Sunday, February 14, 2010

Underrated Performer of the Week - Eleanor Parker

Eleanor Parker?? Although one of the great beauties and among the finest actresses of the 40s and 50s she is among the forgotten performers who have faded into near obscurity. I watched her in two films back to back, Pride of the Marines with John Garfield, and Above And Beyond with Robert Taylor. I'm still impressed by her exquisite loveliness, even in black-and-white, and her ability to become the characters she portrayed. She was called the "women of a thousand faces" because she imbued every character she played with a distinct personality that was not her own. She was nominated for three Academy Awards and her acting abilities were equal to those of her better-known contemporaries Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn. And yet today she remains an afterthought in discussions about Hollywood's best actresses. Although part of this status can be blamed on Warner Bros. for not giving her the solid roles she deserved, Parker probably contributed by her refusal to go along with the Hollywood game. She was not interested in doing interviews or posing for cheesecake photos. She also refused to attend night clubs and parties where she could be photographed for publicity purposes or gossip column scoops. She preferred to spend as much time as possible at home with her family. Her decision to avoid the studio protocol for grooming its contract players like Ann Sheridan, helped to deny her a prominent place in Hollywood's collective memory.

Parker had acted locally in her home state of Ohio and after graduation from high school left for California to study at the Pasadena Playhouse. She was offered a screen test, but turned it down in order to finish her studies. In 1941 she did have a screen test at Warner Bros. and was signed to a contract three days later. Her debut film was supposed to be They Died with Their Boots On (1941), but her scene was eventually deleted from the movie. She was then placed in a series of one and two reel Technicolor short films. Warner Bros. continued to cast her in below par productions, and though frustrated, Parker still gave her all to each performance. Finally the studio cast her in an A picture, the controversial Mission to Moscow, a film glorifying Russia, our World War II ally, which later became a vehicle for the House Un-American Activities Committee in their effort to identify communists in the film industry. She played real-life American ambassador to Russia Joseph Davies daughter, with Walter Houston and Ann Harding as her parents. She received positive critical response, but the film was not successful. She was supposed to play the role of Miriam Hopkins’ daughter in the last half of Old Acquaintance; she was requested by director Vincent Sherman who was turned down by Warner Bros. explaining that the actress Dolores Moran had been signed for the role at the time when Edmund Goulding was the director. Instead she appeared in the second film version of the Broadway play Outward Bound, Between Two Worlds, in which a group of dead ship passengers await their fate in the afterlife. Her costars included Paul Henried and John Garfield. Unfortunately this movie proved to be another box office bust. After several more low-budget films she was given her first leading role in the 1944 production The Very Thought of You., directed by Delmar Daves and costarring Dennis Morgan, with a story depicting the plight of young soldiers who married quickly and the impact on their families once they were shipped overseas. The film and Eleanor Parker's sensitive performance were well received by audiences; although some critics gave it a negative reception, they praised Parker’s performance as the young wife trying to cope on the home front with her husband's hostile family. In 1945 Warners planned to make a film based on a magazine article about the Marine Al Schmidt, who was blinded at Guadalcanal and received the Navy Cross for his heroism. John Garfield was to be the star; he had enjoyed a pleasant working relationship with Parker in Between Two Worlds and requested her for the role of his girlfriend Ruth, replacing Alexis Smith, who was the original choice. Her performance in Pride of the Marines was lauded by fans and critics alike; her love for Al was tender and feisty, mirroring her attempts to help him lead a normal life even though he was blind. Oddly after two well received sensitive portrayals, Warners chose her to re-create Bette Davis's role in a remake of the 1934 film Of Human Bondage. Inevitably Parker's performance was compared unfavorably to Davis, but analysis of her portrayal reveals that she was effective in many scenes. Like the first film, this also proved to be unpopular.

Fed up with the poor quality of the films she was assigned, Parker refused to appear in another low-budget piece of fluff and was suspended by the studio. At the end of the suspension the studio persisted in its shabby treatment of Parker, with roles in two unsuccessful films both costarring Errol Flynn; the lifeless comedy Never Say Goodbye and the stale soap opera, Escape Me Never. After three disappointments in a row, Parker yearned for a role that was commensurate with her talent. The opportunity presented itself when Warner Bros. acquired the rights to the Broadway comedy hit, Voice of the Turtle and chose Parker to recreate the role originated by Margaret Sullavan on stage. Neither the studio nor Parker expected the objections to her casting raised by almost all of the principals associated with the play.

Ronald Reagan, who was the male lead, wanted Warners to use his friend June Allyson for the role, but they declined to do so and Reagan was the first to be miffed by the choice of Parker. Then the play's producer dropped out, dissatisfied with the casting. Additional departures from the project included John van Druten, author of the play, who was going to direct the film. He felt Margaret Sullavan should recreate her role. Director Irving Rapper was then assigned to the project and also attempted to abandon ship because of Parker, but was persuaded by Warners to remain. In the end. all their opposition proved unwarranted, as Parker gave a delightful performance, tapping into a vein of comedic timing that had never been seen in her previous performances. She was silly, eccentric and lovable as Sally Middleton, and some critics deemed her performance more natural and spontaneous than Sullavan's. It is one of the highlights of Parker's career.

The 1950's ushered in an era of Oscar nominations for Parker. In the hard-hitting, realistically brutal evocation of life in a women's prison, Caged, she played Marie Allen, a 19-year-old who had the misfortune to marry a petty criminal whose attempted robbery lands the young woman in prison. The movie depicts the evolution of the innocent naïve Marie into a potentially hardened criminal due to the unrelenting and cruel treatment she received at the hands of the sadistic prison matrons. She deservedly was nominated for best actress but lost to Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday. She was nominated again for her portrayal of Kirk Douglas' anxious and neglected wife in the Detective Story, who harbors a deep and dangerous secret. Her final bid for the Oscar was for her performance as world-renowned soprano Marjorie Lawrence who contracted polio at the height of her career and her fight against this life-threatening illness. Parker considers Interrupted Melody the best film she ever made. Denied the Oscar three times, she stated that it would've been nice to win , but that she was satisfied with her career without one on her mantle. She went on to play the Baroness in the Sound of Music, the role that is probably best remembered today.

Although choice film roles were scarce, she did appear in the lively swashbuckler Scaramouche and played opposite Frank Sinatra as his duplicitous wife in the Man with the Golden Arm. Robert Taylor was her costar in three films, Above and Beyond, Many Rivers to Cross, and Valley of the Kings, none of which were spectacularly successful. In Escape from Fort Bravo, an entertaining action filled western, she and her costar William Holden created just enough sexual tension to keep things interesting. Impressive supporting roles included performances opposite Frank Sinatra in A Hole in the Head and with Robert Mitchum in Home from the Hill. In the early 60s she began a career in television, appearing in many series and was nominated for an Emmy for her guest role on The 11th Hour. She also was one of the major characters in the short-lived Hollywood behind-the-scenes drama Bracken's World, but departed the show in midseason due to the poor quality of scripts. She continued to work in television on such shows as Murder, She Wrote, The Love Boat and Fantasy Island. She also garnered glowing reviews as Corbin Bernsen's mother in the made for television drama Dead on the Money in 1991.

For those of us familiar with her work it is a mystery why she is not considered to be among the hierarchy of film actresses. But as explained above, it probably doesn't matter to her as much as it does to her legion of fans whose appreciation she has earned for her many memorable performances in a career that spans almost 60 years.


  1. Sazball, Thanks for this wonderful post. Ms Parker gave so many good performances.(Man With The Golden Arm Above & Beyond are favorites),and is not" known" by way too many "film fans".This post should help to solve that problem.

  2. Saz, you know I never thought of her as underrated since she was in so many good films. I really enjoyed her in Voice of the Turtle and Caged. Yet, you are right, most people today have no idea who she is. Thanks for highlighting her wonderful career.

  3. Saz, this is fine tribute to one of my favorite actresses. Of her performances, the two I enjoy most are in SCARAMOUCHE as the spunky Lenore and THE NAKED JUNGLE as Charlton Heston's new bride. I have to disagree with you on NEVER SAY GOODBYE, which I think is a charming comedy with fine comic performances by the leads (and Cuddles Sakall). ESCAPE ME NEVER is a bit overwrought, but the Korngold music is awesome.

  4. Saz, this was a well researched and fascinating essay on a truly beautiful and talented actress. I think Eleanor Parker brought an elegance to her roles that one doesn't see anymore. I have always been a fan of hers and especially love her in "Scaramouche." It is an excellent story penned by Rafael Sabatini and I never understood how Stewart Granger was supposed to choose between her and the lovely Janet Leigh.

  5. Rick, My favorite Eleanor Parker performance is with Charlton Heston, as his mail-order bride in The Naked Jungle.

  6. Very nice overview of Eleanor Parker - Thankt for posting. I read that there was objection to both Reagan and Parker for "Voice of the Turtle". The people associated with the play felt both were too lightweight for the roles. It's one of my favorite movies of both Reagan and Parker. I also love "Many Rivers to Cross" - it's silly, but just plain fun to watch. When the film is over, you are smiling.

  7. I really enjoyed this tribute and linked to it on my blog yesterday. Thank you for calling attention to one of my favorite actresses!

    My favorite Parker role is THE VERY THOUGHT OF YOU which is perhaps the film which first caught my attention (previously I associated her just with the "evil Baroness" in THE SOUND OF MUSIC, grin). I also especially like her in THE VOICE OF THE TURTLE, PRIDE OF THE MARINES, THE NAKED JUNGLE, and SCARAMOUCHE. All wonderful!

    Best wishes,

  8. Dana Andrews worked with Ms. Parker in his film "Madison Avenue" He spoke of her glowingly, calling her especially underrated (sic),