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Oona O'Neill
Screen Test
Hollywood, 1942

 

Thank you to Dallas Cline, Oona O'Neill's first cousin and the daughter of Margery "Budgie" Boulton Colman, for helping to fine tune the playback speed of this video to approximate the timbre of Oona's voice.

Besides acquiring a stable of suitors, Oona acquired an agent, Minna Wallis.  Minna, sister of producer Hal Wallis, started out as an acting coach and after tiring of the tedious efforts to train the often unspeakable in how to speak, changed careers.  By the time Oona arrive in Hollywood, the former coach was at the top of her new profession.  They were introduced at a Hollywood party.  Whether Minna was bowled over by the young woman's looks, demeanor, and talent, or simply by her illustrious name, or by any combination of assets, is not clear.  One thing is certain; Minna Wallis must have been fairly confident that she could sell Oona O'Neill.  Minna arranged for a screen test with director Eugen Frenke, who was engaged in preliminary work on The Girl from Leningrad, a vehicle for his wife, Anna Sten.  Less than a minute and a half in length, the screen test is the only record of the young Oona O'Neill on film.

Opinions of the test vary.  Chaplin biographer David Robinson felt that her brief moment indicated that Oona would have been a striking screen personality.  In his opinion "her radiant and fragile beauty coupled with a personality, at once diffident and eager, yielded a vivid presence."  Others who viewed the film were not as enthusiastic.  In the screen test, despite a kerchief covering her luxurious dark hair (employed no doubt to give her a Slavic air) Oona's beauty shines forth.  The babushka notwithstanding, she does not look like a peasant girl from Leningrad.  If anything she resembles a starry-eyed colleen from Dublin.  Although Oona has little to say, her cultivated and preppy voice resounds with the accents of Park Avenue, not the Kremlin.  Eugen Frenke can be heard in the background exhorting her in heavily accented directives to do such things as turn her head and look up.  In these swift recorded seconds Oona's discomfort is palpable; she is obviously self-conscious.  To help overcome her anxieties, the director and at least two others speak out and try to loosen her up.  "Now, come to ze front and just wait.  Now, say somesink," prompts Frenke from behind the camera.  "I don't know what to say," answers Oona, furrowing her brow.  "Give me something," she pleads, then declares with embarrassment, "I'm sorry, OOO, I'm sorry," to which Frenke responds, "Don't be so sorry, dear."  In the background a woman, (perhaps Miss Sten) begins singing in accented English, "The bells are rrrink-ink for me and my gal" and a crestfallen expression appears on Oona's face.  She drops her head and sighs, "Oh gee,"  End of test.

When one looks at this strip of film today, disregarding its original purpose and judging it simply as a record of the young woman herself, Oona's innate sweetness, charm, and gentle diffidence shine through and provide a living document of her special appeal.  As a potential actress, however, aside from her comeliness and her effulgent smile, Oona O'Neill projects little more than a youthful glow and an intense vulnerability.  She had the looks, certainly, and a lovely demeanor, but whether she would have matured into a bona fide screen artist is strictly speculation.

Jane Scovell, Oona: Living in the Shadows


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