Today’s audiences know her as the Baroness, the mean blonde who was Julie Andrews’ romantic rival in The Sound of Music. Though her role in the 1965 musical is memorable, the talents of Eleanor Parker were so much more than that.
Parker started out at the Warner Bros. studio in the early 1940s. She was fresh faced, pretty and red-headed. Born in Ohio in 1922, Parker moved to Hollywood in her teens and was discovered while sitting in the audience at the Pasadena Community Playhouse by a Warner Bros. talent scout, according to Glamour Girls of the Silver Screen.
Eleanor’s first role came in 1941, a deleted scene in the Errol Flynn/Olivia DeHavilland western They Died with Their Boots On. This was followed by short films, bit parts and B-movies; one of these early jobs included playing a voice on a record to her soldier husband in the Cary Grant WWII actioner Destination Tokyo (1943). But her first major role with Warners was alongside John Garfield, Sydney Greenstreet and Paul Henreid in the 1944 fantasy Between Two Worlds. The all-star cast is on an ocean liner in the afterlife, waiting to see if they will go to Heaven or Hell.
Her next key appearance came in the romantic WWII drama The Very Thought of You (1944), with Dennis Morgan as the serviceman she falls for and Beulah Bondi and Henry Travers as Eleanor’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, and Never Say Goodbye (1946), a comedic romp set around Christmas with Errol Flynn.
Her acting abilities were perhaps best displayed in one of her top–and possibly most disturbing–pictures, the women-in-prison drama Caged! (1950). Parker goes into jail as a naive 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 a Best Actress Academy Award for her performance, but lost to Judy Holliday for Born Yesterday.
A year later she was in much better on-screen spirits, getting drunk on tequila and flirting with Fred MacMurray in the comedy A Millionaire for Christy (1951). It’s no wonder that Eleanor Parker has been dubbed “Woman of a Thousand Faces.” “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.” Along with MacMurray, Flynn and Garfield, Clark Gable, Stewart Granger, Glenn Ford and Humphrey Bogart are just a few of the top leading men she acted with.
Parker was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress two other times: the gritty Detective Story (1951), where she plays the wife of police detective Kirk Douglas, who cannot cope when he learns she was involved with and was pregnant by a racketeer before their marriage; and Interrupted Melody (1955), a biodrama about Australian opera singer Marjorie Lawrence, who became paralyzed due to polio. She also portrayed a woman with multiple personality disorder in 1957’s Lizzie, the same year that Joanne Woodward played a similar role–and took home the Oscar– in The Three Faces Of Eve.
In a 1988 interview, Parker said she was a character actress. That her roles were too diverse meant 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 magazine article, “Eleanor Parker: Actress plays ‘Of Human Bondage,’ role that made Bette Davis famous” ( the 1946 film would feature Parker and Between Two Worlds co-star Henreid). 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.
Along with The Very Thought of You and Pride of the Marines, some of my personal favorite films of Parker’s include: The Voice of the Turtle (1947), The Woman in White (1948), Never Say Goodbye (1946) 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 hers were the Rudolph Valentino biopic Valentino (1951) and The Oscar (1966). Neither of the films were bad because of Parker, but both suffered from bad script writing.
Parker passed away on December 9th, 2013 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 her 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 Bros.’ brightest and most talented stars. “The Very Thought of You” will always make your fans smile.
Comet Over Hollywood, named for the 1938 Kay Francis film Comet Over Broadway, offers anything from Hollywood beauty tips to rants about Katherine Hepburn. Jessica Pickens is a journalism student at Winthrop University who is interested in silent films to anything made before 1964. She writes for Winthrop’s student newspaper, The Johnsonian, and the Shelby Star in Shelby North Carolina. Her Facebook page can be found here.