Eleanor Parker: More Than Just the Sound of Music Baroness

The ravishing redhead was a prime dramatic star of Hollywood's Golden Age

  • Share
  • Read Later
Eleanor Parker
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer / Getty Images

All the obituaries identified Eleanor Parker as the actress who played Elsa Elberfeld in The Sound of Music — the Baroness who releases her fiancé Captain Von Trapp (Christopher Plummer) from his vows so he can marry Julie Andrews’ singing ex-nun. That’s a little like elegizing Paul Newman for his popcorn.

In Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1965 blockbuster movie musical, Parker is the one of the few performers who doesn’t get to sing — though she had a firm soprano with perfect pitch. Elsa’s one song in the 1959 show, “How Can Love Survive?”, was cut for the movie (but restored for last week’s live-TV production, in which Laura Benanti played and sang Elsa). And really, who remembers the character or, for that matter, the actress? Plummer does. After hearing of her December 9th death —  at 91, after a bout of pneumonia — he said, “Eleanor Parker was and is one of the most beautiful ladies I have ever known — both as a person and as a beauty. I hardly believe the sad news for I was sure she was enchanted and would live forever.”

(READ: Laura Stampler on the Carrie Underwood Sound of Music)

So who was Eleanor Parker? A ravishing redhead whose beauty was not her claim to celebrity but an ornament to her craft. Indeed, she shone in roles for which her classic good looks — the warm mouth, perfect oval face and eyebrows worthy of a Shakespearean sonnet — might be an irrelevance or a disadvantage. So often, Hollywood said: We’ll take this gorgeous girl and muss her up. Parker jumped at the chance and gave some of the movie midcentury’s strongest performances.

In Caged (1950) she was sent to a woman’s prison stocked with predatresses. In the 1951 Detective Story she must confess to her cop husband (Kirk Douglas) that she once had an abortion. Four years later she played women in wheelchairs: the Metropolitan Opera star Marjorie Lawrence, stricken with polio, in Interrupted Melody, and Frank Sinatra’s scheming wife in The Man With the Golden Arm. For the first three films she earned Academy Award nominations for Best Actress; the fourth is in the movie that cinephiles remember her for.

Born June 26, 1922 in Cedarville, Ohio, Eleanor Jean Parker began acting in Cleveland theaters and, after moving to California as a teenager, at the Pasadena Playhouse. She signed a contract with Warner Bros. and worked up from B-movies that ran less than an hour (Busses Roar, The Mysterious Doctor, The Last Ride) to her first “A” picture, the 1944 Between Two Worlds, an Outward Bound-style postmortem fantasy. She upped her éclat with the role of John Garfield’s supportive wife in the 1945 Pride of the Marines, nursing and nourishing her soldier-husband, who had been blinded in a Guadalcanal battle, back to sanity with her unflinching love

(READ: TIME’s review of Pride of the Marines by subscribing to TIME)

Parker got what might have been a big break when she was cast as the Machiavellian Mildred in a 1946 remake of W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage. Bette Davis, who had vaulted to stardom playing Mildred in a 1934 film, sent Parker flowers and a note saying she hoped the showy slattern role was as good to the young actress as it had been for her. In TIME, critic James Agee credited Parker for “a fine, shoulder-wriggling job.” But the movie tanked, as did another romantic drama from the same year, Never Say Goodbye. As Agee wrote, pen in check, it’s “the one about a divorced husband (Errol Flynn) who loves his ex-wife (Eleanor Parker), who loves him but won’t-admit-it-even-to-herself, and their little girl (Patti Brady), who loves, and is loved by, both of them, and will never let them hear the last of it. … Those who made this version use all the known tricks, and invent a few new ones, for depriving it of both humor and humanity.”

The Warner executives didn’t know what to do with their young star — of her pairing with Humphrey Bogart in Chain Lightning (1950), a TIME critic opined, “Much of the dialogue they speak does not deserve to travel at the speed of sound” — until they cast Parker in Caged. She is Maria Allen, a newlywed who tries to save her husband after he was injured in a heist. Instead, Maria is wrongly convicted and sent to women’s prison, where the warden (Agnes Moorehead) may have progressive ideas but the real boss is Hope Emerson’s ultra-butch giantess of a lifer. “Let’s you and me get acquainted, honey,” she growls to Marie. “You may be a number to others but not to me.” When Marie discovers she’s pregnant, the infirmary nurse asks if the father can help pay the bills. Marie says the father is her husband, and he’s dead. “Another bill for the state!” the nurse snarls. “Get dressed.”

Gallows humor and acerbic aphorisms abound — “In this cage you get tough or you get killed,” observes fellow inmate Betty Garde — in a script co-written by Virginia Kellogg (who had worked on the ’40s crime epics T-Men and White Heat). With John Cromwell as director, Caged earned Oscar nominations for Parker, Emerson and the screenplay. The star also took the Best Actress prize at the 1950 Venice Film Festival, where her rivals included Ingrid Bergman in the Italian Stromboli directed by Bergman’s new beau, Roberto Rossellini.

(READ: TIME’s review of Caged by subscribing to TIME)

Parker’s dramatic profile now in more visible relief, she was cast by William Wyler in his film version of Sidney Kingsley’s 1949 Broadway hit Detective Story. The action is almost totally confined to a Manhattan precinct house, and a pretty young wife might seem a needless intrusion. But it happens that Detective Jim McLeod is tracking an abortionist, and that the dastard once operated on Mary McLeod (Parker). Shocked, Jim tells her, “I’d give my soul to take out my brain, hold it under the faucet and wash away the dirty pictures you put there tonight.” Mary stands her rhetorical ground: “But when you wash away what I may have put there, you’ll find you’ve a rotten spot in your brain, Jim. And it’s growing. I know. I’ve watched it.” Yes, people in movies used to speak in complete sentences, and Parker invests full emotional force in this outburst from a sensitive, troubled woman who finds righteous anger in her despair.

In 1955, the year that Jonas Salk’s polio vaccine was introduced, Parker starred as the Australian diva Marjorie Lawrence, an opera star for a decade until she contracted the disease, then fought it for two years until she was able to perform Isolde, seated, at the Met. Future Met soprano Eileen Farrell did the off-camera singing for Interrupted Melody, but Parker trained for weeks to learn the arias and during the shoot sang fortissima instead of lip-synching to make the breathing and phrasing more plausible. The film, which has its soapy and starchy moments, zaps to life when Marjorie’s doctor-husband (Glenn Ford) plays a recording of her singing “My Heart at Thy Sweet Voice,” and Marjorie crawls across the floor to kick the machine and end the sonic torture. Parker put a world of flailing fury into that impressive scene.

(READ: TIME’s 1943 tribute to Marjorie Lawrence by subscribing to TIME)

In The Man with the Golden Arm,  Otto Preminger’s chilling version of Nelson Algren’s scalding novel about a card dealer’s drug addiction — this is the movie whose plot TIME synopsized as “the hero gets his heroin” — Sinatra touched the depths of desperation and the acme of his acting art as Frankie Machine, with the young Kim Novak as his luscious guardian angel. (Novak would later star in the third Of Human Bondage screen version; so no degrees of Kevin Bacon for any of the three Hollywood Mildreds.) Parker’s role as Frankie’s wife Zosch is small but indelible. She lays guilt like wet cement around Frankie’s dreams to get free of the junk, and uses her wheelchair as the cage he’s supposed to share with her. (SPOILER ALERT: The witch can walk.)

No question this is the peak work for Sinatra, who virtually stole the assignment from Marlon Brando, and for Preminger; it might also be the all-time-harrowing junkie film. Screenwriter Walter Newman thought Shelley Winters, so familiar with playing braying losers in A Place in the Sun and The Night of the Hunter, should have been cast as Zosch. But Parker, still lovely at 33 under that no-makeup makeup look, initially wins a little sympathy for the character. She suggests that Zosch might have every right to feel wronged, her beauty-queen destiny derailed by her downward-spiraling husband and her invalid status. She is the Machine with an unshakable addiction: her malice against Frankie, which she means to be a life sentence of confinement for them both.

(READ: reviews of The Man With the Golden Arm novel and movie by subscribing to TIME)

Just below the top rung of stars, Parker often played what we may call the Neglected Female Lead. She fretted while Robert Taylor built the plane that carried the first A-bomb in Above and Beyond (1952); tagged along across Egypt with archaeologist Taylor in Valley of the Kings (1954); played a rare comedy role as a Calamity Jane type pursuing Taylor in Many Rivers to Cross (1955). She got rejected by Stewart Granger in favor of the lower-billed, but fabulously fetching, Janet Leigh in Scaramouche (1952); diverted Civil War Northerner William Holden with her Confederate wiles in Escape from Fort Bravo (1953); supported Charlton Heston as he fights an invading army of South American soldier ants in The Naked Jungle (1954); and served as Sinatra’s wavering romantic interest in Frank Capra’s A Hole in the Head (1959).

Showcases for their male stars, these films allowed Parker to be the decorative helpmate or coquette, little more. She did get to give some lip to Clark Gable in the 1956 A King and Four Queens, where, in the role of Sabina McDade (a wonderful name for a feisty floozy), she tells him, “I wouldn’t trust you with a snow-blower in a blizzard.” But 1950s Hollywood was awash in manly Westerns and past its gynocentric prime; it would never make a movie called A Queen and Four Kings. Parker’s last starring role in a “major” Hollywood movie was Return to Peyton Place, the 1962 sequel in which she replaced Real Star Lana Turner as Constance Mackenzie Rossi, the dirty town’s doyenne.

(FIND: “The Lana Turner Affair” in Howard Chua-Eoan’s must-read Top 25 Crimes of the Century; no subscription required!)

When she could, Parker moved from the salad bar to red-meat roles in melodramas that earn the adjective “lurid.” In the 1957 Lizzie, based on Shirley Jackson’s novel The Bird’s Nest, and directed by B-minus movie auteur Hugo Haas, she plays Elizabeth, a librarian who receives threatening letters from a creature named Lizzie. Released a few months before the similarly-themed The Three Faces of Eve, which earned an Oscar for the young Joanne Woodward, this low-budget psychological thriller unleashed Parker on a trio of personalities, each of which she over- or underplayed to spooky precision. She also got some solid screen time in Vincent Minnelli’s Home from the Hill (1960), as the neglected wife of Texas philanderer Robert Mitchum. The movie is two-and-a-half hours of domestic recriminations, with Parker’s Hannah freezing out Mitchum’s Wade and raising their son Theron (George Peppard) on her own. It is a marital battle who hostilities can cease only at the grave.

Eleanor Parker and Richard Haydn are greeted by Christopher Plummer in a scene from the film 'The Sound Of Music', 1965

20th Century Fox / Getty Images

The year after lending her stately grace to the Baroness in The Sound of Music, Parker got one last terrific role, though in a crappy movie. An American Dream, based on Norman Mailer’s fourth and possibly worst novel, was a species of detritus from Hollywood in the mid-’60s, when the avatars of the town’s Golden Age that knew Europe was making all the cool films, and they didn’t know how to imitate them profitably. Young directors, like this movie’s Robert Gist, from TV, were allowed to try something dark and weird; and Mailer’s novel, about an ex-Congressman talk-show host accused of his wife’s murder, would do as a springboard. That the novelist had stabbed and nearly killed his own wife a few years earlier gave the project a frisson of sick fever.

(READ: Richard Lacayo on the life and work of Norman Mailer)

So what’s Eleanor Parker doing in this dreck? Great work! As Deborah, wealthy wife of the protagonist Stephen Rojack (Stuart Whitman), Parker spectacularly struts and taunts her contempt; her every phrase wields the scalpel of emasculation. Deborah’s wild sexual exploits disgust her husband — a Mailer hero as prude? — and drive him to demand a divorce. Hearing that, she sneers the immortal line: “From the daughter of the eighth richest man in the whole U.S.? Bitch I am but rich I am.” Twenty minutes into this Virginia Woolf spray of venom, Deborah falls to her death off the penthouse terrace balcony, and takes the movie with her.

Parker kept acting in TV shows, starring in the short-lived inside-Hollwood series Bracken’s World (1969), for which she gleaned a Golden Globe nomination, and doing guest spots on The Love Boat, Fantasy Island and Murder She Wrote — the aging actor’s equivalent of shuffleboard and rest-home Bingo. In 1991, just before her 70th birthday, Parker retired. She lived quietly in Palm Springs with the memories of the four husbands she had divorced or outlived and the fondness of her four children, all born between 1948 and 1958, the decade of her early stardom. She could look back proudly on a career of swank and subtle achievement, for she had proved that this lady could play the tramp. Baroness she might be, but bitch she was.