David Melville fills the gap between his series on Mexican melodrama and his upcoming series on… but that would be telling… with a special piece on a neglected 1946 melodrama sure to be of interest to Shadowplayers everywhere ~
Was there ever a better year for Bad Girls than 1946? Rita Hayworth in Gilda, Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice, Lauren Bacall in The Big Sleep, Jennifer Jones in Duel in the Sun, Hedy Lamarr in The Strange Woman. Each one stronger, smarter, sexier and more subversive than…well, just about any woman since. But one lady, that same year, could hold her own with any of them. An actress who’s been criminally underrated, in a film that’s been tragically forgotten. I’m talking about Merle Oberon in Temptation.
If the title doesn’t ring any bells…well, it’s not an easy film to see. Directed by Irving Pichel and produced (lavishly) by a long-defunct entity called International Film Corporation, Temptation is unavailable on DVD or any other home video format. It survives (just about) in blurred copies recorded from TV in the 90s. Not that it doesn’t still look splendid. The cameraman, Lucien Ballard, was Merle Oberon’s second husband. (He also photographed her in The Lodger (1944), This Love of Ours (1945) and Berlin Express (1948).) She married him, presumably, because he was the one man who could make her look more exquisite than she did already.
So what is Temptation about? Many things…not all of which are directly apparent on screen. It was based on Bella Donna, a novel by the English author and aesthete Robert Hichens (1864-1950). A member of the camp gay circle that surrounded Oscar Wilde and his lover, Lord Alfred Douglas, he is best remembered today for The Green Carnation (1894) – a witty if rather scurrilous roman á clef about the, er, home life of his two famous friends. He also wrote the kitsch masterwork The Garden of Allah (filmed in 1936 with Charles Boyer and Marlene Dietrich) which, like this story, has a North African desert setting.
Temptation opens in Cairo in 1900. Merle plays an outwardly genteel Victorian lady, who gets into a spot of bother over some compromising letters sent to an Egyptian gigolo lover (Charles Korvin). Dare we suspect this story has autobiographical echoes? We do know Wilde and his pals spent almost as much money paying off blackmailers as they earned in royalties. (More, perhaps, in the case of the sexually voracious Lord Alfred.) It’s tempting to see Merle’s character (who boasts the achingly exotic name of Ruby Armine) as a gay man trapped in a woman’s body. She could – if only this film were better known – win herself a cult following to rival Bette Davis in All About Eve.
We see her first in long-shot, drifting through the garden of her sumptuous villa in a plush suburb of Cairo. (I was not aware, until now, that Cairo had plush suburbs.) A vision in a long and trailing white gown, with a white lace parasol to match. Her clothes are by the great Orry-Kelly and Merle herself remarks within the first few minutes: “The things I remember best are the hats and gowns I wore – and the way I felt when I wore them.” At the risk of sounding shallow, I must admit much of the pleasure in Temptation comes from seeing what our heroine will wear next. Let’s just say Merle Oberon is never knowingly underdressed.
As the star wafts her way slowly through the garden, we learn that a sinister Egyptian police inspector has come to call. By the time we see her in close-up, it’s clear she’s wanted for questioning about a murder. Her dreary archaeologist husband (George Brent) does not seem unduly concerned. He’s too busy pondering the opening of a long-lost tomb. But his close bachelor friend, a gimlet-eyed Jewish doctor (Paul Lukas), has distrusted and disliked Ruby from the start. A flashback in London tells us she was once what’s euphemistically called an ‘adventuress’. Her first husband divorced her on “urgent medical advice” from Lukas, who then tried to dissuade Brent from marrying her “as I would stop an infectious disease from spreading”. We wonder, momentarily, if the poor girl has some sort of VD. Or is the doctor one of those movie characters (normally played by Clifton Webb) who seem to regard any woman as ‘unclean’?
With these two dullards as her day-to-day companions, it’s hardly a surprise when Merle (still in a flashback) decides to have a little fun on the side. ‘Fun’ comes in the form of a bogus Egyptian prince called Mahmoud Bahroudi. He’s played by the Hungarian actor Charles Korvin – the one actor with a cleft chin more prodigious than Kirk Douglas or Cary Grant! In any other department, he’s not much of a threat but Merle likes him from the start. They first meet when he tries to blackmail a young acquaintance – and are drawn together by recognition of each other’s mutual depravity. “You’re the first person,” marvels Korvin, “who lies as well as I do.” To put it more simply, the two are a perfect match.
Korvin, of course, is only out for money. But all of Merle’s is under the control of her husband. “I wish he were dead,” she says with an air of mild annoyance. Her lover promptly hands her an untraceable poison in an exotically carved antique box. Soon enough, she’s found a villainous servant who can stir it discreetly into anything poor Brent eats or drinks. In the tensest moment, some poisoned tea is placed strategically on a tray with six or seven other cups. The servant swivels the tray, with a dexterity that is truly breathtaking, to make sure that hubby gets the right one. Merle’s beautiful dark eyes follow the tray’s every move. They glow anxiously as her husband lifts the drink to his lips – and puts it down twice, untasted.
It’s a truly mesmerising piece of silent-screen acting, made all the more offbeat and effective by the fact that it takes place in a talking film. In forty years as an internationally famous star (stretching from her doomed Anne Boleyn in The Private Life of Henry VIII in 1933 to her even-more-doomed vanity project Interval in 1973) Merle Oberon never enjoyed much reputation as an actress. The focus was on her exotic Anglo-Indian beauty and her early life as a ‘nightclub dancer’ (among other things) in the back streets of Calcutta. Yet anyone who doubts her ability to carry a film should track down a copy of Temptation. It’s a banquet of a role and she chomps it down and swallows it in one gulp. Only the lynx-eyed Lenore Ulric, as her sinister and possibly lesbian French maid, gets to steal even a tiny corner of the screen.
Am I spoiling any surprises if I say that Merle/Ruby does reform before Temptation is quite over? Hichens’ friend Wilde deplored “the modern mania for turning bad people into good people at a moment’s notice” but that is what Hollywood in the 40s forced most movies to do. It’s reassuring to note that – while she is still satisfyingly wicked – Oberon sports a truly eye-popping dress with a black-lace-and-diamante bodice, festooned with pyramids and sphinxes and other Egyptian motifs. Surely no girl who wears a gown like this could ever be that good?!