Friday, May 30, 2014

"Desire" Under the Palms

We've visited the shadowy, mysterious world of actress Merle Oberon, who is an Underworld favorite not only for some of her great 1930s and '40s films, but for her glitz-laden, hair-iffic work in Hotel (1967), before right here. But today we take a closer look at one of her late-career efforts, one in which she clung to her position of a romantic leading lady rather than devolve into a mistress of horror as many of her contemporaries were doing at the time.

Of Love and Desire (1963) was Oberon's first appearance in front of a movie camera in seven years (following the less-than-amazing thriller The Price of Fear in 1957 with Lex Barker.) By this time, Oberon was firmly entrenched at her luxurious Mexican home, a stunning, elaborately appointed piece of property that she and her husband, Italian industrialist Bruno Pagliai, had forged and designed for themselves. The locale would serve as a backdrop for her return to the screen.

The movie opens with a small private plane arriving in Mexico City, operated by its only occupant Steve Cochran. Cochran has come on business to install smelting machines near the site of a mine run by the wealthy Curt Jurgens. Cochran takes a taxi ride through town on the way to Jurgens' estate (affording views of various sites such as the Angel of Independence – no rear-projection shots here. In a nice dose of verisimilitude, he really was in a car in Mexico.)

Cochran is spirited away to Jurgens' mansion where a glamorous party is in full swing. There he runs in to a business acquaint- ance (Steve Brodie) who's been working for the family himself. He also meets Jurgens' half-sister, the regal Oberon, who descends the home's staircase and sets in motion the wheels of the movie's tormented plotline.

Cochran discovers from Jurgens that he suddenly has two weeks to wait before his equipment is going to be trucked in to the factory, but since Oberon is so attentive to him, it doesn't seem as if it's going to be too torturous a wait. She dances with him, shows him to the food and then insists on walking to his guest suite with him.
However, not yet ready to say good night, she requests that he see her to her own spectacular home nestled a few blocks away and hidden from the street by a wall and a heavy door. Inside is a sprawling paradise with foliage galore, a beautiful pool and an open-air living area (that somehow, despite the late hour and what seems to be an absence of awake servants, has a freshly-lit fire going, burning candles everywhere and even ice for their drinks at the ready!)

She tries to keep it in check, but the wheels soon come off and it's clear that she is primed and ready for action. (Cochran's buddy Brodie, seen at left before departing, had already told him that she was ripe for the taking if he pushed the right button!) However, Cochran's hesitancy causes her to back away and have a showy meltdown in which she berates herself and cries despondently over her animal desires.

This tender side of her piques Cochran's interest all over again and before you know it, he's in her arms again and proceeds to spend the night with her. He awakens the next morning (sporting an endearingly tousled head of hair and ostensibly naked under the sheets) to the sounds of splashing outside.

Cochran comes out to join her and is told to grab a swimsuit from the nearby changing room. First he reaches for a pair of large, floppy trunks, then for a suit embroidered GC before (thank you, Jesus!) settling on a skimpy olive green Speedo which amply shows off his own well-preserved, forty-six year old physique.
One thing that impressed me about Steve's humpy body is just how attractive this mid-forties man's back is...
The couple's water-logged flirtations are cut short by the arrival of Jurgens, who is dismayed to see that Oberon has had Cochran's luggage brought over to her home. He reminds Cochran that the two of them are supposed to be touring the mine that morning, so Cochran has to doff the cute green trunks and get changed. We see that Jurgens has a less-than-comfortable interest in his sister Oberon's love life, one that borders on the obsessive.

Cochran heads to the mine where symbolic columns of machinery pound into the holes under-ground. Cochran takes a break from excavating Oberon to explore some of the mining operations. However, this respite is brief, for Oberon pops up unexpectedly with a picnic basket, offering Cochran chicken salad or tuna. When he expresses a preference for tuna, she tells him that's what she'll be, his tuna fish! He schnuggles up to her in a highly sensuous manner prompting her to remark about him rubbing her the right way!
Cochran doesn't even go back in to the mining facility, but instead whisks away with Oberon on an extended jaunt through the Mexican beaches, villages and hideaways. One brief, baffling scene shows her lying in bed with her long hair cascading around her face, bringing up uncomplimentary comparisons to one of her greatest roles, that of Cathy in Wuthering Heights (1939)!
The couple enjoys an idyllic adventure together, comfortable enough to bathe and shave in front of one another though Oberon comes perilously close to spoiling everything when she inadvertently calls Cochran by the wrong name as they are tussling on the bed!

A mysterious figure from her past seems to be haunting her thoughts. In any case, all is soon forgiven and the two traipse through a local (and crowded!) town. On a whim, Oberon decides to make herself into a new woman for Cochran and proceeds to have her Morticia-like hair hacked off by a street barber. He is reluctant to chop the hair, but she insists. In an instant, her long tendrils are gone and she suddenly has a thick, curly bouffant!
This new 'do is supposed to allow Cochran to run his fingers through her hair, but in the very next scene and thereafter it would take a John Deere combine to make its way through the teased, curled, back-combed and shellacked fixture on top of her head!
Back home, Jurgens is horrified to learn that this two-week-long affair has gotten serious and that Oberon intends to marry Cochran. His outrage seems less about her reputation than the fact that it sparks a sort of uncomfortable obsession of his own with her, his own half-sister (different mothers, but the same father.)
Jurgens conspires for Oberon to join him and some friends on the sizeable family sailboat for a spin around the ocean. Thing is, Cochran isn't able to join them right away since the absent equipment is now on hand and needs to be installed. What's more, Jurgens has deliberately arranged for one of Oberon's prior squeezes (the “GC” of the monogrammed swimsuit), John Agar, to be on board.
Oberon is distraught to find Agar on the boat and attempts (with precious little success) to avoid him. She starts to drink and he begins to put the moves on her, eventually chasing her to her cabin and all but raping her, though after a certain point, she gives in and takes what it is he's giving.
The morning comes hard when she sees Cochran through a portal, arriving on a launch to join them all. Her guilt and shame take over and she races to the bathroom to grab a razor blade and cut her wrists! Cochran comes upon her bleeding on the floor of her cabin.
Now convinced he will have nothing more to do with her, she shuts herself away in her walled estate, refusing to see him even though he has somehow worked through his anger and disappointment at her behavior and wants to at least say goodbye.

Realizing her own unfairness in the situation, she goes to see him at his hotel where the couple ultimately realizes that they actually can make a go of things, despite all the drama, turmoil, unfaithfulness, etc... She darts back home to pack, ecstatic that things might actually work out, but then spots her own wrist bandages and begins to falter again. That's not all, though. Her half-brother Jurgens is now on the scene and launches into a major diatribe, one that reveals just how deep his feelings for her are.

With this, she is totally unhinged and goes careening out of the house, out of the grounds and into the swirling, whirling city, which, for some reason, seems practically devoid of any other women. She runs and runs, always banging into one man after another, some offering help, some leering. She comes upon maybe one or two women in the frame during this histrionic hilarity, with crazed music emphasizing each overheated encounter, until finally she is trapped in a revolving door and collapses.

This climax of the movie has to be seen to be believed with the zany music, the endless wave of men, men, men and (my own favorite) Merle - never one to be particularly sure on her feet anyway - garbed in a tight, gray pencil skirt, running frantically from place to place. I will leave it to you to find out how this nymphomaniacal drama plays out in the end.

One interesting thing about Of Love and Desire is that the year of release was 1963. That is early for a mainstream movie with a name brand star in it to be shown cavorting half-naked with a lover and being the love object of her own half-brother. Oberon is shown straddling Cochran's bare back with no doubt in the slightest that they have been carrying on a steamy affair. Contrast this with 1965's A Rage to Live in which much of sexually-obsessed Suzanne Pleshette's behavior is more implied than depicted.

Of course the movie's progressive, permissive attributes (baby-crib tame by today's standards) were acknowledged by many theater owners who slapped a “RESTRICTED” tag on it, allowing admittance to those only eighteen and older.

Even though it was not included in the final cut of the movie, a climactic kiss between Jurgens and Oberon was apparently filmed. In the end, a shot of her tear-filled, horrified eyes appears instead, but never one to deny my readers anything, I give you a still photo of the big smooch.

Also apparently snipped from the movie was this encounter with still another unidentified lover, a comparatively young one! Busy gal in this one, our Merle!

This shot is not from the actual movie either, but taken during a break in filming on the sailboat with a rather peckish visitor taking advantage of a snack that must have been available on board.

As soon as I saw this the first time and noticed Richard Rush's name as writer-director I figured I was in for several bits of campy fun. Though he has directed some well-received films including The Stunt Man (1980), it's his side-splitting wreck Color of Night (1994) that endeared him to me. The combination of his hot-house style and the desperate-to-stay-glamorous Oberon is rather irresistible.

Incidentally, no one will ever make me believe that this poster art is of Merle Oberon. I don't know where this picture originated, but it brings Ruth Roman to mind more than Oberon (though I don't believe it's Ruth, either.) I have no idea who it is or why it is on the poster, but it is simply not our girl!
Merle Oberon had been known for years as one of the cinema's most exotically exquisite looking people. (This photo at left is from the colorful 1946 movie Night in Paradise.) Countless photos of her in elaborately-appointed gowns and accessories can be found on the web and in books. Her (long-hidden) mixed race looks lent themselves well to austere, elegant characters.
In real life, she enjoyed fabulous wealth and was often found on best- dressed lists. Though she gave extravagant parties and hobnobbed with many of the rich and famous, she also enjoyed everyday life at her eye-popping home in Mexico. She was in no way going to belittle her image by chopping people up with an axe or screaming in terror as a disembodied head rolled down the steps near her.

No, her final three roles (this movie, then Hotel, 1967, and finally Interval in 1973 – oh, and we can't forget that cameo in 1966's The Oscar!) had her still doing everything possible to look attractive and glamorous. I'm still waiting to see her at the 1973 Academy Awards ceremony in which she presented a special award to The Poseidon Adventure for its special effects, emerging onstage aboard a partial replica of the deck! Can you imagine?!? Ms. Oberon suffered a stroke and passed away in 1979 at age sixty-eight.

Mr. Cochran only made a few more film and TV appearances after this because he became ill during the filming of Mozambique (1965) and a resultant lung infection killed him while he was sailing with three curvaceous Mexican passengers. They drifted for ten days with his body on board until finally being rescued. Oberon, who'd been his lover during Desire, pressed authorities to look into his death further, but no foul play was ever uncovered. (The photo below is from an earlier excursion, not the one in question, but is eerily prescient!)
Jurgens was a German-born journalist who entered acting at the encouragement of his first wife, who was an actress herself. After being interned in a concentration camp for his anti-Nazi stance, he became an Austrian citizen, eventually continuing a stage career and essaying effective villainous roles on screen (a notable time being The Spy Who Loved Me in 1977.) In 1971's The Mephisto Waltz, he dabbled in apparent incest again, making out with “daughter” Barbara Parkins.

Jurgens was married five times and his third wife, the highly-colorful Eva Bartok, gave birth to a child AFTER their divorce, naming her Deana Jurgens. However, it was later revealed that not only was the child not his (he'd been rendered sterile in a long ago accident), but that the girl was allegedly the offspring of Frank Sinatra! Jurgens died of a heart attack in 1982 at age sixty-six.

Agar is famous as the first husband of child superstar Shirley Temple. Having met her in 1944 through his sister, who went to school with Temple, they wed in 1945 when she was but seventeen. The unhappy marriage ended in 1950 and Agar's once-promising career (unaided by a drinking problem) morphed into a series of leads in campy sci-fi flicks. This movie was a welcome reprieve for him from aliens, monsters and giant spiders. His second marriage was a far happier one, lasting until her death after nearly fifty years. Agar passed away only two years later in 2002 at age eighty-one of emphysema.
The song “Katherine's Theme” is sung over the opening credits by none other than Sammy Davis Jr. Time was, all the fancy romantic movies had lush themes crooned by anyone from Vic Damone to Jack Jones to Frank Sinatra, so it's only natural that Sammy had his turn.

Not everyone is going to be able to comfortably immerse themselves in a movie like Of Love and Desire, but for fans of the colorful, the glossy, the overbaked and for anyone with an affection for either Ms. Oberon or Mr. Cochran, it's a no-brainer. For years it was one of those holy grail films I felt I'd never see (it's never been released on home video), but thankfully Fox Movie Channel unearthed it and airs it from time to time.