Category Archives: Sum Up

Actor | Eleanor Parker, Part 2: Technicolor

When Eleanor Parker left her Warner Bros. contract in early 1950, she did so before any of her films of that year released. There were three–Chain Lightning, Caged, and Three Secrets. All three were successful. She was top-billed on the latter two (and second-billed only to Bogart in Lightning). She’d get an Oscar-nomination for Warner’s Caged, only she wasn’t Warner’s star anymore. Parker was going into the early fifties a free agent; nine years into her career, she was finally going to be able to pick roles, not have them assigned and have to refuse them until she got good ones.

Parker’s comeback year of 1950 had been a financial success in addition to critical. She didn’t have any releases in 1949 and the films where she was top-billed (Caged and Three Secrets) did better box office than her pairing with Bogie in Chain Lightning. She had received her first Oscar nomination for Caged, where she was top-billed pretty much by herself, and it was the biggest hit of the three. She would be just as busy as a free agent, with three 1951 releases.

Anthony Dexter is Rudolph Valentino and Parker is not Agnes Ayres in VALENTINO.

Parker’s first film of 1951 was a Technicolor biopic for Columbia, Valentino. Directed by Lewis Allen, the film had been in development hell since the late 1930s. Producer Edward Small just couldn’t get it made. When he finally did, it was with unknown Anthony Dexter in the title role. Parker is top-billed, however, as a (fictional) silent era superstar. Third-billed Richard Carlson is the director who loves Parker but knows Dexter is the superstar waiting to happen. Joseph Calleia plays Dexter’s sidekick. Patricia Medina is there to give Parker and Dexter a second love triangle (in addition to the Parker-Dexter-Carlson one).

Valentino (1951). ⓏⒺⓇⓄ. 2017 review

Valentino is a terrible film. Dexter can’t act, but even if he could, George Bruce’s script is terrible. Even if the script weren’t terrible, Allen’s direction is bad. Even if Allen’s direction wasn’t bad, the budget would be a problem. Thankfully, they don’t cheap on Parker’s glamorous wardrobe, but everything else is desperately cheap. Well, not the Technicolor. The Technicolor is something–and it’s Parker’s first time in a color picture since her Warner Bros. short subjects in 1942. She does what she can in Valentino, to some success in the first act when she’s the lead, but there’s only so much she can do.

VALENTINO: The faux Great Lover and Parker.

When the film came out in March 1951–three weeks before Parker didn’t win Best Actress for Caged at the Oscars–Valentino bombed with audiences and critics alike. Dexter, ostensibly primed for Hollywood stardom, did not get his second role for Columbia and producer Small–they were all going to remake The Sheik. Small managed to hang on at Columbia (Valentino had been his first film in a two year contract) for ten more films. Intentionally or not, Parker never appeared in another Columbia Pictures theatrical release (though she would do some TV work for them in the seventies and eighties). Silent screen star Alice Terry (who was part of Parker’s amalgam character) sued, Valentino’s siblings sued–Columbia settled out of court. The film’s never been released on home video in any format, which is no great loss. Other than it being Parker’s first Technicolor feature–with technically superior photography from Harry Stradling Sr.–and for her having a phenomenal wardrobe.

Millionaire (MacMurray) meet Christy (Parker) in A MILLIONAIRE FOR CHRISTY.

Parker’s next film, A Millionaire for Christy, came out in September. Produced by Parker’s then husband Bert E. Friedlob, Christy is a screwball comedy with Parker as legal secretary out to marry–you guessed it–a millionaire. Fred MacMurray is the millionaire in question, though he’s already engaged. Chaos and comedy ensue, with Kay Buckley and Richard Carlson along for the ride. In addition to Carlson, the Valentino mini-reunion includes Harry Stradling again photographing–though this time in black and white. Carlson’s stuck in a love triangle again, but not involving Parker–Buckley’s thrown him over to marry MacMurray. George Marshall directs the film, Parker’s first (and only) 20th Century Fox release of the fifties.

A Millionaire for Christy (1951). ★★. 2007 review

Christy’s first half hour isn’t impressive–instead of doing a new screwball comedy, the first third of the ninety-minute film recycles old screwball tropes. After the thirty minute mark, however, Christy immediately improves, all thanks to leads Parker, Carlson, and MacMurray. Director Marshall has problems throughout; Christy occasionally will come off like violent film noir, not madcap comedy. A lot of the action takes place on location at the Marion Davies Beach House in Santa Monica and Marshall just can’t seem to figure out how to shoot there. Parker and MacMurray’s chemistry (eventually) helps a lot. MacMurray’s best opposite Parker (versus his own subplots) and Parker’s awesome (after that first third). Plus Carlson. Carlson gets a far better material than in his last outing with Parker. Still, the problems weigh the film.

A MILLIONAIRE FOR CHRISTY: Parker spins a tale for MacMurray and Buckley.

Contemporary critics greeted the film with muted praise–though Louella Parsons chose Parker’s performance as the “Best of the Month” for her Cosmopolitan column, surprised (and delighted) to see Parker so ably toggle from drama to comedy. The film had some behind the scenes drama–with Friedlob apparently not paying MacMurray or Parker on time, then turning around and selling television rights without getting the cast royalties (despite being married to Friedlob another two years, Parker never made another film for him)–and there were some cuts made to the film. Maybe they’d have helped, maybe not. Audiences weren’t particularly warm to Christy either; it was less successful at the box office than Valentino. Christy never had a VHS release, but did air on television. Hopefully with residuals being paid. Warner Archive has released the film on DVD and it’s available streaming as well. So Christy isn’t hard to see and is more than worth a look for one of Parker’s rare(ish) comedic roles.

Parker in DETECTIVE STORY.

She returned to drama just under two months later with William Wyler’s Detective Story. Earlier in the year (before Valentino came out), Parker had signed a non-exclusive, one picture a year contract with Paramount. Detective Story was her first role for them. Based on the play by Pulitzer Prize winner Sidney Kingsley, the film stars Kirk Douglas as a hard boiled New York cop who has a very bad day. Parker’s his wife and the one bright spot in his life. William Bendix plays his partner. Story takes place almost entirely in Douglas and Bendix’s police precinct, with an assorted cast of characters–ranging from first-time shoplifter Lee Grant to career burglar Joseph Wiseman to abortionist George Macready–populating. Robert Wyler and Philip Yordan adapted the play.

Detective Story (1951). ★★★★. 2016 review

Detective Story is a truly outstanding motion picture. Before even getting to the acting, there’s Wyler’s direction. He takes the play adaptation very seriously, using the film medium to inspect the play and its characters as their day unfolds. It’s stunningly produced. And now the acting. Parker gets the best part, she’s the subject of the film (without knowing it) and the only one who can tame Douglas’s savage beast. Douglas is a fantastic combination of terrifying and reassuring. The acting is spectacular all around, with Wyler purposefully showcasing his cast’s abilities. Detective Story–and its cast–spellbind.

DETECTIVE STORY: Douglas and Parker.

The film got excellent reviews on release–though New York Times critic Bosley Crowther (wrongly, quite frankly) wasn’t impressed with Parker. The Academy disagreed with Crowther (because he’s so outrageously wrong), nominating Parker for Best Actress (a year after her nomination for Caged); the film got three more Oscar nominations–direction, writing, and supporting actress (Lee Grant). It didn’t win any, though Grant did win Best Actress at Cannes. Three years later, Douglas and Parker would reunite for the Lux Radio adaptation. Detective Story never had a VHS release–though the film’s strong reputation never lessened between its theatrical release and, finally, its DVD release in 2005. Paramount was never good at getting its classics out on home video, so the film’s occasional television airings were notable events. While the DVD has gone out of print, the film’s available streaming. Thank goodness.

Parker as Lenore in SCARAMOUCHE.

Seven months after Detective Story, in June 1952, Parker would return to screens–in color again–in MGM’s Scaramouche. The film’s a pre-French Revolution Technicolor adventure epic with Stewart Granger as a swashbuckler who occasionally acts with a traveling troupe. The film’s based on Rafael Sabatini’s 1921 novel, which Metro had successfully adapted at the time, making the film Parker’s fourth remake. Parker’s the glamorous, gorgeous female lead in the troupe and Granger’s lover; though they’re frequently on the outs due to his 18th century French male bullshit. Janet Leigh plays noble bastard Granger’s half-sister; he has to protect her from villain (and vicious swordsman) Mel Ferrer. Aristocrat Ferrer’s out to destroy the burgeoning revolutionaries–pragmatically murdering them–but he’s also trying to marry Leigh. George Sidney directs, Charles Rosher photographs the resplendent Technicolor.

Scaramouche (1952). ★★★★. 2014 review

Scaramouche is a thrilling delight. It’s deliberately plotted, introducing top-billed stars Granger and Parker after Leigh and Ferrer, with director Sidney carefully guiding viewers through the film. While a swashbuckling adventure (with a lot of comedy), Scaramouche also has a lot of story; it needs time to set up its location and its characters for the impending revolution. Lots of inherent (and implied) ground situation before the film gets to introducing Granger (much less Parker). Parker’s luminous, something she enthusiastically incorporates into her performance, and she and Granger are wonderful together. That chemistry is a testament to her professionalism–many years later she revealed Granger was the only costar she couldn’t stand (though few could stand Granger, apparently). Granger, regardless of his off-screen demeanor, is great. Ferrer’s a truly vile bad guy–he and Granger have either the longest or one of the longest film sword fights. Leigh’s good. Everything’s good in Scaramouche.

SCARAMOUCHE: Chemistry abound from Parker and Granger.

And Scaramouche was a big hit, with both audiences and critics. Bosley Crowther, in the New York Times, was thrilled with Parker in this one. As was MGM–they signed her to a five-year contract just after the film’s release (they already had her next film in the can). The film got its first home video release in the late 1980s with a Criterion Collection LaserDisc; MGM got it out on VHS a few years later. Warner released a DVD in 2003–Scaramouche has always been one of Parker’s most accessible films–and Warner Archive has since put it back out. It’s also available streaming. Despite all those releases and its constant availability (TCM also airs the film), Scaramouche seems to have something of a muted reputation these days. Or maybe it just doesn’t have its deserved, ever-present boisterous one.

Not many smiles for Taylor and Parker in ABOVE AND BEYOND.

Parker’s next film for MGM, Above and Beyond, arrived right after New Year’s Day 1953 (though its premiere was on New Year’s Eve 1952). The black and white film, directed by Melvin Frank and Norman Panama, tells the true-ish story of Paul Tibbets (Robert Taylor), pilot of the Enola Gay–which dropped the Hiroshima bomb–often from the perspective of wife Parker. Much of the film involves the couple’s marital tensions, brought on by Taylor’s secretiveness and the general strain of living on an airbase during a top secret project. Second-billed Parker narrates the film, scripted by Beirne Lay Jr. and the directors. James Whitmore plays the calming base security officer, who ends up Parker’s confidant. Sort of. Alongside Parker’s story line is Taylor’s, from the Manhattan Project to the decision to drop the bomb.

Above and Beyond (1952). ★★★★. 2011 review

Above and Beyond is outstanding drama. The filmmakers give Parker a lot more to do scene-to-scene, but Taylor ends up with the better part. He’s got weight of the world on his shoulders and can’t express its toil externally. It’s got to simmer throughout the entire picture–Parker’s absent from the screen at times (though present through the narration), but Taylor’s almost always there. Frank and Panama go through the historical material matter-of-fact. There’s a lot of history procedural, meaning the somewhat rare scenes between Parker and Taylor–usually she’s homemaking alone and he’s doing his secret Manhattan Project stuff–their scenes together have to succeed (as their relationship is the whole point of the film). And their scenes do succeed. They’re always fantastic; the actors and their scenes. Frank and Panama get it.

ABOVE AND BEYOND: Still no smiles.

Contemporary critics were lukewarm to Above and Beyond overall, usually liking Taylor and the military stuff, not so much Parker or the marriage drama. The film did well at the box office and made the National Board of Review’s ten best list for 1952 (meaning it made the list before its general theatrical release). Parker and Taylor’s chemistry was so successful they went on to make two more films together at MGM. Above and Beyond came out on VHS in the mid-nineties, aired on Turner Classic Movies, and was in the initial batch of Warner Archive’s DVD releases. It’s now also available streaming. While readily available over the years, it’s rarely gotten much attention, which is unfortunate. It ought to be seen.

South and North collide. Parker and Holden in ESCAPE FROM FORT BRAVO.

It would almost be New Year’s again before Parker’s next film arrived. Released in December 1953, Escape from Fort Bravo–in Anscocolor–is Parker’s first Western. While she shot scenes for They Died with Their Boots On as her first Warner Bros. assignment in 1941, they ended up on the cutting room floor. Fort Bravo is a Civil War Western, set in a Union prison camp; William Holden is the ruthless captain, Parker is the fetching Confederate spy, John Forsythe is the imprisoned rebel commander. The action changes from prison break to Native American siege. Holden and Parker’s romantic feelings for one another complicate matters. John Sturges directs, William Demarest and William Campbell costar.

Escape from Fort Bravo (1953). ★★★★. 2005 review

Fort Bravo is speedy, excellent Western. Holden’s outstanding, juxtaposed against alter ego Forsythe, with both men fighting over Parker. Parker plays her part quite well–once everyone’s under siege, she has less dramatic work (at least as far as her reluctant but all-consuming romance with Holden)–with Sturges keeping everything moving. The film’s nimble in both its action and romance thanks to Frank Fenton’s screenplay; Parker gets enough personality to hold her own against Holden. Fort Bravo’s got great production values, beautiful Robert Surtees photography, and fine (or better) performances.

Parker and Holden are all smiles before the ESCAPE FROM FORT BRAVO.

Critics didn’t have an agreed consensus on Escape from Fort Bravo. New York Times critic Howard Thompson had little use for the actors’ performances save Holden; his observations of Parker’s contributions were pure objectification. Time Magazine did like the film, however. And it was a box office hit. Fort Bravo was also MGM’s first time doing their own wide-screen process (Bravo had initially been intended for 3D but, alas, that craze had passed before filming began). Fort Bravo came out on video in the late nineties and it aired on Turner Classic Movies. When Warner released the DVD in 2008, Fort Bravo got its first widescreen home video release. It’s now available streaming as well. Like most pre-sixties, non-revisionist Westerns, Fort Bravo seems to have been forgotten, which is too bad. Parker had intentionally avoided the genre while under contract at Warner in the forties; she waited for a good one.

Eleanor Parker is Mrs. Leiningen in THE NAKED JUNGLE.

It was back to Paramount for Parker’s next picture, The Naked Jungle, which came out in March 1954. Top-billed–over rising “action hero” Charlton Heston–Parker plays a mail order bride who gets more than she bargained for when she arrives at Heston’s South American cocoa plantation. Rugged, cold, socially inept, and now super-rich (the film takes place in 1901), Heston wants a demure, submissive wife. Parker’s anything but. While they’re waging marital warfare, a bunch of killer ants attack. Directed by Byron Haskin and produced by George Pal, Naked Jungle starts a romantic drama and ends up a large-scale action thriller. The film’s based on Carl Stephenson’s short story, Leiningen Versus the Ants, which had a very successful radio adaptation in the late forties. William Conrad, who voiced the Heston part on radio, costars in the film.

The Naked Jungle (1954). ★★★½. 2015 review

The Naked Jungle is fantastic. Haskin’s not the best director for the drama or the action, but he’s solid and can execute the film’s phenomenal special effects. Parker’s performance is great, with the screenplay giving her a whole lot to do. Her character isn’t in the source material so the great writing is all screenwriters Ben Maddow and Ranald MacDougall (Philip Yordan, who co-adapted Detective Story, fronts for Maddow in the credits). The film takes its time working through the relationship problems with Heston and Parker before getting to the ants. Drama then action. It all hinges on Parker though. Without her, it’s a fine action movie. With her, it’s this strange, wonderful genre period picture. One gorgeously photographed in Technicolor by Ernest Laszlo.

THE NAKED JUNGLE: Parker has Heston (justifiably) starry-eyed, whether he likes it or not.

The film was a solid hit on release and well-reviewed (at least by Bosley Crowther at The New York Times). It was, however, Parker’s last (and only second) film under her non-exclusive Paramount contract. The Paramount home video division got Naked Jungle out fairly early, releasing the film on VHS and LaserDisc in the late eighties. They got it out on DVD in the mid-aughts; they eventually did let it go out of print, with Warner Archive taking over distribution of the film for a while. Both releases are now out of print, but the film is still available streaming. Naked Jungle has never seemed to have had much modern awareness or appreciation, even though it’s been readily accessible for much of the home video era.

VALLEY OF THE KINGS: Tomb raiding reunites Parker and Taylor.

Parker’s next film–back at MGM–was another period adventure. Valley of the Kings came out summer 1954, reuniting Parker with Taylor in the story of rival archeologists out to loot as much Egyptian treasure as they can. Sort of. Taylor’s the good guy archeologist, Carlos Thompson is the bad guy archeologist. Thompson’s married to Parker, but if the billings are any indication (Thompson’s third-billed, the font half the size of Taylor and Parker’s), there might be some romance brewing for Taylor and Parker. Robert Pirosh directed the film, which shot (some) on location in Egypt–with great Robert Surtees photography; Pirosh also co-wrote the script with Karl Tunberg.

Valley of the Kings (1954). ★. 2006 review

Valley of the Kings is not a good movie. It manages to be too short but still boring. The script is bad, the direction is bad. It’s pretty enough, with Surtees Eastmancolor, but the film is a substantial letdown given it reunites Parker and Taylor. Taylor’s excellent, which is its own achievement given the inconsistency of the script. Parker, unfortunately, gets done in by that inconsistency–the script significantly changes her character in the third act and then manages to make things worse as the film wraps up. Thompson is awful. Kings’s second half rallies quite a bit, but nowhere near enough to save the film.

KINGS: Parker and Taylor on location.

Contemporary critics liked the Egyptian location shooting–Valley of the Kings was one of the first major Hollywood productions to film there (first or third, depending on the source)–but stayed mum on the rest. A.H. Weiler, writing for The New York Times, indifferently spoils the film’s ending while enthusiastically complimenting the visuals. Audiences apparently didn’t want to see the Egyptian locales enough to flock to theaters; Valley of the Kings didn’t make its money back, even with better foreign grosses than domestic. It cost way too much for a ninety minute trifle. The difficult filming experience did encourage Pirosh to give up the director’s chair, so at least some good came out of it. MGM put the film out on VHS in the mid-nineties; Warner Archive got a DVD release out twenty years later. Turner Classic Movies aired it in the interim, which is both good and bad. You want Parker’s films to be accessible, but not so much Valley of the Kings. The film ruins Parker’s streak of excellent films starting with Detective Story, after all. And utterly wastes one of her three pairings with Taylor.

MANY RIVERS TO CROSS: Parker and proud pa McLaglen.

That last pairing would be Many Rivers to Cross, Parker’s first of three 1955 releases; Many Rivers came out in February, a Frontier romantic comedy. Parker’s a frontier woman who sets her sights on trapper Taylor. Hilarity, high jinks, and Frontier intrigue ensue, often involving Parker’s family. Victor McLaglen plays her father; she’s got four protective brothers–though Parker can handle herself–and a suitor (Alan Hale Jr.) she’s not interested in. Taylor’s trapper is just passing through; he’s not the marrying kind. Parker’s going to change his mind. Roy Rowland directs.

Many Rivers to Cross (1955). ★★. 2007 review

Besides being a Parker and Taylor pairing (and their last), having two “Gilligan’s Island” cast members (in addition to “Skipper” Hale, “Professor” Russell Johnson plays one of Parker’s brothers), and some gross racism against Native Americans, there’s not a lot to distinguish Many Rivers to Cross. The acting’s solid all around and it’s fun to see Parker in this kind of role. It’s just nowhere near as impressive as it ought to be, certainly not as Parker’s first CinemaScope outing.

Parker displays her flirting style on Taylor.

While MGM didn’t have much faith in Many Rivers to Cross–releasing it on a double-bill by the time it got to New York City–the film turned a profit at the box office. New York Times critic Howard Thompson didn’t have many compliments–not even for Parker’s appearance this time; he much preferred the other half of the bill, The Pirates of Tripoli. The Variety critic wasn’t particularly impressed either–though they were a tad nicer about Rivers than Thompson. The film never had a VHS release, no doubt saving it from some terrible pan-and-scanning; it did air on Turner Classic Movies. It got something of a hidden gem reputation–Parker as a frontier woman, Taylor as her romantic prey, how could it not. Warner Home Video put it out in the late aughts, so at least it’s accessible now. It’s also available streaming. But an inglorious conclusion for the Parker and Taylor trilogy (though still a marked improvement over Valley of the Kings) and not the best start to Parker’s 1955 releases.

Parker and Ford in INTERRUPTED MELODY.

Five months later, MGM released Parker’s next film, Interrupted Melody, in Technicolor and CinemaScope. Directed by Curtis Bernhardt and produced by Jack Cummings (who also produced Many Rivers–Parker stormed his office to convince him she was right for Melody), the film adapts Australian soprano Marjorie Lawrence’s life story, specifically her battle with polio, which paralyzed her at the height of her career. Parker plays Lawrence, Glenn Ford plays her husband. Young Roger Moore shows up for a bit as Parker’s brother, but the film is really Parker and Ford’s show. American soprano Eileen Farrell (uncredited) does the singing for Parker; on set, however, opera novice Parker “screamed” the songs (according to Cummings), which led to the film’s remarkable lip-syncing.

Interrupted Melody (1955). ★★★★. 2006 review

Interrupted Melody is a contender for Parker’s finest lead performance. The film–fueled by William Ludwig and Sonya Levien’s script–toggles between her and Ford, so it’s good Ford is excellent as well. It’s an outstanding production–the scale of the opera houses, the diva costumes, Joseph Ruttenberg and Paul Vogel’s gorgeous color photography. At the center of it all is Parker, who’s got a lot to do. She’s the outward facing character, Ford’s the inward. Bernhardt’s direction is agile–the operas, the romance, the polio treatments, the rocky marriage–and always good. Parker’s performance in Interrupted Melody was her favorite and for good reason.

INTERRUPTED MELODY: Ford and Parker.

Interrupted Melody was a hit on release, both with audiences and critics. Bosley Crowther at the New York Times was a big fan of the film (pretty much saying the same as above, only with some complaints about CinemaScope framing). The film received three Academy Award nominations–Best Actress, Best Writing, and Best Costume Design. Ludwig and Levien won for their script. Melody would be Parker’s final Oscar nomination. MGM/UA put Melody out on VHS in the mid-nineties, following it up with an LaserDisc release a few years later. The LaserDisc was letterboxed, preserving the beautiful CinemaScope frame Crowther didn’t like. Turner Classic Movies regularly aired the film. Warner Archive got the DVD release out in 2009. It’s also now available streaming. Interrupted Melody is “the” Eleanor Parker film from her MGM period; it’s a shame she wasn’t top-billed. No slight to Ford, but it would’ve been neat. Especially since it’s a portentous turning point in Parker’s filmography.

Parker on edge in THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM.

Her next 1955 film came out in December; it hadn’t even begun shooting when Interrupted Melody released. The Man With the Golden Arm was Parker’s first film for United Artists (they borrowed her from MGM) and a return to black and white. It was a departure from Parker’s recent MGM work–Golden Arm is a gritty, grim tale of heroin addiction. Frank Sinatra is the lead, Parker’s his wheelchair-bound wife (so two of Parker’s three 1955 films had wheelchair aspects), Kim Novak’s Sinatra’s ex who reappears in his life. They all live in a not great part of Chicago, filled with crooks and pushers. Sinatra’s just gotten clean inside the joint (actually a rehab clinic) and wants to stay clean outside. He wants to be a drummer (hence the Golden Arm). Parker doesn’t make it easy for him, neither do the bad elements about. Otto Preminger directs the film, which is based on Nelson Algren’s acclaimed (and controversial) 1949 novel.

The Man with the Golden Arm (1955). ★★★. 2009 review

The Man with the Golden Arm has a lot of great performances, a lot of great filmmaking–a phenomenal Elmer Bernstein score–but it’s got its fair share of problems too. Walter Newman and Lewis Meltzer’s script is way too contrived, especially with the characters. Parker and Novak do well but their characters’ histories and ground situations are dubious concoctions. It’s also way too long, with the script picking choice moments for dramatic effect. It leads to disjointed character development–even though the actors smooth it all out. Parker’s awesome in her first villain role in almost a decade. Sinatra’s magnificent. He acts the hell out of Golden Arm. Excellent supporting turns from Darren McGavin and Arnold Stang. McGavin’s a pusher, Stang’s a mostly incompetent crook. And Preminger’s direction is excellent. He lets the film drag, but it’s an exquisite drag.

MAN WITH THE GOLDEN ARM: Novak invades Parker’s space.

While critics embraced Golden Arm and its grit, the MPAA refused to give the film a Production Code seal due to the film’s controversial content. United Artists went back and forth, eventually giving up and (temporarily) dropping out of the MPAA. The Production Code was seen as necessary for box office success, but it didn’t end up stopping Man with the Golden Arm from selling tickets. Its domestic run was more than Interrupted Melody’s worldwide gross. It also got three Oscar nominations–Best Actor, Best Art Direction, Best Music. It didn’t win any. Somehow the film ended up in the public domain, which led to it being readily accessible over the years, though rarely with good quality releases. Magnetic Video first released the film on VHS in 1980, making it one of Parker’s first films to be released to home video. Fox put it out a couple years later on CED. Warner Home Video would put it on VHS in 1995, a LaserDisc following four years later. At that point, with DVD’s arrival, the public domain DVD companies started putting out editions. At one point, there were at least ten different releases of The Man With the Golden Arm on DVD, all bad quality. Until a Warner DVD release in 2008 struck from the original negative, the best release was sourced from a UK restoration (but not a restoration from the negative, rather a print). Golden Arm has always been accessible, though its trip through the public domain did some definite damage to its reputation.

Sixty plus years later, it’s still shocking Parker didn’t get a Best Supporting Actress nomination for Golden Arm.

KING AND FOUR QUEENS: Parker in Raoul Walsh Western. Finally.

After the three film year of 1955, Parker was absent from theaters for most of 1956. Her next film came in December, just over a year after Golden Arm’s release. The King and Four Queens was another United Artists picture, but color and not controversial. It’s a Western comedy. Parker’s second-billed after Clark Gable, whose production company–Gabco–co-produced the film. Gable’s the titular King, a Western adventurer who happens upon four young widows (and their mother-in-law). There’s hidden gold around and Gable aims to get it, seducing his way through the fetching Four Queens if he must. Parker’s the with-it widow (with secrets of her own). Jo Van Fleet is the no-nonsense mother-in-law. Raoul Walsh directs; he had directed They Died with Their Boots On fifteen years earlier, which would have been Parker’s first film… if she hadn’t ended up on the cutting room floor.

The King and Four Queens (1956). ★★½. 2006 review

King and Four Queens is an entertaining little Western. It’s short–under ninety minutes (presumably because so much of it ended up on the cutting room floor; Walsh and Parker’s collaborations are cursed)–but Gable’s charming and one heck of a movie star. Parker and Van Fleet are both good. Richard Alan Simmons and Margaret Fitts write some good scenes for the actors. Walsh’s direction is quite good as well. King and Four Queens is slight–there’s obviously movie missing–but solid.

KING AND FOUR QUEENS: Royals Gable and Parker.

On release, The King and Four Queens was not particularly well-received by audiences or critics. Time dismissed it. Bosley Crowther savaged it in the New York Times, focusing on Gable’s fallen star stature. And while it was far from a box office bomb, it certainly wasn’t a big hit. It was also the last time Gabco Productions made a movie. Not good considering Four Queens was also the first Gabco production. As a producer, turns out Gable was a little petty–those massive cuts to Four Queens? Gable slashed Van Fleet’s role (and best scenes) because critics who’d seen the rushes thought she’d get an Oscar nomination for sure. It’s a shame, especially if Parker and Van Fleet had more scenes together. No story spoilers but… big time shame.

MGM/UA put King and Four Queens out on VHS in 1991; they pan-and-scanned the CinemaScope but Turner Classic Movies would soon be airing a letterboxed print. The film didn’t make it to DVD until 2009, from MGM (via Fox). That release went out of print at some point before 2014, when MGM put out a made-on-demand release. Olive Films has put out a Blu-ray release. Sadly no one’s ever included those deleted scenes.

Parker unleashes LIZZIE.

Parker’s next film would again have a movie star producer–Lizzie is a Bryna production (Bryna being producer Kirk Douglas’s mom). MGM released the black and white film in April 1957. It’s a multiple personality drama; Parker’s the patient, Richard Boone is her doctor, Joan Blondell (who left Warner just a few years before Parker signed with them back in 1941) is the caring aunt, director Hugo Haas is the concerned neighbor. The film’s also got Johnny Mathis in his only film appearance. He has no lines, but a couple songs.

Lizzie (1957). ★★. 2016 review

Clocking in at eighty minutes, Lizzie is way too slight. Director Haas botches the picture. Mel Dinelli’s script–adapted from a Shirley Jackson novel–is a disaster of its own, but Haas fails the film and Parker. Parker’s not even the film’s protagonist, she’s its subject. And no matter how strong her performance, she can’t carry it. Lizzie’s low budget, which wouldn’t be a problem if Haas–as a director–had any successful inventive ideas. He doesn’t. And his inventive ideas–hallucination sequences–are disastrous. The supporting performances are all perfectly solid, even with razor thin parts; the acting isn’t the problem, it’s Dinelli, it’s Haas.

LIZZIE: Not very happy days for Marion Ross and Parker.

Back in 1957, Lizzie was in a race with a Fox production, The Three Faces of Eve, to be the first multiple personality drama of the year. Lizzie won the race (Eve came out in the fall). Contemporary critics were far from impressed with Lizzie. Bosley Crowther tore into it in The New York Times. Audiences stayed away too. The film barely made its low budget back (and didn’t make enough to turn any profit). MGM had been hoping for an Oscar nomination for Parker–which must have been particularly disappointing considering Joanne Woodward didn’t just get nominated for Eve but won. The studio blamed Haas for not directing Parker better. They weren’t wrong.

Until Warner Archive released a DVD in 2016, the only way to see Lizzie was on Turner Classic Movies, where it irregularly aired (most often for Parker birthday marathons). It’s good for the film to have that release, sure, but it’s such a disappointment. Parker, whose versatility is her biggest trait, in a multiple personality role… well. It’s rather unfortunate how much Haas, Bryna, and MGM screwed it up. Worse, Lizzie’s failure would be the start of Parker’s career decline (at least in terms of production and role quality)–just two years after it found the peaks of Melody and Golden Arm.

THE SEVENTH SIN: Parker and Travers. Travers is the one having trouble convincingly pointing.

Parker’s next film of 1957, The Seventh Sin, came out about three months after Lizzie. Again at MGM, again in black and white–though this time CinemaScope black and white–Seventh Sin is a W. Somerset Maugham adaptation. Parker is an adulteress in post-war Hong Kong. Her lover, Jean-Pierre Aumont, is a charming French industrialist. Her husband, Bill Travers, is an obnoxious British medical doctor. When Travers realizes Parker’s stepping out, he forces her to accompany him to a cholera epidemic in rural mainland China. There they meet friendly ex-pat George Sanders and Parker tries to survive without the trappings of cosmopolitan life. Ronald Neame directs; Sin is his first American project after ten years making pictures in the UK. At least it was his project until MGM fired him and brought in Vincente Minnelli to finish the picture. Minnelli didn’t take any credit. Karl Tunberg, who co-wrote Valley of the Kings, handles adapting the Maugham novel here.

The Seventh Sin (1957). ★★★. 2017 review

Unlike Valley of the Kings, Tunberg writes one heck of a role for Parker in Sin. She’s got a phenomenal character arc and Parker burns through it. She gets fantastic support from Sanders as her pal and–shockingly given it’s Sanders–moral compass. Unfortunately, Bill Travers’s performance is jaw-droppingly bad. Even with the behind the scenes drama (Neame didn’t like Parker’s performance so his firing makes all the sense), Sin is rather well-directed. The story has an epic scale–and while the film had a not insignificant budget of $1.5 million, it’s not an epic budget. Parker, Sanders, Aumont, and Françoise Rosay are all good. Sin’s all about Parker’s magnificent performance (and cringing through Travers’s). The rushed third act–Sin runs a little short at ninety minutes–and the “Chinese” Miklós Rózsa score are other problems. But nothing compared to Travers’s acting.

Aumont and Parker sin in THE SEVENTH SIN.

Critics–at least Bosley Crowther in The New York Times–welcomed Seventh Sin indifferently; though he did like Parker’s performance. Audiences were even more indifferent. Seventh Sin didn’t even make back half its budget; not a successful end to Parker’s five-year MGM contract. Sin didn’t have a home video release until the Warner Archive DVD in 2016, which presented it widescreen. The rare Turner Classic Movies showings had been, at least until that time, pan and scan. Parker’s work in the film deserved (and deserves) a lot more recognition. Plus, it’s her only pairing with the indomitable Sanders; they’re a delight to watch together.

Following the disappointments of 1957–both pictures with so much potential for Parker, she didn’t have any releases in 1958. She was busy parenting a newborn again; son Paul Day Clemens was born in January of that year.

A HOLE IN THE HEAD: All smiles for Sinatra, Hodges, and Parker.

Her next film, A Hole in the Head, came out summer 1959. The film reunites her with Golden Arm co-star Frank Sinatra, though Hole is far from that picture’s grim and gritty (and black and white) Chicago. Instead, the action takes place in the bright Deluxe color pastels of Miami Beach. Sinatra’s a ne’er-do-well single parent hotel manager. Eddie Hodges is the adorable son. Edward G. Robinson is Sinatra’s successful, but boring, older brother (who Sinatra’s hitting up for money). Thelma Ritter is Robinson’s wife, Carolyn Jones is one of Sinatra’s tenants–a twenty-one year-old “free spirited” egoist he’s romantically involved with. Parker eventually shows up as a proper romantic interest for Sinatra, at least according to Robinson and Ritter. Frank Capra directs the film–his penultimate feature; he and Sinatra produced the film together (making it Parker’s third project for actor-producers in the fifties).

A Hole in the Head (1959). ★★½. 2015 review

A Hole in the Head runs a couple hours and doesn’t start getting good until the second hour. It doesn’t start getting better than good until the final act, which is too bad. Arnold Schulman adapted his play for the screen, but that adaptation has some weird choices. The film needs a tight script, not a weird one. These actors deserve far better material. Capra’s lackadaisical direction of the cast doesn’t help things. But once it gets going–i.e. Sinatra getting a character to play instead of just being a heel–the film improves immediately. Though Capra’s boring CinemaScope composition never improves. Parker’s good in a glorified cameo (a couple of her scenes were, of course, cut). She and Sinatra get at least one good scene and Parker does a lot with the part. The actors save A Hole in the Head.

HOLE IN THE HEAD: Sinatra tries hard on his grown-up date with Parker.

The film was a big hit on release–the eleventh highest grossing film of the year. Critics liked it too; A Hole in the Head made Time’s top ten list. It also won an Oscar for its original song, High Hopes. MGM put the film out on VHS and LaserDisc (in the film’s OAR) in 1993. They also got it out on DVD in 2001, though that release has since gone out of print. Olive Films has picked it up and released both a DVD and a Blu-ray. And the film’s available streaming. During the thirty-five years between theatrical release and home video, however, the film’s reputation is unclear. One assumes, because of the always popular Sinatra headlining, it at least enjoyed regular television play (before Turner Classic Movies would’ve taken those airings over).

As a Parker film, A Hole in the Head foreshadows her sixties career far more than it culminates her fifties’. She’s third-billed in A Hole in the Head and her part’s somewhat consequential (in what remains of it anyway), it’s just not a big part. It’s a small part, definitely smaller than the cast billed after her.

Parker frets (with cause) over Hamilton.

In early 1960, Parker’s last theatrical picture for MGM came out. Once again in CinemaScope, but now in Metrocolor, Home from the Hill is epic melodrama. Robert Mitchum is a millionaire Texan, Parker’s his wife, George Hamilton’s their foppish teenage son, George Peppard’s Mitchum’s bastard. Parker has been shutting Mitchum out since she arrived in Texas with newborn Hamilton and discovered toddler Peppard. The film starts up with Mitchum surviving yet another attack from an angry cuckold–Mitchum’s needs come before fidelity–but soon becomes the story of Hamilton and Peppard’s friendship as Hamilton tries to butch it up as a young Texan. Vincente Minnelli directs the film (credited this time), with Harriet Frank Jr. and Irving Ravetch scripting from William Humphrey’s (sometimes much different) novel.

Home from the Hill (1960). ★★★★. 2006 review

Home from the Hill is a CinemaScope spectacular. Minnelli’s direction is outstanding, both in terms of composition and of his actors. Frank and Ravetch’s script is patient and deliberate–the film runs two and a half hours so they have time to be both. Of the four principals, Parker gets the least screen time but still has a full character arc or two. She and Mitchum’s angry, resentful relationship turns out to be the film’s backbone, with the adventures of the two Georges taking up the foreground. Great performance from Mitchum too. Parker turns what should be a histrionic part into anything but. While in full Southern accent. The two Georges’ performances impress as well; beautiful photography from Milton R. Krasner. Home from the Hill is awesome.

Parker and Mitchum are trapped in HOME FROM THE HILL.

And it was a hit on release. Not enough of a hit to turn a profit, but at least one of the top twenty grossing pictures of the year hit. Critical response was similarly strong–though not uniformly–and the film was selected for Cannes. Mitchum got Best Actor from the National Board of Review, George Peppard best supporting. The National Board of Review also put the film on their annual top ten list. MGM released Home from the Hill on VHS and LaserDisc in 1990, the LaserDisc a “deluxe letter-box edition” preserving Minnelli and Krasner’s wondrous CinemaScope. Warner released a DVD in the 2007 and the film’s now available streaming. Again, in the thirty years between theatrical and home video, Home from the Hill most have gotten television play… it just didn’t build a sustained reputation. Unfortunately.

While Home from the Hill certainly showcased Parker’s versatility and development as an actor–though she’s a little young to be Hamilton’s mom, the film pulls it off through the magic of Hollywood melodrama–and it’s an MGM release, it doesn’t prove an appropriate capstone to her fifties work. Even though it’s great and she’s great in it, the potential of Parker’s fifties work was never realized. Both Lizzie and Seventh Sin could have given her great roles, but didn’t. Parker was always a nimble actor–her toggle from the filmed stage-play of Detective Story to the grand cinema of Scaramouche set her career on the MGM trajectory and the studio got her some great roles and some excellent films resulted. Even when the films stumbled, Parker could still excel.

Of the sixteen films Parker made after leaving Warner Bros., nine of them feature singular performances. Excepting Valentino and Valley of the Kings, the remaining five performances are all excellent.

Eleanor Parker could do anything and everything, but Hollywood (and moviegoers) tend to want their stars to do just one thing, leaving her boundless range at least underappreciated when not being completely unappreciated. But the bulk of her fifties work is available streaming. It’s her decade, from Caged to Hill, with all these magnificent performances in between.

For her fifties output, Parker’s performance makes the movies. And the filmmakers tend to understand it–Detective Story, Above and Beyond, Naked Jungle, Interrupted Melody. Studios wanted their stars to make the movie, not their stars’ performances. Parker’s fifties work shows the two don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Brilliantly so.


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Actor | Eleanor Parker, Part 1: Dream Factory

In June 1941, right before turning nineteen years old, Eleanor Parker signed on as a contract player at Warner Bros. She had just finished a year at the Pasadena Playhouse. Parker started acting in high school and had been dodging studio screen tests since she was fifteen; she wanted to continue developing her craft on stage. Warner made an offer two days after Parker’s screen test. The studio was so enthusiastic about Parker they cast her in what would be their second-biggest hit of the year, They Died with Their Boots On.

Unfortunately, Parker’s part in Boots ended up on the cutting room floor.

Soldiers in White (1942). NOT RECOMMENDED. 2011 review
Men of the Sky (1942). NOT RECOMMENDED. 2012 review

The studio then put her in a couple of its Technicolor shorts, which, post-Pearl harbor, were now focused on propaganda. The first, Soldiers in White, came in February 1942, just over two months after Pearl Harbor. The second, Men of Sky, arrived in July. Parker played a nurse in the former and a war widow in the latter. Even with only two lines in Sky, she easily gives the best performance (as she also does, but with more material, in Soldiers). B. Reeves Eason directed both the shorts and Owen Crump contributed their unfortunate screenplays.

Parker clerks in BUSSES ROAR.

Parker’s feature debut came in September 1942, with B-picture Busses Roar; it came out fifteen months after Parker signed with the studio (and almost a year since her A picture “debut” in Boots).

Like most of Parker’s 1940s films, Busses Roar is a home front picture. Fourth-billed (of five), Parker plays a bus terminal candy girl. The story concerns Axis saboteurs using a Greyhound bus to bomb an oil field. Richard Travis is the lead, with Julie Bishop his love interest. D. Ross Lederman directs the fifty-eight minute film.

Busses Roar (1942). ★. 2014 review

Busses Roar is a busy picture; most of it takes place in the bus terminal, introducing various travelers and their subplots. Screenwriters George Bilson and Anthony Coldeway need to pad out the short run time as the film doesn’t have the budget for its action-packed finale. The terminal scenes are solidly produced however. Bishop’s not bad and Travis is likable. He’s not good, but he is likable. Parker doesn’t get a significant enough character to make any impression–despite her being higher billed than actors who get better material.

BUSSES ROAR: Richard Fraser and Elisabeth Fraser (no relation) cause a hold up in Parker’s line while Richard Travis looks on.

In general, critics liked Busses Roar. Though definitely not The New York Times. Warner’s B-picture wartime propaganda pictures are mostly forgotten–at least by the studio’s home video department. Busses Roar has never had any home video release, though it does show up from time to time on Turner Classic Movies. It’s an inglorious, but not embarrassing, start to Parker’s feature filmography.

Parker looks for THE MYSTERIOUS DOCTOR.

Parker’s next film, The Mysterious Doctor, came out in March 1943. Another home front picture–though this time the British home front–Doctor combines propaganda with horror thriller. It’s a ghost story, with a (headless) ghost terrorizing tin miners to keep them from providing His Majesty’s Armed Forces with that valuable wartime material. Parker’s character is the practically the only one in the town who keeps her head (figuratively) when confronted with the supernatural. Benjamin Stoloff directs from a Richard Weil script. Also starring John Loder and Bruce Lester, Mysterious Doctor clocks in just under an hour. Another B picture for Parker.

The Mysterious Doctor (1943). ★★½. 2011 review

With its American actors in its British setting, not to mention the foggy moor scenery, Mysterious Doctor at first glance seems like a Warner B riff on the Universal horror classics. It’s got more going on than just that riff, however. Second-billed Parker turns out to be the lead, getting a lot to do in the film and doing it all quite well. The finale’s problematic–director Stoloff actually does worst on the thriller aspects–but Doctor’s a nice, nimble B, with a good dash of humor.

Everyone’s concerned for Parker after she’s injured, but not enough to listen to her before.

While at least one contemporary critic liked Mysterious Doctor–and Parker enough to single her out in the review–the film was not a breakout hit. Just like Busses Roar, The Mysterious Doctor has had no home video release. Turner Classic Movies airs the film. While better known than Busses Roar, Doctor seems to suffer an unduly harsh reputation, emphasizing its failures over its successes.

Parker in MISSION TO MOSCOW.

In May 1943, Parker finally got a part in another A picture and she didn’t end up on the cutting room floor. In Mission to Moscow–director Michael Curtiz’s first film after Casablanca–Parker plays lead Walter Huston’s daughter. The film’s an adaptation of Joseph E. Davies’s memoir about his time in the Soviet Union as United States ambassador. Davies’s book had been a big hit and expectations were high for the film.

Mission to Moscow (1943). ★★. 2006 review

Curtiz’s direction is excellent, Huston’s performance is excellent, Howard Koch’s script is fine. It’s just too much of a propaganda piece–Huston, wife Ann Harding, and (sometimes) Parker tediously tour the Soviet Union (as shot in Hollywood U.S.A.)–there’s nothing else to it. No subplots, no drama, no nothing. It’s an artificial marketing travelogue. Parker is fine and appealing in a minuscule part. The film occasionally even forgets about her. Fellow Warner contractee Richard Travis (from Busses Roar) shows up as Parker’s occasional chaperone.

Upon release, Moscow was far from a success. Despite the Office of War Information signing off on the finished product, the United States public had changed its mind about the Soviet Union in the year and few months between the release of the book and the film. Contemporary critics particularly disliked the overt propaganda as well as the historical inaccuracies. In the late forties, the film and its producers would come under fire from the House Committee on Un-American Activities.

Ann Harding, Walter Huston, and Parker travel for work in MISSION.

The film remained out of circulation until the 1970s, when it started airing on television. It has had some critical reevaluation since, though it still remains more a curiosity than anything else. Warner Archive released the film on DVD and it airs on Turner Classic Movies. Another inglorious propaganda picture for Parker, though at least this one is on home video.

Paul Henreid and Parker in BETWEEN TWO WORLDS.

The following year, 1944, would be Parker’s busiest of the forties. She would appear in four films before it was over, starting with May’s Between Two Worlds. Directed by Edward A. Blatt and costarring John Garfield, Paul Henreid, and Sydney Greenstreet, Parker got the last of the four top billings. She plays top-billed Henreid’s wife, though second-billed Garfield’s the real star.

While the film’s based on Sutton Vane’s 1924 play, Outward Bound, Daniel Fuchs’s screenplay updates the story to the modern day. A group of travelers are on a ship escaping the bombings in World War II London and headed to the United States. Or are they? Are they perhaps headed somewhere else entirely? With Warner notables in the supporting cast–Edmund Gwenn, Faye Emerson–Between Two Worlds might not have had the street cred of Mission to Moscow but it’s an A picture and Parker’s in a big part.

Between Two Worlds (1944). ★★. 2005 review

Between Two Worlds runs too long–almost two hours and it’s a bumpy voyage throughout. Henreid, who anchors Parker, can’t keep up with Garfield, who takes over the film despite coming in late. Parker has some good scenes, a solo one towards the end in particular. The supporting performances are good. Sydney Greenstreet’s real good. Between Two Worlds is lucky to have a built in character winnowing, which propels it when Fuchs’s script and Blatt’s direction don’t.

BETWEEN TWO WORLDS: Sydney Greenstreet, Dennis King, Parker, Edmund Gwenn, and Henreid.

Until Warner Archive put it out on DVD, Between Two Worlds had never had a home video release. Turner Classic Movies has played it regularly over the years and the film’s gotten itself an audience. When I was first discovering Eleanor Parker movies, Between Two Worlds was the only one of her early films anyone else was familiar with.

Parker gives ex-husband Jerome Cowan as much consideration as he deserves in CRIME BY NIGHT.

Parker’s next film, Crime by Night, arrived in September. It was back to B pictures for Parker and Two Worlds costar Faye Emerson; it’s also one of Parker’s smallest Warner parts. She plays ex-wife to lead Jerome Cowan, a New York detective who’s in a small town investigating a case. Jane Wyman plays Cowan’s secretary and sidekick. William Clemens directs the seventy minute picture–so a longer B anyway–from a script by Richard Weil and Joel Malone. Weil wrote The Mysterious Doctor, which mixed home front propaganda with a horror picture. Crime by Night is also another Warner mixer–this time murder mystery and home front propaganda.

Crime by Night (1944). ★★. 2007 review

Crime by Night is a serviceable B mystery. Not all of the performances are good–Faye Emerson and Charles Lang aren’t–but Jane Wyman’s a great lead. Cowan’s drunken, corrupt, philandering detective occasionally amuses. Parker does quite well implying a lot more depth to her character than ends up on screen (she and Cowan have a child together, who inexplicably never shows up). Even with Crime’s problems, Wyman’s so incredibly appealing, it’s too bad Warner didn’t do a series with she and Cowan’s characters.

CRIME BY NIGHT: Parker and Charles Lang.

Contemporary critics received Crime by Night well enough. It had been in the can for two years before its theatrical release and was not a major box office success. No home video release for Crime by Night. It too shows up on Turner Classic Movies. Hopefully Jane Wyman fans are familiar with it. It’d be a fine finish to Parker’s B days at Warner–her performance, loving mother slash femme fatale, is neat. There’s one more B to go though.

THE LAST RIDE’s ostensible love triangle: Travis, Parker, and Lang.

Parker’s final B-picture, The Last Ride, came out a month after Crime by Night and fittingly culminates her filmography to this point. D. Ross Lederman, who directed Parker’s first film, Busses Roar, directs The Last Ride. Parker is third-billed, after Busses Roar’s Richard Travis and Crime by Night’s Charles Lang. They’re brothers–one’s a cop, one’s a rubber runner (wartime rubber shortages, so another home front picture)–and Parker’s the girl they both love. Jack La Rue and Cy Kendall costar.

The Last Ride (1944). ★. 2007 review

The Last Ride’s not an abject failure, but it’s got a clunky script from Raymond L. Schrock. There are constant continuity problems, which is should be impossible in a fifty-six minute movie but Last Ride manages. Parker had Lang for a love interest in Crime by Night and Travis in Mission to Moscow so the love triangle should register. Except Parker only gets two scenes; hardly time for reunions or anything else. Travis is all right. There’s nothing anyone could really do to improve Last Ride… the tires are just too low.

Parker serves the boys dinner; before she gets to eat, she answers the phone and exits the picture.

The film apparently didn’t make much impression on release and has never been out on home video. None of the aforementioned B pictures are on home video and nothing makes The Last Ride stand out. Sorry, Richard Travis and Charles Lang. More, of all Parker’s early films (her sixth after starting three years before), The Last Ride doesn’t even manage to be a curiosity. And if you do watch it hoping for a nice early role for Parker, you’ll be disappointed when she’s barely in the film, regardless of billing.

Dennis Morgan and Parker in THE VERY THOUGHT OF YOU.

Just a few weeks later, Warner released The Very Thought of You, featuring Parker’s first leading role in an A picture. It’s a home front picture, with more drama, less propaganda. Parker’s a munition factory worker who has a whirlwind romance with GI on leave Dennis Morgan, culminating in marriage. Her family doesn’t support Parker or the marriage; dating soldiers is a no no. The timely subplots include wartime infidelity and temptation. Dane Clark and Faye Emerson play the sidekicks (Clark to Morgan, Emerson to Parker). Very Thought would be Parker and Emerson’s last Warner film together, after Between Two Worlds and Crime by Night.

The Very Thought of You (1944). ★★★. 2006 review

The Very Thought of You is a deliberate family drama. Director Delmer Daves and Alvah Bessie’s script is better than Daves’s direction, but the cast is first-rate. Save leading man Dennis Morgan, who looks his part but doesn’t have any depth. Parker’s good but her part’s a bland “good girl”. Everyone else gets more, whether it’s being awful, unfaithful, or just funny. The film drags–mostly because its not dramatic enough–but it’s still quite good.

THE VERY THOUGHT OF YOU: Every time Henry Travers has to calm Beulah Bondi on Parker’s behalf, an angel gets its wings.

Very Thought of You also isn’t out on home video. Apparently Warner–not even Warner Archive–thinks there are enough Parker or Dennis Morgan fans out there to warrant a release. Like all of Parker’s film’s to this point–feature and B–Very Thought does show up on Turner Classic Movies.

Parker and John Garfield in THE PRIDE OF THE MARINES.

After the four film year of 1944, Parker slowed down. Her one film in 1945, Pride of the Marines, arrived almost exactly a year after Very Thought of You. Marines, based on a true story, pairs Parker with John Garfield; while they shared scenes in Between Two Worlds, they didn’t share story arcs. In Marines, Parker again plays the good girl. This time she cures Garfield of his aversion to romance and commitment. Then Pearl Harbor happens and Garfield joins up, distinguishing himself in the Pacific. He comes home wounded and lashes out at everyone, Parker included. The film reunites a lot of Very Thought of You principals, including director Delmer Daves, producer Jerry Wald, and main costar Dane Clark.

The Pride of the Marines (1945). ★½. 2016 review

Overall, Pride of the Marines isn’t successful. There’s some excellent work from Daves–the sequences in the Pacific Theatre are a spellbinding nightmare–but Albert Maltz’s script is thin. It’s thin on Garfield’s character, then it’s thin on his rehabilitation. As a result, Garfield’s nowhere near as effective as he needs to be and the film itself doesn’t have enough heft. Parker’s good, of course, having played this kind of part most of her career to this point. Sidekick Clark also does well, mixing dramatic with comedic.

THE PRIDE OF THE MARINES: Garfield, Parker, and the metaphor of a fallen Christmas tree.

The film was well-received on release–lots of praise for Garfield and Maltz’s script was Oscar-nominated–but Marines fell into obscurity. Well, more forced into obscurity after the House Committee on Un-American Activities went after both Maltz and Garfield. The film never had a VHS release, but aired somewhat regularly on Turner Classic Movies. The film finally got its first home video release on DVD from Warner Archive, one of that label’s first releases.

Meet Mildred Rogers – Parker in OF HUMAN BONDAGE.

Parker’s next film–her first of 1946–was Of Human Bondage. It came out about a year after Marines and introduced audiences to an Eleanor Parker much different than the Warner home front ingénue. As a cruel, vulgar Cockney waitress, Parker inadvertently bewitches medical student Paul Henreid, who’ll do anything to win her. Once she realizes how much she can profit from his lust, she takes full advantage. Within some limits. He does disgust her after all. Director Edmund Goulding wasn’t sure about Parker for the part (he’d wanted Ida Lupino) and tested Parker three times before casting her. Bondage sat on the shelf for a couple years. It was in the can in 1944 and could have provided a far more immediate contrast to Parker and Henreid’s devoted lovers in Between Two Worlds. Another Two Worlds cast member–Edmund Gwenn–is in Bondage, but never onscreen with Parker.

Of Human Bondage (1946). ★★★. 2006 review

Of Human Bondage, much like the source novel, is a slow moving affair. Parker’s magnificent. Henreid’s good–especially since he’s never trying to make himself likable–but it’s all about Parker, who sadly doesn’t get as much attention as she should. She’s not the protagonist, after all, just his main foil. Goulding gives Henreid and Parker a whole lot of room to work. His direction is patient and deliberate (though apparently much of the composition is the result post-production tinkering at Henreid’s request). Gwenn’s great in his supporting role, imbuing Of Human Bondage with a most unlikely quality–hopefulness.

OF HUMAN BONDAGE: Parker and Henreid.

Contemporary critics didn’t think much of the film, though Parker got good reviews. When MGM adapted the novel again in 1964, they bought up the rights to the 1946 version and kept it off television, effectively letting it become lost. Turner Classic Movies has been airing Of Human Bondage for many years, though apparently it’s never gotten enough viewers to get a Warner Archive release. That lack of release is unfortunate; Of Human Bondage is Parker’s first dramatic role of depth and the first time it’s clear there’s no way to cast her against type; she doesn’t have one.

NEVER SAY GOODBYE: Errol Flynn and Parker.

Four months after Of Human Bondage came out and fizzled, Parker’s next film arrived. Never Say Goodbye, a romantic comedy, with Parker and Errol Flynn playing a divorced couple with a great daughter (Patti Brady) who both maybe want to fall in love again. With each other. James V. Kern directs the film, which is one of those late forties post-war screwball comedies.

Never Say Goodbye (1946). ★★. 2017 review

Never Say Goodbye has a strong open and a charming cast. Not just Parker and Flynn, but S.Z. Sakall and Hattie McDaniel. After the strong open, things aren’t as good. Parker and Flynn don’t have much to work with and despite both being charming, they don’t have much chemistry. Both are quite glamorous, however. And Brady’s adorable. It’s a perfectly okay comedy. Nothing more.

NEVER SAY GOODBYE: Parker isn’t sure about Patti Brady’s attempt to fix her up with Forrest Tucker.

Contemporary critics were lukewarm but positive in their reviews of Never Say Goodbye, though it wasn’t a hit on release. No doubt thanks to Flynn’s presence, the film actually had a VHS release. It was Parker’s earliest film to be released on that format. Like everything else, it airs on Turner Classic Movies. Warner Archive has also got a DVD out. So Never Say Goodbye is reasonably accessible. Or, at least, it’s been accessible for longer.

Ladies can’t resist a man with an accordian; Flynn and Parker in ESCAPE ME NEVER.

The following year, 1947, Parker appeared in two films. The first, reuniting her with Goodbye costar Errol Flynn, was Escape Me Never. Parker is third-billed–behind Flynn and Ida Lupino–and plays the other woman to Lupino; they both want Flynn’s attentions. Flynn’s a struggling composer. Lupino’s a broke single mother. Parker’s a wealthy bachelorette. Gig Young is Parker’s other romantic interest and Flynn’s boring brother. The action takes place in turn of the century Europe. Peter Godfrey directs from Thames Williamson’s script.

Escape Me Never (1947). ⓏⒺⓇⓄ. 2006 review

Escape Me Never is terrible. Lupino’s annoying, Flynn’s bad, Parker’s lost, Young’s probably the best. Williamson’s script is awful. Terrible dialogue–which can’t help the actors any–but also terrible characterization. The parts are too thin. It’s impossible to take Flynn seriously as moody, broke, and irresistible to all women. It’s additionally impossible to take him seriously as a composer. The film’s a complete misfire; no one can survive it.

ESCAPE ME NEVER: Ida Lupino and Parker face off.

Contemporary critics were not kind to Escape Me Never, though Bosley Crowthers of The New York Times did take a moment to send his “deepest sympathy” to Parker for having to be involved in the picture. Also presumably thanks to Flynn’s presence, the film did get a VHS release. Warner Archive has out a DVD as well. And Turner Classic Movies plays it. So it’s been accessible over the years, it’s just no one should ever see it.

Though Parker is probably at her most glamorous in the Escape Me Never; definitely of her Warner forties roles.

Future “family values” man Ronald Reagan helps Parker into her dress (in hopes of getting her out of it) in THE VOICE OF THE TURTLE.

Parker’s second film of the year, The Voice of the Turtle, came out on Christmas Day (in New York, it went wide in early 1948). Irving Rapper directs the picture, an adaptation of John Van Druten’s extremely popular stage play. Parker plays a variation of her “good girl” home front role. Instead of being all good, she’s having an affair with Kent Smith (though, thanks to the Code, it’s never clear Smith’s married). He dumps her and Parker mopes until her free-living pal Eve Arden sticks her babysitting soldier-on-leave Ronald Reagan. Will he and Parker fall in love before their weekend is over?

The Voice of the Turtle (1947). ★★. 2017 review

Turtle’s screenplay, from Van Druten and Charles Hoffman, neuters the original stage play, which was all about Parker’s character not wanting to get horizontal with Reagan after her affair went badly. The result is a strange mix of screwball comedy and muted melodrama. Director Rapper doesn’t seem to know how to do either. Parker’s good, but the film gives a lot more material to Reagan (and Arden and even Smith). Reagan’s fine. The film’s got excellent production values, so it always looks like it ought to be better, even when it isn’t. Without knowing about the stage play, Turtle is a kind of confusing, talky romantic comedy. Knowing about the stage play… well, it’s a shame Parker didn’t get to play the role as written for stage.

THE VOICE OF THE TURTLE: Parker’s blissful, Eve Arden’s not convinced.

Voice of the Turtle was well-received on release. Good box office, good reviews. It was sold to television in the fifties under the title One for the Book and remained identified with that reissue title for decades. So long, in fact, it aired on Turner Classic Movies under that title (and is still listed as such in their database). The Warner Archive DVD release restores the original, Voice of the Turtle title. The film never had a VHS release. Despite its contemporary popularity–and quick sale to television–Turtle’s mostly a footnote in Parker’s filmography. As in, she made a movie with Ronald Reagan.

Alexis Smith and Parker in THE WOMAN IN WHITE.

The Woman in White, released in May 1948, reunited Parker with two Escape Me Never principals–director Peter Godfrey and actor Gig Young. The film’s set in the nineteenth century on an English country estate, making it one of Parker’s three Warner films not set in modernity. Alexis Smith, who costarred in Of Human Bondage but never shared a scene with Parker, is second-billed. Parker, after six years and twelve films, finally gets top-billing for Woman in White. And she definitely earns it, playing two roles in the film. Sydney Greenstreet, who was sympathetic in Between Two Worlds opposite Parker, plays her scheming, odious nemesis in Woman. The only times he isn’t plotting against or tormenting Parker, he’s tormenting his own wife, played by Agnes Moorehead. John Emery, who had a small part in Turtle, appears in the film as well.

The Woman in White (1948). ★★★. 2007 review

For the most part, The Woman in White is a phenomenal film. Great performances, particularly from Parker (who you get to see toggle between two different yet intricately tied roles) and Greenstreet. Moorehead’s excellent as well. Godfrey brings some humor to the dark psychological terrors. After opening with a fine romance for Parker (in one of her roles) and Young, Woman skips ahead to Young romancing Smith with far less chemistry. Even Max Steiner’s outstanding score takes some hits as the film winds down. Shakiness aside, The Woman in White is a success, with exquisite performances and filmmaking.

THE WOMAN IN WHITE revealed to Smith, Parker, and Gig Young.

The film wasn’t well-received–at least, not by The New York Times–in 1948. The Woman in White never had a VHS release. For a long time, Turner Classic Movies was the only way to see it. Now, however, Warner Archive has put the film out on DVD, allowing people to see one of Parker’s finest forties performances. Sorry, two of Parker’s finest forties performances. She’s superb in both roles.

A couple months before Woman in White, Parker had her first child; she took time off to be a mom, indifferently racking up suspensions from Warner for refusing roles. As a result of the break, she didn’t have any movies come out in 1949. She was supposed to do The Hasty Heart, which would’ve reunited her with Turtle’s Ronald Reagan; Patricia Neal took the role instead.

Parker looks to Roy Roberts and Roberts looks to the sky in CHAIN LIGHTNING.

When Parker did return, it was for a role opposite Humphrey Bogart in 1950’s Chain Lightning. Bogie is a WWII bomber pilot who goes from running a flight school to testing a top secret new fighter jet. Parker plays the love interest, who knows Bogie from during the war and they never resolved their romance. Now they find themselves in a love triangle with fellow test pilot Richard Whorf. Raymond Massey plays Bogart’s demanding boss. Stuart Heisler directs the film, Bogart’s final picture for Warner Bros.

Chain Lightning (1950). ★★½. 2006 review

Lightning has a lazy script and runs too short–ninety-five minutes–but it’s perfectly fine. Good special effects, solid direction from Heisler, good acting from Bogart, Parker, and Massey. There’s little character development and the whole thing hinges on Bogart’s star power. He delivers, with Parker holding her own opposite him; it’s a shame their only pairing is such wanting material. The action-packed ending is particularly tense thanks to the filmmaking (and Bogart’s performance).

CHAIN LIGHTNING: Parker and Humphrey Bogart.

Even on release, critics recognized Chain Lightning’s general competence, lack of ambition, and passable quality. It doesn’t appear to have made much impression at the box office, however. While both Bogart and Parker were nearing the end of their time with Warner Bros., Bogart’s career was slowing as Parker’s was about to pick up. Thanks to it being a Bogart movie–albeit a lesser one–Chain Lightning got a VHS release in the early nineties. The film airs on Turner Classic Movies, like all of Parker’s Warner movies. Warner Archive has put out a DVD. Chain Lightning has been readily accessible for years, though it seems to still make as slight an impression as it did on release.

Parker with her newborn in CAGED.

Four months after Chain Lightning, Warner released Caged, featuring Parker’s first Oscar-nominated performance. She plays a naive, pregnant young widow who ends up in a woman’s penitentiary. Parker’s top-billed (with Woman in White costar Agnes Moorehead getting second). Moorehead’s the understanding warden. Parker finds sympathetic fellow inmates, but runs afoul of Hope Emerson’s corrupt, vicious matron. John Cromwell directs the film, Jerry Wald produces; five years earlier, Parker starred in Wald productions Very Thought of You and Pride of the Marines.

Caged (1950). ★★★★. 2016 review

Caged is a phenomenal film. Parker’s performance is exhilarating as the prison slowly and irrevocably crushes her. Cromwell’s direction is outstanding, the supporting performances are outstanding. The film smartly works social commentary into its constraints–the entire thing takes place in the prison, except maybe the opening titles. Excellent script from Virginia Kellogg; it circles Parker as it regards her, then closes in to make her protagonist. It’s great.

CAGED: Parker.

So it’s unfortunate instead of being remembered for Parker’s performance or Cromwell’s direction or Kellogg’s script, Caged’s initial legacy was as a camp “classic”. When Warner Home Video put out Caged (not Warner Archive, making Caged Parker’s only non-MOD–made on demand–DVD release of her Warner films), they released it in their “Cult Camp Classic” series. The film had developed a reputation over the years as a campy “women in prison” picture. Hopefully enough people have seen Caged to correct its reputation, which was never easy to find before the DVD (until Turner Classic Movies started airing it). When Warner Archive rereleased the film on DVD, they thankfully did so without the “Cult Camp Classic” banner.

Contemporary critics were somewhat cool to Caged, but it still received a number of Academy Award nominations in addition to Parker’s. While she lost the Oscar, Parker did win the Venice Film Festival’s best actress award for her performance.

Ruth Roman, Patricia Neal, and Parker share their THREE SECRETS.

Three Secrets, Parker’s final film of 1950 came out in October, four months after Caged. Parker is top-billed followed by Patricia Neal and Ruth Roman. There’s a plane crash and a little boy is stranded on a mountain. All three women put a baby up for adoption; one of them is his mother. Parker’s the good girl with a past secret. Neal’s a divorced reporter. Roman’s a former chorus girl. The film goes into flashback for each woman’s story, comes together for the big finale reveal. Robert Wise directs.

Three Secrets (1950). ★★. 2006 review

Secrets is an okay lower budget melodrama. While a Warner Bros. release, it was a United States Pictures production, which apparently means less money. And in bad places too, like sets. The acting from the leads is all good. Parker’s secret is a home front related one so she’s back in that role, which appropriately caps her Warner career. Wise’s direction could be a lot better. But the script’s not great either.

THREE SECRETS: Parker and Neal.

Three Secrets wasn’t Parker’s biggest hit of 1950 (turns out Caged was the most successful at the time) and it didn’t thrill critics, but it was a very easy Parker film to find on VHS. Warner either didn’t keep or have home video rights. Republic Pictures put Three Secrets out on VHS in the late eighties and kept it in print for over ten years. The rights issues also meant it took Three Secrets a long time to get a DVD release, but it got a blu-ray release the same day. The film also had a TV movie remake in the late nineties (making it the only Parker film with any kind of remake).

Eleanor Parker’s Warner Bros. career produced a great film (Caged), some good ones, some okay ones, a number of phenomenal performances, and a lot of good ones. It only produced one abject stinker (Escape Me Never) and the failure had nothing to do with Parker.

After Parker’s return for the 1950 releases, it became clear Warner didn’t have the projects Parker wanted. She was out of her contract before her first film of the year, Chain Lightning was released. The studio had cast her right off in the naive home front good girl part and left her there for almost her entire career. Sure, Chain Lightning at least made her a wartime nurse, but Three Secrets stepped it back again. In between, Parker ripped apart the naive good girl in Caged. She’d already shown she could do entirely different kinds of roles–Of Human Bondage and The Woman in White–but she’d never gotten to do naive home front good girl in a great movie. Voice of the Turtle should have let Parker do something amazing with the trope; shame it doesn’t.

Then Parker went full costume melodrama with Woman in White and Chain Lightning adequately sidestepped her previous Warner persona. Parker’s Caged performance meets her Warner persona head-on. Caged isn’t just a great performance, it’s Parker showing how much further she could have taken any previous part, if the films had just been there for her.

And now it’s actually pretty easy to watch Parker’s development as an actor. All of her films available on DVD feature good or better parts for Parker. Well, not Escape Me Never. Unfortunately, it’s still Turner Classic Movies-only for Of Human Bondage. Maybe someday.

Caged is the place to start though. Seeing Parker progress isn’t near as important as seeing her in Caged.


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Quartet | Maugham adaptations

When I was in undergrad, I discovered the existence of Secret Agent. I was on a thirties Hitchcock kick and a Maugham kick. The idea of a Hitchcock Maugham adaptation? Should be something. At the time–sixteen years ago–Secret Agent was a major disappointment. I’ve still got an interest in Maugham adaptations, but I don’t expect much.

I worked up the Stop Button’s Quartets theme based a Google-facilitated discovery of a “Quartet film series.” Calling it a film series is a bit of a stretch–starting in 1948, Antony Darnborough produced three W. Somerset Maugham “anthology” films. Quartet, Trio, and Encore. I had a slight awareness of Quartet and Trio existing; I knew they were British, black and white, possibly acclaimed at the time of their release. I didn’t know they were anthologies of Maugham short stories.

Quartet has four stories, Trio and Encore both have three. Maugham introduced each of the stories; title card, with director credited; the same unseen, uncredited narrator (in all three pictures) starts reading the source short story.

The films were well-received, both by audience and critic. Though original production company Gainsborough Pictures only hung around for the first “sequel,” Trio, with another company–Two Cities Films–doing the second, Encore. It’s a shame Two Cities Films didn’t do all three, as Encore is easily the best of the bunch. It also has better screenwriters.

In none of the three films is it clear if “host” W. Somerset Maugham has actually seen the film segments. He doesn’t come off well. He’s awkward and disinterested in the film medium. The introductions range from pointless to discouraging.

George Cole and Susan Shaw star in “The Kite,” from Quartet

Quartet has four directors–Ralph Smart, Harold French, Arthur Crabtree, and Ken Annakin–and one screenwriter, R.C. Sherriff. The stories involve, respectively, a Continental seductress exploiting a young British man, a rich kid who just wants to play the piano, a man whose new bride doesn’t like his kite enthusiasm, and a retired army man who discovers his wife writes explicit poetry.

Quartet (1948). ★½
Quartet (1948). ★½. 2017 review

At least two of the stories–first and third–have a framing device, which might work fine in prose, but just needlessly crowds the segments with characters here. Three of the four directors amble clumsily through their segments, doing nothing for Quartet as a visual narrative and even less for their actors. Annakin, in the last segment, finally shows something more than rote competence–it’s almost enough to turn the film around, or at least bring it above water.

Nora Swinburne and Cecil Parker star in “The Colonel’s Lady,” from Quartet

It’s not, of course, because there’s only so much one part of an anthology picture can do to make up for the rest of it, but Annakin’s effort is a good one. The other three just make it seem like Maugham stories shouldn’t be adapted into short films.

Jean Simmons and Raymond Huntley star in “Sanatorium,” from Trio

The first sequel, Trio, reduces the story adaptations by one. Three stories, not four. Ninety minutes, not two hours. Unfortunately, the adaptations don’t get equal time. The first two stories, directed by Ken Annakin, are gentle comedies. The third story, directed by Harold French, is a lengthy melodrama better suited for feature-length expansion, not being forced into an anthology.

Trio (1950). ★★. 2017 review

The stories in Trio are about a fired church verger’s small business success, an annoying cruise liner passenger, and life in a tuberculosis sanatorium.

The screenplay this time comes from Maugham (himself), R.C. Sheriff, and Noel Langley. Oddly, even though Maugham has more involvement, his introductions to each of the stories gets cut. All three times, the music and narration come up before Maugham has finished talking about these stories’ adaptations, which again it seems like he definitely hasn’t seen.

Nigel Patrick, Anne Crawford, and Naunton Wayne star in “Mr. Know-All,” from Trio

There’s a lot of good acting in Trio and a lot of good direction (from Annakin mostly). But the film lacks any bite–the relative cuteness of the first two segments don’t soothe the third’s hopeless melodrama, it just plunges Trio further into blandness.

Glynis Johns and Terence Morgan star in “Gigolo and Gigolette,” from Encore

Then, shockingly, after two disappointing entries, the Quartet series ends on a high point with Encore. It’s from a different production company, Two Cities Films, it’s got an entirely different set of screenwriters–T.E.B. Clarke, Arthur Macrae, and Eric Ambler–and it’s got two new directors for a couple of the segments, Pat Jackson and Anthony Pelissier. Harold French is back again to direct the last story.

Encore (1951). ★★★. 2017 review

Encore’s got the best scripts too. Best scripts and best concepts. The first story is about a lazy brother exploiting a successful one, the second is another cruise liner story (and Encore’s weak spot), with the finale being a high dive performer’s martial troubles.

Nigel Patrick and Roland Culver star in “The Ant and the Grasshopper,” from Encore

Lots of great acting, lots of good direction. Even French, who previously had problems with his direction, comes through on his entry. Encore just has a better feel to it, mostly thanks to the screenwriters, but also the directors. It doesn’t feel constrained like the previous two.

So three movies in the Quartet film series, three posts for The Stop Button. Only Quartets is a monthly scheduling theme, posted every Friday, meaning I needed one more title. And I’ve been wanting to see The Moon and Sixpence for a long, long time. George Sanders in a Maugham adaptation? What could be better.

George Sanders stars in The Moon and Sixpence

Sadly, many things could be better. The Moon and Sixpence is underwritten–by its director, Albert Lewin–which leaves Sanders and lead Herbert Marshall (playing a Maugham analogue, something Marshall would do more directly in The Razor’s Edge a few years later) with very little to do. The parts are just too thin; Marshall and Sanders can imply all the depth they want, but if Lewin isn’t going to acknowledge it, it doesn’t do any good.

The Moon and Sixpence (1942) .★½. 2017 review

Moon and Sixpence isn’t an easy novel to adapt–it’s a period piece, there are multiple locations in multiple countries, it would do well with a big budget. And Lewin doesn’t have one. There’s an even more fundamental issue. The source novel is loosely based on real-life painter Gauguin and Marshall’s Maugham analogue is the guy who wrote that novel. There are literary things at play, along with some grown-up, Hayes Code unfriendly content; Lewin tries to be faithful but he’s too obtuse. There’s nothing to bring it to a different medium, not even the simplest things. When Lewin finally does get around the showcasing what film can do, it’s way too late to do any good. It’d be more of a disappointment if Lewin ever exhibited any competency.

So another middling Maugham adaptation.

Elena Verdugo and George Sanders star in The Moon and Sixpence

As of 2017, there have been over a hundred Maugham adaptions to film and television–fifty-eight film adaptations during Maugham’s lifetime, two television series dedicated to adapting just his stories–and when a Maugham adaptation is good, it tends to be real good. It’s unfortunate the Quartet series didn’t work out better. It’s unfortunate The Moon and Sixpence didn’t pan out. But they were a fine kick-off to the Stop Button’s Quartets scheduling theme.

At least I got middling Maugham movies done early.

Series | The Thin Man

Since its first installment in 1934 and in the eighty years since, The Thin Man series has stood apart from other film series and franchises. Its six films always delivered a “twist” mystery and the wonderful chemistry between stars William Powell and Myrna Loy.

Much of the series’s most memorable features came straight from the Dashiell Hammett source novel. Nick and Nora Charles were rich and glamorous during the Depression, though extremely grounded thanks to Nick being a former private detective. Asta the dog, the New York setting, the martinis, the Thin Man mystery itself–they were all from the novel. Powell and Loy just brought it all to life.

Although MGM budgeted and produced the first entry more like a B picture, by the time of its release, the studio knew they had something special with The Thin Man and, in particular, its stars: William Powell and Myrna Loy. The two were recent MGM contract additions; both had been bouncing around Hollywood since the mid-twenties and had come to MGM after unfulfilling Warner contracts. They weren’t big time movie stars yet, but Loy and Powell had become familiar faces to moviegoers. And then The Thin Man turned them into mega-stars, both individually and as a pair. Loy and Powell appeared in fourteen movies altogether, almost always playing a couple. The Thin Man isn’t even their first film together. That first film, Manhattan Melodrama, opened a few weeks before The Thin Man. It too was directed by W.S. Van Dyke, who would frequently work with Loy and Powell–as a pair–after The Thin Man, including the first three Thin Man sequels. Van Dyke had directed Loy (alone) in a number of reasonably successful films the year before, also in collaboration with Thin Man producer Hunt Stromberg.

In the first THIN MAN, Nora (Myrna Loy) still has to encourage Nick (William Powell) to take cases.

So, the first Thin Man wasn’t so much a happy accident as every right piece coming into the right place at just the right time.

The Thin Man is the second-shortest picture in the series, running ninety-three minutes. There won’t be a Thin Man picture running under that time until the last one. Director Van Dyke has to convey a lot of information in very little time. Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich’s dialogue needs to be expository–it’s a mystery after all–so they weave it though conversation and characters’ personalities.

Myrna Loy and William Powell star in THE THIN MAN, directed by W.S. Van Dyke for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
The Thin Man (1934). ★★★★. 2014 review

Nat Pendleton and Maureen O’Sullivan lead the supporting cast. Pendleton is an intrusive but competent copper and O’Sullivan is Nick’s “client.” Quotation marks because Nick never works for money; he’s just a big softy. The supporting cast is great. A good supporting cast can make or break a Thin Man movie.

Powell impresses Loy and perplexes Nat Pendleton.

Since its theatrical release, The Thin Man has enjoyed continuous popularity; eighty plus years without losing its appeal. The Thin Man has been available on every home video format–VHS, LaserDisc, DVD–never going out of print. And now it’s always available streaming.

The sequel came out two years later, on Christmas Day 1936. After the Thin Man closed one of the busiest years of Powell, Loy, and Van Dyke’s careers. They had all become MGM A-listers, though Loy was a tad beyond Powell and Van Dyke. In fact, she was actually just about to be voted the studio’s “Queen of Hollywood.”

Ace assistant detective Asta eats a clue in AFTER THE THIN MAN.

MGM spared no expense on After the Thin Man. It’s the longest film in the series–twenty minutes longer than the first entry–with a lot of time and money spent setting up Nick and Nora as a couple in their natural habitat, ritzy San Francisco. There’s location shooting (a big deal for the sequel to a B picture) and a first-rate supporting cast. James Stewart in it–After the Thin Man is also known as “The One With Young Jimmy Stewart”–Joseph Calleia, Sam Levene, George Zucco, Paul Fix. Asta the dog even gets his own a subplot. It’s a big deal sequel.

Myrna Loy and William Powell star in AFTER THE THIN MAN, directed by W.S. Van Dyke for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
After the Thin Man (1936). ★★★½. 2014 review

And it’s a good one. After the Thin Man has another great script from Hackett and Goodrich–with Hammett contributing a short story to base it on. It’s a cross of hardboiled gum shoe and sublime screwball. Lots of smart, funny scenes for Powell and Loy–and Asta too–all alongside the doozy of a mystery. Awesome supporting cast. It’s nearly as perfect as the original.

After the Thin Man was another hit and one with some very confident sequel building. The film ends with a big reveal setting up the next outing to leave everyone wanting to know what’s next for Nick and Nora. Serial cliffhanger adapted for A list picture. After the Thin Man being excellent locks it in. More than the first film, After the Thin Man proves the cast, the filmmakers, the studio, can do these big and on purpose and on a regular basis. It’s a little showy in its confidence.

Sam Levene, Powell, and Loy inspect.

When Warner released the first Thin Man on DVD, they didn’t put out any of the sequels. They the first one was bait and didn’t sell well enough. After the Thin Man–and the rest of the sequels–had been VHS mainstays. MGM/UA had put out a great LaserDisc box set too. Their DVD absence was conspicuous. It took five years before Warner got After the Thin Man out and then it was in a box set. The eventual collection was success. So successful Warner split the series for budget catalog release. And now, of course, the entire series is available streaming.

The third film, Another Thin Man, was not just a special event as a Thin Man sequel but also because it put William Powell and Myrna Loy back on screen in grand fasion. Powell had been engaged to Jean Harlow, another MGM star; she died of kidney failure in 1937. Powell, understandably devastated, then found out he had cancer. So he took a big break for treatment. Loy had slowed down too, doing half as many pictures a year as she had pre-“royalty.” Her interests were changing from Hollywood stardom; in fact, she was newly home from England when shooting started.

Screenwriters Hackett and Goodrich were also changing their pace. They had almost stopped working in Hollywood entirely. Another Thin Man would be their last Thin Man and their last screenplay for five years. It’s also Hammett’s last work on the series.

Van Dyke and Stromberg had been staying busy, however.

The happy parents and Nicky Jr. in ANOTHER THIN MAN.

Another Thin Man fulfills the previous entry’s cliffhanger–Nick and (mostly) Nora make baby, Nicky Jr. An apparently divorced Asta is back too. The action takes the Charles family to New York, where they happen into another mystery to solve.

It’s an ostensibly less mysterious one–there’s a supernatural angle instead. It’s Nick and Nora vs. evil mentalist Sheldon Leonard. Well, for some of it, anyway. Leonard’s making threats to rich old guy C. Aubrey Smith, who knows the Charleses and so they get involved. Smith’s got a daughter (Virginia Grey) with multiple suitors (Patric Knowles and Tom Neal), there’s a Long Island DA–Otto Kurger, and Nat Pendleton is back as the New York detective.

William Powell and Myrna Loy star in ANOTHER THIN MAN, directed by W.S. Van Dyke for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Another Thin Man (1939). ★★★. 2014 review

Much more than the first sequel–or the original–Another Thin Man relies on William Powell and Myrna Loy; in the script, in Van Dyke’s direction, in their performances. New mom Loy sits out a lot of the mystery so she and Powell’s scenes have the majority of the film’s personality, just not the mystery. It results in the film lacking any standouts in the supporting cast. The script just doesn’t have parts for them. For example, Pendleton’s character is now played for laughs, instead of having some ability. But it’s an excellent production. Van Dyke has definitely got Thin Man movies down now–it’s all about Powell and Loy.

Powell and Loy brief returning copper Pendleton and DA Otto Kruger.

As far the Thin Man sequels go, Another Thin Man enjoys a fine enough reputation. I mean, it’s got the first appearance of Nicky Jr., how can it not enjoy a fine enough reputation. Still, the baby is the thing, not the supporting cast, not the mystery itself. It’s also the point where Loy starts teetotaling big time.

Presenting the Charles family, 1941 edition, in SHADOW OF THE THIN MAN.

Now back to a two year schedule, Powell, Loy, Van Dyke, and Stromberg returned in 1941 with the fourth film in the series, Shadow of the Thin Man. Instead of Hackett and Goodrich writing, the film has Irving Brecher and Harry Kurnitz on the script. Kurnitz worked on the screenplay for the previous year’s I Love You Again, a non-Thin Man screwball outing from Powell, Loy, and Van Dyke.

Myrna Loy, Richard Hall, and William Powell star in SHADOW OF THE THIN MAN, directed by W.S. Van Dyke for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Shadow of the Thin Man (1941). ★★★. 2014 review

Shadow focuses on bringing Nicky Jr. into the comedy dynamic. It goes so far as to age him an extra four or five years. He’s now played by seven-year-old Dickie Hall. Sure, there’s a race track murder mystery, with Sam Levene returning as the San Francisco detective, but the most memorable moments involve Hall and Loy domesticating Powell. They’ve got him off the martinis and on to the milk. Yuck. But Powell leads Hall around on a shared leash with Asta and sneaks gin. It’s amazing comedy.

Barry Nelson and Donna Reed are desperate young lovers who need help from Powell and Loy. Another Thin Man skipped the young lovers in need characters, but the first two films hinged on them. The screenwriters try really hard to do a Thin Man movie with all the familiar trappings, but also moving things forward.

Apropos of nothing, it’s also the only Thin Man to end in a police station.

Powell explains, Levene and company listen.

Powell, Loy, and Hall are all delightful together. The emphasis on “Great Detective as parent” works out. Van Dyke directs it well, smoothing the occasional script bump; he also helps imply depth for the thin supporting characters. Shadow of the Thin Man is a successful application of talent and chemistry to a mediocre script.

And Shadow was another hit, another good Thin Man sequel. It’s maybe a footnote in Donna Reed’s career too, though her performance doesn’t stand out .

Big events and small changed the series’s trajectory. Shadow of the Thin Man came out just before Pearl Harbor and the U.S. entry into World War II. Loy immediately took leave from her contract at MGM to join the war effort. While Powell continued to work, he still mostly kept to a movie a year. Van Dyke died of cancer in 1943. Stromberg left MGM soon after Shadow‘s release, breaking his contract under cloudy, unpleasant circumstances. The Thin Man series made Powell and Loy movie stars, it had been a big hit for Van Dyke and Stromberg, for Hackett and Goodrich. The series kept going through a lot changes in the principals’ lives, but Loy leaving Hollywood had to mean no more Nick and Nora.

Or so one would have thought, but then MGM tried replacing Loy with Irene Dunne for the next sequel. Turns out no one–not the fans, not Powell–wanted anyone but Loy playing Nora. It’s unclear how far along that attempt got, but when Powell and Loy did return to the series in 1945, it was a far different kind of Thin Man.

The Great Detective at rest in THE THIN MAN GOES HOME.

The Thin Man Goes Home opens by putting Powell and Loy on a train out of an unseen New York City to visit Powell’s upstate hometown. Totally new production team, different crew too; David Snell is the only holdover. He composed the scores for the final three films. Richard Thorpe directed, Robert Riskin and Dwight Taylor wrote the screenplay. Recent MGM addition, Everett Riskin–Robert’s brother–produced.

Starting on with that train ride, Thin Man Goes Home sets out to immediately establish some wholesome, patriotic credentials. Rationing was going on, after all. It’s not just no more hotel suites, it’s no more drinking for Nick and Nora. Nicky Jr. is off at boarding school and they’re staying with Nick’s parents–Lucile Watson and Harry Davenport–in a regular house, not a fancy hotel.

William Powell and Myrna Loy star in THE THIN MAN GOES HOME, directed by Richard Thorpe for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
The Thin Man Goes Home (1945). ★★. 2014 review

Riskin and Taylor’s script meanders through the mystery–though it does give Loy a lot more to do on her own than she usually gets in a Thin Man movie. Director Thorpe keeps it all together. The Thin Man Goes Home is well-produced and fairly well-acted. Then the third act is a mess and the final joke is bizarrely goofy.

Asta, with Loy and Powell, travel by rail.

The Thin Man Goes Home is perfectly titled (if canonically inaccurate) and fun–Nick and Nora in a small town, Nick’s parents, Donald Meek in the supporting cast, foreign espionage. Director Thorpe, producer Riskin, and the screenwriters deserve some credit for maintaining its accessibility. They were taking over an existing and beloved franchise without much help. It’s not like composer Snell had a “Thin Man” theme to tie the films together. The filmmakers’ safe, unambitious moves make Thin Man Goes Home an extremely affable entry. It plays rather well, though it’s generally agreed to be one of the lesser entries.

Loy and Asta get an earful from Powell and Dean Stockwell in SONG OF THE THIN MAN

In fall 1947, MGM released the final Thin Man film, Song of the Thin Man. With the exception of composer Snell, it’s again an all-new the entire production team and crew. Edward Buzzell directs from a Steve Fisher and Nat Perrin script. Perrin also produced.

Powell and Loy are back in New York, living glamorously but a little more like restrained. They’ve got Nick Jr., after all, this time played by eleven year-old Dean Stockwell. The mystery involves missing jazz wunderkind Don Taylor and his stable of femme fatales. Keenan Wynn is third lead–a sidekick to show the now square Powell and Loy around the New York City jazz spots.

Myrna Loy and William Powell star in SONG OF THE THIN MAN, directed by Edward Buzzell for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Song of the Thin Man (1947). ★★½. 2014 review

Song is a little cheap, but Powell and Loy get along fine integrating Stockwell into the family dynamic. And Wynn’s cravenly functional character works great; Powell and Loy (and Nick and Nora) have never had a similar sidekick.

Unfortunately, not being a bad go at a disinterested Thin Man sequel doesn’t make Song a hidden gem. Buzzell’s an okay enough director, he just doesn’t have any personality. Without a big gimmick like Goes Home used, Song needs all the personality it can get. It gets a long way on goodw ill and general competence. But it’s Powell and Loy who hold this one together.

It’s up to Keenan Wynn to get Loy and Powell hep.

And, thanks to them, Song of the Thin Man is far from an inglorious end to the series. In addition to inherently hilarious idea of Dean Stockwell once being eleven, much less Nick Charles Jr., the film has early performances from noir fatales Gloria Grahame and Marie Windsor. It’s a distinctive footnote, if a generally dismissed sequel. It’s readily availability probably hasn’t helped its reputation; Song of the Thin Man gets a lot more goodwill when you’re just happy to have found a Thin Man movie playing on TV.

Because for a long time, people only discovered The Thin Man and its sequels playing on TV. And they they discovered them on VHS, AMC, TCM, DVD, streaming. People have been discovering these films for eighty years and there’s never been a better time to do so than right now.

The Thin Man series was a rarity on release and is still one. There aren’t any other six picture franchises with big-time classic movie stars like Loy and Powell, they’ve also remained popular since their original release, most of the entries are good. Not many eighty year old film series have that pedigree, certainly not to six films.

There’s nothing else like The Thin Man and it’s all because of Powell and Loy and Van Dyke and Hammett and Stromberg and Goodrich and Hackett. And Asta too, of course.