Queenie (1987– )
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This serial style film, lavish with luxury and escapism, is a chocolates and velvet experience, intended, I suspect, for susceptible ladies who love a weepie melodramatic love story. As such, it succeeds admirably. I am one of those ladies, always have been. I picked up the film accidentally, as one does, going cheap in a supermarket. How much more have I paid for films and not gained half the value of this one? I settled down in comfort to relish this story, loosely based on the real life story of Merle Oberon, adapted from one of her husband's (Alexander Korda) nephew's (Michael Korda) novel based on the legends /history of his beautiful aunt. Facts, re-interpreted or changed to fit the film's design, intertwine with fiction. Merle Oberon (Queenie Kelly in the film) was Anglo-Indian, did grow up in Kolkata (Calcutta), did go to England and become a film star, did marry Alexander Korda (David Konig in the film) who was, by all accounts, completely infatuated with her. She did disguise her Anglo-Indian origins, pretend she came from Tasmania, disguise her darker-skinned mother as her maid (in Hollywood: her mother died in 1937), and, after divorcing Korda in 1945, marry a cinematographer called Lucien.
The film's additional plot details make a more tantalising drama. Early on, Queenie's rape by a high-up British official in India, resulting in his death and suspicion of murder falling on Queenie, provides a strong plot-line on which to hang lots of dramatic punctuation points. Plausibility is irrelevant - who needed Bette Davis or Hitchcock dramas to be plausible? One review I read of this film described it as 'shoddy'. It is not at all shoddy. The sordid details - rape, seedy clubs and strip-tease dancers, decrepit living conditions in India for poor Anglo-Indians, race prejudice which force non-white people to hide their origins, suggestions of incest, job shortages during the Depression; - all these happened (and still happen), and often to young, pretty, and vulnerable girls at the mercy of a ruthless male world around them. Some of these things may have happened to the real Merle Oberon. We live in a world that is often shoddy.
The film itself must have cost a fortune with lavish sets and glamorous costumes, gorgeous palaces and exotic Indian location (whether the real India or made to look like it matters little), film sets within film sets. Take one glorious scene where Queenie, now Dawn Avalon (her name taken from a loved poem of her childhood) arrives in India to make a big film (The Secret Palace) and is greeted by a horde of Indian press and hoi polloi complete with decorated camels, elephants, and palaces. She looks her most beautiful and enigmatic, stylish and designer-dressed (almost like the real Merle Oberon). India is red-hot with exotic luxury, no expense spared. The fictional film 'The Secret Palace' gives a nod to 'Wuthering Heights', Merle Oberon's most famous film - the fictional end of 'The Secret Palace' mimicks the end of the 'Wuthering Heights' - a neat conceit of which there are several in this film indicating a subtlety which one doesn't usually expect from a miniseries.
Mia Sara excels herself. I had not seen her before but I thought she was lovely. She was graceful and expressive and caught the quality of erotic beauty that Merle Oberon had. Helped by the make-up and wonderful costumes she was so striking and her acting skills were evident in the way her character matured from the determined but naive young girl into a beautiful, consummate actress, somewhat manipulative, and often quite ruthless in getting what she wanted - one example of the mature Queenie was how she managed both Lucien and David Konig, and despite Konig's own ruthless pursuit of what he wanted, she kept the upper hand.
And she was supported by a galaxy of stalwart older actors with impeccable pedigrees, who presumably take these parts because they are committed actors who desire to keep working. Claire Bloom (who starred herself, so many years ago, in Charlie Chaplin's film, 'Limelight' and went on to become one of Britain's leading stage and screen acresses), in one of her stranger roles, darkened up to play Queenie's Anglo-Indian mother, Victoria, complete with appropriate Indian accent; Joss Ackland (a classic British actor) as the British high official in India, Sir Burton Rumsey, and Sara Miles (who remembers her marvellous performances in Joseph Losey's 'The Servant' and David Lean's 'Ryan's Daughter'?) as Lady Sibyl Rumsey, both of which actors play similar roles in another British empire film 'White Mischief'. Martin Balsam and Kirk Douglas (as Konig, a pseudonym for Korda) as movie moguls - what did the TV company have to pay to get them!! - and Joel Grey (remember him as the amazing Master of Cermonies in 'Cabaret'?)
I thoroughly enjoyed 'Queenie'. It doesn't pretend to be a biopic, or even a 'good movie': it does what these miniseries can do so well when they try - produce an entertaining escape out of the humdrum into the sun for a few brief hours.
We are NOT seeing the Merle Oberon story in Queenie. Though the protagonist was Anglo-Indian this was something she kept a secret throughout her entire life, probably at great pain to herself. What Queenie does do is show the times in the Raj when she grew up in India.
Times were not easy for the real Merle or for young Mia Sara in Calcutta in the teens and twenties of the last year. For reasons that sound abominably stupid today, the British public which wanted to let India go was blocked by some very powerful folk, chiefly Winston Churchill and press magnate Lord Beaverbrook. The racist attitudes were summed up so well by Joss Ackland where he states that we can't leave India because the Moslems and Hindus will end up killing each other, but just as long as they don't bring the fight into their club. Racial and religious antagonisms which for reasons of policy both good and bad were encouraged.
Mia Sara's character is like Ava Gardner's in Bhowani Junction, struggling hard and not feeling she belongs in either British or Indian society. What Michael Korda does in the story is allow her to have a measure of pride in her heritage, something Merle Oberon could never do in her life.
But she married well and Kirk Douglas plays the fictional David Konig, the prototype for British film producer Alexander Korda. Douglas borrows liberally from his Oscar nominated role of Jonathan Shields from The Bad and the Beautiful to play Konig. I suspect there's more Shields than Korda in his performance though.
Best performances in the film are from Claire Bloom as Sara's mother and from Serena Gordon as the vicious young lady who was Ackland's daughter and her antagonist.
Queenie was done on location in Jaipur, India a city which is known for its traditional look and probably looks more like Calcutta in the twenties than Calcutta now.
I think Merle Oberon would have approved.
The film includes several well known actors including the "forever-beautiful-whatever-her-age" Claire Bloom. I had already noticed her in Charlie Chaplin's Limelight and Anton de Grunwald's Innocents in Paris but in Queenie she is even more beautiful. In addition, she has a very good Indian accent as well as darkened skin - difficult to remember she's actually white.
I am not going to relate the whole story as it is far too long but the spectator follows with interest Queenie's childhood in the slums of Calcutta, then travelling to UK with her uncle, finding work and rising up in life whilst her uncle comes to a sticky end through drink, and always with the interior fear that the death of a British governor in India will be pinned on her although in fact it was an accident.
Apparently, the film is supposed to be the biography of someone called Merle Oberon. I had never heard of this person and never seen her in films so I cannot comment on this. The colonial atmosphere in India is very well rendered, and I have a tendency to confuse parts of this film with David Lean's Passage to India ! This is a very entertaining film to be watched on a cold and wet winter Sunday afternoon. It is a series of trials and tribulations which the spectator follows with eagerness. Highly recommendable if you can get your hands on it whatever country you live. It is often shown on French TV under the title " Queenie, La Force d'Un Destin".
I found this film most enjoyable and entertaining.The acting is superb all around. Having seen it sometime ago, I was thrilled to be able to purchase the DVD on Amazon recently.
In the film the heroine, here named Queenie Kelly, is born in Calcutta of mixed British and Indian parentage. She moves to Britain where she works as an exotic dancer (euphemism for stripper) before she is discovered by a Hungarian-born film director, here called David Konig, who makes her a star under the name Dawn Avalon and gives her the leading role in his latest movie. Like Merle Oberon, Queenie/Dawn pretends to have been born in Tasmania, and passes her mother off as her maid.
Of course, this being a fictionalised biography, there have to be some fictional elements. As far as I am aware, the real Merle Oberon was never accused of murder. In the film, Queenie is implicated in the death of a high-ranking British colonial official named Sir Burton Rumsey; the truth is that he fell accidentally to his death while pursuing her with intent to rape her, but she dare not reveal the truth for fear that she will not be believed. Queenie is pursued obsessively by the dead man's daughter Prunella, who blames her for her father's death; Queenie's adoption of a pseudonym and a false biography owes as much to a desire to throw Prunella off the scent as it does to racial sensitivities. Oberon was already a major star before her marriage to Korda, which lasted until 1945 and then ended in divorce; in the film Konig acts as Queenie's Svengali, turning her into a star and then dying of a heart attack soon afterwards (c. 1938). Konig's death leaves Queenie free to marry her true love, a photographer named Lucien; in real life Oberon's second husband was indeed a photographer named Lucien.
The 1980s saw a number of films and television series set in colonial India ("Gandhi", "A Passage to India", "The Jewel in the Crown", etc.) and, like most of the other entries in the cycle, "Queenie" deals with the topic of relations between the British colonial masters and their Indian subjects. The British characters, especially the obnoxious Rumsey and the snobbish Prunella, are portrayed as obsessively racist, prejudiced against not only pure-blooded Indians but also those who, like Queenie, have a "touch of the tarbrush", the unlovely slang phrase used at the time to denote those of mixed racial origins. Queenie is horrified to learn that the film she is starring in is an epic being shot on location in India, as she has no desire to revisit the land of her birth, which holds bad memories for her.
Eventually, however, in a key scene near the end, she proudly announces her Anglo-Indian origins- and is warmly applauded for doing so. This scene clearly reflects the values of the eighties rather than those of the thirties- in real life Merle Oberon never publicly admitted to being of Indian descent. Had she done so, it would probably have meant the end of her film career, at least as a leading lady. Indeed, she continued to insist on her supposed Australian origins right up until her death in 1979.
A word of warning. This was originally a TV mini-series, but is now being sold on DVD as if it were a feature film. When my wife (a lifelong Kirk Douglas fan) purchased it recently there was nothing on the box to indicate its origins, apart from the words (in very tiny print) "Length: 232 minutes". Of course, if one does try and watch it as though it were a film, it is slow-moving and insanely overlong (longer than, say, "Dr Zhivago" or "Titanic", and around the same length as "Gone with the Wind"). Kirk Douglas, however, is always watchable and the lovely Mia Sara makes a charming heroine. If one watches it as a mini-series, however, over a number of evenings, it becomes, in a glossy soap-opera kind of way, more enjoyable. 6/10
The miniseries starts off with Kate Emma Davies as young Queenie, a fantastic look-a-like for Mia Sara. She's half Indian but passes for white; but she gets teased at school and shunned by white society. All she wants is out of life is to become a movie star. She doesn't have a crush at school, and she's not aware of any sex and power struggle between men and women. Unfortunately, because she's so beautiful, men can't keep their hands off her, starting with her schoolteacher. Throughout the episodes, when Mia Sara takes the lead, it's heartbreaking to watch Queenie change her life view. Because she's continually objectified and desired by men, she learns that she can use her body to get other things she wants, and she turns into a completely different person. It's tragic, but also true to life and quite fascinating.
I don't want to spoil the plot, because Queenie has such an eventful life and comes in contact with so many interesting characters, but I highly recommend this miniseries if you like the genre. With seasoned veterans joining the supporting cast-Kirk Douglas, Claire Bloom, Joss Ackland, Joel Grey, Martin Balsam, Sarah Miles, Topol, and Leigh Lawson-every scene is well-acted and compelling. I was on the edge of my seat during Queenie's journey, and just like every great miniseries, there's sadness, suspense, romance, violence, secrets, blackmail, and the perfect tying of all loose ends. For a very fun weekend with your mom, rent Queenie, light a fire, and bring out the china tea set!
Kiddy Warning: Obviously, you have control over your own children. However, since there may or may not be a rape scene, I wouldn't let my kids watch it.
"Queenie" is based on the roman a clef by her nephew, Michael Korda, and it's pure fiction except for a few items.
It's the story of an Anglo-Indian young girl, Queenie Kelly, living in India when it was under British rule. She suffered from bullying by students at the school she attended because of her mixed ethnicity. At the same time, her exotic beauty attracted male attention. At one point, when her musician brother is fired from his country club job, she goes to Sir Burton Ramsey, who owns the club, to beg for his job back. He rapes her. Running from him, he trips and falls over a balcony to his death.
Terrified no one would believe her, Queenie steals Ramsey's wallet and, with her uncle, leaves the country for England. There she works as a stripper and eventually becomes a film star. Calling herself Dawn Avalon, she can never tell anyone her true ethnicity or identity, which would ruin her career and possibly result in a murder charge.
That's the story of Queenie, but with the exception of hiding her true identity, it's not the story of Merle Oberon. Much of Oberon's early life is in question. Her mother could actually have been her grandmother, and her sister Constance her mother; her nephew claimed to have discovered he was her half-brother after researching his heritage.
In order to empathize with Oberon, the racism during these years must be addressed. With people like Freddie Washington and Anna Mae Wong denied careers, Oberon could never, ever, have admitted to being part Indian. Instead, like the character in Queenie, she claimed to have been born in Tasmania.
This miniseries is very entertaining, with Mia Sara absolutely perfect for Queenie - you could never find a double for Oberon, but Sara has Oberon's delicate, exotic looks and beautiful speaking voice. Someone said Oberon was an established star before marrying Alexander Korda, but that's not true. Korda, whom she married, not only gave her career a huge boost, but he brought her to Hollywood to work for Sam Goldwyn.
In the miniseries, Korda is "David Konig" and played by Kirk Douglas. Queenie is in love with a photographer turned cinematographer, Lucien (Gary Cady), but Konig gets him a cinematographer's job in Egypt while Queenie is filming in India. He then seduces and marries her.
The real Oberon married Korda, and after their divorce, she married cinematographer Lucien Ballard. According to a letter I have, Ballard physically abused her, as did a boyfriend later on. Ballard invented a special light for Oberon after she was in a car accident, and that light, the "obie" is still used today.
The film Queenie makes, her big debut, in the miniseries is said to cost $25 million, more than Gone with the Wind. Not likely that the movie was made during wartime in India. Also not likely that it cost 25 million since GWTW cost $3.85 million.
Claire Bloom does a beautiful job as Queenie's mother. I'm not sure if the story of her mother pretending to be her maid comes from this fictional account or actually happened. If her mother was indeed with her, it makes sense that the two would have agreed to that masquerade. In any case, Oberon adored her mother.
Though only in her fifties, like many female movie stars of her time, Oberon was relegated to low-budget films, self-produced films, and television. She did have a good role in 1967's Hotel and, at 56, was absolutely stunning. Her last film was in 1973, six years before her death. A stressful life, but a successful career that could have continued in today's world.
Queenie was filmed in Jaipur, India, with magnificent production values and a cast that includes not only Douglas and Bloom, but Topol, Joss Ackland, Martin Balsam, and Joel Grey. Recommended - it's the kind of super-expensive miniseries we saw a lot of in the '80s, and they're gone for good.
the cast of characters were very interesting and expressive. the story in itself was more then enough to hold one's interest, focusing on a likable main character that you became emotionally involved with. the locations were beautifully filmed, and i felt the scenery was spectacular and lush. the film also had a wonderful international cast, that seemed to be perfectly cast in each part. i felt that kirk Douglas was excellent in the part of David konig, and played his part to perfection! the biggest surprise of the film was Mia Sara, who, in only her third film, was very believable as Queenie, and looked just beautiful. this film shows her to be a better talent then she is given credit for!