Sum Up | Eleanor Parker at MGM, 1952-60

I grew up avoiding Eleanor Parker movies. At least the one everyone knew about–my mom and my sister used to watch The Sound of Music all the time. My dad and I avoided it for years. When I did discover Eleanor Parker in the late nineties, I can’t remember the order in which I saw her films. I know I ordered a bunch of LaserDiscs from Ken Crane’s, including The Sound of Music, but I can’t remember the viewing order.

But Scaramouche would have been one of the early ones I saw. I’ve always loved Scaramouche; given I remember seeing it multiple times before “The Stop Button” (and once since), I almost think I saw it first on VHS and then on the MGM LaserDisc. I distinctly remember not getting the out of print Criterion Scaramouche.

Growing up, about the only fifties movies I saw were Universal sci-fi pictures and maybe some Hitchcock, so Scaramouche was a revelation. It’s visually lush but also sincere and thoughtful in its storytelling. It trusts its audience.

I first learned about Eleanor Parker in an article in a magazine called “Films of the Golden Age.” The article had a lengthy discussion of her career, so I knew she started in the forties with Warner Bros., but her most easily accessible (save Sound of Music) films were her MGM films from the 1950s. They were big enough pictures to get VHS releases and often LaserDisc ones.

Above and Beyond was readily available on VHS. It had a painted cover, so it wasn’t a quick MGM/UA classics release. They didn’t really have those with VHS releases; I don’t think any big studios got around to releasing EP copies of stuff. Well, maybe Orion Home Video did.. I know I saw it relatively soon. It’s now out from Warner Archive. I’ve seen it at least three times. It’s diametrically opposed from Scaramouche. It’s not lush, though it is still bright. It’s dark, it’s depressing, it’s not playful. I’d only seen fifties melodramas, usually from Universal (on pre-commercials AMC) so Above and Beyond was a surprise. I’ve seen it get some gruff over the years (at least people are seeing it), but it’s a fantastic film.

I remember both Escape from Fort Bravo and Valley of the Kings being rather easy to find. There were VHS releases of both and maybe a LaserDisc release of Fort Bravo. I went with the VHS on it because I was under the impression the film was 1.37:1, though it was actually an early 1.66:1. The LaserDisc wasn’t 1.66:1 so I was fine. It’s since come out on DVD widescreen.

Fort Bravo is another awesome film; it got me on a John Sturges kick (which Magnificent Seven ended–Seven always ends my Sturges kicks). William Holden, discovering John Forsythe wasn’t always a cheesy nighttime soap opera star. Fort Bravo’s got a complex, strong story. It’s beautifully paced. By college, I had seen a number of Westerns (thanks AMC), but when I saw Fort Bravo I had probably only seen the Leone Dollars trilogy. I was not a Western fan. I was very hesitant towards the genre. Fort Bravo, with its strong character development, changed my mind on the subject. It’s also about the only calvary movie I’ve ever seen I can tolerate.

Valley of the Kings, even though it’s got Parker and Robert Taylor–and even though I was forgiving of the film the first time I saw it (maybe the first two times)–is fairly awful stuff. It’s the bad fifties melodrama just with a good pair of leads. I remember that “Films of the Golden Age” article being gently disparaging to it and I responded similarly. The last time I saw it, however… well, it is (I think) the only Eleanor Parker movie made after 1950 with a single ★ rating.

After Valley of the Kings came Many Rivers to Cross, the last of Parker and Taylor’s films together. It’s also sort of the peak of Parker’s MGM career as a leading lady. There’s no real hook to it–it’s a frontier “Northwestern” adventure comedy–besides its cast. It’s okay enough. It took me forever to track it down because TCM stubbornly refused to air it for a few years. I remember having a letterbox recording of it until the film got released on DVD, rather soon considering neither Eleanor Parker or Robert Taylor have modern fan followings. It was when Warner was doing amazing releases just because they could.

Parker’s next film in the fifties for MGM was Interrupted Melody, which featured greatly into the article in “Films of the Golden Age” and could very well be the first Parker film I saw. MGM had a beautiful LaserDisc release of the film. I don’t know if I’d seen much Glenn Ford at that time; I do remember Roger Moore being a bit of a surprise.

Melody is a fantastic film. I sort of remember having it on VHS, but I might just be remembering the video store having it on VHS and me putting it on my recommendations shelf. I can’t imagine seeing the film pan and scan, it’s such gorgeous widescreen. I would have avoided Melody earlier because of the singing. Luckily I’d gotten over the “no musicals” hurdle of my film viewing.

I’ve read Woman of a Thousand Faces, Doug McClelland’s book about Parker–I think I read it while still seeing her films–so if something significant happened after Interrupted Melody, it seems like it’d be reported in that book. I think I have it out of storage. But even without the book, it’s clear MGM stopped giving Parker such high profile roles, which is kind of dumb (Melody was her last, of three, best actress nominations–she lost to Anna Magnani, who I don’t think I’ve ever seen in anything).

The “Films of the Golden Age” article was complementary about Lizzie, Parker’s multiple personality thriller. It took me years to see it (I think TCM just aired it one day, not part of a Parker marathon) and it didn’t impress. It’s the only film I haven’t seen since starting “The Stop Button;” Warner Archive has never gotten around to it.

They also haven’t gotten around to The Seventh Sin, which is one of those “too late” movies. It’s Eleanor Parker and George Sanders finally doing a movie together, after their “primes.” It’s good too. I just read David Lewis crap-mouthing it in his memoirs, but it’s good. It’s a Maugham adaptation. It’s far from perfect, but Parker and Sanders in a Maugham adaptation? No one can mess that one up.

Sadly, the film’s not available widescreen anywhere. TCM still airs a pan and scan print. It was apparently a big bomb for MGM back in the fifties and Sanders is a weird draw. He has a very solid modern fanbase, but not a wide one. It’s focused.

It’d be very cool to see it OAR.

The last Parker MGM film–ever, actually–is Home from the Hill. I saw Home from the Hill really early on too, just because MGM had a nice LaserDisc release of it. It’s since had a great DVD release, which is particularly nice for me–my LaserDisc had begun to rot by the time I transferred it onto DVD-R.

Hill was a weird film. It has Anthony Perkins, George Peppard and Robert Mitchum. Okay, Mitchum wasn’t weird to see in a film, but seeing Perkins and Peppard? It was strange. I only knew them for their crappy work. The “A-Team” is real crappy. I wasn’t even allowed to watch it because it was so dumb.

It’s a great film and was one I made people watch. It also introduced me to Harriet Frank Jr. and Irving Ravetch, who wrote a number of good films.

The eight years of Parker’s MGM films–Scaramouche in 1952 to Home from the Hill in 1960–feature some of her best work, but they were also a great introduction to Hollywood filmmaking of that era.

When I first saw these films, I hadn’t seen anything like them. Going back and seeing them again over the last ten years, I still haven’t seen anything like them. There’s a distinctness to the films thanks to Parker; many of the films are beautifully made and acted by all parties, but Parker makes them all different from each other.

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