January 21, 2014

Merle Oberon, The Dark Angel

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The Production Code was instated to full effect on July 1, 1934--meaning that any film released after the date had to get its content approved by the PCA. It Happened One Night, The Thin Man, and Of Human Bondage, all films I enjoyed, each boasted its own tongue-in-cheek moments and were all released before the date. As it happens, The Barretts of Wimpole Street and One Night of Love, two morally stuffy films I didn't enjoy that much, were released after the date. The only anomaly I can't understand--The Affairs of Cellini, a film I quite enjoyed and which has some fun with polygamy--was released after the date, but the internet and I are equally stumped as to how it got approval (let's just settle with the "slipped past the censors" argument). I'm pointing this out because the Oscar-nominated films of 1935 are the first to all be influenced by the Production Code. With that, I've noticed that the female characters of 1936 are suddenly much less exciting then they used to be and the vehicles in which they're in are even worse, possibly the immediate result of filmmakers unsure of what to do with these new strict requirements. And perhaps no other character nominated in 1936 conveyed this newly ushered-in Production Code mentality more than The Dark Angel's Kitty Vane.

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The Dark Angel starts out with a toddler Kitty Vane hugging her granny and rushing on over to the Shannon household where she hangs out with two boy friends and optimistically badgers one Alan Trent to promise marriage to her. And he agrees. Then the picture flashes forward some years later to a grown up Kitty Vane, rushing on over to the Shannon household where she is to bid farewell to the grown boy friends who are now off to fight in the war, but not before bitching to her granny about how she wishes Alan would just propose to her already. This should give you a good enough idea of what Kitty Vane is--she is less a film heroine as she is a creation of the production code morals. Joyce Heath was at least fiery--Kitty Vane is far from it. Her really wanting to be married is about as exciting as she gets. She's any heterosexual man's fantasy--an absolutely gorgeous, sweet, self-controlled and understanding woman who knows little else outside of loving and supporting her boyfriend/husband, even when he loses his sight.

 photo ScreenShot2014-01-20at32522PM.jpgAnd Merle Oberon tackles it all persuasively enough, not that the role offers her many actorly challenges to begin with. I must say though that Merle Oberon is impossibly gorgeous. If anything she was born with a face that was tailor-made for an audience to look at, and she's definitely one of the most stunning actresses I've had the privilege to watch since I've been in this Oscargasm business. The camera certainly loves her, though at times it seems like her beauty comes with the expense of everything else. Meaning that she has a ton of close-ups where it looks as if she's trying to convey an emotion but she lacks the acting capacity to do it expressively. This really makes her performance a little bland, as Kitty is a sophisticated and quiet character who is the type to internally absorb her emotions and will quietly sob herself to sleep. Thus it'd have to take a really masterful actress to pull this off, one who is facially evocative and good with restraint. Oberon isn't really that kind of actress, and she doesn't ever dig deep enough to make Kitty anything more than a colorless romanticized love interest. It's all adequate work, but I do think that Oberon knocks her last scene out of the park. With all these sad emotions building up to the her reunion with Alan, Oberon's calm emotional release when Alan won't return her gaze is beautifully heartbreaking. And a little later when she realizes that he is blind, her supportive monologue which wonderfully blends sadness, relief, and happiness makes for a heartwarming finale. So the otherwise tedious Dark Angel as well as its star's uneventful performance at least ends on a good note. But in the case of Oberon, she never achieves anything that would warrant my desire to revisit her here again.

1 comment:

  1. Norma Shearer's closest female friend in the 1930s and 40s was Merle Oberon. There are numerous photos of them at social functions and traveling together. Each actress was shadowed by a family secret that threatened their careers. Merle's was a dark-skinned Eurasian mother, whom Merle in shades of Imitation Of Life, passed off as her maid. Norma's was a mentally-unstable older sister (for a time, also Mrs. Howard Hawkes) in an era when any mental impairment carried a stigma of shame.

    "Each actress was an ego in search of an alter: Norma envied Merle her sexual freedom, Merle envied Norma's connection to power."