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.
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.
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’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 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.
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’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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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’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 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.
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.
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’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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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, 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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).
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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 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.
Madame X never has good pacing. The movie starts with Tuesday Weld on trial, in old age makeup. She refuses to identify herself, hence the title, and won’t even assist her lawyer, Martina Deignan, in her own defense. Weld’s completely passive in the scene. Robert Hooks’s prosecuting attorney closing arguments dominate the scene, setting a problematic tone for the next hundred or so minutes.
Weld is the “star” of Madame X, and while she’s the subject of the movie, writer Edward Anhalt and director Miller never let her be its protagonist. Not for long anyway; not in the second half, when it matters. Instead, the supporting cast runs the movie. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. What’s worse is how good Weld is during most of the latter type. After a too long setup, Madame X turns into a series of vignettes with different guest stars. Weld doesn’t get much to do in these scenes, except be a little bit more of a fallen woman. Without material or even the movie’s attention, she’s great. While the script might not trying to build a character, Weld’s working on it.
And then in the narratively defective third act, when Anhalt’s script does give Weld some agency again, Madame X backtracks some of the work she’s done and gives her a shallow melodramatic finish. Madame X never wants to be anything but affecting melodrama; it’s one tragedy after another. And it’s not about them not adding up into anything, it’s about that anything not getting the time it needs.
The script has a real problem emphasizing the right character. Ellis’s direction doesn’t help. Some of the problems might just be the nature of TV movies, like defense attorney Deignan not getting enough time. When it seems like she might get some development, the third act surprise takes it away from her. That third act surprise disappoints too. There’s just no time for it–Madame X needed at least another ten minutes, maybe twenty.
So, while Weld’s the lead and she’s good at the beginning, problematic in the middle, great in the second half, persevering at the finish, Madame X is about the supporting cast. Weld might be in the foreground, but all the focus is on the background. Sometimes literally. Woody Omens’s photography is competent and effective; the content’s sometimes a mess but Omens shoots it fine. Madame X travels the world, but was probably all shot around L.A.; Omens hides it as well as he can.
Anyway. The supporting cast. Best is Jeremy Brett. He’s second-billed, which initially suggests he’s going to have a substantial presence. He doesn’t. But he’s great when he’s in the film. Then maybe Len Cariou. But the script fails him. So maybe Eleanor Parker. Script fails her too, but in different ways than Cariou. Parker’s one-note in her scenes with Weld. She’s a good mean matriarch but in her scenes with other people, she’s got a lot more texture. It’s the script. Anhalt’s script does no one any favors during dramatic sequences. Well, maybe Brett.
Then there’s Jerry Stiller. He’s not good, but he’s fine.
Granville Van Dusen is too slight. Even when he tries, he’s too slight. The script’s not good to him either. Robin Strand, billed like he’s going to have a real part, has a couple scenes. He’s not good. He’s likable, sort of, but he’s not good. The script even goes out of its way to make him sort of likable, which it rarely does for anyone.
Until the third act, Madame X seems like it’s going to be able to coast on Weld’s performance. It gets long once Weld gets demoted in agency–it’s long at the start because Van Dusen’s so boring and the script won’t get moving–but it gets real long once Weld stops leading it. Her performance develops to the point Madame X’s questionable attempts at soap opera melodrama don’t matter as much as what Weld’s going to do with them. Will it add up?
No. It won’t.
Directed by Robert Ellis Miller; teleplay by Edward Anhalt, based on the play by Alexandre Bisson and the screenplay by Jean Holloway; director of photography, Woody Omens; edited by Skip Lusk; music by Angela Morley; produced by Paula Levenback and Wendy Riche; aired by the National Broadcasting Company.
Starring Tuesday Weld (Holly Richardson), Granville Van Dusen (Clay Richardson), Eleanor Parker (Katherine Richardson), Len Cariou (John Abbott), Jeremy Brett (Dr. Terrence Keith), Robin Strand (Willy Dwyer), Jerry Stiller (Burt Orland), Martina Deignan (Elizabeth Reeves), and Robert Hooks (Dist. Atty. Roerich).