Maree Delofski: Writer, Producer, Director

the trouble with merle

merleThe 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 VIII. 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.