald’s, Women’s Supplement, 6 June 1935, p. 9.

64 Review of ‘Folies Bergere’, Everyone’s 5 June 1935, p. 11.

65 ‘Merle Oberon…. Scales the Heights in “The Dark Angel”’, Everyone’s 1 January 1936, p. 21.

66 ‘Merle Oberon and Omar Kiam Team in Designing Wardrobe’, The Los Angeles Times 13 September 1935, p. B2.

67 ‘Merle Oberon Tops in “Dark Angel”’, Everyone’s 2 October 1935, p. 13.

68 ‘An Australian Leads: Merle Oberon’s Latest Success’, The Sydney Morning, Herald Women’s Supplement, Thursday 16 January 1936, p. 9.

69 Marshall, ‘Australian Merle Oberon Wins Fame!’ p. 24.

70 ‘“The Dark Angel”: Drama at the Strand’, The Mercury 17 February 1936, p. 5.

71 ‘Quick Sketch Tells Highlights of Merle’s Life’, The Los Angeles Times 13 September 1935, p. B6.

72 ‘Merle Oberon Wants to be Just Herself Off Screen’, The Los Angeles Times 22 April 1935, p. 13.

73 Norbert Lusk, ‘Film Writing Hits Peak in “Dark Angel”’, The Los Angeles Times 15 September 1935, p. A3.

74 John R. Woolfenden, ‘“I Detest ‘Exotic’ Women”, Says Exotic Merle Oberon’, The Los Angeles Times 15 September 1935, p. A3.

75 The Australian Women’s Weekly, Movie World, 8 February 1936, p. 36.

76 ‘Screen Oddities By Captain Fawcett’, The Australian Women’s Weekly, Movie World, 29 February 1936, p. 40.

77 Emphasis added. ‘Film Reviews’, The Sydney Morning Herald 27 January 1936, p. 2.

78 Muriel Segal, ‘Australian Stars Abroad! Betty Stockfeld and Merle Oberon’, The Australian Women’s Weekly 25 August 1934, p. 20.

79 ‘Hedda Hopper’s Hollywood’, The Los Angeles Times 9 July 1938, p. A6.

80 ‘Actress Shines Nose for Natural Effect’, The Washington Post 20 February 1941, p. 13.

81 John B. Davies and Judy Bailey, ‘Calling Australia! Moviedom News As It Happens’, The Australian Women’s Weekly, Movie World, 14 November 1936, p. 27.

82 ‘Merle Oberon – A Special Australian Women’s Weekly Study’, The Australian Women’s Weekly, Movie World, 23 May 1936, p. 31; and ‘Merle Oberon, Starring in “These Three”’, The Australian Women’s Weekly, Movie World, 22 August 1936, p. 27.

83 Higham and Moseley, Princess Merle, pp. 91–99.

84 The British Australian and New Zealander 1 July 1937, p. 15.

85 Alma Whitaker, ‘Merle Oberon Finds Taxes Eat Up Most of Earnings Here and In Britain’, The Los Angeles Times 26 June 1938, p. C1.

86 ‘Hedda Hopper’s Hollywood’, The Los Angeles Times 9 July 1938, p. A6.

87 ‘Star Radiant in Color’, The Los Angeles Times 16 August 1940, p. A11.

88 Ivor Davis, ‘She’s the youngest-looking old woman I’ve met’, The Herald 6 January 1973, p. 21.

89 William Hall, ‘Return to Yesterday’, The Australian Women’s Weekly 24 January 1973, p. 5.

90 Ray Kerrison, ‘Merle Oberon Divorce’, The Daily Mirror 6 April 1973, p. 2.

91 Don Riseborough, ‘A New Starring Role … and a New Love’, Woman’s Day, 20 August 1973, pp. 10–11.

92 ‘Merle Oberon “resting”’, The Courier-Mail 18 November 1978, p. 3.

93 ‘Actress Merle Oberon Dies’, The Canberra Times 25 November 1979, p. 5.

94 ‘She stopped a film and changed the law’, The Australian 29 November 1979, p. 8; ‘Merle Oberon: “A star beauty in a golden age’“, The Sydney Morning Herald 26 November 1979, p. 8.

95 Blunt, Domicile and Diaspora, pp. 146, 150.

96 Blunt, Domicile and Diaspora, pp. 3, 164.

97 Ganguly, ‘From Empire to Empire?’, p. 34.

98 Chris Brice, ‘More to Merle than meets the eye’, The Advertiser 30 November 1982, p. 29.

99 ‘Australian-born movie star spent life seeking love’, The Northern Territory News 26 July 1984, p. 34.

100 Marshall, ‘Australian Merle Oberon Wins Fame!’ p. 24.

101 The British Australian & New Zealander 1 July 1937, p. 15.

102 Jill Julius Matthews, Dance Hall & Picture Palace: Sydney’s Romance with Modernity (Sydney: Currency Press, 2005), pp. 128–33.

103 Liz Conor, The Spectacular Modern Woman: Feminine Visibility in the 1920s (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004), p. 91.

104 Stewart Howard, ‘Private Views’, The Australian Women’s Weekly, Movie World, 15 August 1936, p. 34.

105 Susan Courtney, Hollywood Fantasies of Miscegenation: Spectacular Narratives of Gender and Race, 1903–1967 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), esp. pp. 142–3.

106 Glenn D’Cruz, ‘Anglo-Indians in Hollywood, Bollywood and Arthouse Cinema’, Journal of Intercultural Studies Vol. 28 No. 1 (February 2007), p. 58.

Race and the Modern Exotic: Three ‘Australian’ Women on Global Display

   by Angela Woollacott