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[PROFILE] Merle Oberon (Famous Anglo-Indian Actress)

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  • madchinaman
    This famous actress was the illegitimate daughter of a Chinese hotel worker, Lottie Chintock, who lived in the north-east and gave birth to her in Hobart.
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 10, 2003
      This famous actress was the illegitimate daughter of a Chinese hotel
      worker, Lottie Chintock, who lived in the north-east and gave birth
      to her in Hobart. This tale, unacceptable to Hollywood in the early
      1900's, was changed to be more acceptable.


      An Actress of Exquisite Beauty and Talent!

      Estelle Merle O'Brien Thompson was born in India on February 19,
      1911 to a racially mixed Anglo-Indian mother and white Australian
      father. She was educated in that country until the age of 17 when
      she arrived in London.

      Merle began her career in British films with mostly forgettable
      roles on her part. She appeared in an uncredited role in ALF'S
      BUTTON in 1930. Unfortunately, Merle would have that trend for the
      next three years. Movie moguls began to see an untapped talent in
      their midst and began grooming her for something bigger.

      Finally, in 1933, she landed a part with substance with her role as
      Ysobel d'Aunay in MEN OF TOMORROW. That was quickly followed by THE
      PRIVATE LIFE OF HENRY VIII that same year. Up to this point she had
      been in British films only.

      After her portrayal of Lady Marguerite Blakeney in THE SCARLET
      PIMPERNEL in 1934, she came to Hollywood to try her hand at American
      film making. The US had already had some idea of Merle's talent
      because they had seen THE BROKEN MELODY which was released in the US

      With her nomination for an Academy Award for Best Actress as Kitty
      Vane in 1935's THE DARK ANGEL, Merle became a star in both Britain
      and the US. Her portrayal of Miss Vane set the stage for better
      roles to come. She appeared in several well received films such as

      In 1939, Merle turned in another masterful performance as Cathy
      Linton in WUTHERING HEIGHTS. The 1940's proved to be a very busy
      decade where she appeared in no less than 15 movies. The beautiful
      Miss Oberon was kept very busy indeed.

      In 1948 she appeared in BERLIN EXPRESS and would not be seen of the
      screen again until her appearance as Elizabeth Rockwell in PARDON MY
      FRENCH (1951). With no screen appearances in 1953, Merle bounced
      back in 1954's DESIREE. Unfortunately the drought was not getting
      any better.

      There were no films for her in 1955, one in 1956, and none until OF
      LOVE AND DESIRE in 1963. In between she did appear on television as
      host of the TV series ASSIGNMENT FOREIGN LEGION. Her final film was
      INTERVAL in 1973.

      Afterwards, Merle lived in quiet retirement until her death of a
      massive stroke on November 23, 1979 in Malibu, California. She was
      68 and had kept her beauty to the end


      These Anglo-Indian entertainers are world-famous. What were their
      real names?

      (a) Cliff Richards

      (b) Engelbert Humperdinck

      (c) Merle Oberon

      (d) Tony Brent

      (a) Harry Roger Webb (born Lucknow)

      (b) Arnold George Dorsey (born Madras)

      (c) Estelle Merle O'Brien Thompson (born Calcutta)

      (d) Reginald Brentagne (Bombay)


      The legend of Merle
      August 21 2002
      Merle Oberon

      She was one of the most glamorous stars of the 1930s and '40s. A
      screen siren with smouldering looks, exotic features and almond-
      shaped eyes. Merle Oberon was described as graceful and hauntingly

      On her ascent, in 1939, she captivated the world in the box office
      Hollywood hit, Wuthering Heights, playing Cathy opposite Laurence
      Olivier as Heathcliff.

      From the other side of the globe, Tasmanians glowed with pride.
      Oberon, according to a biography that read like a Hollywood film
      script, had been born in Hobart, the daughter of an upper-class
      white colonial family. She left Tasmania for India after her
      distinguished father died in a hunting accident, and was raised
      there by aristocratic godparents.

      If Errol Flynn was the island state's favourite son, Merle Oberon
      was its treasured daughter. In 1978, the Hobart Town Hall hosted a
      function attended by well-known local identities to welcome her
      back. Decades later, Tasmanians proudly recount stories and
      anecdotes about the hometown girl who blazed her way to Hollywood.
      Only Oberon wasn't born in Tasmania. She was Anglo-Indian.

      Documentary maker Maree Delofksi, grew up in the 1950s admiring the
      actress as "kind of wild, beautiful -- and Tasmanian". By the
      early '80s, Delofksi was aware that Oberon was born in India. A
      biography, Princess Merle, co-written by British author Charles
      Higham, revealed that she was Anglo-Indian and that her Tasmanian
      provenance had been fabricated by the studios of British film
      producer Alexander Korda.

      Korda, the first of her four husbands, launched Oberon's career by
      casting her as Anne Boleyn in The Private Life of Henry VIII. But he
      was aware that actresses of mixed-race were not acceptable at the
      time, so re-wrote her past, choosing Tasmania because of its links
      to England and because it was so far away.

      Delofski was intrigued at Oberon's much-vaunted homecoming in 1978.
      From Hollywood to the Hobart Town Hall -- why go if you weren't born

      In 1999, the Sydney-based film maker started a search that would
      take her from Tasmania to India, Los Angeles then Canada. The trail
      to find Oberon's origins had more twists and turns than the Ganges
      River. Smoke and mirrors, dead-ends and discoveries. The documentary
      The Trouble with Merle is revelationary, revealing, controversial
      and fascinating viewing.

      And, it has a final, tragic twist.

      Delofski starts out in Tasmania, a wry investigator travelling
      around "Merle country" in a red VW, looking for clues to support
      what had become local legend.

      She finds that despite Higham's biography and a complete lack of
      documentary evidence, some Tasmanians are still convinced Oberon was
      born there. But they have different versions to the one propagated
      by Korda.

      To them, Oberon was the illegitimate daughter of a Chinese hotel
      worker, Lottie Chintock, who lived in the north-east and gave birth
      to her in Hobart. Lottie was forced to relinquish her daughter, who
      was taken to India by Indian silk merchants or, says another
      version, by a travelling troupe of actors called O'Brien (hence
      Oberon). Another story has her taken to India by the cousin of her
      mother's employer.

      Delofski is shown the doctor's rooms where Oberon was (supposedly)
      born, and photos of the midwife and of Chintock, who had similar
      facial features. (An old newspaper refers to Oberon as
      having "intriguingly slanted eyes".)

      A former journalist turned dog-breeder is sure that Oberon's
      features proved she was of Chinese descent. She says she has done a
      lot of judging at dog shows, and at the Miss Tasmania contest, and
      that you learn to distinguish features. Chintock's nephew tells
      Delofski that Lottie longed for her lost daughter and travelled to
      Hobart to watch her movies.

      "People had obviously spent a lot of time thinking about Merle,"
      says Delofski. "I had Merle stories coming out of my ears - with no
      real proof." And much confusion. "I got caught up in the stories; I
      loved them, they were so mysterious. I think part of me wanted to
      believe them."

      But she presses on to India. Delofski visits a school in Calcutta
      that Oberon attended and finds that the headmistress remembers her -
      unfortunately from the movies. The school has no record of her.

      Then Delofski's luck changes - she encounters people who do remember
      Oberon from her girlhood, including a priest in Mumbai whose mother
      babysat her. The priest directs her to his former schoolmate, Harold
      Selby. Selby is noted in Higham's biography as Oberon's nephew and
      the man who proved she was Anglo-Indian.

      Estelle Merle Thompson, nicknamed "Queenie Thompson", was born in
      Mumbai on February 19, 1911. She acted in amateur theatre as a girl
      and went to London with her mother in 1929. She starred in more than
      30 British and Hollywood films until the 1950s, when the roles all
      but dried up.

      The most memorable of her movie titles include The Divorce of Lady
      X, The Cowboy and the Lady, The Scarlet Pimpernel, A Song to
      Remember and Berlin Express. (They're now screened mostly on late-
      night television or cable TV.) Oberon acted in her last film in 1973.

      It wasn't until after she stopped acting that Oberon's family began
      to talk publicly about her past. Selby had found her birth
      certificate in the Indian government records office - hard evidence
      that eluded Delofski. She journeys to Toronto to see it and to talk
      with Selby, and is shocked at what she finds - Selby is not Oberon's
      nephew as he told Higham, but her brother.

      Oberon's mother, like Chintock, had given birth as a teenager,
      relinquishing the baby to her own mother to bring up.

      "I was gobsmacked," says Delofski. "At the time I thought 'Should
      this go in the film?' I wasn't going to do an expose of Merle. I was
      just interested in the power of her story.

      "Maybe Merle didn't even know who her mother was. The studio
      reconstructed her history and she had to live that life story and
      keep living that life story. It had huge repercussions for her later

      The burden eventually became too much for Oberon. When she visited
      Hobart in '78, she refused to talk to the local media and bunkered
      down at the Wrest Point Casino with her fourth husband, Robert
      Wolders. Wolders, a much younger man whom she adored, had wanted to
      see her "birthplace" when the couple travelled to Sydney on other

      Whatever her intentions, the Hobart visit was a disaster. At the
      town hall reception, Oberon agitatedly admitted she wasn't born in
      Tasmania, to much rue, and collapsed. She died of a heart-attack at
      her home in California the following year, aged 68.

      Delofski is aware her documentary, to be screened on the ABC next
      week, will disappoint true believers, but she doesn't think it will
      be the last word on Oberon. "I'm sure that people who firmly
      believed she was born there when I was filming will continue to
      believe. It seems to be such a big part of Tasmanian mythology of
      that generation."

      Oberon, as Tasmania writer Cassandra Pybus points out, represented a
      connection, a "mooring" to Hollywood and the rest of the world. She
      was glamorous and beautiful, and proved you could leave Tasmania and
      become "very, very famous".

      Delofski says that news of her findings has met with an early mixed
      reaction. Some Tasmanians who've got wind of it are already saying
      the ABC has got it wrong. The documentary leaves much unanswered.
      What for example, happened to the little girl that Chintock gave up
      as a baby.

      Many questions remain about the mystery that is Merle.

      The Trouble with Merle will be shown on ABC television on True
      Stories, on August 29, at 10pm.



      Beautiful, dark-haired leading lady of British and Hollywood films.
      Born Estelle Merle O'Brien Thompson, raised and educated in India
      from age seven, she arrived in London at 17 and began her career as
      a café hostess, under the name Queenie O'Brien.

      She entered British films as an extra in 1930 and played bits in a
      number of productions as Estelle Thompson before being discovered
      and groomed to stardom by Alexander Korda, whom she married in 1939
      and divorced in 1945.

      She graduated to leads by 1932, and in 1935, when Korda sold a share
      of her contract to Sam Goldwyn, she began communting between London
      studios and Hollywood, rapidly establishing herself as a prominent
      leading lady on both sides of the Atlantic. She wasn't a very
      exciting personality or a particularly good actress, but her regal
      beauty adorned many important productions and proved a durable asset
      through the late 60s.

      Her near-fatal injury in a 1937 car crash caused the abandonment in
      mid-production of the ambitious spectacle I CLAUDIUS, in which she
      co-starred with Charles Laughton under the direction of Josef von
      Sternberg. Her second husband (1945-49) was cinematographer Lucien
      Ballard. In 1957 she married a wealthy Italian industrialist, with
      whom she resided in Mexico until her divorce in 1973. That same year
      she returned to the screen after a long absence in INTERVAL, a film
      she also produced and co-edited.

      She later married for the fourth time, to her co-star in that film,
      Robert Wolders, a man many years her junior, who ironically had
      played in INTERVAL the role of a younger man who falls in love with
      the aging Oberon. Both were familiar members of the international
      jet set



      Estelle Merle O'Brien Thompson was born in India on February 19,

      She was educated in that country until the age of 17 when she
      arrived in London. Merle began her career in British films with
      mostly forgettable roles on her part.

      She appeared in an uncredited role in ALF'S BUTTON in 1930.
      Unfortunately, Merle would have that trend for the next three years.
      Movie moguls began to see an untapped talent in their midst and
      began grooming her for something bigger.

      Finally, in 1933, she landed a part with substance with her role as
      Ysobel d'Aunay in MEN OF TOMORROW. That was quickly followed by THE
      PRIVATE LIFE OF HENRY VIII that same year. Up to this point she had
      been in British films only.

      After her portrayal of Lady Marguerite Blakeney in THE SCARLET
      PIMPERNEL in 1934, she came to Hollywood to try her hand at American
      film making. The US had already had some idea of Merle's talent
      because they had seen THE BROKEN MELODY which was released in the US

      With her nomination for an Academy Award for Best Actress as Kitty
      Vane in 1935's THE DARK ANGEL, Merle became a star in both Britain
      and the US. Her portrayal of Miss Vane set the stage for better
      roles to come. She appeared in several well received films such as

      In 1939, Merle turned in another masterful performance as Cathy
      Linton in WUTHERING HEIGHTS. The 1940's proved to be a very busy
      decade where she appeared in no less than 15 movies. The beautiful
      Miss Oberon was kept very busy indeed. In 1948 she appeared in
      BERLIN EXPRESS and would not be seen of the screen again until her
      appearance as Elizabeth Rockwell in PARDON MY FRENCH (1951).

      With no screen appearances in 1953, Merle bounced back in 1954's
      DESIREE. Unfortunately the drought was not getting any better. There
      were no films for her in 1955, one in 1956, and none until OF LOVE
      AND DESIRE in 1963.

      In between she did appear on television as host of the TV series
      ASSIGNMENT FOREIGN LEGION. Her final film was INTERVAL in 1973.
      Afterwards, Merle lived in quiet retirement until her death of a
      massive stroke on November 23, 1979 in Malibu, California. She was
      68 and had kept her beauty to the end.


      Merle Oberon
      (Estelle Merle O'Brien Thompson)
      Anglo-Indian Actress


      Born: 2/19/11

      Birthplace: Bombay, India

      Regal and stylish, Oberon played bit parts in the British film
      industry before her future husband, producer Alexander Korda, cast
      her in several costume dramas.
      Her first Hollywood film appearance, in The Dark Angel (1935),
      garnered an Oscar nomination. She delivered striking performances in
      the 1930s and early 1940s and is probably best remembered for her
      role opposite Laurence Olivier in Wuthering Heights (1939).
      Her career slowed in the 1950s, though she later appeared in The
      Oscar (1966) and Hotel (1967).

      Died: 11/23/79


      Broadcast: 29/8/2002
      The Trouble With Merle

      Merle Oberon was one of the biggest movie stars of the 1930s and
      1940s. Studio publicists said she was born into a wealthy family in
      Hobart, Tasmania - Australia's island state.

      In a biography that read like a film script they said that after her
      father's death Merle joined her aristocratic godparents in India.
      Yet rumour was that the exotic almond-eyed actress concealed her
      true past. It was said she was actually "oriental," perhaps Anglo-
      Indian, and born in Calcutta. In Tasmania, many remain convinced she
      was their island's most famous daughter, born not to wealthy parents
      but to a Chinese hotel worker and her married employer.

      The Trouble with Merle looks at celebrity, memory, identity, race
      and class...and at why Merle Oberon's origins mattered to people on
      a tiny island, in a country at the bottom of the world.




      The idea for The Trouble with Merle evolved when I learned that the
      film star Merle Oberon visited Hobart in 1978 for a welcome home
      reception. I'd grown up believing Merle was a Tasmanian film legend –
      like Errol Flynn, she'd gone to Hollywood and become a big star.
      Merle was famous for her roles in Hollywood and British films of the
      1930s and 40s - films like Wuthering Heights, Dark Angel, The Cowboy
      and the Lady, The Private Life of Henry V111. She was nominated for
      an Academy Award and was always written up as "the Tasmanian born
      movie star".

      But sometime in the 1980s, and I can't remember how, I heard that
      she wasn't Tasmanian after all, that she was Indian. I didn't think
      about Merle Oberon for another twenty years, until by chance, the
      curious fact of her 1978 visit to Hobart came my way. If Merle was
      actually from India, why at this late stage in her life would she
      accept an invitation to a welcome home reception in Hobart? It
      seemed very odd and worth researching. Producer David Noakes thought
      so too, and we began a two year journey exploring Merle's past.

      Charles Higham's biography "Princess Merle" (which he wrote with Roy
      Moseley) first revealed that Merle was actually Anglo-Indian. Higham
      argues that Merle's Tasmanian provenance was concocted by British
      film producer Alexander Korda's film studio in London after Merle
      had arrived there from India.

      In the movies at that time, a woman of mixed race was not
      acceptable. The racism of the period made it very explicit: Merle's
      Anglo-Indian background was a major obstacle to her becoming a star.
      Tasmania was chosen as her new birthplace because it was so far from
      the USA and Europe and was generally considered to be "British" to
      its core. So Estelle Thompson from Bombay became Merle Oberon, a
      white upper class Hobart girl who moves to India from Tasmania after
      her distinguished father dies in a hunting accident.

      Higham writes that after Hobart Council's invitation to Merle in
      1978, it was discovered that there was no record of her Tasmanian
      birth. According to Higham, the Lord Mayor decided to go ahead with
      the function in order to save face and Merle attended the reception
      not knowing that she'd been sprung!

      However, when I travelled to Tasmania to research the welcome home
      reception, I discovered a completely different story.


      According to guests who attended the welcome home reception, Merle
      Oberon was most definitely Tasmanian. But instead of subscribing to
      the studio story of Merle's Tasmanian birth and its fantasy of
      wealth, class and "whiteness", the Tasmanians I spoke to were
      adamant that the film star was the daughter of a Tasmanian woman
      called Lottie Chintock from the now-disappeared Chinese tin mining
      community in the north-east of the island.

      What struck me while filming in Tasmania was the passionate
      conviction of many people that Merle was both Tasmanian and Lottie
      Chintock's daughter. Merle had died in 1979, but 23 years later many
      Tasmanians were still concerned that Charles Higham's biography
      was "taking Merle away" from them and were very enthusiastic about
      speaking in the film and putting their side of the story. And, as we
      filmed and talked with them, their stories began to convince me!
      Fascinating stories of Indian silk merchants adopting little Merle
      after Lottie Chintock is forced to give her up, or a troupe of
      travelling actors called O'Brien taking her to India, hence the
      Indian connection; Tasmanians with family connections to Merle – a
      grandmother who was the midwife who delivered her, an aunt and uncle
      who saw her playing on the beach.

      Lottie Chintock was a real person too – from the small, north-
      eastern town of Weldborough. Although she'd been dead for fifty
      years, the memory of her was very strong in Tasmania. I was
      contacted by her nephew Peter Lawrence who had photos of Lottie and
      stories about her longing for her lost daughter Merle. Was Lottie
      Merle's mother? I wanted her to be – but in the Tasmanian Archives
      there was no official record for anyone who could remotely
      approximate Merle, or be a daughter for Lottie. Yet Lottie's story
      is still told today in Tasmania. Did Lottie have a little girl? Was
      she taken from her? What happened to her?

      Tasmanian writer Cassandra Pybus, who appears in the film, believes
      that Tasmania's distance from the rest of the European world in the
      first half of last century contributed to Tasmanians' `need' for
      someone like Merle. She was famous, beautiful and glamorous, and
      represented everything Tasmanians longed for in a time of limited
      communication with the rest of the world. The irony was, that no
      matter how hard the film studio worked to describe Merle as a white
      upperclass Tasmanian, the island's community, with its small
      population and rigid hierarchies of class and race, knew she wasn't -
      and yet, they longed to embrace her. Their explanation, that she
      was from the Chinese community "up north", that she was illegitimate
      and of mixed race, in a great irony, landed Merle right back in the
      place the studio had tried to hide.


      Filming in India produced ironies too. If this was Merle's
      birthplace, it was nearly impossible to find any record. In the
      film, we go to the school Merle supposedly attended in Calcutta, and
      learn that, yes, the headmistress remembers her – but only on the
      screen: "I think she is one of the most beautiful women I have ever
      seen". Later, through an article in a newspaper, I strike it lucky.
      There are still people in Calcutta who remember Merle.

      An article about my search for people with information produced
      Dorothy Colah. Dorothy, now in her 90s, knew Merle as a teenager in
      Calcutta and was convinced she was Anglo-Indian. Later in Mumbai
      (Bombay) we interviewed a priest whose mother had babysat Merle. The
      priest, Father Richard Lane Smith, had also gone to school with a
      man called Harry Selby. In Higham's biography, this was the man who
      proved that Merle was Anglo-Indian – she was his aunt – or so I


      After a false lead or two, I found Harry Selby in Toronto. Here I
      discovered completely new information about Merle's birth. Although
      Harry Selby had told Charles Higham that he was Merle's nephew and
      had found Merle's birth certificate in Mumbai, it seems Harry had
      held information back from the biographer. What he had in fact
      discovered when he found Merle's birth certificate deep in the
      bowels of the Indian government records office, was a deeply guarded
      family secret of which even he was unaware: Merle Oberon was not his
      aunt, she was his sister.

      It seems Harry's mother Constance Selby had given birth to Merle
      when she was 15 and her mother had taken the baby and raised Merle
      as her own preventing Merle's real mother from claiming her. When
      Harry learned that his mother was Merle's mother and not her sister,
      it helped him to understand why his mother always fretted for Merle.
      Merle, however, never directly acknowledged the Selby family, except
      by sending them small amounts of money from time to time. When Harry
      tried to visit Merle, now famous and living in Los Angeles, she
      refused to acknowledge him.


      Merle Oberon accepted an invitation to a welcome home reception in
      Hobart in 1978, the year before she died. If she wasn't Tasmanian,
      why did she go there? This is the question which set the film in
      motion and it's the question we return to at its end.

      Charles Higham suggests in The Trouble with Merle that it was on the
      urging of Merle's fourth husband, the much younger Robert Wolders,
      that she came to Hobart. Robert wanted to see her birthplace. Had
      she not told him the truth?

      For many Tasmanians, then and now, Merle's visit to Hobart is proof
      of her Tasmanian birth. They ask in the film, "why would she come if
      she wasn't Tasmanian?" And it's a reasonable question - Hobart is
      certainly a long way from Hollywood. Whatever her intention, Merle
      appears to have found the visit more difficult than she anticipated.
      She refused to give interviews to the local press, hiding away in
      the Wrest Point Casino where she and Robert were staying; on the way
      to the welcome home reception she told her Tasmanian driver a
      completely different story of her birth, claiming she was travelling
      on a ship that was passing Hobart when her father became ill and
      that as a result she spent her early years in Tasmania; at the
      reception she denied she was born in Tasmania much to the
      disappointment of people there and finally, when it all got too
      much, she had a mini-collapse at the event and had to be helped from
      the room. As biographer Higham says in the film, "It was a tragedy.
      She should never have gone there."

      Merle left Tasmania shortly after the reception fiasco and died in
      Los Angeles the following year. The banners on newspapers at the
      time proclaimed: "Tasmanian-born movie star dies in the US".


      Loss and longing underpin the film's journey through Tasmania, India
      and Canada. Lottie Chintock, the Chinese-Tasmanian woman lost a
      daughter she believed became the movie star Merle Oberon; Anglo-
      Indian Constance Selby lost her daughter when she gave birth at
      fifteen and kept the secret from her family all her life; Merle
      Oberon lost her identity, her country and her mother. Tasmanians who
      still care about Merle Oberon believe anybody supporting the Anglo-
      Indian story is taking Merle away from them.

      Another theme explored in The Trouble with Merle is that of
      isolation and the desire to belong. Tasmanian writer Cassandra Pybus
      argues in the film that in the earlier part of the 20th century,
      just as the film studio needed Tasmania, Tasmanians needed Merle
      Oberon. She represented glamour, beauty and a connection to the
      centre of the world at that time – Hollywood. "She proved you could
      leave, and become very, very famous".

      Who would have thought that lying underneath the veneer of celebrity
      and glitter surrounding Merle was a poignant tale of loss and

      Marée Delofski



      Marée Delofski

      Marée Delofski's most recent film was A Calcutta Christmas (1998)
      which she wrote and directed. The Film Australia documentary
      received the following awards and nominations:

      Silver Images Film Festival 1999 USA Winner: Best of Festival,
      Intercom 1999 USA Winner: Gold Plaque, Documentary
      NY Festivals 1999 USA Winner: Bronze World Medal, Documentary
      Mumbai Int Film Festival India Winner: Silver Conch
      San Francisco Int Film Festival USA Winner: Certificate of Merit
      EthnoFilm Festival Berlin Honourable Mention
      International Documentary Ass USA Nominated: IDA Distinguished
      Documentary Achievement Award
      AFI Awards 1999 Nominated: Best Documentary & Best Direction in a
      Film Critics Circle of Australia Awards Finalist: Best Australian

      Marée's filmmaking career began in London with the documentary
      workshop Cinema Action, where she worked on a number of projects,
      most notably, The Dockers Film – Arise Ye Workers which she co-
      directed and edited. This film won a Silver Dove at Leipzig
      International Film Festival.

      In Australia she has produced the feature length documentary
      Philippines, My Philippines which was nominated for two AFI Awards:
      Best Documentary and Best Cinematography in a Documentary. The film
      received an Honourable Mention at San Francisco and was invited into
      competition at Yamagata (Japan) and Festival dei Popoli (Italy). The
      film was sold to nine territories and completed a successful six
      week theatrical season in Australia as well as screening on SBS TV.
      Marée has also written and directed short drama: The Lost Thoughts
      of Chairman Mao, Bats Over Sydney and Every Little Breeze (screened
      Sydney Film Festival and internationally, Finalist: ATOM Awards –
      Best Short Drama, selected for AFC showreel Cannes).

      Marée teaches and consults regularly at the Australian Film
      Television and Radio School where she designed the MA Documentary –
      Directing course (and was the first Head of Documentary) and has
      been Project Coordinator (Film Development) for the AFC.

      David Noakes

      David Noakes is an executive producer and producer for TV and
      feature films within SeeView Pictures Pty Ltd.

      His first film as co-producer and co-director was Wagerup Weekend, a
      47 minute documentary which follows the occupation by protesters of
      a Bauxite mine in the Darling Ranges in Western Australia. Other
      documentaries since then have included: Milliya Rumarra/Brand New
      Day (1983, 50 mins), How the West was Lost (1985, 55 mins), which
      was nominated for five AFI Awards, Extinct, But Going Home (1988, 48
      mins), 3 & 1 - Three Weeks On; One Week Off (1990, 30 mins), Bigger
      Than Texas (1992, 50 mins) and Battleships (1999, 4 x 52 mins). In
      the Shadow of the Shark (1999, 3 x 52 mins), was a co-production
      with National Geographic, Telcast and Network 7 Australia, and
      follows the remarkable lives of underwater filmmakers and
      photographers Ron and Valerie Taylor.

      From 1978 to 1983 David worked for various film agencies, including
      the Perth Institute of Film & Television, the Sydney Filmmakers Co-
      operative and the Western Australian Institute of Technology, the
      latter as a tutor in film history. Since then, he has worked at the
      Australian Film Commission as Senior Project Manager - Creative
      Development Fund, and as Investment Manager at the Australian Film
      Finance Corporation, first in the documentary area, then in features
      and TV drama.

      He has also been a consultant to various film production companies.

      Written & directed by

      Produced by

      Director of Photography


      Location Sound

      Music by

      Script Editor


      Diana Bagnall reports on a documentary about actress Merle Oberon
      and her dubious Taswegian origins.

      There was a lot of money spent on hairdos for Maree Delofski's film
      about Merle Oberon's fudged origins. The curls, the waves, the
      colour, the spray. Oberon, one of the biggest movie stars of the
      1930s and 1940s, couldn't have put in more effort herself for the
      camera. The ladies of Tasmania did her proud.

      And why wouldn't they? On her death in 1979, the year after she
      attended a homecoming reception in Hobart hosted by the lord mayor,
      her obituaries described her as Tasmanian-born. For decades, the
      island state drew comfort from her celebrity status. As writer
      Cassandra Pybus told Delofski, a Sydney documentary-maker: "She
      proved you could leave and become very, very famous."

      But as Delofski discovers as she follows every lead about Oberon's
      parentage both in Tasmania and abroad, there is now little reason to
      think her Tasmanian connection was anything but a fantasy concocted
      by British studio publicists to account for Oberon's exotic beauty
      in a period when mixed-race actresses were unacceptable. According
      to a 1985 biography, Merle Oberon was actually Anglo-Indian, born in
      Calcutta in 1911.

      Why Tasmanians remain unconvinced, and why Oberon made the trip to
      Tasmania if she was Indian, forms the heart of The Trouble with
      Merle, which screened at the Sydney Film Festival in June and will
      be shown on ABC television on August 29. Delofski crisscrosses the
      island in her red VW talking to people for whom Oberon has always
      been – and, in their minds, remains – the illegitimate daughter of
      Lotti Chintock, a Chinese hotel worker. Their stories don't line up
      perfectly but they have a strong common thread. Like Delofski, you
      want to believe them. But there is no official record in the
      Tasmanian archives for anyone who could remotely be Oberon.

      Delofski moves her search to India and finally to Canada, where she
      uncovers a new piece of evidence about Oberon's birth held back from
      Charles Higham, Oberon's biographer. She's a dogged investigator.
      Her prey is the enigmatic Oberon, who went to her grave without
      completely severing her links with Tasmania (her final comment on
      the matter was that she'd been born on a ship that had been passing
      through Tasmania at the time). Yet it is not so much Oberon who
      carries the film but the people for whom proximity to her glamour
      and fame was, and remains, so important. The hair talks.


      Queenie: Smudging the distinctions between Black and White by Mark

      On Sunday May 10, 1987 and Monday May 11, 1987, ABC Television in
      the United States aired a two-part made-for-TV movie named Queenie.
      Queenie is a rare example of the treatment of Anglo-Indians in
      popular film, television, or in this case a film made for
      television. The film is based on a book, by the same name, by
      Michael Korda. Korda's book is structured on the life of his aunt
      and Hollywood legend Merle Oberon, who is widely considered to have
      been Anglo-Indian. This paper investigates the text and context of
      Queenie in light of Ella Shohat's assertion that: "ethnicity and
      race inhere in virtually all film, not only in those where ethnic
      issues appear on the "epidermic" surface of the text."

      In brief, an Anglo-Indian is anyone of European descent in the male
      line who is of mixed European and Indian blood. I myself am an Anglo-
      Indian, born and raised in Calcutta, India. I have also been
      involved in image-making and history-telling of the Anglo-Indian
      community, primarily through a television documentary that aired on
      national television in Canada in 1992-93. These significant
      experiences help frame my reading of Queenie. Firstly, I frame my
      reading of the film through my familiarity with some of the oral
      history of the community and some of the historical literature.
      Secondly, I frame my reading through my own experience of living as
      an Anglo-Indian - relating to others within and outside of my
      community; and at different points in time internalizing the
      stereotypes or fighting against them. These frames will become
      evident in my treatment of Queenie.

      Queenie as Text:

      Queenie is a particularly rich film in its representations
      of `ethnicities', it is populated with Jews, Indians, Britons,
      Americans and Anglo-Indians. While it is possible to do an
      ethnographic study of the representations of each of these peoples,
      my own interest and focus is on the Anglo-Indians for several
      reasons. It is my community, it is a community that has received
      scant attention in Post-colonial studies, and it is a community that
      has had little opportunity to depict itself in print or visual media.

      As Mills points out, two enduring stereotypes of Anglo-Indians
      portray the community as "lackeys of the British", and as "passing"
      as Europeans. Both these stereotypes are picked up in Queenie.
      Queenie's success is based on her ability to "pass" as "white", and
      she is encouraged by her mother, her Uncle, her agent, and her
      husband - to use her looks to get ahead.

      Since "passing" is one of the major themes of the film Queenie, it
      is useful to look at the evolution of this notion in relation to
      Anglo-Indians, and Shohat's proposal that "we may argue for
      provisional ethnic and racial identities at particular moments of

      In the early history of the Anglo-Indian community, the
      administration of the British East India Company encouraged their
      men to inter-marry with Indian women, have children, and set-up home
      in India. It was seen to be to the benefit of the Company to
      integrate with the local population, and Indian women who had
      children of European men were paid an amount at the time of the
      child's christening. At first, the male off-spring of these men were
      guaranteed employment with the company, were considered European,
      and experienced little discrimination. Thus, "passing" was a non-
      issue. Two movements led to a change of status for the mixed-race
      community. One was the bigoted attitudes of Protestant authorities
      in England towards the, many Catholic, descendants of Portuguese
      settlers. The second was the realization by the Directors of the
      British East India Company in England that there was great wealth to
      be earned in India and, by restricting the employment of mixed-race
      men, they could send their own sons out to make fortunes. With this
      differentiation between British and Anglo-Indian, the colour of
      one's skin became a defining factor. "Passing" became a survival

      The socio-economic politics of race are inextricably tied to the
      stereotype of Anglo-Indians as "lackeys". Anglo-Indians were
      economically, culturally, psychologically, spiritually and socially
      dependent on the European colonizers. The colonizers were their
      fathers, their flesh and blood, and they could not help but have
      deep ties to their paternal ancestors. The colonialist structure was
      also the only source of income for many Anglo-Indians. In a strictly
      caste stratified Indian social system, women who married (or were
      forcibly taken) out of their caste and race were ostracized by their
      communities. So Anglo-Indian children did not have access to the
      land or other resources of their Indian ancestors and communities.

      On the other hand, it can be said that some Anglo-Indians did chose
      to become mercenaries in the armies of the existing Princely States,
      which belies the stereotype. Perhaps one might argue that more Anglo-
      Indians should have taken this course. However, such an argument
      suggests a lack of understanding of familial ties and a sense of
      loyalty not just to family, but community as well. Besides, not
      everyone is predisposed to warfare.

      Within the colonial system, Anglo-Indians were relegated to the
      civil services. Because they were fluent in both English and Indian
      languages, they acted as translators and easily understood
      instructions. Their lineal ties to the British engendered loyalty
      which was exploited by the authorities, and they were perceived as a
      buffer zone between the colonizers and rebellious natives. This
      earned them the stereotype of "lackey".

      In Queenie, the lackey is played by Queenie's Uncle Morgan. He
      cowers down before his English mistress, and her husband Sir Burton
      Rumsey, when he is discovered kissing her in the hallway of the
      Calcutta Cricket Club. He also displays his weak-kneed character in
      his dealings with the nightclub owner in London who gives him and
      Queenie their first jobs in their new "Home". His quivering lips,
      widened eyes, hands raised like a mouse, all attest to his
      submissiveness before white authority.

      A third stereotype of Anglo-Indians that appears prominently in the
      film is the irrational desire to go "Home". "Home" for Anglo-
      Indians - in this case Queenie, her mother, and her uncle - was
      England. Even though they were born and raised in India, many Anglo-
      Indians thought of England as their home, and a place they would one
      day `return' to. Given their subservient position within the
      colonial system, and their father's and forefather's talk of "Home",
      it is understandable that they would internalize this desire in a
      way that would have paralleled the hope of their Christian faith for
      a `promised land'.

      In the film, Queenie's British father and grandfather did
      return "Home" after promising to send for their wives and families.
      So the desire of Queenie's mother to go "Home" and her hopes for her
      daughter to go to England, are fuelled by a very real longing to be
      re-united with her husband; for Queenie to meet her father; and for
      a better life for all of them. This desire for re-union is
      problematized by the stereotype, not the fact that the British men
      who made promises to send for their families did not live up to them.

      Anglo-Indian women have also been stereotyped as objects of desire;
      unfortunately, both from within and without the community. In 1969,
      when writing a history of the community, the head of the All-India
      Anglo-Indian Association wrote: "No mention of Anglo-Indian women
      would be complete without a reference to their striking beauty."

      He goes on to boast about various renowned beauties who were Anglo-
      Indian. While the community has prided itself on the features of its
      women, the other side of the coin is that Anglo-Indian women have
      borne the burden of being perceived as promiscuous. Since for most
      of the Raj, few European women ventured to India, and since most
      Indian women are sheltered within their families, in comparison
      Anglo-Indian women were visually and physically accessible. This was
      translated by many to mean they were also sexually available.

      In Queenie, the main character is the object of desire from a very
      young age. While still in puberty, her English teacher (in both
      senses) offers her private elocution lessons and then attempts to
      molest her. A few years later, when she visits Sir Burton Rumsey to
      plead for her uncle's job back, Sir Burton Rumsey rapes her. But
      only after telling her, "Your black blood makes you so exciting."
      Later she is raped by the same uncle. Having discovered her sexual
      assets, Queenie becomes a stripper in London before being discovered
      for films. Her beauty is linked repeatedly to her mixed-blood. Her
      first employer, Dimitri, the owner of the strip club who later
      becomes her agent, tells her she has dark and exotic looks for an
      English girl. Her intrigue as a stripper and later as an actress is
      based on the hint, behind her white skin, of something mysterious.

      Part of the appeal of this Cinderellian, rags-to-riches story, is
      Queenie's evasion of the "colour bar", and her surreptitious
      crossing of boundaries between black and white. Along with this
      comes the ambiguity of whether people can tell whether Queenie is
      white or black. The film repeatedly makes the point that Queenie
      looks `white', often through the ways that minor characters speak to
      her or act towards her - the policeman in Calcutta who tells her she
      shouldn't be walking outside the foreigners enclave, the servant who
      greets her at the door to the Rumsey residence, the cab driver in
      London, the shock of the audience at the premiere of her diegetic
      film when she asks for her mother to come forward. However, there is
      often the suggestion that even those `whites' who perceive her
      as `white', sense that there is something exotic about her, as if
      there are essential characteristics of difference that they feel yet
      cannot define. This first occurs when her schoolmate Prunella Rumsey
      taunts her on the playground, and Prunella's character serves as one
      of the primary plot techniques to keep this point alive throughout
      the film. So while the film, on one level is predicated on the lack
      of definitive race demarcations, it still serves to perpetuate
      essentialist ideas of race.

      The connections between race and space in Queenie provide an
      illustration of Shohat's point that, "Positing ethnicities in
      relational terms can help us envision the possibility of a critical
      reading which complicates the "center/periphery" dichotomy." When
      living in India, before going to England, Queenie and her family
      occupy a transitional space between the British colonizers, and the
      native Indians. Queenie goes to an English school, which her friend
      Radha cannot attend. Her Uncle Morgan takes her to the Calcutta
      Cricket Club where he plays in the band, but she gets thrown out
      after being identified by Prunella. The British parts of the city
      are big, sparsely populated, clean and airy. The Indian areas are
      shown as crowded marketplaces, with narrow streets and lots of
      vendors. While the Kelley residence is located within this crowded
      native locality, inside it is spacious and decorated with Victorian
      furniture. However, it is not as spacious as the Rumsey residence.
      The audience is never shown the inside of an Indian residence, thus
      making it clear that the Indians in the film are just part of the
      backdrop, without any interiority. [As a sidebar to this question of
      space, it is very telling that the opening scenic shot of the film
      shows a crowded street in an Indian city, with mountains in the
      background. The titles indicated that this is Calcutta in 1931. The
      only problem is that the real city of Calcutta lies in the delta of
      the Ganges river, close to sea level, on flat land. The film makers
      make no attempt at geographical accuracy. ]

      As a rags-to-riches story, ( the video cassette cover reads: "Born
      in a Calcutta slum, a young woman grows up to become a glamorous
      Hollywood star.") Queenie curiously fails to tackle the most
      important liberatory themes of the historical time in which the
      story takes place. Organized political resistance to the British
      occupation of India was mounting in the early part of the 20th
      Century, yet the only evidence of this in the film are several riot
      scenes. Likewise, the All-India Anglo-Indian Association, led by Lt.
      Col. Sir Henry Gidney from 1920-1942, mounted valiant campaigns for
      the liberation and legitimization of Anglo-Indians. Yet, Queenie and
      her family exhibit no sense of community pride or activism. The
      film, essentially, fails to question the presence of the British in
      India, taking colonialism for granted.

      In it's unquestioning acceptance of colonialism, the film positions
      the audience in the spectatorial seat of the colonizer. In doing so
      it makes the Anglo-Indian characters, Queenie's mother and Uncle,
      look ridiculous; especially as they are played by `white' actors in
      brown make-up and with pseudo-Indian accents. The film also forces
      the audience to become collaborators in the persistence of racial
      and cultural stereotypes. Dimitri the Jewish nightclub owner is
      depicted as a money-loving, international fugitive. Indians are
      depicted as riotous, or subservient. The English are pretentious.
      And the Anglo-Indian stereotypes have already been discussed.

      Queenie as Context :

      A Post-modernist reading of any work requires an understanding of it
      as a construction within its particular contexts. The contexts of
      the film Queenie are various. It a cinematic incarnation of a story
      that had previously appeared as a novel, and perhaps prior to that
      as various magazine articles, and even before that it was embodied
      in the life of a real person.

      The real person in question is Merle Oberon. She is variously
      documented to have been born in New York City, Bombay, Calcutta, and
      Tasmania; in 1915, 1911, 1917, and 1904. In an interview published
      in Films in Review, February 1982, Oberon admits that she made up
      film credits that appeared in her film publicity biographies. For
      instance, she admits that she never appeared in "Service for Ladies"
      and "Never Trouble Trouble". In the same interview, Oberon claims
      that she was born in Tasmania but lived for a while with relatives
      in Calcutta. In his novel, Queenie, Merle Oberon's nephew Michael
      Korda, puts the main character's place of birth as Calcutta and has
      her make up the story about her Tasmanian roots as a way to get
      employment in England and evade police investigations.

      All of this leads to questions of epistemology. While the publicity
      blurbs for the novel and the film are careful not to explicitly
      state that they are telling Merle Oberon's life story, they equally
      carefully plant this idea in the minds of the reader and audience.
      The first page of the book reads: "The nephew of Merle Oberon and
      the great Alexander Korda...Michael Korda grew up surrounded by the
      glitz and glamor (sic) of Hollywood in its heyday." The dust jacket
      of the video cassettes are less obtuse, they simply state: "Queenie"
      herself is loosely based on legendary actress Merle Oberon." Given
      this referential ambiguity, it leaves the audience always wondering
      to what extent the story is true. Reference to the book does not
      satisfy one's search for what really happened, and interviews with
      Oberon only obfuscate the matter more since she demonstrates that
      she is capable of lying in the interests of her career. It also
      serves to bring to the forefront the curiosity audiences have about
      celebrities and their origins.

      In the case of Merle Oberon/Queenie, the curiosity with the
      woman/character is underpinned by a preoccupation with race. Through
      her career Oberon was dogged by questions about her racial origins.
      Queenie is also shadowed by the secret about her mixed-race
      genealogy. Such experiences only rise out of a system where racial
      delineations are given primary importance and where the economics of
      employment, social status, geography of residence and access, are
      bestowed upon some and denied to others.

      In researching this paper, watching the film "Queenie" and two of
      Oberon's films - "Wuthering Heights" and "A Song to Remember";
      reading "Queenie" and interviews with Oberon, I have had to ask
      myself where my own interest in her racial identity lies. As I stare
      at her face in photographs or on screen, my mind tries to identify
      features that are Anglo-Indian - her complexion under certain
      lights, the shape of her eyes, the bone structure. I realize that
      none of this matters. Her images are constructions - the lighting,
      costuming and make-up could have been designed to make her look more
      or less `white' and what I see may only be one representation of
      her. The boast of Anglo-Indians that we can spot another Anglo-
      Indian out of a crowd fails me here.

      I ask myself, do I want her to be Anglo-Indian? A part of me does.
      Why? Perhaps, because I want or need icons of success from within my
      community. Since a majority of the images of my community are
      negative, I want to balance them out with some positive ones. This
      part of me wants the `truth' to be known, and by this I mean the
      diversity within the community. Along with this is a certain sense
      of outrage that `white' communities, especially the British, claimed
      as their own Anglo-Indians who achieved a degree of success and
      could pass as white. Thus depriving us of our role models.
      Unfortunately, these high achievers played into this rewriting of
      history, and the Anglo-Indian community can only pass around the
      rumour that a Merle Oberon or Cliff Richards is one of us.

      More than that it gets back to the notion of race as a concept put
      forward by colonizing forces to separate. It came out of European
      scientism, and empiricism, and when equated with notions of racial
      superiority, and political domination in the 19th century, it
      resulted in imperialism. This positivist attitude led to legal
      delineation, that cannot be reasonably maintained because human
      beings as a species demonstrate spectrums of characteristics and do
      not easily fall into categories. The Merle Oberons of the world
      bring the positivist racial categories crashing down and it is
      enticing for people with post-modern sensibilities to applaud
      Oberon's boundary smudging.

      However, it behooves us to be careful of such enticements. Shohat
      makes the point that, "immigrants themselves played a major role in
      Hollywood, occupying a contradictory position. Thus the study of
      American cinema is necessarily as well the study of the
      projected "American Dream" of these immigrants, their manner of
      perceiving the image that hegemonic America would desire for
      itself." Queenie as a cultural artifact, particularly an American
      artifact, serves to promote racial delineation and power structures
      even as it purports to blur them. On one level Queenie seems to
      demonstrate a crack in the colonial/race wall, and Hollywood can
      point to Merle Oberon's life and say, `she made it therefore we
      weren't as racist as we're made out to be. See we let her in.'
      However, she was let in because she was thought to be `white'. The
      production codes in Hollywood at the time would not have allowed her
      to play opposite the likes of Laurence Olivier and Paul Muni had she
      been known to have been touched by the `tar brush'. Oberon succeeded
      despite the racist production codes. However, the success of people
      like her can be used to deny the need for real change in cinematic
      production - on and off-screen.

      In conclusion, returning to Shohat, one sees that while dealing with
      the ethnicity of Queenie the Anglo-Indian girl who `made good',
      Queenie is equally about the ethnicity of the American producers and
      audience. Americans can look at the film and condemn the British for
      their imperialism, under which Americans also suffered. At the same
      time Americans can pretend, as the film does, that racial issues
      were not dividing their society in the 1930-60's, or for that matter
      in the 1980's when the film was made. A tolerant multi-racial
      American society is assumed by the very absence of these issues
      being presented. It is further supported by the magnanimous attitude
      of the Director David Konig when he discovers Queenie's true story
      and saves the day by marrying her instead of seeing his star actress
      go to an Indian jail. As the most prominent American character in
      the film he symbolically projects a tolerant American society.
      Ironically, Konig is based on Alexander Korda who was not American,
      he was Hungarian born and made his career in Britain.

      Furthermore, by not dealing explicitly within the film with
      questions about race - how is it conceived, by whom, and for what
      reasons; questions about truth; questions about historical accuracy,
      and questions about power relations within imperialism, Queenie
      serves to position the spectator as a collaborator on these issues
      in a particular but undefined way. So while British colonialism in
      India ended 50 years ago, the perceptions of the Anglo-Indian
      community that were created during the Raj continue to be sold to an
      unknowing audience of Americans, and others around the world, who
      have access to Blockbuster Video stores.
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