Today’s audiences know her as the Baroness; the mean blond who was Julie Andrews’ romantic rival in “The Sound of Music” (1965).
Though her role in the 1965 musical is memorable, the talents of Eleanor Parker are so much more than that.
Parker started out at Warner Brothers studios in the early 1940s. She was fresh faced, pretty and red-headed.
Born in Ohio, Parker moved to Hollywood in 1942 and was discovered while sitting in the audience at the Pasadena Community Playhouse by a Warner Brothers talent scout, according to Glamour Girls of the Silver Screen.
Parker’s first role was in 1941, a deleted scene in the Errol Flynn and Olivia De Havilland film “They Died With Their Boots On.” This role was followed by short films, bit parts and B-movies. One of these early jobs included a voice on a record to a soldier husband in the Cary Grant war film, “Destination Tokyo” (1943).
But her first major role with Warner Brothers was alongside John Garfield, Sydney Greenstreet and Paul Henried in “Between Two Worlds” (1944). The all-star cast is on a boat in the afterlife; waiting to see if they will go to heaven or hell.
Her next major role came in the romantic World War II drama, “The Very Thought Of You” (1944) with Dennis Morgan as her romantic co-star. Beulah Bondi and Henry Travers as Parker’s parents, who vehemently disapprove of her romance and eventual marriage to a soldier.
Parker showed her versatility as an actress from films like “Pride of the Marines” (1945), a drama about disabled war veterans co-starring John Garfield, to “Never Say Goodbye” (1946), a comedic romp set around Christmas with Errol Flynn.
She displays her acting abilities best in one of her top, and possibly most disturbing, roles in the prison drama “Caged!” (1950). Parker goes into jail as a naïve and innocent young woman and leaves hardened and cold. One horrifying scene includes Parker’s head getting shaved as a punishment. She was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress for her performance in “Caged” but lost to Judy Holliday for “Born Yesterday.”
A year later she was getting drunk on tequila and flirting with Fred MacMurray in the comedy “Millionaire For Christy” (1951).
It’s no wonder that Eleanor Parker has been dubbed “Woman of a Thousand Faces.”
John Garfield, Clark Gable, Stewart Granger, Kirk Douglas, Glenn Ford, Errol Flynn and Humphrey Bogart are just a few of the top leading men she acted with.
“You didn’t go to her films to see Miss Parker being Miss Parker in a different dress and locale,” wrote Doug McClelland in his book “Eleanor Parker: Woman of a Thousand Faces.” “You went to see what person she had created on film.”
Parker was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress two other times:
-“Detective Story” (1951) –Parker plays the wife of Kirk Douglas who was involved with and got pregnant from a racketeer before their marriage.
-“Interrupted Melody” (1956) –the biographical film about Australian opera singer Marjorie Lawrence who becomes paralyzed due to polio.
She also played a woman with multiple personality disorder in “Lizzie” (1957), the same year Joanne Woodward played a similar role in “The Three Faces Of Eve.” It was Woodward who won the Oscar that year.
In a 1988 interview, she said she was a character actress. That her roles were too diverse that her own personality never “emerged on screen,” according to an article from USA Today.
In her private life, she was shy and collected classical records, according to an April 30, 1945, LIFE article, “Eleanor Parker: Actress plays ‘Of Human Bondage,’ role that made Bette Davis famous.”
McClelland’s book suggests one reason Parker is forgotten today is because of her quiet, private life.
“I’ve prided myself on not dreaming up tales to see my name in print,” McClelland quotes her as saying in an interview.
Some of my personal favorite films of Parker’s include: “The Voice of the Turtle” (1947), “Woman in White” (1948), “Never Say Goodbye” (1946), “The Very Thought of You” (1945), “Pride of the Marines” (1945) and “Valley of the Kings” (1954).
Eleanor Parker is one of those actresses that lights up the screen and makes the movie. The only films I remember not enjoying of Parker’s were the Rudolph Valentino biopic “Valentino” (1951) and “The Oscar” (1966). Neither of the films were bad because of Parker, but bad script writing.
Parker passed away today at the age of 91 due to complications from pneumonia, according to the Associated Press.
“Eleanor Parker was and is one of the most beautiful ladies I have ever known,” said “Sound of Music” co-star Christopher Plummer in Parker’s USA Today obituary. “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.”
Goodbye to one of Warner Brothers’ brightest and most talented stars. “The Very Thought of You” will always make your fans smile.
Turner Classic Movies will be honoring Eleanor Parker on Tuesday, Dec. 17 (ET):
6 a.m. – The Very Thought of You (1944)
7:45 a.m. – Of Human Bondage (1946)
9:45 a.m – The Woman in White (1948)
11:45 p.m. – Caged (1950)
1:30 p.m. – Scaramouche (1952)
3:30 p.m. – Interrupted Melody (1955)
5:15 p.m. – Home from the Hill (1960)