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.


joel65913 said...

I've always been curious about this film too Poseidon. It sounds like quite the guilty pleasure. I've seen parts of Interval years ago but this one has proven elusive, sadly I don't have Fox Movie Channel so it seems the quest will continue.

Funnily enough I've just watched several new Merle films over the last few days as TCM ran a whole spate of her filmography this week! It's not her birthday so I don't know what the occasion was for the mini festival but my DVR was in overdrive.

Sadly this one was not included but I was able to catch Over the Moon-silly, The Divorce of Lady X-breezy but screwball comedy was neither Laurence Olivier nor Merle's strong suit although Binnie Barnes was right at home., The Lion Has Wings-a tedious semi-documentary, Night Song-soapy drama akin to Magnificient Obsession with a gender switch but great music and Ethel Barrymore too! and one that you have pictures from A Night in Paradise-Arabian nonsense in lush technicolor.

All were new to me and while none were great it was a wonderful chance to become more familiar with her work. Up until now I'd only seen some of her more famous roles from her Hollywood period and The Private Life of Henry the VIII.

Her looks were quite striking, it seems incredible that no one realized she was of mixed heritage since her appearance was plainly eurasian but I suppose at the time her word was taken at face value. The one thing that marred her beauty and which she wisely abandoned when she went to California was the pencil thin eyebrows that were the fashion of the mid-thirties. For someone with as high a forehead as she the look was disastrous as was evident in two of the pictures I watched.

The one I have left I've been saving and looking forward to with great delight-Hotel! I've only ever been able to see bits and pieces through the years but will finally get a chance to sit down with Merle's mile high hair and all the soapy goodness.

Flying Spaghetti Monster said...

Your wait is over! The OSCARS have put up tons of clips from the 1973 broadcast! Here's Merle presenting the special award to The Poseidon Adventure:

Ken Anderson said...

With a title like this, I'm surprised I've never even heard of this film, but it sounds very much like one I'll be happy to discover. Now to start scouring the Fox Movie Channel for encore performances. Thanks for bringing it (with all the great backstory) to my attention!

Donald Lam said...


After gathering dust on the shelf, I finally watched this cinematic gem last night. It was more than worth the wait. Steve Cockring is good in anything (and out of his clothes). I love the fact that they had a fling during shooting and that our Merle wanted to investigate his death.
Love your site--your hard work is very impressive.

Poseidon3 said...

Joel, thank you as always for your detailed commentary and information. I got to watch "Night in Paradise" just a few days ago and while it was very corny, Merle looked staggering in color! It was my first ever Turhan Bey movie, though he was in heavy disguise for most of it. You must report back about "Hotel!" I feel it has a strangely sterile quality to it, but it's so slick and elegant-looking. I can never, ever get enough of the way Merle is dressed and coiffed in it... I wanted to like it as much as "Airport," derived by the same author, but couldn't quite get there, but it's still a neat watch.

OMG, Spaghetti Monster!!!! Thank you so much for that link. What a scream!! I could only see it, not hear it, too, here at work, but will watch it again (and again!) later at home. The "replica" Merle came in on was more than tacky (and I had read in an otherwise reputable book that it malfunctioned and she almost fell, which doesn't seem to be the case at all!) The best part about that clip is that she is wearing her very own necklace which is IN "Of Love and Desire" - check the pictures at the top of her in the first scene! Amazing. With her white chiffon dress, I would love to have seen her up in the Glass Tower with Faye Dunaway the year after. LOL

Ken, I trust you will love this when you finally get to see it. :-)

Donald, thank you so much for your compliments. It IS a lot of work and I frequently bellyache about not having enough time, taking too long between posts and so on, but it means a lot when people appreciate the posts that eventually tumble out.

I'm glad you all enjoyed this and it's good to see some love for this movie! Thank you!

joel65913 said...

Hi Poseidon,

Well I did watch Hotel and it was...okay. Like you I wanted to love it as much as Airport or The V.I.P.S the two movies it reminded me the most of but it was missing some key elements.

It's story was rather meh and the star power just wasn't there. While I like Rod Taylor a great deal he's no Burt Lancaster, Gene Hackman or Richard Burton. And Catherine Spaak is certainly not Jacqueline Bissett nor Elizabeth Taylor. With no really dominant personality front and center my attention drifted. Similarly Kevin McCarthy had a certain oily repellent quality but he and Karl Malden, whose storyline went nowhere, should have switched roles. Malden was fully capable of being odious in a highly entertaining scenery chewing way that eluded McCarthy.

The one facet of the picture I enjoyed thoroughly was Merle Oberon. Aside from her occasionally mountainous hair every thing she wore was stunning and she was never less than 100% camera ready at all times. Her character was even allowed some moral ambiguity which she played well. Also it was a treat to hear Carmen McRae sing a couple songs before they threw her back into the woodwork where she was wasted more or less.

It sounds like I didn't enjoy the movie but I did it's just not something I'll turn back to frequently as I do with Towering Inferno, Airport, Woman's World, Poseidon Adventure etc.

Poseidon3 said...

I think I might have liked "Hotel" just a tad more than you did, but I agree with most of what you say (especially about Oberon.) I think I enjoyed Kevin McCarthy more, perhaps because he kept hilariously finding reasons to change his shirt and run his hands all over himself! I enjoyed Malden less, probably because the score during his scenes drove me up the wall. I enjoyed seeing craggy Melvyn Douglas and looking at the beautifully appointed sets. Thanks for coming back and sharing your reflections on it!! (FYI - if you didn't already check out my post on Merle Oberon, there is an account there of her at the premiere of the movie you might enjoy reading.)

Unknown said...

Wow, Poseidon, this sounds like one not-to-be-missed hot mess of a movie. Thanks for your enlightening and entertaining recap of it.

I like that the blurb on the poster challenges us to determine not only if we are "adult" but if we are adult "in every sense of the word(!)" I'll have to break out the thesaurus to see.

I was touched that Merle was loyal enough to Steve C. to want to investigate his death.

Thanks again.

Poseidon3 said...

Hi Allen! I hope you get to see this sometime. It's a hoot... How funny about the blurb on the posters. And now it would be lucky to get a PG rating, if not G! I agree with you. It's neat that Merle felt an obligation to press things further about Steve's strange demise. I appreciate you taking time to comment! Thanks!

2 Sticks of Butter said...

I love Merle Oberon...not the greatest actress, but in the right role she could be effective. Love her as George Sand in the campy, highly fictionalized. Chopin bio A SONG TO REMEMBER (1945). She's a hoot as the cross dressing George Sand. Her cold dismissal of Chopin near the end of the film was quite effective.

Poseidon3 said...

2 Sticks, for some reason I have never been able to sit and watch "A Song to Remember" even though it was my Great Aunt Thelma's all-time favorite movie. I thik I just want Merle to be in a huge, flouncy dress and not pants. Maybe sometime I'll try it again. Cornel is also not one of my faves outside "The Naked Jungle."