Sunday, May 27, 2007

The Ladies of 1950

This month StinkyLulu pitches the colorful smackdown tent right in the middle of 1950. The year the world took a deep breath and wondered how the new decade was going to top Betty Grable, the baby boom and the atomic bomb. (Eventual answers: Marilyn Monroe, TV dinners and rock’n’roll). As usual, StinkyLulu scrapes away all the extraneous matter from the year at hand and gets right to the good stuff – the Oscar nominees for supporting actress.

I had fun contributing again. But, let’s face it, 1950 offers just too rich a smorgasbord actress-wise for me to shut off my motor after a single smackdown. So – a few more observations about movie actressing in 1950. Even if they’d tossed out Oscars like confetti that year, you’d have thought most of them would’ve ended up in deserving hands. The field was that good – maybe the greatest ever. But, wouldn’t you know, the eventual winners (Actress and Supporting Actress) were two I wouldn’t even have nominated.

I’ve already talked about 1950 trophy winner Josephine Hull in the smackdown. For me, considering the profusion of potential nominees that year, she rates only bystander status. Competent. Professional. But, you know, years ago I had a bit part in my high school production of “Harvey”. Bettilyn Berglund, a local teenager, played Veta Louise. And I can still remember how terrific she was. Hull, for all her years of practice on the stage, doesn’t leave half the impression Bettilyn did.

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Whatever real talent Judy Holliday possessed was pretty much strangled in the grip of that “comic” Billie Dawn voice – a feeble easy way out shorthand that further trivialized an already flimsy vehicle. There’s no denying Holliday’s Billie pleased audiences then (she won an Oscar, for Pete’s sake) – and it still has adherents. But I’m not among ‘em. One moment does work for me – the savage, unexpected sequence where Harry slaps her. Holliday’s terrified reaction looks and sounds flat-out real. Partially, I guess, that’s because almost everything around it is kind of blah. Mr. Crawford – no Paul Douglas, I’m afraid - barks his way through the picture. While Holden’s more or less along for the ride – too smart to buy into his sketchily written character, but gifted and resourceful enough to fill in the holes with intelligence and movie star charisma.

Supporting actress footnote: With just one scene to do it in, Barbara Brown, the Fay Bainter clone who plays genteel Mrs.Hedges, is sensational. Bainter herself wouldn’t have done it differently –or better. Not the Beatles, as they say, but an incredible simulation.

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Quite a lot of what I had to say in the smackdown zeroed in on the supporting ladies of “Caged” – a crack unit if ever there was one. But I didn’t even get to mention the film’s star – the lady they were all, in effect, supporting. Eleanor Parker is, in a word, fantastic in the picture. A great looking redhead who hung around Warner Bros for most of the 40’s, she’d had several opportunities that looked promising. But none had quite provided that ticket to full-fledged stardom. Most frustrating of these near-misses was her blistering take on Mildred in the ’46 version of “Of Human Bondage". It was directed by Edmund Goulding – an expert in extracting great work from the ladies. (He coaxed Gene Tierney’s tremendous Isabel out of her in “The Razor’s Edge” that same year). Posterity’s chosen to enshrine Bette Davis’ ’34 interpretation as definitive. It was a hit in its day – and Davis bristles with electricity. But she’s over-emphatic – and it’s often hard to get past her clumsy game of “Pin the Tail on the Cockney Accent”. Kim Novak’s ’64 portrayal was actually more believable. Yes, she’s too beautiful looking. But excess beauty’s a hard thing to hold against a movie star. At the end of the day, though, it’s Parker who nails Mildred as no other actress has. Raw, scrub-brush complexion, wiry hair. Common. Coarse. Greedy. Angry too. She aches with dissatisfaction. Clawing her way – not ahead exactly, but around - and giving off indications of some heavy duty dark forces clawing right behind her. Her Mildred’s been burned into shape by a brutal past. Novak’s a little on the languid side. Davis offers fireworks – but no back story. At her best, Parker’s a more flexible actress than Bette Davis – not so locked into set mannerisms, riveting though they might be. It’s possible to tune into Goulding’s “Bondage” part way through and not even realize it’s Eleanor Parker. Creative makeup deserves some credit. But it’s Parker’s own versatility, skill and propulsive force that bring it home. This Mildred’s apocalyptic trashing of Philip’s apartment plays out with a fury no other Mildred has matched. She’s scary, mean and damaged – and Parker’s not afraid to show it all. Blunt and complex at the same time – a Hollywood harbinger of neo-realistic intensity. A tragic scrap-heap monster – and, in her way, just as worthy of sympathy as Philip. Entirely too complicated a creation for 1946 audiences to digest. They didn’t. And Parker went without the acclaim (and Oscar nomination) she clearly deserved.

The frustration of doing such phenomenal work and not being properly appreciated may have fuelled Parker’s ambition and determination even more. By the time she landed “Caged” she was obviously ready to go for broke. Hardly a prestige vehicle – a scrappy babes in the bighouse melodrama –the picture turned out to be one of 1950’s surprise hits – with audiences and critics alike. The performances – especially Parker’s central one – couldn’t be denied. Credit veteran director John Cromwell for helping Eleanor Parker be all she could be. Still in her 20’s, she was nevertheless a screen vet who’d played her share of chic sophisticates. But the scared, na├»ve Marie Allen who’s dumped into prison at the beginning of “Caged” bears no trace of them. Virtually makeup free, Parker’s like a super-sensitive tuning fork reacting to everything around her, pulling audiences right into the heart of a harrowing experience. She makes one brilliant choice after another, never overdoing it. Hope locking horns with hysteria. Bad breaks drag her down. Where’s that single stroke of luck that might save her? Exceptionally well-written and edited, the film’s jam-packed with memorable sequences – the interview with her scared-silly mother, the doomed kitten rescue, the brutal, traumatic buzz-cut. Parker polishes each one of them off to perfection. There’s never a sense of showing off – just raw, honest-to-goodness emotion channeled through some dazzlingly controlled movie star acting. This is the project that really put Parker on the map. She followed it up with another sensational Oscar-nominated turn in William Wyler’s “Detective Story”. MGM dangled a lucrative contract and Parker set up shop for awhile at that prestigious address. Metro couldn’t quite make up its mind whether to market her as the new Greer Garson (But wait, we’ve got Deborah Kerr for that) or a slightly upmarket Susan Hayward style spitfire. And they didn’t really exert themselves to find roles that would explore her potential. Still, Parker bagged a third nomination for the ultra-manicured opera biopic “Interrupted Melody” where, if nothing else, she proved a dab hand at lip-synching to complicated arias. But she was genuinely terrific in a number of other films around the same time – “Scaramouche”, “The Naked Jungle”, The King and 4 Queens”.

A younger friend of mine, when confronted with her name, said to me tentatively, “Eleanor Parker, wasn’t she in “The Sound of Music?” Odd that many know her primarily for her chic but perfunctory cameo in that panoramic sugarblitz. There was a time in the 50’s when Eleanor Parker was a force to be reckoned with in Hollywood – an important movie star and a much admired actress. She’s given us a lovely legacy. Work that deserves to be revived and re-evaluated. A process that can’t help but put a new shine on her reputation as a compelling and creative screen presence. But, you know, when all’s said and done, “Caged” may just be Eleanor Parker’s single finest moment. And that’s saying something.


Vertigo's Psycho said...

Okay, now you've got me dying to see Parker in Bondage, in order to compare her work therein with what she pulls off in Caged. Based on the reviews I've read, I've always assumed Parker's Mildred completely missed the boat, thespian-wise. Sure would like to take a peek and see if she made Davis jealous back in 1946.

It's tough to pick between them, but I'd put Parker's work in Detective Story at least even with her emoting in Caged. Even though Parker's only onscreen about 20 minutes in Story, I think the Best Actress Oscar nod was warranted, as Parker is astonishing in her intensity once her character (Mary McLeod) realizes the cat's out of the bag on her shady part. Watching her abrupt and complete collapse on my first Story viewing ("I told you he didn't know!"), I marveled at Parker's acting finesse, and wondered how she pulled off the heavy emotionalism. The recent DVD release of the film left me still in awe of Parker's powerful work, and still wondering.

After these two distinguished portrayals, it's all about Scaramouche, wherein Parker easily walks off with the movie as Lenore, one of the cinema's most tempestuous (and luscious) redheads. Is it any wonder I always root for the bitch while viewing The Sound of Music?

Love the fact Oscar was brave enough to nominate both Parker and Emerson (the film's still pretty strong stuff today- can you imagine seeing this on a "family night out" in 1950?). I agree the ENTIRE CAST is awesome- how about an in-detail post honoring those amazing ladies you briefly mentioned at Stinylu's, Ken?

BTW, Jan Sterling's my favorite low-down tramp of all time (as opposed to my favorite glamorous tramp- Dorothy Malone in Written on the Wind) in Caged and in Ace in the Hole, and I'm in DVD bliss knowing both films are finally seeing the light of commerical availability within about a month of each other.

CanadianKen said...

Thanks for the input. Glad I've got you primed for Goulding's "Bondage". Granted, it's got the same problems as all versions of the story - a tepid Philip and a dreary post-Mildred third act. But while Parker's around it's riveting. It's in the TCM library. That's how I saw it a few years ago (while visiting the U.S.) Hopefully they'll show it again soon. An Eleanor Parker day on Turner Classics would be a blast. It's been a decade or so since I last saw "Detective Story" but - like you - I loved Parker's performance. Your comments have definitely put me in the mood to watch it again. And -yes - I share your affection for Jan Sterling. Dorothy Malone's a wonderful creature too - but, you know, I think that brief interlude in "The Big Sleep" will always remain my favorite Malone moment.

Vertigo's Psycho said...

Don't get me started on Malone- I love her in just about anything, ever since I first caught her rumba-ing off with Written on the Wind to the strains of "Temptation." Although at my blog I named her performance in Wind my favorite all-time supporting one, I think her best work's in Sirk's The Tarnished Angels as the emotionally bruised-yet-flamboyant (and gorgeous) daredevil, LaVerne Shumann.

However, Malone's hot-to-trot bookshop clerk in Sleep (who serves as the blueprint for all the "Why Miss Thomas, you're beautiful without your glasses!!" cinema dames to come) once ended up on a top ten list of the all-time greatest single-scene performances in Hollywood history, and she easily could vie for the #1 spot IMO (it's probably Malone's most naturalistic performance, and her most effortlessly sensual work). Although she's merely decorative in her two Martin & Lewis comedies, around this period Malone scored in Young at Heart (love the yearning looks Malone throws at Gig Young as Doris Day sings "Hold Me in Your Arms" to her suitor) and, especially, in Battle Cry, as the sexy older woman who just can't get enough Tab Hunter in her diet. Things went downhill after the Oscar win and her Sirk double-header (although Peyton Place brought her career back to life on TV), but fortunately Malone had an opportunity to grab some juicy screen roles prior to the post-Oscar career turmoil. Sure would love for someone working on producing classic DVDs to get her thoughts on working with Bogart, Sirk, Day, Rock Hudson, Sinatra, etc.