Eleanor Parker, one of the best and most beautiful actresses of the studio era, a three-time Best Actress Academy Award nominee, and one of the stars of the 1965 blockbuster and Best Picture Oscar winner The Sound of Music, died today, December 9, 2013, of complications from pneumonia at a medical facility near her home in the Southern Californian desert town of Palm Springs. Eleanor Parker was 91.
“I’m primarily a character actress,” Parker told the Toronto Star in 1988. “I’ve portrayed so many diverse individuals on the screen that my own personality never emerged.” At one point, wildly imaginative publicists called her The Woman of a Thousand Faces — an absurd label, when you think of Man of a Thousand Faces Lon Chaney. Eleanor Parker never altered her appearance the way Chaney did — her make-up (or lack thereof) made her either ravishingly beautiful or just plain heavenly pretty; but then again, she didn’t really have to make audiences believe she could be turned into a spider à la Lon Chaney.
Whether as blind, embittered war veteran John Garfield’s devoted girlfriend in Delmer Daves’ remarkably subversive (even by 2013 standards) Pride of the Marines (1945) — co-written by future Hollywood Ten member Albert Maltz; a naive women’s prison inmate harassed by lesbian warden Hope Emerson in John Cromwell’s Caged (1950); or as the Baroness vying with Julie Andrews for the affections of Christopher Plummer’s Captain von Trapp in Robert Wise’s The Sound of Music, Parker was almost invariably able to convey the inner goings-on of her characters. A rarity for actors, then or now.
True, she could also go way over the top and resort to melodramatic mannerisms — e.g., Otto Preminger’s The Man with the Golden Arm (1955), as former drug addict Frank Sinatra’s manipulative, crippled wife. But even then Eleanor Parker was great to watch if only because she looked so beautiful.
Eleanor Parker: Warner Bros. star
Born on June 26, 1922, in Cedarville, Ohio, Eleanor Parker began her film career as a bit player. Her minor role in the 1941 Errol Flynn and Olivia de Havilland pairing They Died with Their Boots On ended up on the cutting-room floor, but by the following year Parker was already getting cast in leads in B movies at Warner Bros.
Most notable among those was probably the D. Ross Lederman-directed Busses Roar (the apparent misspelling was Warners’, not mine), in which Parker is one of several passengers aboard a roaring bus on its way from Los Angeles to San Francisco — but, with a saboteur on board, will it ever get there?
By the mid-’40s, Eleanor Parker has been promoted to leads and semi-leads in prestigious productions. Among these was Michael Curtiz’s Mission to Moscow (1943), which would cause Warner Bros. quite a bit of embarrassment a few years later; the now largely forgotten Edward A. Blatt’s Outward Bound remake Between Two Worlds (1944), in which Parker, Paul Henreid, and others find themselves aboard an ocean liner on its way to … where?; and Delmer Daves’ romantic drama The Very Thought of You (1944), co-starring Dennis Morgan, and co-written by another future member of the Hollywood Ten, Alvah Bessie.
Critics generally felt that Eleanor Parker failed in her attempt to emulate Warner Bros.’ Queen of the Lot Bette Davis, when she played the nasty, ruthless waitress Mildred Rogers in Edmund Goulding’s 1946 remake of Of Human Bondage — ironically, a 1934 RKO production that Warner Bros. (wrongly) felt would damage the career of their up-and-coming contract player Davis. In the remake, Paul Henreid had the old Leslie Howard role.
After Pride of the Marines, Eleanor Parker’s Warner Bros. movies were all A productions, but most of them weren’t exactly critical favorites. She was Errol Flynn’s leading lady in Never Say Goodbye (1946) and, alongside Ida Lupino, in Escape Me Never (1947); she donned beautiful costumes in the period drama The Woman in White (1947), opposite Alexis Smith, Gig Young, and Sydney Greenstreet; was Humphrey Bogart’s leading lady in the action drama Chain Lightning (1950); and, along with Patricia Neal and Ruth Roman, wondered if the little boy who survived a plane crash was the ex-infant she had given up for adoption a few years earlier in Robert Wise’s A Letter to Three Wives-ish Three Secrets (1950).
Better received was Irving Rapper’s romantic comedy The Voice of the Turtle (1947), with Eleanor Parker as an actress wannabe and Ronald Reagan as the soldier she meets and inadvertently falls in love with. In the New York Times, Thomas M. Pryor wrote:
Miss Parker is altogether winning as the naive young actress who reluctantly falls in love while nursing the hurt of a newly shattered first romance with a theatrical producer. Miss Parker is consciously aping Margaret Sullavan’s conception of the role [in the original John Van Druten play], but she brings to it the innocence and bewilderment of youth that is so essential and in this respect she is even more successful than was Miss Sullavan.
Also well-received was the harrowing, socially conscious Caged, in which Eleanor Parker is excellent as a terrified young inmate in a no-holds-barred women’s prison, much too pretty and naive for her own good — just ask the brutal lesbian warden Hope Emerson — and doomed to return after learning during her prison stint that a life of crime would be her best bet. For her efforts, Parker was nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award, but lost to Judy Holliday for George Cukor’s Born Yesterday.
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