Eleanor Parker did not win any Academy Awards, which is simultaneously obvious and inexplicable. The latter because she obviously deserved one (or six), the former because if she had won any, she’d have been better known in the eighties and nineties, when home video and basic cable drove classic film viewership. The first half of Parker’s filmography, up to the point when she was nominated for 1955’s Interrupted Melody, is full of great roles (once you get through some of the Warner contract stuff), while the second half has some sporadically potentially great roles. With the occasional role Parker made great (Home from the Hill, Seventh Sin). But in many ways, Interrupted Melody, which got Parker her third and final Best Actress nomination, was the pinnacle of her stardom. At least as an A-list actress who might get Best Actress nominations.
Melody also culminated Parker’s fifties rise. She’d started at Warner Bros. In 1942 and worked her way from supporting in B movies, to supporting in A movies, to leading B movies, to leading A movies. But never Oscar bait. Though Parker should’ve been nominated for Of Human Bondage and Woman in White, even if it were a supporting nod for White. It wasn’t until 1950’s Caged, where Parker got to be the whole show, did she get a nomination for a Warner part. Parker plays a naive young woman sent to prison as an accessory to robbery. Her husband died in attempting said robbery. It’s a phenomenal performance in an excellent film, one forgotten to history until it was resurrected thanks to DVD in the mid-2000s. The film’s legacy suffered not just due to lack of home video release, but also because somehow it was pop-culturally misremembered as a camp classic. But DVD, eventually, corrected that mistake (and introduced a whole new generation of viewers to Parker).
If there was any question Warner hadn’t been giving Parker the right roles—or supporting her in the right roles—it was resolved as Parker, fresh out of her contract, got nominated again the next year. No more Warner contract—her departure was in the cards before Caged—so she was free to star in Paramount’s Detective Story. She plays brutal and honest New York cop Kirk Douglas’s wife; the only one who can soothe the savage beast. Until one day things her past comes back to haunt her. It’s a fantastic part, performance, film. Parker’s not starting from naivety, which makes her character arc rather different than Caged (or, really, anything she’d had a chance to do before—even in Three Secrets, which has some similarities to the Story role).
Parker had two films the next year—Scaramouche and Above and Beyond, both for MGM. Both were big hits, though Scaramouche was bigger, and both were well-received. There were Oscar rumblings for Parker in Above and Beyond but when it came time for nominations, she didn’t get one. Above and Beyond was Parker’s last drama for a few years—the adventure and adventure comedies she made for the next couple years seemed unlikely to get an Oscar nomination. So when Parker returned to drama—on a large scale—with Interrupted Melody, playing a contemporary figure (opera star Marjorie Lawrence, who had a triumphant return after polio), it certainly seemed like a good time for her to get an Oscar.
Only she didn’t.
And she didn’t get a nomination for Man with the Golden Arm, which came out the same year as Melody (it would have been a supporting nod), even though the part and performance were perfect for such recognition.
Parker not getting an award for either role is pretty much the tipping point as far as Oscar is concerned. The Academy either needed to acknowledge Parker or ignore her. They went with the latter. Because reality disappoints.
Parker tried with a couple more Oscar-friendly roles in the late fifties. She did Lizzie, a multiple personality drama. Joanne Woodward won Best Actress the same year for Three Faces of Eve, which was a similar part but a much better production. Then Seventh Sin, with Parker as a Somerset Maugham “heroine.” A little bit more production value and a lot better leading man (only because the existing one, Bill Travers, sucks the life out of the film) and it should’ve gotten Parker some attention. Home from the Hill, Parker’s only potboiler—albeit a phenomenal one—seems both a natural and unlikely nomination.
After a brief stint at Fox in the early sixties, Parker wandered from studio to studio, part to part. Her most high profile sixties role—The Baroness in The Sound of Music—would also be her most indelible. Even though the part’s not great. Sound of Music was a mega-hit, leading to most people who knew Parker remembering her from that film, nothing else. Though as time went on, it was less and less likely they’d seen her in anything else.
Parker’s last Oscar possibility was probably 1966’s An American Dream, but done in thanks to the movie being godawful. But it was definitely the type of role the Academy would soon be recognizing (just the next year, actually, with Anne Bancroft in The Graduate). But, again, Dream was godawful so it didn’t work out.
Parker herself was somewhat infamously known for not caring about the Hollywood game. As she told a reporter in April 1955, “I’d like to win an Academy Award, of course—who wouldn’t? But it will never become an obsession with me.”
Still, history suffers for her never having won one, not just for how it might have changed the trajectory of her career—leading to even more great performances—but also gotten people interested in her work before the DVD boom indirectly helped Parker, her talent, and her skill get their due.
I didn’t talk about the performances who won against Parker in the three Academy Award ceremonies for a couple reasons. First, I’m not just not interested in arm-chairing those wins, I’m not even informed enough on the performances to do so. Second, given Parker wasn’t ever an Oscar-chaser, it seems inappropriate to get too worked up about her not winning. Especially since, frankly, it was bullshit when she didn’t get a nomination for Of Human Bondage back in 1947.
There are a lot of ways to talk about Eleanor Parker and the Oscars, even without getting into the contemporary newspaper and magazine articles. The trivia alone about Parker and her co-nominees could go on forever. But fixating on the subject seems a waste of time—just like Parker thought—one’s time is much better spent seeing some Eleanor Parker movies.
When she starred in Eye of the Cat, Eleanor Parker had been in more than forty theatrical films. She was forty-seven years old. She had just been in the biggest movie of all time–1965’s The Sound of Music. When Eye of the Cat came out in June 1969, Sound of Music was still playing in theaters in its original, four and a half year theatrical run. Eye of the Cat would Parker’s last theatrical release for ten years. With the exception, of course, of The Sound of Music, which got a rerelease in 1973.
After Cat, Parker had committed to her first regular role on a television series, “Bracken’s World.” She’d quit halfway through the first season, but still got a Golden Globe nomination for Best TV Drama Actress.
But she’d never play another lead. She was forty-seven. Hollywood had no use for a forty-seven year-old female lead; not even the TV side. Parker returned to the theater, where there were better parts, and she started regularly appearing in TV movies. At least at the beginning of the seventies.
Parker had two television movie appearances in 1971; first was ABC’s Maybe I’ll Come Home in the Spring, which stars Sally Field as a teenage runaway who returns home. Parker plays Mom, Jackie Cooper is Dad, Lane Bradbury is Field’s younger sister. Meanwhile, Field’s old man (David Carradine) is traveling cross-country to rescue her from her parents’ square, suburban–functionally alcoholic and dysfunctional–household. Turns out Bradbury is showing all the pre-runaway signs, something Field can’t convince her parents. Joseph Sargent directs.
Although a little short–seventy-four minutes–and it takes Sargent a while to get comfortable with the television framing on his establishing shots, Maybe I’ll Come Home in the Spring is a spectacularly acted “family in crisis” drama. Sargent and writer Bruce Feldman use flashback to reveal Field’s story, juxtaposed against Bradbury in the present. Great parts for Cooper and Parker. They start the film, with Field coming into it gradually; Field’s excellent, assuming the protagonist role through her performance alone; she gets little help from Feldman’s teleplay.
Maybe I’ll Come Home in the Spring first aired in February and ABC reran it before the end of the year. It aired every few years for at least a decade. The film was a budget VHS mainstay–the first EP edition arrived in 1991–and it’s been on DVD, from one label or another, since 2001. Spring is now available streaming as well.
A few weeks after Maybe aired, Parker was on television screens again, appearing in the first “two part TV movie” (they weren’t called miniseries yet). Vanished aired on NBC in March, with Richard Widmark top-lining as the President of the United States. It was his first TV venture. Scientist and presidential pal Arthur Hill disappears. Then other scientists worldwide start disappearing. Is it a Soviet plot? Parker plays Hill’s wife, who gets investigated by FBI agent Robert Hooks and his roommate, White House press secretary James Farentino. Vanished has twelve major starring credits; in addition to Parker, Widmark, Hooks, and Farentino, there are Tom Bosley, Murray Hamilton, E.G. Marshall, Larry Hagman, Skye Aubrey, Robert Young, and William Shatner. Then there are all the supporting players. Huge cast. Buzz Kulik–reuniting with Parker from 1967’s TV movie turned theatrical release, Warning Shot–directs from a teleplay by Dean Riesner.
Vanished is a tedious three hours and ten minutes. The cast enters and exits as needed–Hooks goes from playing a major part to a nothing one, Parker ends up disappearing as completely as Hill, Widmark is scenery for the first half and then takes over the last quarter. The movie’s got a lot of moving parts and Kulik keeps them functioning. It just never gels into anything. The reveals are never good enough to excuse the cheap, sensational teases.
Despite a snide, dismissive review from John J. O’Connor in The New York Times, Vanished went on to get Emmy nominations for Widmark and Young. The movie, in its two parts, got rerun occasionally over the years, sometimes in the middle of the night, more recently on cable television. It’s never had any home video releases. There’s seemingly no notoriety in being the first two-night television movie.
It would be a year and a half before Parker appeared in anything again. In early November 1972, she starred in an episode of NBC’s horror anthology “Circle of Fear,” Half a Death. She plays mom to Pamela Franklin, who plays twins. One twin is haunting the other. The series is out on DVD from Warner Archive; it’s Parker’s only TV series appearance until 1978. She’d stick with TV movies until then (with a sort of exception).
TV movies such as Home for the Holidays, which aired on ABC just a few weeks after her episode of “Circle of Fear.”
Home for the Holidays has a spectacular cast; in addition to Parker, there’s Jessica Walter, Sally Field (playing Parker’s younger sister this time), Julie Harris, and Walter Brennan. Brennan is the cranky, rich, sickly dad. Walter, Field, Parker, and Jill Howarth plays his daughters. Harris is his new wife (and the prime suspect in the sisters’ mother’s death). There’s a lot of unpleasant backstory to the sisters, who reunite on Christmas Eve at Brennan’s request. And then they have to deal with a mad killer. John Llewellyn Moxey directs from an original Joseph Stefano script. Stefano wrote Parker’s last horror movie (and, at this point, last theatrical film), Eye of the Cat.
The movie’s fairly successful. Most of the acting is excellent, particularly Harris, Walter, and Parker. Field holds her own. Haworth doesn’t. Brennan is barely in it. Moxey relies way too much on zooming his shots, but otherwise he directs the movie pretty well. There’s a great chase sequence. Stefano’s script is thin; the actors gets the movie to the finish line. The end–featuring the big reveal–is problematic. Zooming does play a part.
Holidays didn’t make any critical waves–Howard Thompson dismissed it in the New York Times, definitely not a fan of the “ABC Movie of the Week” thrillers. It had its first VHS release in the late eighties, then another, budget (i.e. EP) release in the early nineties. It’s also been released on DVD–by Echo Bridge Home Entertainment–but only in their horror movie compilation sets, which they don’t market or index well. The only way to spot a Home for the Holidays inclusion is to read the back cover; a time consuming process seeing as how Echo Bridge has dozens of horror compilations. It also appears to be out of print.
Parker’s next TV movie was again for ABC. The Great American Beauty Contest aired in March 1973, starring Parker as a former winner, now hostess. Robert Cummings plays her sidekick. Louis Jordan is one of the judges (a scummy, blackmailing one). JoAnna Cameron, Farrah Fawcett, Tracy Reed, Kathrine Baumann, and Susan Damante play the main contestants. At least the ones Stanford Whitmore’s teleplay showcases. It’s a behind-the-scenes story of the contest. Robert Day directs. Contest is an Aaron Spelling and Leonard Goldberg production; they also produced Home for the Holidays.
While Parker’s all right–and even manages to get a decent character arc in Whitmore’s jerkily paced script–Great American Beauty Contest is pretty bad. Day’s direction is bad, Whitmore’s writing is bad. Cummings provides okay support for Parker and Jordan’s a great villain. None of the actors playing the contestants give notable performances. Reed and Baumann are better than the rest. Damante is worst. Fawcett’s little better than Damante. Still, somehow–probably thanks to Jordan’s odiousness–Contest stays engaging. Or maybe it’s just agitation from dreading a Fawcett or Damante win.
The Great American Beauty Contest got a not terrible write-up from Howard Thompson at The New York Times when it aired. He liked Whitmore’s writing. And Fawcett’s performance. The movie has rerun occasionally over the years but, Fawcett or not, it’s never had a VHS release or a DVD one.
Parker didn’t have any 1974 acting credits, at least not film or television, and when she returned in 1975, she was once again going to try series television. She starred in a Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner sitcom pilot, taking over the Katharine Hepburn role from the film. Richard Dysart plays the Spencer Tracy part, Bill Overton the Sidney Poitier, and Leslie Charleson the Katharine Houghton part. Madge Sinclair and Madge Sinclair played Overton’s parents. The sitcom would have dealt with the turmoil related to Overton and Charleson’s interracial marriage, if ABC had picked it up. They did not, however; the pilot only aired once in July 1975. ABC apparently had cold feet over the interracial kissing, which should’ve been an obvious result of an interracial marriage. The pilot’s never had a home video release of any kind.
Following Guess Who, Parker took 1976 off from filmed work. In 1977, she resumed guest starring on regular television series. That year she appeared on “Hawaii Five-O” and the first episode of “Fantasy Island.” Parker would do two more appearances on “Fantasy Island,” one in 1979, another in 1983. She also did “Love Boat” in 1979, then an episode of “Vega$” in 1980.
Amid those guest spots, Parker did a couple more TV movies, a pilot, a miniseries, and her final theatrical appearance.
The Bastard is the miniseries, a big budget adaptation of John Jakes’s novel; it aired on NBC in May 1978. Parker is one of the twenty-one credited stars. Andrew Stevens plays the lead, a French bastard who comes to the Colonies and ends up an instrumental figure in the Revolutionary War. Lee H. Katzin directs. William Shatner plays Paul Revere. Parker plays Stevens’s father’s widow, a duchess. She doesn’t want to let him have his inheritance. Patricia Neal plays his mother. Neal and Parker, reunited thirty-eight years after Three Secrets, are in scenes together (but only share the screen in long shot). Keenan Wynn, who appeared with Parker in A Hole in the Head but never alongside her, is another of The Bastard’s twenty-one stars. They again don’t share any scenes. And Tom Bosley. He was in Vanished. He’s Ben Franklin.
Could The Bastard be worse? Sure. It’s a relentlessly simple period piece, with Southern California not just standing in for the American East Coast, but Britain and France as well. Parker’s cameo is good. Neal’s part isn’t. Stevens is annoying–though he gets better for a while during the second half. Katzin’s direction is bad. Guerdon Trueblood’s script is bad. The bit parts for seventies television actors amuses a little (I mean, Bob Newhart‘s Peter Bonerz in a costume drama is something else). But it’s bad.
While The Bastard didn’t get glowing reviews, it was well-regarded enough to get a Golden Globe nomination for Best TV Movie and a couple art direction Emmy nominations. And sufficient viewers to warrant watched NBC going ahead and finishing the adaptations of Jakes’s the series–The Kent Chronicles–with two two-night sequels. Parker didn’t return for either of them. The Bastard had a VHS release in the nineties from Universal, along with its two sequels. Acorn Media has put all three out in a Kent Chronicles DVD set.
In August 1979, Parker would make her final theatrical appearance in Sunburn, a Farrah Fawcett vehicle. The film stars Charles Grodin as an insurance investigator who goes down to Acapulco to investigate a claim. Fawcett’s the model he hires to be his pretend girlfriend (so no one knows he’s an insurance investigator). Art Carney plays Grodin’s sidekick. There’s an assortment of suspects, including Joan Collins (who’d also been in Warning Shot, the aforementioned 1967 Buzz Kulik film Parker costarred in), John Hillerman, William Daniels, even Keenan Wynn. No, Parker still doesn’t get a scene with Wynn (after Hole in the Head and Bastard). Parker doesn’t even get a speaking close-up. She’s usually in some kind of long shot. Richard C. Sarafian directs for Paramount.
Sunburn has a lot of problems, like Sarafian’s direction. He can’t do any of the things Sunburn wants to do like being a noir spoof. Most of the cameos are too thin. Fawcett’s a reasonably affable star in her (second) star vehicle. Grodin goes all out with a caricature of himself. Joan Collins is awesome. If it were made better–it’s not just Sarafian, the film’s a technical turkey–and written a little better, there might be something to Sunburn. But it could also be a whole lot worse.
The film got a tepid endorsement from Janet Maslin in The New York Times. Maslin found it was an improvement over Fawcett’s previous post-“Charlie’s Angels” vehicle, but didn’t care for Collins in particular. Audiences didn’t care for the film in general and it quickly bombed. Parker apparently only did the cameo because Sunburn was filming near her Palm Springs home. It had a VHS release in 1980 from Paramount and has been absent home video since then, save a Japanese DVD release.
Parker was back to TV a few months later. Her next TV movie, She’s Dressed to Kill, aired on NBC in December. Parker plays a drunken fashion designer declining in affluence who mentally abuses her models. John Rubinstein is the lead, a photographer who gets caught up with a murder mystery after Parker invites a bunch of people out to her private mountain to show her new line. Jessica Walter (who appeared in Home for the Holidays with Parker) plays Rubinstein’s boss. Connie Sellecca is one of the models, Gretchen Corbett is the “plain girl” Rubinstein romances. Gus Trikonis directs from a George Lefferts teleplay.
She’s Dressed to Kill is a diverting ninety minute thriller, plus commercials. Parker’s great, chowing down on all available scenery, and Walter’s excellent. Shame Walter’s barely in the movie. Rubinstein’s an okay lead, Corbett’s good, Sellecca’s bad. The writing never helps the actors. And the movie ditches characters too often (i.e. Walter). Better direction from Trikonis wouldn’t hurt either. But it’s far from bad.
For repeat airings, the movie sometimes got retitled, Someone’s Killing the World’s Greatest Models, but it was always She’s Dressed to Kill for home video. USA Home Video first put it out on VHS in the eighties and it had at least two releases; one giving Parker top-billing. It came out on DVD in 2008–a “grey” market release.
It was almost a year before Parker’s next appearance. She tried another pilot, Once Upon a Spy, a two-hour movie; ABC aired it in September 1980. A resulting series would have featured the adventures of computer scientist turned spy Ted Danson, his beautiful handler, Mary Louise Weller, and their boss, an M-type character only called “The Lady.” Parker plays “The Lady.” Christopher Lee plays the villain, who kidnaps a scientist with a shrinking ray. Ivan Nagy directs from a Jimmy Sangster script.
If it weren’t for Nagy, Sangster, and Danson, Spy would be a lot better. Weller’s likable, Lee’s good, there’s a genial tone–and a nice Bond knock-off score from John Cacavas. Parker doesn’t get anything to do. She sits in a room by herself and frequently says “bloody,” possibly because Welsh Sangster didn’t know how Americans talk. Nagy’s direction is bad. Danson’s got the physicality for the role, but his performance is the pits. Still, it’s not terrible for a TV movie.
Once Upon a Spy’s ratings didn’t get it a series order from ABC. The movie got rerun over the years, but never had a home video release in the United States. Columbia put it out on VHS in the UK. In 2013, the Sony Pictures Choice Collection DVD label put it out on DVD.
Parker’s next TV movie–her last of the eighties–was Madame X. The seventh version of Madame X. NBC aired it in March 1981. Tuesday Weld plays the lead, a shamed woman exiled to Europe by her sinister mother-in-law (Parker). Granville Van Dusen plays the mama’s boy husband. Weld kicks around Europe (filmed on set in Hollywood Europe), meeting various men–including Jerry Stiller and Jeremy Brett–all while getting progressively drunker. She ends up on trial, with her defense attorney (Martina Deignan) the daughter Weld had to abandon. Très dramatique. Robert Ellis Miller directs, Edward Anhalt adapts from the original Alexandre Bisson play as well as the 1966 theatrical version’s screenplay.
Madame X is bad. But not because of Weld, who never gets to be protagonist and is mostly second-fiddle to the guest stars in her scenes. Second-billed Brett’s good, but barely in it. Anhalt’s script is a lot of the problem; Miller’s direction is so detached it can’t even be part of the problem. Van Dusen’s bad. Parker’s pretty good in the handful of scenes she has without Weld (not much of a Return to Peyton Place reunion for the pair). Len Cariou’s good for a while. The script fails him. The script fails everyone.
The movie’s never had a home video release, which is kind of surprising considering Tuesday Weld’s the lead and there’s some Madame X brand recognition. It has aired on television occasionally over the years, but infrequently. And certainly more in the eighties than since.
Over the next few years, Parker did some more guest spots. She appeared on “Love Boat” again in 1982, then her third and last “Fantasy Island” along with a “Hotel” in 1983. All of those episodes are available on DVD. In 1984, Parker guested on “Finder of Lost Loves,” an Anthony Franciosa series on ABC; it lasted half a season. Nothing in 1985, but in 1986 Parker made it to Cabot Cove for her requisite appearance on “Murder, She Wrote.” But for most of the eighties, Parker was retired.
Her final screen appearance came in 1991, with her only foray into cable television–TNT’s Dead on the Money. The movie’s a spoof of romantic thrillers, with lead Amanda Pays visiting slick, wealthy beau Corbin Bernsen’s family estate. Parker once again plays wealthy matriarch. John Glover plays her other son, the goofy one. Kevin McCarthy is the father. Nothing is as it seems with the family and Pays might be in real danger. Will she figure out what’s going on in time to save herself? Mark Cullingham directs, with Gavin Lambert adapting a Rachel Ingalls novel.
Dead on the Money is a fun time; the implied danger works well with the humor. Money is a spoof on itself–a TV movie romantic thriller joshing the idea of TV movie romantic thrillers. Real-life couple Pays and Bernsen aren’t as good as everyone else, but both are likable. Glover’s great, McCarthy’s outstanding and strange (he’s barely in the movie). Parker has her moments, including some particularly good ones with McCarthy when they don’t have to be concerned about moving the plot forward.
When Dead on the Money aired in 1991, TNT was only three years old. They heavily promoted the movie, one of their first “originals.” Critical response was mixed–Variety didn’t like it, The New York Times wasn’t thrilled but appreciated Parker, McCarthy, and Sheree North. Subsequent video guides gave it decent capsule reviews. Money came out on VHS in the fall 1991, from Turner Home Entertainment, and even got a LaserDisc release the next spring. It’s never had a DVD release and doesn’t seem to have aired in decades, making it a lot rarer than it should be.
A few stinkers aside, Parker’s television movie appearances have a lot of charm to them. She didn’t get a lot of great roles but she got a handful of good ones, not just in the TV movies but also as a series guest star. It was a quiet, graceful second half to Parker’s fifty year career as an actor.
Still, it’s too bad some of this work isn’t more accessible–particularly Dead on the Money.
Going into the nineteen sixties, Eleanor Parker’s acting career seemed to have regained some of its recently lost momentum. Home from the Hill, released in March 1960, brought Parker into a genre she’d long avoided–the all-star soap. And–in addition to Parker being outstanding in the film, Hill had been a big hit. At the same time, Parker was beginning to do television (the medium had become less embarrassing for movie stars). Her only other 1960 project was a Hemingway adaptation, The Gambler, the Nun and the Radio, for the “Buick-Electra Playhouse” on CBS. Sadly, the series (all Hemingway adaptations) has never had any home video releases; it might not have even had repeat airings, making it one of Parker’s rarest films.
The sixties would end up giving Parker her most recognized role, along with at least one more potentially great part. But those roles would come in the second half of the sixties; as the decade started, Parker would be doing less film and more television.
At least after she got done suffering through a pair of poorly produced–yet potentially successful (not to mention potentially good)–Fox melodramas.
Parker’s first Fox melodrama was 1961’s Return to Peyton Place, which reunited her with a forties Warner alum, producer Jerry Wald. He’d produced three of her films at Warner Bros., including her best picture there–1950’s Caged. It’d been Parker’s first Oscar nomination. Wald and Fox had been planning the sequel film to Peyton Place since novelist Grace Metalious released the ill-advised and poorly received sequel novel in 1959. Fox, smarting from Cleopatra’s budget overruns, decided to go cheap and not bring back the original cast (though some of the original crew came back, including composer Franz Waxman). Parker took over Lana Turner’s part. Return to Peyton Place centers around Carol Lynley (replacing Diane Varsi) and her Peyton Place-esque expose novel and its fallout back home. Lynley’s also having an affair with her married New York City book editor Jeff Chandler. José Ferrer directs. Mary Astor and Tuesday Weld (replacing Hope Lange) costar.
Return to Peyton Place is one of those soapy, CinemaScope melodramas Parker smartly avoided in the 1950s. Turner had been the lead in the original, but third-billed Parker gets nothing to do in the sequel (paired with an ineffective Robert Sterling–in for Lee Phillips). Lynley and Chandler are awful. Astor’s got her moments. Weld’s somewhat likable. Besides the bad acting–and there’s a lot more–Ronald Alexander’s script is terrible (though Metalious’s source sequel apparently isn’t any better). It’s an unfortunate, but predictable failure.
Shockingly, contemporary critical reception to Return to Peyton Place was mild. Astor’s performance got some appreciation. The film did well at the box office too (though only thirty-six percent of what the original made). It also did not get any Oscar nominations (versus the original’s nine). Fox released the film on VHS–pan and scanning the CinemaScope–in the early nineties and it no doubt played on Fox Movie Channel over the years. Stretching the credulity of the label, Fox put out a DVD in 2005 as part of their “Studio Classics” series. The film is now available streaming as well.
Parker’s next failed Fox melodrama arrived a year later–Madison Avenue (filmed in 1960, released overseas before Return to Peyton Place) came out in January 1962. Costarring Dana Andrews, Jeanne Crain, and Eddie Albert, Madison Avenue is all about advertising Young Turk Andrews (fifty-one playing thirty or so) disrupting the dairy industry and, just maybe, the White House. Parker’s the rival ad woman who Andrews seduces (personally and professionally). Crain’s the earnest reporter Andrews manipulates. Albert is the seeming stooge who Andrews props up. H. Bruce Humberstone directs.
Madison Avenue’s actors try–though Andrews and Parker are able to hide their contempt for the film better than Crain–and, even though the film misfires, it does so gracefully. To an extent. Humberstone’s direction is wanting, but Norman Corwin’s screenplay has some good points. The film’s CinemaScope, runs ninety minutes, with a present action of three years, yet is way too little. It doesn’t help the cast is all too old, in one way or another, for their parts. Parker has a bad arc, but does get some decent material at the start.
On release, The New York Times’s Howard Thompson enjoyed deriding the film utilizing its milk content as fodder (i.e. it’s a milksop). He does take the time to say Parker has “never looked more ravishing” (he similarly complemented her appearance and ignored her performance in his Escape from Fort Bravo review nine years before). The film never got a VHS release, though it did play–occasionally letterboxed–on the Fox Movie Channel. Fox released Madison Avenue on its Cinema Archives DVD label with a terrible pan and scan transfer in 2012. The film is third of the four Andrews and Crain made together; it’s unfortunate Parker never got to costar with either in a better picture.
Following Madison Avenue’s domestic release in January 1962, it would be over two years before Parker appeared in another film. She stayed busy during that time on television. Parker made five television appearances between 1962 and 1964. The first, an episode of CBS’s “Checkmate,” aired a few weeks after Madison Avenue came out. Then it’d be a year before her next appearance–an Emmy-nominated turn on “The Eleventh Hour” in February 1963. That October, she appeared on “The Chrysler Theatre” in Seven Miles of Bad Road, costarring Jeffrey Hunter and Neville Brand. “Eleventh Hour” and “Chrysler” both aired on NBC. In January 1964, Parker guest-starred on ABC’s “Breaking Point.” Then in March, she did an episode of the “Kraft Suspense Theatre,” opposite Roger Smith. “Checkmate” and “Eleventh Hour” have been released on DVD, but none of the others have official releases.
In April 1964, producer Ron Gorton–through his own Gorton Associates–released Panic Button, starring Parker, Maurice Chevalier, Jayne Mansfield, Mike Connors, and Akim Tamiroff. The film had been done since 1962–domestic distributor Warner Bros. decided against releasing it–when it premiered in Italy (where it was filmed). Connors plays a Hollywood producer who needs to make a bomb to get his dad’s company out of tax trouble. Chevalier is a washed-up actor, Parker’s his ex-wife and manager, Mansfield is the pretty face, Tamiroff is the incompetent movie-in-the-movie director. George Sherman is the real director.
Panic Button is far from a success, but nowhere near an abject failure. Parker is great–even though the script does her character no favors (mostly in the character arcs for her costars, Chevalier and Connors). The film wastes Tamiroff, which shouldn’t be possible. The big comedy sequences don’t work, the little moments don’t work. Somehow the cast’s professionalism keeps it somewhat afloat (even if Chevalier, in one of his final roles, isn’t good). And Venice is pretty.
The film was not a success on domestic release and soon faded into obscurity, “saved” only by cheap VHS releases–their covers emphasizing Mansfield’s cleavage–until Warner Archive (surprisingly) put out a nice widescreen DVD a few years ago. Just like Madison Avenue, the film foreshadows Parker’s sexy older woman parts, which she’d start getting stateside in a few years.
But first would be Parker’s most successful film, 1965’s The Sound of Music.
Based on a true story turned smash hit Broadway musical and filmed on location in the Austrian Alps, Sound of Music stars Julie Andrews as a young Austrian postulant (pre-nun) in 1938. She’s sent to be a governess for widower Christopher Plummer, who has seven children and a fiancee, Parker. Andrews (and her singing) helps the children mourn their mother’s passing; she also catches Plummer’s eye, making Parker rather displeased. But only for the first half of the three hour film. After intermission, Parker’s gone, the Nazis are on the way, and the family’s in trouble, happy singing or not.
Sound of Music is usually outstanding thanks to lead Andrews. Great songs, great music. Andrews’s charges are all adorable. Plummer’s good as the stern father with the heart of gold. Parker spends most of her time plotting with Richard Haydn; that plotting leads to some decent scenes with her and stars Andrews and Plummer. The second half of Sound of Music is lacking compared to the first, but it’s still an outstanding musical.
Contemporary critical response was mixed–New York critics greatly disliked it, West coast critics and the trades loved it. So did audiences. The Sound of Music, released in March 1965, had a theatrical run of four and a half years; it became the highest grossing film of all time a year and a half into its release. It won five Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director. After a single 1976 airing on ABC, in 1979, NBC started broadcasting Sound of Music annually. They usually cut the film down to 140 minutes. NBC showed it for twenty years, including a special letterboxed airing in 1995.
The film was one of the first three VHS releases in 1979. It was out on LaserDisc and CED soon after; the first letterboxed release was the 1989 LaserDisc rerelease. The first DVD arrived in 2000, followed five years later by another edition, then Blu-ray in 2010. And now it’s available streaming as well, of course.
The Sound of Music has been a (pop) cultural phenomenon since its release over fifty years ago. And Parker, no matter what else she did before (or after), is forever “The Baroness” to generations of audiences. But instead of returning Parker to A-pictures, the latter half of the sixties relegated her to camp. The bad camp.
Parker’s next film opened a year later in March 1966. The Oscar, directed by Russell Rouse, based on Richard Sale’s novel. It’s another of the “all star” melodramas Parker never did in the fifties. Stephen Boyd is the lead, a snotty actor nominated for Best Actor–The Oscar’s refers to the Academy Award. The film recounts Boyd’s backstabbing his way to the top, mostly in flashback. Parker plays his first agent and his jealous, older lover–she’s fourth billed of nine. The film also stars Elke Sommer, Joseph Cotten, Milton Berle, Jill St. John, and Tony Bennett. Sci-fi writer Harlan Ellison cowrote the script.
The Oscar is indescribably godawful. Terrible direction, terrible writing, terrible lead acting from Boyd and Bennett. Tony Bennett never acted again. Thankfully. Some of the cast tries–St. John, Berle, and Parker all to varying degrees–but there’s nothing they can do. The Oscar’s a smorgasboard of terrible and really has to be seen to be understood. There are some great Edith Head gowns though. They even got nominated for an Oscar. A real one.
While Embassy Pictures released the film domestically, Paramount put out The Oscar everywhere else. One has to wonder if they dumped it for domestic release. Critics rightfully savaged The Oscar on release–with Parker getting the only good notices. Audiences stayed away. The film’s gone on to earn notoriety as a terrible film, but not one easy for people to see. It’s only had a single home video release–VHS in the eighties. TCM has aired the film as well, though still in an old pan and scan transfer. These airings are sparing.
No one wants to see The Oscar. Even if they think they do.
Parker’s other 1966 release, An American Dream, came out in October. Adapted from a Norman Mailer novel, the film stars Stuart Whitman as a war hero turned television blowhard who runs afoul of the mob after murdering his estranged wife (Parker). Along the way he reunites with ex-girlfriend Janet Leigh. Robert Gist directed the Warner Bros. release (Parker’s first time back since 1950) with Mann Rubin handling the screenplay.
An American Dream ranges from terrible to unbearable. Gist’s direction and the script are both bad, as is much of the acting–Whitman especially. Leigh’s not good either, but at least its the writing doing her in. Whitman’s just acting poorly. Parker’s got some amazing hysterics and maybe if she’d lasted the entire run time American Dream would at least be tolerable. She doesn’t though. And it goes from bad to worse. The first five minutes, however, are deceptively well-executed.
The film was such a disaster on release, Warner pulled it and put it back out with a new title, See You in Hell, Darling, desperate for any success. The new title didn’t help. Contemporary critics compared it, in its badness, to The Oscar. So both Parker’s 1966 films were fiascoes. But more An American Dream, which had a distinct advertising campaign–initially–based around Parker’s character (sometimes her hysterics, sometimes her sex appeal). If it’d been a good movie, if it’d been a good script, American Dream would’ve given Parker an easy Best Supporting Actress nomination. Except it was terrible.
An American Dream never had a VHS release. It aired on TCM occasionally. Warner Archive put out a DVD in 2010 and the film’s now available streaming too. In case anyone wants to suffer.
Parker’s next film also had a script from Mann Rubin–January 1967’s Warning Shot, directed by Buzz Kulik. The film, a Paramount release, was originally supposed to be a TV movie but it turned out too violent. David Janssen is a cop who kills an armed suspect only for the suspect’s gun to disappear. He works his way through an all star cast of bit players–including Ed Begley, Keenan Wynn, George Sanders, Stefanie Powers, and Lillian Gish–while trying to find out the truth. Parker plays the suspect’s flirtatious widow.
Warning Shot is a perfectly serviceable mystery. Kulik and Rubin make it engaging. Janssen’s a great lead. Many of the cameos are good, including Parker and Sanders. They both get a scene. The film’s a little uneven–Janssen’s investigation has to wait for his police inquiry to resolve, which Kulik directs quite differently from the rest of the film–and the finale is a disappointment, but Warning Shot is always involving.
The film didn’t make much impression on release. Critics concentrated on its television pedigree. Warning Shot doesn’t seem to have ever gotten a VHS release, though Paramount put it out a widescreen DVD in 2005. That release has since gone out of print.
Warning Shot would be Parker’s last vivacious “older” lady part in features (she was only forty-four). None of the three or four (Panic Button sort of counts) roles led to anything, as American Dream’s part was theoretically the most promising and the film is such an exceptional stinker.
In her next film, The Tiger and the Pussycat, Parker again plays the “older” woman but she’s no longer vivacious. At least not according to the film. Tiger’s another Italian production; Parker is married to Vittorio Gassman, who’s cheating on her with ingenue Ann-Margaret. The film is set in Rome, directed by Dino Risi. It had an April 1967 release in Italy, with Embassy putting it out domestically that September.
Tiger and the Pussycat is fairly awful, with Risi’s two directorial interests misogyny and male gaze. Ann-Marget’s bad. Gassman–who has to carry the film himself–might be good if the script weren’t so bad. And if Risi weren’t so lousy. Parker’s got a dreadful part. Alessandro D’Eva’s photography is good. Rome’s pretty? Tiger and the Pussycat is indistinctly lousy.
In Italy, The film won two David di Donatello awards–best producer and best actor–but its domestic release seems to have been lackluster. Risi, Gassman, and Ann-Marget would go on to make another film together (1968’s Mr. Kinky). Tiger and the Pussycat had quite a few VHS releases, from a variety of independent video labels, starting in the early nineties. It also had a (now out of print) DVD release in 2001.
The next year, 1968, Parker didn’t have any theatrical releases in the United States. She’d only done one television guest appearance in 1965 and none the two years following. The 1965 appearance was on NBC’s “Convoy,” which isn’t available on home video. Parker returned to NBC in early 1968 for the last two episodes of “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” She plays a vivacious older U.N.C.L.E. widow and spends the majority of the episodes in flagrante with villain Mark Richman. In September 1968, MGM released the episodes combined as one of the “Man from U.N.C.L.E.” theatrical movies overseas, entitled How to Steal the World. It’s been available on video and now DVD (the movie version from Warner Archive, the TV show episodes from Warner).
Parker only had one more theatrical release in the sixties–1969’s Eye of the Cat. It was Parker’s first straight horror film–she’s wealthy aunt to lead Michael Sarrazin, who decides he’s going to murder her. Gayle Hunnicutt is the girl who convinces Sarrazin, though given how long Parker’s been abusing Sarrazin and brother Tim Henry, it doesn’t take much. Parker’s relationship with Sarrazin is physical (in the gross way). The film’s an original script from Joseph Stefano (Psycho), with David Lowell Rich directing.
Eye of the Cat is uneven and unsuccessful. Stefano’s script needs some work, Rich’s direction is entirely lacking, but Sarrazin and Parker do keep the movie going. Hunnicutt and Henry don’t help things. Rich even manages to bungle the San Francisco location shooting. Stefano just wants to do a thriller, Rich can’t direct thrills. Still, it could be a lot worse. Parker and Sarrazin taking it seriously makes the difference.
The film made it onto television by the early seventies (with a less violent, simultaneously shot ending) before fading into obscurity. Like everything else Sarrazin ever did. Cat didn’t have a home video release on VHS, LaserDisc, or DVD. Out of nowhere, Shout! Factory put it out on Blu-ray in 2018, forty-nine years after its theatrical premiere.
While Eye of the Cat was Parker’s only theatrical release of the year (though Sound of Music would still be in theaters until November), 1969 is when she decided to give series television a go. Starting in September, Parker was top-billed on NBC’s “Bracken’s World,” airing Friday nights at nine. She’d only stick around for sixteen episodes, quitting by the end of January 1970. The show, set at a fictional movie studio, had Parker as the executive secretary to the unseen Bracken. Before Parker parted ways with NBC on “Bracken,” she would also top-line their Hans Brinker television movie.
Airing in December 1969, Hans Brinker is a musical adaptation, partially filmed on location in the Netherlands. Parker plays Hans’s mother and even has two songs, which she did not sing (uncredited Sandy Stewart did). Robin Askwith plays Hans. Roberta Tovey is his sister. The majority of the cast is the kids, with the billed stars doing extended cameos. Richard Basehart, for example. He’s second-billed but an extended cameo. Robert Scheerer directs, Bill Manhoff did the teleplay adaptation.
Hans Brinker is a fairly intolerable hundred minutes. The songs (by Moose Charlap) are terrible. Sheerer’s direction is bad. Askwith’s performance is equal parts obnoxious and terrible. Tovey’s a little better. Parker’s part is thin (at best). Hans has nothing going for it. It’s not clear if Manhoff’s teleplay is responsible for the plodding, bad story or if it’s just the source material (by Mary Mapes Dodge, an American author fancifully imagining Hans’s Netherlands setting).
The contemporary reaction to Hans Brinker appears lost to time. Though the Detroit Free Press’s Lawrence Laurent opined–in a piece about the pitfalls of musical adaptations (he hadn’t seen Hans yet)–NBC expected to have a hit on their hands. Based on the movie’s obscurity, it seems unlikely they did. Warner Home Video put out a VHS in the mid-eighties and there was at least one sell-through VHS release in the nineties (not from Warner). Kultur Video put out a DVD in 2003, which is since out of print. It was on the back of that release where Stewart finally got credited for her singing.
With the exception of The Sound of Music, which didn’t even give Parker a good part, there aren’t many bright spots in Parker’s sixties filmography. Her nine theatrical releases are easily some of her worst. Even when the parts were a little better (or implied they could be better), the directors and screenwriters weren’t up to the task. Parker’s flirtation with television–starting in the early sixties and giving her occasional good parts–had slowed down after Sound of Music.
But even as audiences flocked to that film, seeing The Baroness for four and a half years, there apparently just weren’t any good parts for Parker anymore. She fell victim to Hollywood’s hate relationship with its older female stars. She was offered four parts in the sixties–martyr, sexy wife, cuckquean, pervy aunt. And baroness. “Bracken’s World” could have offered some better material–Parker still got a Golden Globe nomination for Best Actress – Drama even if she skipped out on the series–but it’s no surprise she went into the seventies concentrating on theater.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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’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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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 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.
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.