Eleanor Parker, a star of film, television and the Broadway stage died on December 9, 2013 of complications from pneumonia. Born on June 26, 1922, she was ninety one years old. Ms. Parker had appeared in roughly 80 films, TV shows and plays. To some extent a female Robert Taylor, she was hard working, professional, liked by her colleagues and the public and extremely versatile. In 2003 author Doug McClelland published a book called Woman of a Thousand Faces, Scarecrow Press, the name reflecting the wide range of roles she could play.
Another similarity with Mr. Taylor is her lack of recognition from critics, although her peers regarded her highly enough to nominate her for a best actress Oscar three times. Ms. Parker did not, however, win an Oscar. It seems sad that nearly every obituary I’ve seen mentions her Sound of Music role but nothing else. She did so much more.
Eleanor Parker was married 4 times, divorcing three husbands and being widowed by the fourth. She had three children with her second husband, Bert Friedlob.
Robert Taylor and Eleanor Parker co-starred in three successful movies: Above and Beyond, 1951; Valley of the Kings, 1954; Many Rivers To Cross, 1955. Their on-screen chemistry was explosive in three very different scenarios.
Above and Beyond
“Above and Beyond ……is a powerful, true drama as well as one of its leading lady’s most controversial films……In Robert Taylor and Eleanor Parker, MGM has the perfect players to drum dramatic life into Paul Tibbets–laconic, dedicated leader of this horrific secret mission–and his wife Lucey, loving but baffled, and, for a while, alienated by her husband’s furtiveness…..Above and Beyond belongs to Taylor and Parker in the first of three teamings for the extremely compatible actors soon rumored to be a romantic twosome off-screen as well.” (McClelland, Doug. Woman of a Thousand Faces, Scarecrow Press, 2003, pages 74-75, 81).
Valley of the Kings
Valley of the Kings is an action-adventure story set in Egypt in the early 1900s. Mark Brandon (Robert Taylor) is an archaeologist and playboy running an excavation near the Step Pyramid of Saqqara. Ann Barclay Mercedes (Eleanor Parker) is the daughter of a recently deceased archaeologist. She wants Brandon to help her finish her father’s mission to prove the existence of the Biblical Joseph. Brandon and Mercedes engage in sexual wordplay from the time they first meet. A worker tells Brandon that a lady is looking for him. He orders her sent to his room. The worker responds that she’s “not that kind of lady.” Minutes later they enter his room where he comments that this is “the first time a woman has come here to talk.”
Later on Brandon says: “you know what they say–Egypt is like a man without a woman.” Mercedes replies: “Why do they say that?” He answers, “hot by day, cold by night.” She remarks that you could say the same for a woman without a man. Brandon: “I wouldn’t know about that.”
It is all complicated by her recently acquired husband, Philip Mercedes (Carlos Thompson). In one scene the three of them lie in tents a few feet apart, the Mercedes sleeping and Taylor lying awake watching Parker.
Of their experiences on the film, Taylor commented in a letter to his assistant Ivy Mooring, “Actually I’ve missed Ursula [Thiess] more on this trip than I ever have before. And that’s not because I’ve not been ‘taken care of’ in the romantic way while I’ve been gone. A little ‘location romance’ has developed which will end the minute I get home.” (Alexander, Linda J. Reluctant Witness; Robert Taylor, Hollywood and Communism, Tease Publishing, 2008, pages 284-284).
Parker said: There isn’t one of my leading men I haven’t gotten a kick out of, but Bob’s my favorite! Such a completely nice, sweet guy. To use a quaint old term, –such a gentleman. I felt real good working with him……Bob and I both expected there would be romance talk–Egypt is supposed to be a romance background—and we were only surprised it didn’t start sooner. But this time the old bromide is true–I assure you we’re just good friends. We don’t date at all. Bob dates Ursula Thiess and I go out with several different friends. (McClelland, page 14). Personally, I think they were both telling the truth. They were friends “with benefits,” as we say today but not serious about each other.
Many Rivers To Cross
Their last film together, Many Rivers To Cross, is a farce that started out as a drama. Ms. Parker is Mary Stuart Cherne, a Kentucky frontierswoman looking for a man. Robert Taylor is a trapper who is constantly pursued by women. When Ms Parker rescues Mr. Taylor from an Indian attack, she announces that “I found this’un and it’s mine.” (McClelland, page 82). After a shotgun (literally) wedding, Bushrod Gentry (Taylor) takes off and Cherne pursues him. Ms. Parker’s role is extremely physical and she carries it off with zest and vigor. “Parker was Taylor’s favorite leading lady and she complemented him on the screen more than any other actress.” (Wayne, Jane Ellen. Gable’s Women, 1978).
To complicate matters, on May 24, 1954 Robert Taylor married Ursula Thiess and she accompanied him to the set of Many Rivers To Cross. Despite the fact that no one, including Ms. Parker, had known about the marriage, there were no dramatics and filming proceeded without incident. This reinforces my opinion that Ms. Parker commitment to Robert Taylor has been exaggerated.
To summarize, Robert Taylor and Eleanor Parker were sizzling on screen, friends and probably lovers in real life. They were both hardworking, not temperamental and not fatheaded. They took their careers seriously and were reliable and totally professional. Today, neither is as widely known as many lesser actors. This is, in Mr. Taylor’s case, largely due to a sustained effort by the political left to erase his memory. Ms. Parker may just not have been good copy, which limited her publicity. She wasn’t sensational, didn’t give the tabloids anything to feed on. Both of them, however, gave decades of entertainment to viewers all over the world and they both deserve to be remembered.