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Merle Oberon as Antonita, 1934

Cecil Beaton

Signed in pencil on mount
Inscribed with 'Merle Oberon' in unknown hand and stamped with photographer's studio ink stamp on reverse of mount
Silver gelatin print, printed 1970s
22 x 17 inches


Merle Oberon was a British actress who gained notoriety through her many roles in Alexander Korda’s films in the 1930s. In this heavily staged photograph, Oberon wears a black lace veil, and proffers a theatrically large Catholic crucifix. Her eyes are cast downwards, piously. 

Here, Oberon poses as Antonita, a character in Alexander Korda’s 1934 The Private Life of Don Juan. In the film, Juan (played by Douglas Fairbank) returns to Seville after twenty years in exile, with his return met by several humorous complications. Towards the end of the film, Don Juan is mistakenly reported dead. With Seville in mourning, Don Juan comically attends his own funeral. 

Oberon is photographed as Antonita in mourning. The flamenco dancer had initiated a passionate affair with the titular character, and is dismayed to learn that Juan’s other mistresses are also in attendance at the funeral. The exuberance of her mourning attire adds to the comedy of this discovery. 

Outside of the context of the film, however, Beaton’s portrait of Oberon takes on a deeper, less humorous, meaning. Throughout her career, Oberon hid her ethnicity (half Indian, half Irish), in order to safeguard her career against prejudiced Hollywood circles. A mourning veil is typically used as a means of disguising a woman’s grief. Given Oberon’s personal history, however, Antonita’s veil takes on renewed significance. 

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