Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Late Great Eleanor Parker: The Woman of a Thousand Faces

The name "Eleanor Parker" may not be as recognisable a name as "Elizabeth Taylor" or "Marilyn Monroe", but there is every reason it should be. It was the name of one of the most talented actresses of the 20th Century. Eleanor Parker was incredibly beautiful, easily comparable to the other great beauties of the time, even Vivien Leigh and Hedy Lamarr. At the same time, however, she was incredibly talented. She could play any role given her and make it entirely her own. Over the years she played everything from a fiery actress in 18th Century France (Scaramouche) to a crass waitress (Of Human Bondage) to a hardened convict (Caged) to a baroness (The Sound of Music). And she played all of them well. Never mind her beauty, given her incredible talent it can truly be said that she should be more famous than she actually is. Sadly, Eleanor Parker died yesterday, 9 December 2013, at the age of 91 from pneumonia.

Eleanor Parker was born on 26 June 1922 in Cedarville, Ohio. Her family moved to  East Cleveland, Ohio when she was still very young. She started acting when she was still a child, appearing in school plays. As a teenager she studied acting at the Rice Summer Theatre in Martha’s Vineyard, Massachusetts. She later studied acting at the Pasadena Playhouse in Pasadena, California. While at both the Rice Summer Theatre and the Pasadena Playhouse, scouts for the major studios made offers of screen tests, but she turned them down in order to continue her studies.

Miss Parker was only about 19 years old when she put under contract to Warner Bros. She had a bit part in They Died with Their Boots On (1941), but unfortunately her scenes were cut from the completed film. Her official film debut would then be as Nurse Ryan in Soldiers in White in 1942. Over the next two years she would play various small roles in such films as The Big Shot (1942--the voice of a telephone operator), Men of the Sky (1942), Busses Roar (1942), Vaudeville Days (1942), The Mysterious Doctor (1943), and Destination Tokyo (1943). Her first major role came with the ensemble film Between Two Worlds (1944). The top billed actress in a cast filled with such heavyweights as John Garfield and Paul Henreid, as Ann Bergner in the film Eleanor Parker proved she could more than hold her own as an actress.

Over the next several years Eleanor Parker would receive more opportunities to prove her considerable talent as an actress in her time at Warner Bros. In Pride of the Marines (1945) she played the no-nonsense, independent Ruth Hartley, who proves herself more than a match for "he-man"  Al Schmid (John Garfield). In Of Human Bondage (1946) she played uncouth waitress Mildred Rogers. Among her most impressive performances of the films she made at Warner Bros. is Caged (1950). In the film Miss Parker played Marie Allen, who is sent to prison after a failed robbery attempt with her husband (who dies during the attempted robbery). While in prison she goes from a frightened, meek young girl to a hardened convict. She received a nomination for the Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role for the part. While most of her films of the time tended to very serious, she was very adept at comedy. In The Voice of the Turtle (1947) she was able to keep up with the incredible Eve Arden, no mean feat for even the best comic actors. At both Warner Bros. and other studios Miss Parker also appeared in such films as Crime by Night (1944), The Last Ride (1944), The Very Thought of You (1944), Never Say Goodbye (1946), Escape Me Never (1947), The Woman in White (1948), and Chain Lightning (1950) over the next many years.

Eleanor Parker left Warner Bros. in 1951 and signed with MGM later that same year. Arguably Miss Parker may have reached the height of her career in her years after leaving Warner Bros. In Detective Story (1951), which she made at Paramount, she played Mary McLeod, detective Jim McLeod's (Kirk Douglas) wife with a bit of a past. For her role in Detective Story she received a second Oscar nomination for Best Actress in a Leading Role. In Interrupted Melody (1955) she played opera diva Marjorie Lawrence as she struggled with polio. She received a third Oscar nomination for Best Actress in a Leading Role for the part. In Scaramouche (1952) she played fiery actress Lenore, making viewers wonder why anyone would even look twice at Janet Leigh when she was around. In The Man with the Golden Arm (1955) she played the conniving, unsupportive wife of drug addict Frankie Machine (Frank Sinatra). While many of her films in the Fifties, like her films in the Forties, tended to be very serious, she had opportunities to display her gift for comedy. She was incredibly funny as the title character in A Millionaire for Christy (1951). In the Fifties she also appeared in such films as Valentino (1951),  Above and Beyond (1952) , Escape from Fort Bravo (1953), The Naked Jungle (1954), Valley of the Kings (1954), The King and Four Queens (1956) , The Seventh Sin (1957), A Hole in the Head (1959), and Home from the Hill (1960).

In 1959 Eleanor Parker left MGM. The remainder of her career would primarily be spent in television,although she continued to make appearance in films into the Seventies. There can be no doubt that her best known role is that of the Baroness in The Sound of Music (1965). In my humble opinion she was easily the best thing about the film and, quite frankly, if I had been the Captain I would have married the Baroness and not Maria! She also appeared in the films Return to Peyton Place (1961), Madison Avenue (1962) , Panic Button (1964), The Oscar (1966), An American Dream (1966), Il tigre (1967), Eye of the Cat (1969), and Sunburn (1979). She did a good deal of television. She made her television debut in 1960 in the Buick-Electra Playhouse adaptation of the Hemingway story "The Gambler, the Nun and the Radio". She was a regular on the show Bracken's World, playing the lead role of executive secretary to never seen Century Studios head John Bracken. Over the years she guest starred on such shows as Checkmate, The Eleventh Hour, Breaking Point, Kraft Suspense Theatre, The Man From U.N.C.L.E., Circle of Fear, Hawaii Five-O, Vega$, The Love Boat, Fantasy Island, Hotel, Finder of Lost Loves, and Murder She Wrote. She also did several television movies, including Hans Brinker, Vanished, Home for the Holidays, and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner. Her last appearance on screen was in a TV movie, Dead on the Money in 1991.

The first thing that anyone would notice about Eleanor Parker was that she was incredibly beautiful. She easily ranks among the great beauties of the screen, alongside such women as Vivien Leigh, Hedy Lamarr, and Gene Tierney. What is more, she was a woman who looked amazingly beautiful in any hair colour. At various times in her career she was a brunette, a blonde, and a redhead, and she looked fantastic as all of them. This is not something of which every great beauty is capable (I've seen pictures of Elizabeth Taylor with blond hair--it seemed to diminish her appearance).

Of course, if Eleanor Parker was only beautiful, even given the fact that she was one of the screen's great beauties, she would not be notable. Beauty was not exactly a rare commodity in the Golden Age of Film. In a 1988 interview Miss Parker said, "I'm primarily a character actress." Quite simply, then, she was a character actress with the looks of a leading lady. And while she was one of the screen's great beauties, she was also one of its great character actresses. She could perform nearly any role given her. One need only look at the great variety of diverse roles she played throughout her career: scared prisoner in Caged; witty but financially troubled legal secretary in A Millionaire for Christy; an alcoholic in An American Dream; and many, many more. It is a shame the general public only know her as the Baroness in The Sound of Music, as she played so many great roles. Indeed, when Eleanor Parker appeared in a film, whether she is the star or not, she more often than not stole the show. A true chameleon, it is with good reason that Eleanor Parker was called "The Woman with a Thousand Faces". She was a character actress of incredible talent who could portray nearly any character she chose to.

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