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Merle Oberon got a shot at sophisticated comedy in the 1938 feature, The Divorce of Lady X, which was produced on a lavish scale by her mentor and later husband Alexander Korda. The tale of a young woman who sets out to bring a pompous lawyer (Laurence Olivier) down a peg by letting him think she's a client's cheating wife offered her a rare comic showcase, though the film's Technicolor cinematography often allowed her beauty and her glamorous costumes to upstage her.
Korda had discovered Oberon when she was working as a film extra, but then had seen her rise to stardom in the U.S., where independent producer Sam Goldwyn had cast her in such films as The Dark Angel (1935) and These Three (1936). Calling her back to Great Britain, Korda started looking for a suitable starring vehicle for her. Plans to film Caesar and Cleopatra and Cyrano de Bergerac fell through. When his epic production of I, Claudius fell apart, partly because of an auto accident that required Oberon to undergo plastic surgery, he moved her into a pair of comedies, Over the Moon (1939), co-starring Rex Harrison, and this remake of his low-budget 1932 comedy Counsel's Opinion.
This time out, Korda gave the story, adapted from Gilbert Wakefield's play, a more spectacular production, with a $500,000 budget that was high by British standards for the period. He brought in Natalie Kalmus from Hollywood to supervise Harry Stradling's Technicolor cinematography and hired Russian-born art director Lazare Meerson, best known for his work with director Jacques Feyder, to create the sets. As he had done with the original, directed by Allan Dwan, he entrusted The Divorce of Lady X to an American-born director, Tim Whelan, and he assigned his story editor, Lajos Bir, to write a new adaptation. From the original production, Korda kept writer Arthur Wimperis and actress Binnie Barnes, who moved from the lead to the supporting role of Lady Mere, the real cheating wife for whom Oberon is mistaken.
Korda turned to the stage for his other leading players, casting frequent co-stars Laurence Olivier and Ralph Richardson as the lawyer and his cuckolded client. For Olivier, the film was just another picture, made to keep him busy while his current love Vivien Leigh was making A Yank at Oxford (1938) at MGM's British studio and prior to his stage engagement in Macbeth. He would not even refer to the picture by name in his memoirs, recalling only that he had enjoyed working with Oberon prior to the problems they had co-starring in Goldwyn's Wuthering Heights (1939).
By the time Oberon made The Divorce of Lady X, her relationship with Korda had begun to heat up. When their courtship kept her up too late to report in the morning, he had her call moved back to 12:30 p.m., then would whisk her off to lunch, often keeping her off the set until 3:30 p.m. As a result, shooting usually lasted until 10 or 11 pm at night. They would marry the following year.
However late they shot, the film that emerged was a confectionary delight that pleased both critics and fans. Unlike other Hollywood stars whose British sojourns kept them off American screens, Oberon actually saw her popularity in the states rise when The Divorce of Lady X was released successfully there. Unfortunately, her work, though praised by later critics, was overshadowed by her male co-stars, with many critics suggesting that Richardson stole the film. Although Frank Sennwald in the New York Times raved that "Merle Oberon enjoys comedy, and vice versa," many focused instead on how beautiful she looked, particularly in the gown for a costume ball she attended as the Empress Eugenie. One churl even suggested Olivier looked prettier in Technicolor than Oberon.
The film's success proved a boon for Oberon's leading man, raising his box-office profile in the U.S. after his swashbuckling performance opposite Leigh and Flora Robson in Fire Over England (1937). When Goldwyn asked Korda for advice on choosing Oberon's co-star in Wuthering Heights, the British producer sent him a print of The Divorce of Lady X, which would convince the mogul to cast Olivier as Heathcliff.
Although possibly the most successful of Oberon's comedies (and certainly better than most of the comic films she would make in the U.S.), The Divorce of Lady X was soon eclipsed by her more romantic Hollywood vehicles. It would enjoy a new life with the coming of television, however. As one of several Korda films that were allowed to slip into the public domain, it became a popular favorite on television, exposing younger audiences to one of the star's lightest and most satisfying performances.
Producer: Alexander Korda
Director: Tim Whelan
Screenplay: Lajos Bir, Ian Dalrymple, Arthur Wimperis
Based on the play Counsel's Opinion by Gilbert Wakefield
Cinematography: Harry Stradling, Sr.
Art Direction: Lazare Meerson
Music: Miklos Rozsa
Principal Cast: Merle Oberon (Leslie Steele/Lady X), Laurence Olivier (Everard Logan), Binnie Barnes (Lady Claire Mere), Ralph Richardson (Lord Mere), Morton Selten (Lord Steele), J. H. Roberts (Slade), Michael Rennie (Bit), Patricia Roc (Bit).C-92m.
by Frank Miller