Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Unparalleled Parker

In an earlier post, I mentioned how my feelings towards The Sound of Music’s Baroness Elsa Schraeder changed over time. As a child, I loathed her for her attempts to thwart the love between Captain Von Trapp and Maria. Once I grew up, though, and began to appreciate the art of cattiness and bitchery, she swiftly became my favorite character and now I treasure every frame of hers in the film! Incidentally, when the film was broadcast on TV for all those years, the pan and scan framing frequently cut her out of the picture, most especially during the introductory car ride, but thanks to letterboxing, we can now see her throughout as intended.

There’s a longstanding debate among fans of SOM regarding the fact that Max and Elsa’s songs from the stage production were cut from the film. Though I like their songs (and having portrayed both The Captain and Uncle Max onstage, have sung them myself), I actually appreciate that they were removed. Having Elsa unable to partake in the tuneful goings on at the estate actually causes her to feel more ostracized and gives her even more motivation for sending Maria packing. (Truth be told, in the stage version, Maria left because of something Brigitta said. The magnificent scene in the bedroom between Elsa and Maria was entirely new, courtesy of the masterful screenwriter Ernest Lehman.)

One thing I love about the Elsa of the film, aside from her stunning sense of style, her regal posture and her snarky running commentary, is the fact that she knows when she’s been beaten and gives up without any fuss, even handing the handsome Captain over to the little would-be nun. Eleanor Parker misses no nuance in her playing of the pivotal balcony break up scene (nor does she in any scene throughout!) She struggles gallantly to hold on to Georg, but, once licked, playfully points out to him that his future is before him, wandering through the moonlit grounds.

Miss Parker had been a very successful, highly versatile leading lady in films. She began film work in the early 1940s and stayed busy until the late 60s. She not only worked with some of Hollywood’s top actors along the way, but also snagged three Best Actress Oscar nominations! She could play practically anything from a demure girl in The Woman in White to an unbalanced shut-in in The Man with the Golden Arm to a woman suffering from multiple personalities in Lizzie to an opera star in Interrupted Melody. She played everyday types, such as in A Hole in the Head, but particularly excelled in roles that required a degree of sophistication and haughtiness. Frequently, this haughtiness would be melted by the final reel of the film, however.

She held her own against some of Hollywood’s most arrogant-flavored screen personalities such as Kirk Douglas, Charlton Heston and Robert Mitchum. She was placed in The Sound of Music as “insurance” because Christopher Plummer was not yet an established leading man in films and Julie Andrews had yet to be seen in a movie when she was cast as Maria.

It was Eleanor Parker who kicked off my interest in classic films. One day, I saw that “The Baroness” was in a different movie that was going to be on TV that night, The Naked Jungle. After watching and enjoying that, and marveling at her good looks and excellent performing skills, I started catching other films of hers. Eventually, I wanted to see films that starred some of her costars in these movies and before long, I was hooked on classic movies in general. There’s a decided difference between yesterday’s movies and today’s and it is an acquired taste for most of us. Thanks to Miss Parker, I was introduced to a world of cinema that has given me incredible rewards over the last several decades.

Since retiring for good in the early 90s, Parker has shunned the limelight and given no interviews. Despite a strong career peppered with many fascinating roles and costars, she is uninterested in regurgitating any of it. Her input for a network like TCM or even in commentaries or featurettes on DVDs would be invaluable, but it seems unlikely to happen. Sadly, few people apart from her fans probably even realize that she's still alive, but for whatever reason she seems to prefer it that way. At any rate, she remains my second-favorite pre-1970 actress.


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