Thursday, December 26, 2013

Sometimes movies become known as "sleepers," the ones that commercially or otherwise slip under the radar, but achieve some sort of notable success with time. The recent passing of the lovely and talented Eleanor Parker makes it clear that sometimes performers have entire careers that are sort of sleepers. Much of the press about Parker's passing have touted her as being "best known as The Baroness in 1965's The Sound of Music." This declaration distorts as much as it clarifies.

Yes, she was in The Sound of Music, and yes, it is probably the most recent of her films to make a big splash commercially. But to focus on that as some sort of pinnacle of her career is like saying that Judy Garland is best remembered for her acclaimed performance in 1963's A Child is Waiting. Parker's work in the 40s and 50s is much more notable and interesting than her being a Baroness.

For one thing, she was nominated for Oscars three times - in 1950, 1951 and 1955. She played equally well in comedy, drama and romantic films. And she played opposite a truly impressive collection of the Golden Age's great leading men, including: John Garfield, Errol Flynn, Ronald Reagan, Humphrey Bogart, Fred MacMurray, Kirk Douglas, Robert Taylor, William Holden, Charlton Heston, Glenn Ford, Frank Sinatra, Clark Gable, Robert Mitchum, Dana Andrews and even Maurice Chevalier.

She had leading roles in some truly classic films, such as Caged (1950 and her first Oscar nomination), Detective Story (1951 and her second Oscar nomination) and The Man with the Golden Arm (1955), as Frank Sinatra's crippled wife, who supplies a memorable twist to the plot. She also made a memorable cameo appearance (as herself) in one of my favorite comedies, 1949's It's a Great Feeling.

Eleanor Parker was a beautiful woman, but not so earth-shatteringly beautiful as to be remembered as one of Hollywood's Great Beauties. She was versatile and talented, but seemingly not so hungry for success that she tried to tailor her career around "important" roles. She worked, and kept working, and, in many ways (Oscar nominations or no Oscar nominations) doesn't seem to have left any sort of remarkable legacy behind. Thus we end up with The Sound of Music being trotted out to represent her work, when in fact, it doesn't.

If I had to choose one film that best captured the appeal and essence of Eleanor Parker, it would be 1947's The Voice of the Turtle. As a guy, even a film geek guy, this one would seem to have several strikes against it. One is that it's very much a romance, a 1947 chick flick. Then there's that cutesy-but-what-does-it-mean title. And then there's the fact that Parker's romantic leading man is...Ronald Reagan, who, despite whatever talent he may have had, was never exactly an actor to set hearts throbbing.

And yet...I think it is a remarkably charming film, a fact due almost entirely to Parker. She is sweet, silly, shy and very believable. She even makes you believe she's daffy about Reagan. (I would rate this as one of his two or three best films as well...) It's based on a play, and thus a little set-bound, and the World War II setting is, of course, dated - but it works. Rather, Eleanor Parker makes it work. Yes, she's excellent in the much heavier Detective Story, and other meatier works, but the fact that this piece of romantic fluff works and endures is an accomplishment due almost entirely to Parker. As the saying goes, dying is easy, but comedy is hard. Put another way, it's easy to be dramatic with Kirk Douglas screaming at you, but making us believe you're head over heels with Ronald Reagan is hard. But Eleanor Parker was up to the task.

As is our way when a performer of note passes away, my wife and I watched an Eleanor Parker movie last night. We watched A Hole in the Head (1959), a mostly forgotten comedy/drama starring Frank Sinatra and Edward G, Robinson. Parker doesn't even appear on screen until the movie is half over, playing the underwritten part of a widow who may be a romantic interest for Sinatra. The movie is uneven, unsure of what it wants to be, and her part is barely sketched out through the dialogue. But still, Parker brought a depth to her character that wasn't on the pages of the script. A true professional, she was able to create something out of practically nothing.

As a result, A Hole in the Head was a richer film for having her in it. And her career is far richer than The Sound of Music, for those willing to dig a little deeper. Rest in peace, Eleanor. You might not have been one of the flashiest stars, but you were absolutely one of the greats. You'll be missed, and you'll be remembered.

December 10th, 2013

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