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