Over the Moon
Sunday January, 12 2014 at 10:30 AM
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In the British comedy Over the Moon (1939), Merle Oberon plays Jane Benson, a lowly Yorkshire girl who lives simply, caring for her elderly, ailing uncle and not wishing for anything more. She does take a fancy, however, to the local doctor, Freddie Jarvis (Rex Harrison), and she persuades him - without working too hard at it - to marry her. Shortly thereafter, she inherits £18,000 from her uncle. This stroke of luck inspires her to live large; she simply wants to see what a life of nice clothes and nightlife might be like. But fiancé Freddie, who really only ever wanted to be a country doctor, finds this new lifestyle distasteful, and the two separate, exposing Jane to a number of hangers-on and suitors who seem to like her only for her money.
The engine that drives Over the Moon, a charming wisp of a comedy, are the series of mistakes and near-misses that eventually right themselves so Jane and Freddie can find their way back to one another. Produced by Alexander Korda and directed by Thornton Freeland (Flying Down to Rio , Accused ) the picture was released in England in 1939, an eventful year for Oberon: She also appeared in Wuthering Heights, opposite Laurence Olivier; and she married Korda, with whom she'd been romantically linked for several years.
By that time Korda, a Hungarian refugee who had also worked in Hollywood, Paris and Berlin, had become a major force in the British film industry. He and Oberon met, oddly enough, through the intercession of his first wife, Maria. It was 1932 and Korda had recently set up his own studio, Denham (which would later merge with Pinewood Studios). He and Maria were estranged at the time, but she decided to pay a visit and possibly broker a reconciliation. As recounted by Michael Korda, Alexander's nephew, in his book Charmed Lives, Maria spotted a beautiful young contract player in the studio canteen. She grabbed Korda by the wrist, causing him to spill coffee all over himself. "Look at that one, you fool, there's a face worth millions!" she told him.
"Alex, his trousers soaked with coffee, made his way over to her table, introduced himself, and was instantly captivated," Korda writes. Alexander contacted the actress' agent and signed her immediately to a long-term contract. "He did not even look at the tests," Korda writes. "The face was enough." Oberon, who had been born in Bombay, British India, of Anglo-Indian parentage, possessed beauty that was both sophisticated and mysterious, but her real name - Estelle Merle O'Brien Thompson -- was a problem. Alexander wanted to call her Stella Merle, but Oberon objected, instead wishing to be called Merle O'Brien. The two compromised after the actress herself shuffled a few vowel sounds around to come up with the name Oberon.
Alexander and Merle courted for years while he built up his studio and she appeared in minor parts. In 1937, she suffered a serious car accident, just as she was preparing to film I, Claudius, with Alexander producing. The accident left her badly scarred, though surgery (and careful lighting) helped correct some of the damage. It also made Alexander realize how much he loved her, and two years later, after Oberon had established her own career, the two were finally married.
Oberon's performance in Over the Moon is a charming one, appealing in its offhanded lightness. Her co-star, Harrison, had made his film debut in 1930 in The Great Game, though his career had been, at that point, established largely on the stage. He's courtly, perhaps a little stiff, in Over the Moon -- after all, he has to play the straight man to Oberon's lively society girl -- but he still comes off as eminently likable. Noel Coward once described Harrison as "the best light comedy actor in the world - except for me." And watching this fairly early Harrison film performance, it's easy to see what he meant.
By Stephanie Zacharek
The New York Times
Michael Korda, Charmed Lives, Random House, Inc., 1979 VIEW TCMDb ENTRY