Merle Oberon was one of the most unpredictable actresses in classic Hollywood. She was worthy of her stardom, and always interesting to observe, but her performances could be wildly uneven. When she had the right director, or a great story, she was a unique delight: elegant, romantic and seeming to conceal more complex emotions beneath the glamorous mask. Without the right elements though she would struggle to rise about it, becoming rigid and closed off to her audience.
When she succeeded though, she was appealing in a way that was completely her own--a queen with the common touch. In a pair of new releases from Warner Archive, Oberon demonstrates the best of her dramatic and comedic skills in two of her more successful performances.
It is difficult, but so fulfilling to watch William Wyler's These Three (1936). Based on the Lillian Hellman play The Children's Hour, the director would be freed to acknowledge the lesbian aspects of the plot in his 1961 remake of the film. However, this censored, but thematically true original, which retains several lines from the stage production, is a more elegantly staged and emotionally satisfying version of the story.
Oberon and Miriam Hopkins star as Karen and Martha, two young college graduates who start a country boarding school for girls. They are successful, and beloved by their community, until a student with a bone to pick (Bonita Granville) tells a lie that destroys their careers and personal lives. Joel McCrea is a local doctor loved by both women, who always shows a preference for Karen.
Perhaps best known for his powerful collaborations with Bette Davis, Wyler knew how to inspire subtle work from volatile actresses. Hopkins is unusually restrained here and all the more effective for her reserve as the lovelorn Martha. She is most effective in her close-ups, where in her stillness she allows her face to flood with frustration and heartbreak. Oberon has never been more humble, keeping the elegant speech pattern, but allowing herself to be vulnerable. It is easy to understand why McCrea is smitten with her, because her emotions are easy to read and she is so hopeful that you want her to be happy.
While the titular trio draws you in with their charm and the subtle tension of the love triangle, it is the child actors who make this such an intense and unnerving classic. As the resentful, gossiping student Mary, Granville is frighteningly animalistic in her ferocity. She was understandably Oscar-nominated for this role in which she gives herself over completely to a hideous and deeply wounded character. She spits out angry accusations with her head completely still, the words shooting through her lips like well-aimed missiles. Marcia Mae Jones is also gut-wrenching as a student Mary blackmails into supporting her lies. She makes you feel the shame of a child who doesn't realize that mistakes can be forgiven and that they don't destroy all hope of happiness.
I always think I won't be able to bear the experience of going through this film another time, but while it can be excruciating, it is also romantic, occasionally sweet and always a compelling web of motives and disparate personalities.
With a well-worn mistaken identity plot and little verbal wit to counteract the clichés, The Cowboy and the Lady (1938) has the immediate appearance of being a routine, forgettable film, but it somehow ends up being something more exciting. It's got an intriguing sweetness to it, with a quirkily charming cast, and it showcases one of Oberon's most appealing comic performances.
Oberon is the daughter of a wealthy presidential hopeful. When the sheltered socialite kicks up her heels with her more liberal-minded uncle (Harry Davenport), and gets caught in a club raid, her father sends her to his Palm Beach mansion to wait out the scandal. There she attempts to escape her boredom by asking her maids to set her up with a date.
She meets a tall, handsome and adorably shy cowboy (Gary Cooper) and falls hard for him. Thinking she's just in it for a kiss, she pretends to be a lady's' maid and makes up a few dependent siblings and an alcoholic father to gain his sympathy. When she actually does fall in love, she struggles with her secret, which of course will eventually be discovered.
While Cooper and Oberon are perfectly cast as the respective cowboy and lady, they are an odd match. There's a sort of emotional chemistry, but no real sensuality. It isn't a bad coupling though, they make a loveable pair.
Oberon has never been so delightfully flirtatious. She really relaxes in this role, something she rarely, if ever seems to do in comedies. That lack of tension seems to free her to indulge in interesting bits of business, like the way she gently holds the sleeve of Cooper's shirt between her fingertips while they have their first conversation or how she draws him into her orbit by holding his gaze slightly longer than he can handle.
Though this is one of Oberon's less substantial films, it's one of her most charmingly nuanced performances. With her uncharacteristic looseness, she is more fun-loving and less haughty. Though she keeps her characteristic regal demeanor, she gives her character a playful naughtiness, as if she is an ingénue getting a little tipsy for the first time. She even manages a bit of slapstick with some flypaper, which works because she is so willing to have some fun with her own elegant image.
Cooper is awkward and sexy, basically in full "aw shucks" mode. If he is less successful than Oberon, it is partly because his role has some of the weakest, and most drawn out bits in the movie. However, as he does in his best films, he starts off mild, but once his heart is broken, he gives that indignant speech that makes you crumble.
One of the best parts of the film is the supporting cast, with Patsy Kelly and Mabel Todd as Oberon's savvy, but salt of the earth maids; Walter Brennan and Fuzzy Knight as their cowpoke beaus;
and Davenport as the affectionate and wise party-loving uncle who is always a few steps ahead of his ambitious brother. They all make the screenplay seem a lot better than it is and keep the action moving along at a good pace.
Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. This is a Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVD. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.