In Memoriam: Eleanor Parker (June 26, 1922- December 9, 2013)

On my laptop, I have a bunch of wallpapers of some of my favourite actors and actresses. Every now and then, depending upon whose films I’ve been watching—and therefore, who’s my current favourite—the wallpaper changes (right now, in anticipation of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, it’s Richard Armitage). For a short time, the wallpaper had been one of Eleanor Parker.

Eleanor Parker in The Sound of Music

For a short time, mind you. Because, while that wallpaper graced my desktop, it was very difficult for me to get much work done. I’d be working on a document, and would have to click to access something on the desktop—and when I saw Eleanor Parker’s gorgeous face there, I’d clean forget what it was I’d gone to the desktop for. I’m not exaggerating. I honestly did get so very distracted, it became hard to accomplish anything.

Eleanor Parker in Escape from Fort Bravo
Eleanor Parker, though she didn’t become a favourite of mine till a few years back (and, even now, I can’t admit to having seen very many of her films), was someone I could always identify. In fact, hers is a face even people not terribly clued into the Hollywood of the 50s and 60s would be able to recognise—because she played the very familiar role of the Baroness in The Sound of Music.

The Sound of Music was where I too first saw Eleanor Parker. And, while my sympathies definitely lay with Julie Andrews’s Maria, I couldn’t help but be blown away by how utterly beautiful her rival was. When I grew up a bit and was able to see beyond the romance and the removal of the unwanted third angle in the triangle, I saw, too, the graciousness with which the Baroness had admitted defeat.

Eleanor Parker in The Sound of Music
That graciousness and dignity was something that shone through in a number of characters that Eleanor Parker played. As Hannah Hunnicutt in Home from the Hill, for example, she was the bitter yet eventually dignified wife of a notorious philanderer (played by another house favourite, Robert Mitchum).

Eleanor Parker in Home from the Hill
In Scaramouche, while her character did have a passionate relationship with the hero, he ended up falling in love with another woman (played by Janet Leigh). Again, Ms Parker’s character—more vibrant, vivacious and overall spunky than the relatively milquetoast of a leading lady—was the one to bow gracefully and give up her love.

Eleanor Parker in Scaramouche
Of course, with a face (and presence) like that, it was hardly to be expected that Ms Parker would always end up with ‘always a bridesmaid, never a bride’ roles. In The Naked Jungle—an unashamed Mills and Boon romance, if one ever saw one—she played the exquisitely beautiful Joanna Leiningen, a mail order bride whose new husband, dazzled by her perfection, wonders what could possibly be wrong with her—there has to be something, she cannot be flawless.

Eleanor Parker with Charlton Heston in The Naked Jungle
I could go on about films that showcase Eleanor Parker’s loveliness, but let’s move to another aspect of this wonderful actress: her acting. Eleanor Parker was called ‘The Woman of a Thousand Faces’, and with good reason. She wasn’t just a beautiful face, but a very fine actress as well.

Her ‘conventional heroine’ roles (read ‘look pretty as a picture and wait for the hero to come to your rescue’) in films like Valley of the Kings, The Naked Jungle, or Escape from Fort Bravo were pleasant enough, but it was with slightly more offbeat roles that Ms Parker shone. In the whacky Many Rivers to Cross, for example, where she played a headstrong and completely nutty frontier girl who bullies a man into marrying her, irritates the life out of him (and, in the process, makes him fall in love with her!), and eventually ends up saving his life—quite literally. A good comedienne, this lady.

Eleanor Parker with Robert Taylor in Many Rivers to Cross
Or, the role I’d mentioned above, of Hannah Hunnicutt in Home From The Hill, cheated on by a womanising husband, embittered and depressed. And seeing the same old story playing out, all over again, with a son who has got a girl pregnant and then deserted her… a masterful performance, even if it didn’t win Ms Parker too much recognition.

And, the acting that did win her accolades. Thrice nominated for an Academy Award (for Caged, 1950; Detective Story, 1951; and Interrupted Melody, 1955), Eleanor Parker won the award for Caged, a role that also got her the International Award at the Venice Film Festival. As Marie Allen, the young widow who is imprisoned and becomes hard, cynical, the exact opposite of the naïve innocent she had been—Ms Parker is breathtaking. Still beautiful, but you tend to overlook that beauty when you watch that performance. She is mesmerising.

Eleanor Parker in Caged
That’s what acting is all about, isn’t it? When an actor can delve so deep into a character that you forget this is Eleanor Parker, and you see only Marie Allen. Or Mary Stuart Cherne. Or Lizzie. Or the other two personalities that live alongside Lizzie in the same body and glide smoothly, in and out, of Lizzie’s persona…

Eleanor Parker in Lizzie
Rest in peace, Ms Parker. I will miss you. And I will always love your films.

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20 thoughts on “In Memoriam: Eleanor Parker (June 26, 1922- December 9, 2013)

  1. Even as I read the news of Eleanor Parker’s demise, I had the familiar sense of loss that I seem to be having nowadays every time some film personality passes away whether here in India or abroad. It is a little difficult to explain, people may even laugh, I wouldn’t blame them, she was 91 and besides I did not know her or most of the other personalities personally. You see as you grow old, you tend to look back at those wonderful childhood days, films are a sure connect to the past, and Parker was definitely one of them; with the passing way of our childhood idols, I almost feel certain chapters of my life are gradually coming to an end. Sorry if I made that sound like a paragraph from a tear-jerking novel or something. Your tribute is so excellently worded I do not know what else to add, yes she definitely had beauty and dignity. Take a look at this You Tube link, it is interesting montage put together by a fan of the Baroness

    • she was 91 and besides I did not know her or most of the other personalities personally.

      Very well put, Shilpi. I feel exactly the same. There are so many people whom I’ve posted tributes to over these past few years, and it’s not as if I knew any of them personally. Just through their films, their music, their voices… and yet, it hurts to see them go. Even when they lived to a ripe old age. Yes, it does seem like another chapter in one’s own life has closed.

      Eleanor Parker looked so lovely all through The Sound of Music. I enjoyed watching her in that clip you shared. Thank you!

  2. She was very good indeed.
    I am not going to watch the rest of the Hobbits as the first one was so so so far away from the book and the spirit of the book. Just IMHO

    • I quite enjoyed The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey even though it was so far removed from the book. Peter Jackson made it more like the LOTR series, which I love with a deep and unconditional love, so I’m happy with that. And Richard Armitage is enough reason by himself for me to watch anything! ;-)

  3. What a lovely tribute, Madhu. You are right about there being more to Eleanor Parker than her looks. She was lucky enough to break out of that cage and do some good work, but I think, even in her case, her beauty led people to not expect anything more out of her. Certainly, she is never mentioned with the other great Hollywood actresses of the time. (I mean, think of it – whenever you see a lineup of her contemporaries, she is conspicuous by her absence.)

    • “(I mean, think of it – whenever you see a lineup of her contemporaries, she is conspicuous by her absence.)

      Very true. I hadn’t thought of that, but most listings of her contemporaries feature either the glamour girls (like Marilyn) or the ones who were formidable actresses – Katherine Hepburn, Ingrid Bergman, Lauren Bacall, etc. And Eleanor Parker was both beautiful and an excellent actress, but she gets overlooked by most people (not me, though! I had her on my Hollywood eye candy list when I made one on my blog in the early years). I wonder why so few people seem to be aware of her work, other than The Sound of Music.

  4. I can’t say I’ve seen too many Eleanor Parker roles . . . but I did adore The Naked Jungle back in middle school. I was always so excited when I could catch it on TV . . . and it was definitely the type of semi-scandalous vehicle (for my middle school self at least) that I would never have watched with company. However, it’s been a while, and I had no idea that Eleanor Parker was TNJ’s feisty mail-order-bride. Given the fact that I was obsessed with Old Hollywood at that point, I think my inability to make that connection (between SoM and TNJ) really speaks to her range. Obviously, she could play the haughty yet gracious aristocrat just as well as the stalwart, level-headed pioneer. And going by your description of Home from the Hill and Scaramouche, it sounds like she carried herself with equal aplomb elsewhere. Thank you, Dustedoff, for reminding me of someone who deserves more of our (and my) attention :)

    • Thank you so much for commenting, Miranda! I saw The Naked Jungle much later than you did – just a few years ago, actually. But I still liked it a lot, mostly because of the chemistry between the two leads. And Eleanor Parker is simply gorgeous in it. One can well imagine why Leiningen would be somewhat awestruck by her!

      She’s also brilliant in Caged, Lizzie and Many Rivers to Cross – all in very different ways.

  5. Very touching tribute DO.
    May her soul rest in peace.

    I’ve seen her only in sound of music. After reading about her various films that you’ve mentioned I’ve picked out Many Rivers to Cross to watch if I can find it on the net.

  6. Hello!

    Eleanor Parker was always a compelling presence on screen, but I have found some of her performances to be over-the-top dramatic; sometimes, unbearably so. I could not stand to watch Lizzie after having seen Joanne Woodward’s chilling, nuanced performance in The Three Faces of Eve (also a 1957 movie). The Man with the Golden Arm (costarring Frank Sinatra and Kim Novak) was another example of an extraordinary role that became rather ordinary due to her over-acting. I can see why she was not hailed as a great performer. What I cannot see is why some of the other beautiful actresses were considered great performers (Katherine Hepburn and Ingrid Bergman come to mind).

    Long time reader, first time commenting :-) I enjoy your blog, so thank you for writing!

    • I haven’t yet seen The Three Faces of Eve, though it is one of my mum’s favourite films – so I can’t comment on that. And I haven’t seen The Man with the Golden Arm. But I thought Eleanor Parker’s performance in Caged was excellent – a very well-deserved Oscar, as far as I’m concerned. I suppose it’s a question of personal taste. Like most people seem to go gaga over Pankaj Kapur’s acting in Ek Ruka Hua Faisla, whereas I found it unbearably hammy.

      Thanks for commenting, and for your kind words. :-)

      • I have not seen Caged and will look for it now, along with some of the others you mentioned in your post. I am hoping that Turner Classic Movies (my favorite cable channel and source of all classic Hollywood movies I watch) will air a retrospective or tribute to her soon.

        I don’t believe it is all a matter of personal taste because that implies there really is no objective measure of what constitutes a great performance. The line between a great role and a great performance tends to be thin and indistinguishable to many people (and I am not saying you are one of them!). Now that I think of it, this would be an excellent topic for discussion over endless cups of tea!

        • I don’t believe it is all a matter of personal taste because that implies there really is no objective measure of what constitutes a great performance.

          Let’s agree to disagree. I believe very firmly in the adage of beauty lying in the eyes of the beholder. While extremes may be a case of more universal dislike or admiration – for example, almost nobody says Vimmi (of Humraaz fame) was a good actress, but almost everybody thinks Waheeda Rehman was and is superb. When it comes to less obvious black and white, I think personal preferences begin to play a part. Not just in gauging what is good acting or bad, but other things too. Like which film is good and which is bad, or even what one prefers. For instance, while I acknowledge that Mother India or Guide are good films, I don’t care for either of them. I’d much rather, any day, watch a Pyaasa or a Dekh Kabira Roya.

          • “while I acknowledge that Mother India or Guide are good films, I don’t care for either of them”.

            You said it! What one cares for or likes is a matter of personal taste, but there do exist some general objective principles that one applies in determining what is a good or bad film.

            • True, some objective principles do apply. But who sets those objective principles?

              Okay, I’m being obstinate here, but what I’m trying to get at is that it’s not always possible for two people – even two people who are both knowledgeable about a subject and often think the same way, to always agree on something. For example, I had very highly praised High Noon in my review of it (and it’s considered a classic, of course), but a friend of mine watched the film and hated it so horribly, he came back to the review and lambasted the film. He had his reasons, as I had mine. And from his point of view, his reasons were valid. From my point of view, those same reasons didn’t make sense at all.

              So it may not just be preferences, but also personal beliefs, prejudices, etc.

  7. It was stumbling across your post on The Naked Jungle about two years ago that tumbled me headfirst in love with Eleanor Parker and her exquisite acting. I made it a goal to track down and watch as much of her filmography as possible, and lol, I’ve managed to watch a lot. Even though she withdrew from the spotlight decades ago, and remained firmly in the shadows of the world, it was pleasing to know that she was still alive. Her death hit me hard in a way that not even Joan Fontaine’s did (another favorite actress), possibly because Eleanor Parker was so…so…I can’t even describe what a joy her screen presence brought to my life.

    • I know exactly what you mean. “So…so…“. True. Even I can’t describe the effect Eleanor Parker had on me. I’ve seen perhaps less than a dozen of her movies, but I adore her. Actually more than Joan Fontaine, even though I do like Joan a lot. There was something about Eleanor Parker.

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