Saturday, December 14, 2013

Godspeed Audrey Totter

Audrey Totter, best known for playing femme fatales in such films noir as Lady in the Lake (1947) and The Set-Up (1949), died on 12 December 2013 at the age of 95. The causes were a stroke and congestive heart failure.

Audrey Totter was born on 20 December 1917 in Joliet, Illinois. After graduating from high school Miss Totter moved to Chicago where she began appearing on radio shows. Eventually she moved to New York City where she continued to appear on various radio shows. She was a regular on such daytime serials as Ma Perkins, Road of Life, and Right to Happiness. In 1941 and 1942 she toured with a production of My Sister Eileen. It was in 1944 that she was discovered by a Hollywood talent scout. She signed a seven years contract with MGM.

Audrey Totter made her screen debut in Main Street After Dark in 1945.  In 1945 she appeared in a variety of films including Dangerous Partners, The Hidden Eye, Adventure, and The Sailor Takes a Wife. A bit of breakthrough role occurred with The Postman Always Rings Twice in 1946. While the role of Madge was a small one, it was also one that was central to the plot and Miss Totter played her well. She appeared in the comedy fantasy The Cockeyed Miracle (1946) before her career making role in Lady in the Lake. In the film Miss Totter played Kingsby Publications editor Adrienne Fromsett, who hires Philip Marlowe (played by Robert Montgomery, who also directed) to find her boss's wife. After Lady in the Lake Audrey Totter would appear in a number of films noirs, although she would not always play femmes fatales in them.  In The Unsuspected (1947) she played the scheming niece of radio personality Victor Grandison (played by Claude Rains). In High Wall (1947) she played psychiatrist Dr. Ann Lorrison, who helps war vet Steven Kenet (played by Robert Taylor) prove his innocence. In The Saxon Charm (1948) she played the unfortunate girlfriend of theatrical producer Matt Saxon (Robert Montgomery). In The Set-Up she played the wife of boxer "Stoker" Thompson (played by Robert Ryan).

In the late Forties and early Fifties she also appeared in such films as Alias Nick Beal (1949), Any Number Can Play (1949), Tension (1949), Under the Gun (1951), The Blue Veil (1951), and Woman They Almost Lynched (1953).  Miss Totter also continued to appear on radio, on such shows as Screen Guild Theatre, Family Theatre, and Stars Over Hollywood. Along with Gene Kelly, Miss Totter filled in for Ann Southern for three months on the radio show The Adventures of Maisie while the star recovered from thyroid surgery. From 2 July 1951 to 23 September 1954 Audrey Totter was the star of the radio sitcom Meet Millie.

In 1952 Audrey Totter reduced her appearances in film in order to concentrate on raising her family. Much of the rest of her career would then be spent on television. In the Fifties she was a regular on the Western Cimarron City. She guest starred on such shows as Four Star Playhouse, The Whistler, Science Fiction Theatre, Fireside Theatre, The 20th Century Fox Hour, Zane Gray Theatre, Suspicion, Climax, The Red Skelton Hour, Hawaiian Eye, The Loretta Young Show, The Ann Southern Show, and G.E. Theatre. She did continue to appear in films, including such movies as Massacre Canyon (1954), A Bullet for Joey (1955), Women's Prison (1955), The Vanishing American (1955), Women's Prison (1955), Ghost Diver (1957), and Jet Attack (1958), and Man or Gun (1958).

In the Sixties Miss Totter was a regular on the shows Our Man Higgins and, for season, Dr. Kildare. She guest starred on such shows as Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Route 66, Rawhide, Perry Mason, Bonanza, Run for Your Life, The Virginian, and The Bold Ones: The Lawyers. She also appeared in the films The Carpetbaggers (1964), Harlow (1965), and Chubasco (1967). In the Seventies she was a regular on the TV show Medical Centre. She guest starred on such shows as Harry O, Police Story,and  Matt Helm. She appeared in the film The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again (1979). Her last appearance was a guest shot on the TV show Murder, She Wrote in 1987.

The advent of cable television and VHS would introduce Audrey Totter's films noirs to a whole new legion of fans. As a result, Miss Totter began to get new offers for roles in films. She turned them down, saying in an interview in 2000, "What could I play? A nice grandmother? Boring! Critics always said I acted best with a gun in my hand." Admittedly, this is the way that most of us remember Miss Totter. She was always the tough dame, the femme fatale, the beautiful woman who would either kiss you or kill you, or might just do both. That having been said, Miss Totter was a very versatile actress who played more than bad girls. In fact, her role that always impressed me the most was that of psychiatrist Dr. Lorrison in High Wall. Dr. Lorrison wasn't only sympathetic to the protagonist's plight, but she was intelligent, independent, and cool as well. Although she rarely played in the genre, Audrey Totter did quite well with comedies. She was delightful in her supporting roles in The Sailor Takes a Wife and The Cockeyed Miracle. Although there can be no doubt that Audrey Totter will be remembered best for her femmes fatales, she could play so much more.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Don Mitchell R.I.P.

Don Mitchell, perhaps best known for playing Mark Sanger on the TV programme Ironside, died on 18 December 2013  at the age of 70 from natural causes.

Don Mitchell was born on 17 March 1943 in Houston, Texas. He attended UCLA where he studied acting. He made his debut on television in an episode of Mr. Novak. Over the next few years he appeared on such shows as I Dream of Jeannie, Bewitched, The Virginian, and Tarzan. It was in 1967 that he was cast in the role of Mark Sanger on the TV series Ironside. While Ironside was on the air he also made guest appearances on Insight, The Bold Ones: The Doctors, and McMillan & Wife. He also appeared in the film Scream Blacula Scream (1973).

Following Ironside he guest starred on the shows Medical Story, Wonder Woman, CHiPS, and Matlock. He was a regular on the soap opera Capitol. He appeared in the film Perfume (1991). His last appearance was in the reunion television film The Return of Ironside in 1993.

Don Mitchell's television and film credits were not extensive, but he will always be remembered as Mark Sanger on Ironside. He played what was a very remarkable character quite well. In fact, the character of Mark Sanger was a pioneering portrayal of African Americans on American broadcast television. Mark was perhaps the most important character on the show besides Robert Ironside (played by Raymond Burr) himself. He was Ironside's assistant and in many respects served as Watson to Ironside's Holmes. He often provided valuable advice to Ironside and was a very capable detective himself, in many ways better than police officers who worked for Ironside. In the course of the show he became he became a police officer, graduated from law school, and became a lawyer. To give one an idea of how important the character of Mark Sanger was in the history of American television, consider that n 1967 perhaps the only other drama with a male black character in a prominent role besides I Spy was Mission: Impossible, with Greg Morris as electronics expert Barney Collier. Don Mitchell played Mark Sanger very well, and as a result left a mark in television history.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

The Ten Greatest Traditional Musicals of the Sixties

The Sixties is generally considered a time when traditional musical films went into decline. There are some very valid reasons for believing this to be true. While the decade saw some very successful musicals at the box office (West Side Story, Mary Poppins, My Fair Lady, and The Sound of Music among them), it also saw a large number of musicals that bombed at the box office, including Doctor Dolittle Hello Dolly!, Finian's Rainbow, and Paint Your Wagon. What is worse is that many of the traditional musicals released in the Sixties also received extremely bad reviews from critics. Doctor Dolittle received universally bad notices upon its release in 1967. In 1970 Song of Norway not only received poor reviews, but was often accused by critics of being derivative of the phenomenally popular Sound of Music. Over the course of the decade the audience for musicals seemed to decline, a decline that only continued into the Seventies.

While several musicals were lambasted by critics during the Sixties and the box office receipts did not bode well for the genre, there actually were several truly great musicals released during the decade. Given this, I decided to compile my own list of the ten best. Here I should give readers a few notes regarding this list. First, I am considering the Sixties to have occurred between 1961 and 1970. My reasoning for this is that there is no Year 0--the first decade of the first millennium in the Common Era ran from 1 to 10.

Second, I am not including rock musicals or animated musicals in this list, hence the title "The Ten Greatest Traditional Musicals of the Sixties. I have two very good reasons for this. First, I wanted this list to be devoted to traditional musicals, the sort that Hollywood used to make in large numbers. While I love rock musicals (in fact, A Hard Day's Night numbers among my favourite films of all time), I would not consider them traditional Hollywood musicals by any means. The same holds true for animated musicals. The Jungle Book is one of my favourite films of the Sixties, but I would not count it as a traditional musical. Second, if I included rock musicals and animated musicals, the list would easily be dominated by them. In fact, A Hard Day's Night, Help!, and Yellow Submarine would occupy the top three, while the Dave Clark Five film Catch Us If You Can and The Monkees' film Head would make the list. While I adore the film, I also excluded The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) because I do not see it as a traditional musical. Since every bit of dialogue is sung, I consider it to be opera rather than a traditional musical of the sort Hollywood used to make.

Third, this list is entirely subjective. These films are what I consider to be the greatest musicals of the Sixties. For that reason some popular favourites do not appear on the list while some more obscure films do. That having been said, I do think I have fairly good tastes in musicals (although there can be no doubt that I am biased on that account).

1. The Music Man (1962): There are very few perfect films, but this could well be one of them. It certainly could have one of the best casts of all time. Indeed, at the centre of it all is Robert Preston in his greatest performance of all time, as con man "Professor" Harold Hill. And while I know Barbara Cook originated the role on Broadway, I do not think any other actress could be as ideal as Marian the Librarian as Shirley Jones. Not only does The Music Man benefit from two fantastic leads, but it also has a great supporting cast ranging from Buddy Hackett (as Harold's old friend Marcellus) to Charles Lane as Constable Locke. Indeed, what is surprising given its very large cast is that there is not one part I can say was miscast!

The Music Man also benefits from some of the most iconic songs ever to appear in a musical. Indeed, I consider "Till There Was You" to be one of the greatest ballads ever written, while "Ya Got Trouble" and "Seventy-Six Trombones" have become standards. At a little over two and a half hours The Music Man is a long film, but it hardly feels like it. The film moves at a brisk pace and there is never a slow moment. Unless someone simply dislikes musicals, I cannot see anyone getting bored watching The Music Man.

2. Mary Poppins (1964): Julie Andrews first came to fame in the United States playing Eliza Doolittle in the Broadway production My Fair Lady. She later played the title role in Rodgers and Hammerstein television's musical, Cinderella, and played Guinevere in the original Broadway production of Camelot. Despite this, when the time came to adapt My Fair Lady to the big screen, she was passed over for the role in favour of Audrey Hepburn, Warner Bros. feeling Miss Andrews was not famous enough. It was perhaps just as well, for if she had played Eliza Doolittle on the big screen, she might never have played what could be her best known role, that of Mary Poppins.

In P. L. Travers' original books Mary Poppins tended to be both stern and strict with the children, and could even be quite selfish at times. Fortunately in the Walt Disney film Mary is still stern, but at the same time she is gentler and friendlier with the children. This blend of Edwardian primness with sweetness not only made Mary Poppins the ideal role for Julie Andrews, but also made her one of the most iconic characters to ever appear in a Disney film. I rather suspect that one would have to be a total boor not to fall in love with Mary as played by Julie Andrews.

While there can be no doubt that Julie Andrews is the star of the show, Mary Poppins benefits from a good cast over all, including Dick Van Dyke (even if his Cockney accent sounds awful), David Tomlinson, Glynis Johns, Reta Shaw, and Reginald Owen. It also has some truly great songs, written by Richard M. Sherman and Robert B. Sherman, as well as some truly great musical sequences (the "Step In Time" number with the chimney sweeps has to be seen to be believed). Mary Poppins also incorporates classic Disney animation into some of its sequences. While combining animation and live action had been done before, in Mary Poppins it is so seamless and so extensive that the film has to  stand as one of the great technical achievements of the era.

3. My Fair Lady (1964):  My Fair Lady was one of the first musicals I can ever remember watching and it was the first Audrey Hepburn film I ever saw. At the time I did not know that it was an adaptation of the phenomenally successful Broadway play, which  in turn was based on the 1938 film Pygmalion, which was itself based on George Bernard Shaw's play of the same name. I also did not know that Julie Andrews (whom I would have known for Mary Poppins at the time) originated the role of Eliza Doolittle on Broadway Not that it mattered, as I would have loved the film anyway and I would have fallen in love with Audrey Hepburn regardless. 

My Fair Lady is relatively faithful to its original source material and as a result has a bit more intellectual clout than many Hollywood musicals. George Bernard Shaw's themes of the independence of women and the folly of the British class system are largely intact in the film. Although many think of My Fair Lady as a romance, it is more accurate to describe it as a battle of wills between Henry Higgins (played by Rex Harrison), the self-absorbed phoneticist and linguist, and Eliza Doolittle, the strong willed and independent Cockney flower girl. While it is sometimes hard to accept the ever elegant Audrey Hepburn as the bedraggled Eliza Doolittle, she is more than convincing once she has  undergone the transformation from Cockney waif to someone who can pass for a lady. Rex Harrison is suitably despicable as the conceited, demanding, and despotic Higgins.

My Fair Lady has several strengths beyond the performances of its cast. The songs by Lerner and Loewe are some of the most memorable to emerge from any Broadway show, with such memorable numbers as "Wouldn't It Be Loverly?", "I Could Have Danced All Night", and "On the Street Where You Live". The film is also beautifully shot, with Oscar winning cinematography by Harry Stradling Sr. Its production design is so impressive it is hard to believe it was shot in Hollywood. My only real problem with the film is its ending (with which I'm not sure George Bernard Shaw would have been happy either), although it is ambiguous enough that one can pretty much write his or her own.

4. How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying (1967): How to Succeed in Business was based on the Broadway play of the same name, which in turn was inspired by Shepherd Mead's 1952 book of the same name. The book how to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying was not a work of fiction per se, but instead a parody of instruction manuals. In fact, its subtitle was The Dastard's Guide to Fame and Fortune. The book was largely based on Mr. Mead's experiences at the advertising agency  Benton & Bowles. For the Broadway musical a plot was created that centred on window cleaner J. Pierrepont Finch (played by Robert Morse) who uses the book How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying to rise up the rungs of the corporate ladder at the World Wide Wicket Company. The Broadway musical would be only one of five musicals to win the Pulitzer Prize. It won several Tony Awards, including Best Musical.

The film version of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying is largely loyal to the stage production, although J. Pierrepont Finch is made more sympathetic than he had been in the Broadway play. Even so How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying still has an edge that has historically been lacking in Hollywood musicals. Quite simply, the majority of characters in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying are not the sort of people one would like to meet, let alone the sort of people with whom one would want to work. And the characters are played wonderfully by one of the best casts of any musical film. Robert Morse is perfect as Finch, the young executive who uses the advice in the book to ruthlessly remove any obstacles in his path to rising in the company. Michelle Lee is delightful as secretary Rosemary Pilkington, perhaps the only person of any decency at the World-Wide Wicket Company (it is a shame she did not do more films). Rudy Vallee is suitably seedy as the company's president, J.B. Biggley.

In addition to its sterling cast, the strongest point of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying may be its script. It is one of the few musicals of the Sixties that is truly funny, with several great lines. It also captures the way many of us have always pictured the corporate world of the Sixties to be, to the point that it seems likely it was part of the inspiration for the TV programme Mad Men (indeed, I must point out that Robert Morse plays senior partner and founder of Sterling Cooper,  Bertram Cooper, on Mad Men). It also features some great songs, including "The Company Way", "I Believe in You", and "Brotherhood of Man".

5. Bye Bye Birdie (1963): The Broadway musical Bye Bye Birdie opened on 14 April 1960 with a young actor named Dick Van Dyke in the lead role of songwriter and agent Albert Peterson. It also dealt with a very timely subject. It was in December 1957 that rock 'n' roll phenomenon Elvis Presley was drafted into the United States Army. This event provided the inspiration for Bye Bye Birdie in which rock star Conrad Birdie (whose name was taken from one of Elvis' rivals, Conway Twitty) receives his draft notice. This creates a problem for Albert Peterson, whose career depends on Birdie's success. Fortunately his secretary comes up with a sure fire publicity stunt--to give one lucky fan a "last kiss" live on The Ed Sullivan Show. Like How to Succeed In Business Without Really Trying, Bye Bye Birdie was then a musical with a bit of an edge, sending up everything from rock 'n' roll to television to American small towns.

While it retains the core plot of Conrad Birdie's draft notice and the publicity stunt of a last kiss with a fan, the film version of Bye Bye Birdie is significantly different from the stage musical. The order of events were rearranged for the film, and the relationships of various characters were substantially altered as well. Regardless, the film version of Bye Bye Birdie remains a good satire of American society as it was in the late Fifties and early Sixties, with many of the funnier lines and situations in tact. There can be little doubt that the film was greatly helped by Dick Van Dyke reprising his role as Albert Peterson. Also returning from the Broadway musical were Paul Lynde as Mr. MacAfee. While Dick Van Dyke was the star of the stage musical, however, there can be no doubt that Ann-Margret is the star of the film. As Kim MacAfee, the lucky girl who is supposed to kiss Birdie on The Ed Sullivan Show, she absolutely shines. There can be little wonder how Bye Bye Birdie was the film that propelled her to stardom. For fans of vintage television, Ed Sullivan also appears in a cameo as himself.

Bye Bye Birdie also benefits from some very good songs, including "Bye Bye Birdie", "The Telephone Hour", "Kids", "Put On a Happy Face", and "One Last Kiss". The film also features some very good musical sequences. The opening sequence with Ann-Margret singing "Bye Bye Birdie" is particularly impressive in its simplicity.

6. Scrooge (1970): The Sixties were notable in that the vast majority of musical films made during the era were adaptations of Broadway musicals. Along with Mary Poppins, Scrooge is a notable exception. What is more, it was a big budget, screen adaptation of Charles Dickens' classic A Christmas Carol. What makes Scrooge even more remarkable is that it is also fairly faithful to its source material, much more so than many other film adaptations of A Christmas Carol over the years.

What makes Scrooge work so well as a film is Albert Finney in the title role. Mr. Finney's  Ebenezer Scrooge is cruel and heartless as one might expect Scrooge to be. At the same time both Finney's portrayal and the plot of the film itself add a bit of pathos to the character that exists in the original novel but is not to be found in many film versions of the book. This makes Scrooge a much more sympathetic character, one with whom the viewer eventually finds himself or herself empathising. Beyond Mr. Finney as Scrooge, the film is also aided greatly by its visuals. This is Victorian London as many of us picture it to be. It is little wonder that Scrooge was nominated for the Oscars for both Best Art Direction and Costume Design.

Of course, Scrooge is a musical and it has some truly great songs, including "A Christmas Carol", the ballad "You...You", "I Like Life", and "Thank You Very Much (which somehow lost the Oscar for "Best Song" to "For All We Know" from Lovers and Other Strangers). It also has some very good musical sequences, including the show stopper "Thank You Very Much, which is one of my favourite musical sequences from a Sixties film.

7. West Side Story (1961): West Side Story originated with Jerome Robbins who had the idea of an updated, musical version of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. His idea would ferment for many years and would undergo several changes before it reached the stage. Originally the conflict was to be between an Irish Catholic family and a Jewish family on the East Side of Manhattan. Realising that this idea had already been done in several films and plays, the conflict was changed so that it was between a Puerto Rican immigrant gang the Sharks and the Anglo-American gang the Jets. West Side Story opened on on Broadway on 26 September 1957 and was a success with both audiences and critics alike. It won Tony Awards for Best Scenic Design and Best Choreography (for Jerome Robbins). Among other Tony Awards it was also nominated for Best Musical, but lost to The Music Man.

What is best about West Side Story is that it is a true spectacle. Set on the streets of New York City it features some incredible production design and also some incredible musical numbers. In many respects it is the epitome of the big budget, Hollywood musical. West Side Story also features the music of Leonard Bernstein and the lyrics of Stephen Sondheim. Not surprisingly, then, it also has some great songs, including "Maria" and "Tonight". It also has a fairly solid cast, including Russ Tamblyn and Rita Moreno.

That is not to say that West Side Story does not have its flaws. Natalie Wood seems to me to have been an odd choice for Maria. While she plays the part well, to me she is not convincing as a Latina (in my rewrite of the film in my head she is a Russian orphan who was taken in by the Nuñez family when she was 10...). The film also seems to be a bit overly long. At two hours and 32 minutes its plot always seemed to me to be stretched a bit thin. That having been said, its flaws are far outweighed by its virtues, so that in the end they can be easily overlooked. I suspect that most viewers will love the film regardless.

8. Sweet Charity (1969): Sweet Charity may be unique among Sixties musicals in that it was based on a stage musical that was in turn based on a film  (Federico Fellini's Le notti di Cabiria). While Broadway musicals based on films seem to be a dime a dozen these days, in the Sixties they were relatively rare. One significant change from the film is that while the central character of Le notti di Cabiria is a prostitute in Italy, the central character of Sweet Charity is a taxi dancer in a dance hall in New York City. Regardless, Sweet Charity proved popular upon its debut on Broadway in 1966. It was nominated for twelve Tony Awards and won one, for the choreography of Bob Fosse.

As a film Sweet Charity does seem a bit disjointed and episodic, but not in such a way that it detracts from the enjoyment of the movie. Indeed, Sweet Charity is unlike most Hollywood musicals made  before or since. A great deal of Sweet Charity was filmed on location in New York City, with scenes shot in Central Park, on Wall Street, and in Yankee Stadium. What is more, Bob Fosse makes full use of these locations in the film's various scenes and musical numbers.  Sweet Charity also included some incredible costume designs by the legendary Edith Head. The film also benefits from a very good cast, with Shirley Maclaine, Ricardo Montalban, Chita Rivera, Paula Kelly, Stubby Kaye, and Sammy Davis, Jr. It also features some remarkable songs, including "If They Could See Me Now" and "The Rhythm of Life".

9. A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum (1966): A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum was based upon some of the oldest source material for a Broadway musical ever, the work of  Roman playwright Plautus (who lived from 251 to 183 BCE). The Broadway production was written by playwright  and lyricist Bert Shevelove and comedy writer Larry Gelbart (veteran of Caesar's Hour and future producer of M*A*S*H), with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. A Funny Thing Happened On The Way to the Forum proved very successful, debuting on 8 May 1962 and running for 964 performances. It won a good number of Tony Awards, including Best Musical, Best Author of a Musical, Best Actor in a Musical, and 1963 Best Direction of a Musical.

The film adaptation would be significantly different from the stage musical, with the plot almost entirely redone and eight of the stage musical's fifteen songs cut from the movie. Regardless, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum remains one of the funniest films from the mid-Sixties. Little wonder given its cast included such comedy legends as Zero, Mostel, Phil Silvers, and Buster Keaton. Indeed, while the film (like the stage musical) is set in ancient Rome, it functions very well as a tribute to the Borscht Belt comedy of the 20th Century. There are preposterous one-liners, pratfalls, and sight gags. Of course, Plautus wrote farces and, like the stage musical, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is a farce. As might be expected, then, there are multiple cases of mistaken identity and misunderstandings.

While most of the songs from the stage musical were cut for the film, enough remain for the movie to be considered a very good musical. And they are some great songs here, including "Comedy Tonight", "Lovely", and "Bring Me My Bride". A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum is also beautifully shot, with sumptuous colours and realistic settings.

10. Thoroughly Modern Millie (1967):  Like Mary Poppins before it and Scrooge after it, Thoroughly Modern Millie was one of the very few original musical films made in the Sixties. The film follows the madcap adventures of the Millie of the title (played by Julie Andrews), a young woman living in the early 1920's. Given its setting, it should then come as no surprise that Thoroughly Modern Millie is a send up of both silent films and the Jazz Age itself, with several clichés of the era parodied throughout the film. As a result Thoroughly Modern Millie is a very funny film, although its first half does tend to be better than its second half. I also have to warn potential viewers that Thoroughly Modern Millie does include two very racist stereotypes of Chinese men, although fortunately their screen time is not long.

Thoroughly Modern Millie benefits from a sterling cast. In addition to Julie Andrews, the film featured Mary Tyler Moore, John Gavin, Carol Channing, and Beatrice Lillie.  As to its soundtrack,  Thoroughly Modern Millie has several classic tunes from the early Twentieth Century, including George Gershwin and Buddy DeSylva's "Do It Again",  Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn's "The Tapioca", Harry Akst and Benny Davis' "Baby Face", and several others. The song "Thoroughly Modern Millie" is an original, but it is a great song and could pass for a song from the era.

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.