Tuesday, March 5

Eleanor Parker

It was my greatest year, 1952, for discovering movies.  Many of the films I hold so near and dear are from around that time.  The same, of course, could be said of actors.  My family held Eleanor Parker in high esteem.  Both my parents liked her.  In 1952 as a family we saw two films with Parker.  One was Scaramouche and the other was Above and Beyond and upon seeing them there was some blustery conversation about whether it was Parker in both. 

As Lenore in Scaramouche

And why is that?  Because the lady could look as different from one role to another as arguably any actress I have ever known.  I didn't recognize those differences in 1952 and I don't think my folks did either.  In Above and Beyond she was the demure, dishwater-blonde wife of famed WWII pilot Paul Tibbetts (he commanded the plane that dropped the bomb on Hiroshima).  In Scaramouche Parker was a fiery redhaired wildcat in a costume drama about an acting troupe. 

With Robert Taylor in Above & Beyond

It was her stock-in-trade... the sweet, unassuming housewife or girlfriend contrasted with a lusty vixen, scratching and snarling and biting.  So I think the best way to do a posting on Eleanor Parker is to do a pictorial of sorts and then you can decide for yourself whether this is an actress with as many faces as she had roles.  We'll sketch the few details I know about a rather private person as we go along.

The 1940s Warners look

As an 18-year old Ohio girl who dreamed of becoming a famous actress after her brush with some school plays, she ended up in Los Angeles with a Warner Brothers contract.  Throughout the forties she was cast as a wife or girlfriend to such studio contractees as Errol Flynn, Ronald Reagan, John Garfield, Dennis Morgan and Paul Henreid in such films as Between Two Worlds, Pride of the Yankees, The Voice of the Turtle, The Very Thought of You and Never Say Goodbye.  While the films were good and she in them, she had yet to knock their socks off.

An Oscar nod for Caged

That happened in 1950, both with Warners and other studios as well, when her career took on a new hue.  The starring role in Caged provided Parker with the first of three best actress Oscar nominations (and she probably should have gotten a couple more).  Her versatility, her many looks within one film, shone brightly as the young innocent sent to prison for a second-rate crime and coming out a hardened criminal.  As a youngster I remember this as just about the most memorable female performance I had seen.

From left, Roman, Neal, Parker

I have a special place in my heart for Three Secrets, made the same year.  Parker and real-life pal Patricia Neal and Ruth Roman are three women who gave up a son for adoption and all were born on the same day and year.  Now there's been an airplane crash and just such a boy is the sole survivor.  They all rush to the crash site and while awaiting a hoped-for reunion with the boy each woman hopes is her son, we get their stories in flashbacks.  It had an ending I didn't see coming.  The director was Robert Wise who years down the road would provide Parker with her most famous role in the most financially successful film in history (at that time).  Do you know what it is?  Oh I can hear your heart racing.

As Kirk Douglas' wife in Detective Story

The next year she earned her second Oscar nomination as Kirk Douglas' initially patient wife to his gritty cop in the fabulous film noir crime drama Detective Story.  Her role figures prominently in the action and yet we tend to forget her because Douglas was over-powering.

Next up was another sweet wife role in the aforementioned Above and Beyond.  My oh my how my own WWII dad loved this film and so did my mama as the woman who also waited.  Parker was firmly in my family's grips now.

Can you see her in there?

I think Dad was dealing with more than grips when he next saw Parker in Scaramouche.  He had been carrying on about her as the loving wife and now she was playing the tart/tramp/vixen, a temptress who made men take part in things they'd only thought of.  Her hair was longer, down and Technicolor red.  Her cleavage was heaved and her attitude peeved.  She didn't demure, she yelled,  she slapped.  There was sweet, angelic Janet Leigh for contrast as both fought for the charms of swashbuckling Stewart Granger.  And c'mon now, how about that title?  As a kid, I secured a plastic sword around my waist and dashed around the humble home stabbing at the furniture and saying it... Scaramouche.  You say it.  Say it out loud.  Scaramouche.  Say it again.  Just hear how that word comes out of your mouth.  Scaramouche.  Scaramouche.  See?  Don't you think you speak French?


Who do you think you're talking to?

Two more hip-swinging daughters of temptation came her way with roles in Escape from Fort Bravo and The Naked Jungle.  Beautiful and fiery in both, the former was a colorful western in which she was a villainous as a spy's girlfriend.  She looked hot in the arms of William Holden.  She was better yet in The Naked Jungle, as a mail-order bride summoned to some cocoa plantation run by a cold Charlton Heston.  The film's main fame comes from the hordes of ants that eat up everything and everyone in their path. In retrospect I think the film was remarkably sexy for a 1954 offering.  In various states of undress, Parker, unquestionably at her most voluptuous, spars with Heston in a manner that makes you wanna run off and fan yourself. 

Back in the saddle with William Holden

Her next film, Valley of the Kings, was memorable only because it's been alleged she had an affair with Robert Taylor, the second of their three films together (have you already forgotten Above and Beyond?).  Off together and lonely on location in Egypt can do that.  The following year they would costar in a ridiculous western (do you know how I cringe when pairing those two words?), Many Rivers to Cross.  The ardor, now on MGM soil, had apparently vanished.

As Marjorie Lawrence in concert

The year 1955 was likely one of Parker's favorites.  It certainly was for her fans.  First out of the gate was Interrupted Melody, the tampered-with life story of Aussie opera singer Marjorie Lawrence.  I had no idea who she was but with Parker in the role, lip-synching to Lawrence's voice, married to Glenn Ford, it was some colorful MGM fun.  The drama of the story is that Lawrence contracted polio.  I have always been a sucker for bios.  I don't even care if I know the subject.  Just make me believe it's true and send me off in the right direction.

Playing Zosch, drug-addled Frank Sinatra's wife, in The Man with the Golden Arm, was a coup for Parker and for every actor in it.  It was a riveting, gut-wrenching story that required both husband and wife to pull out all the stops and both did.  Parker ran through a cornucopia of emotions as an embittered wife bs'ing her addicted husband into thinking she's permanently wheelchair-bound so that he won't leave her.  And a new look for her, too... unkempt and fairly unattractive.  She would work with Sinatra a few years later in a comedy, rare for her, A Hole in the Head (1959)... still dynamite-looking, although starting to morph from the look we've wrapped ourselves in the rest of the 1950s.

Home from the Hill (1960) probably should have been on my 50 Favorite Movies list you've been enduring.  Family dramas rank among my top favorite plots and this is one of the best.  Parker is the frigid, unforgiving wife of an unscrupulously rich Robert Mitchum.  The film is rife with carnal shenanigans and Parker more than holds her own in this southern bastion of sweaty testosterone.

Don't touch me!

I quite liked The Return to Peyton Place (1961)... what with Parker and another recent posting here, Jeff Chandler, in starring roles... but she was essentially under-used. 

From here on out, her career lost momentum.  She made a number of simply terrible movies and moved over to television, making gazillions of TV movies, some good, some not so good.  But there was one thing on the horizon in the mid 1960s that will keep Eleanor Parker coming over the airwaves for generations to come.

The Sound of Music.  We won't comment too much here because I think it's possible you may here a little more about this film one day soon.  You hang on now, y'heah?  Very blonde again, she took the second female lead, something rare for her.  She was baroness Elsa Scraeder, the love interest of Captain Von Trapp before some governess snatched him away. 

Rather haughty as the baroness

As Julie Andrews' rival in the film, it's been said Andrews and Parker weren't the best of friends when the cameras weren't rolling either.  Whether that is true or not, I've always found it interesting that Parker has never to my knowledge participated in any TSOM retro/tribute/sit-in/demonstration/your choice.  Why is that?  One might argue that those who do attend at one point or another in the film are named Von Trapp.  But I doubt that this it it.

It may be true the filming of the classic was not so classic for our girl.  It may also be true, reminding you of our beginning here, she's never been one to jump on the Hollywood glitzy star-making
machine.  We have lost her... to public scrutiny, that is.  Still alive at 90, widowed (after four marriages), living I believe in the California desert, I hope when she passes that the trumpets blow somewhere around Hollywood to honor a supremely gifted actress possessed by facility for many faces, all of them beautiful.


Favorite Film #14

1 comment:

  1. I do remember The Naked Jungle and some very sexy lingere scenes. I definitely wanted to run off by myself but not to use a fan!