The Home Stretch: Merle Oberon in The Dark Angel

(the 6th of the 25 remaining Best Actress nominees!)



The competition (Cliff: 5 for 6):

Bette Davis in Dangerous

Elisabeth Bergner in Escape Me Never

Claudette Colbert in Private Worlds

Katharine Hepburn in Alice Adams

Miriam Hopkins in Becky Sharp

The Dark Angel, as befits any Sam Goldwyn Production, is almost pure archetype: a youthful love triangle, with the two boyhood friends called off to the Great War.  The one whom the girl really loves dies in combat, and she becomes engaged to the other, who has long pined for her.  However, her true love reappears from the ranks of the dead, suffering from blindness (not amnesia, disappointingly), and after much proud suffering and self-denying, the destined lovers are properly reunited.

What the story asks of Merle is strictly perfunctory, as the spirited beauty for whom both men lose their heads.  I imagine that most of her fans would rather have seen her nominated for the storm and stress of Wuthering Heights, but in this tastefully reserved melodrama she also works to great effect.  Early scenes of the carefree young nymph work nicely, thanks to her ethereal beauty (a friend pointed out that Merle is the only Best Actress nominee of Asian lineage).  However, her star power begins to shine as she begins to suffer, particularly in the climactic meeting with her long-lost love.  Her eyes water with silent yearning when he won’t return her gaze (for reasons as yet unknown), and with every temptation to squeeze out those tears for the camera, Merle plays the scene with tender restraint.  These poignant closeups, coming at the end of the movie, certainly helped her stand out in the field that year—my final vote for 1935 still goes to the sharp-tongued, modern manipulator in a 17th century England played by Miriam Hopkins in Becky Sharp, but I’m glad that Merle earned a place in this marathon.


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