Apr 1, 2016

On DVD: Eleanor Parker Takes the Lead in Lizzie (1957) and The Woman in White (1948)

Parker in 1948

Eleanor Parker had the talent and appeal of a movie star, but she never developed a recognizable star persona. Nor was she interested in doing so. The actress would become lost in her roles, seemingly becoming a new woman with each film. She could not be typecast, because no one knew who she was.

Known for being intensely guarded about her personal life, Parker felt that if she kept her anonymity, then she had done her job well. In Lizzie (1957) and The Woman in White (1948), now available from Warner Archive, the Academy Award-nominated actress demonstrates her skill for disappearing into a character in a pair of roles where she takes on multiple personalities.

In the title role of Lizzie, Parker plays three personas of a split personality. She is the anxious and high-strung Elizabeth, who works in the administration of a museum; the recklessly sexy Lizzie, who drinks and parties all night; and the placid, well-adjusted Beth, the woman who is supposedly her true self. Exhausted by sleepless nights she does not remember, and terrorized by death threat notes sent to her from her Lizzie persona, Elizabeth undergoes hypnotherapy in an attempt to exorcise her demons and discard her anxious and reckless selves.

Elizabeth lives with her alcoholic Aunt Morgan, played by Joan Blondell in a blowsy performance that proves that even when she's not at her best, the actress is always intensely loveable. Director Hugo Haas is not much of an actor, but he is charming as a concerned next door neighbor who enjoys flirting with Morgan. It was amusing to see western star Richard Boone as the psychiatrist. He has one of the weakest roles, basically spending his time explaining different concepts, but he is sympathetic and appealing.

In some respects, Lizzie doesn't have much to say. It has the frustrating notion of the era that a bit of psychotherapy will fix any problem, ignoring all the inevitable loose ends of an ailing mind. The script doesn't reveal much about Elizabeth besides her condition, making it a bit too blatantly a showcase for Parker's many transformations. Still, Haas is an endearing director, clearly empathetic to women and always treating his characters with compassion.

Lizzie always threatens to go over-the-top. When Elizabeth abruptly changes personalities and growls, "you drunken old slut" at her aunt, it almost looks like things are veering into camp. Parker manages to keep her trio of personalities under control though.

Parker's transformations are subtle and distinct, and she gives Lizzie and Elizabeth more depth and poignancy than you'd expect given the uninspired script. As an actress she was always able to channel the vulnerability of the women she played, which makes her particularly suited to this role. The placid, bland Beth is supposed to be her target persona, and while it is Parker's weakest characterization, it is perhaps a perfect portrayal of the desired traits in a mid-century woman.

It was also fun to see an absolutely adorable young Johnny Mathis crooning It's Not For Me to Say and Warm and Tender in the bar scenes.

Despite the lack of a strong male paramour, The Woman in White is a deliciously romantic gothic thriller. Based on the 1859 novel by Wilkie Collins, it jams a lot of story into a short running time, and it is never dull.

Gig Young is Walter Hartright, an artist who finds himself in the midst of a complicated family drama when he takes a position to teach drawing at a country estate. He is admired by his pupil, Laura (Eleanor Parker) and her cousin Marian (Alexis Smith) and is mystified by a mysterious woman in a white cloak who looks just like Laura. Hartright is suspicious of Count Fosco (Sydney Greenstreet), who is a beloved guest of the estate, but seems to be up to no good. As his quietly abused wife, Agnes Moorehead bides her time, and is more powerful than she appears.

With the exception of Young, who seems stiff and hardly appears to take a breath, the cast inhabits its characters well, lending them substance and the kind of eccentricities and dramatic sweep necessary in a good gothic tale. Greenstreet dominates, as he typically does, with his unique shady charisma, but Moorehead is a good match for him--the subtle yin to his yang. Smith was so reliably compelling whenever she got a good part, and here is yet more proof that she was underused in Hollywood. Her part is the least flashy, but she is the moral center of the film and she is somehow exciting in her courageous insistence on decency.

In her dual roles, Parker is the most romantic figure in the film. As Laura she at first seems shallow, but as the plot becomes more complex, she slowly reveals the intensity of her feelings. Parker is even better as the mysterious woman in white, a sleepless, slightly mad character who is nevertheless appealing in her determination to speak the truth. She is vulnerable, but with a bit of steel that helps her to survive when she should have long been destroyed.

Though he is one of the great composers of Hollywood movie scores, I've never been a big fan of Max Steiner's sentimental, weepy-violin style. His work here is much more passionate though, as if he tapped into some inner wildness. With effective use of the harp, he creates a score that is both excitingly romantic and menacing, mirroring the danger and forbidden love in the story.

This was the second time I'd seen this unusual drama and I found it even more intriguing with another view. It isn't quite a classic, but it has a lot to recommend it.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copies of the films for review. These are Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVDs. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.


  1. When I eulogised Eleanor Parker on my blog I described her as a character actress with the looks of a leading lady. And I certainly think that was true. She was drop dead gorgeous, but she was always able to create these three dimensional characters. And any given character she played might be very different from any she had ever played before.

  2. I agree with you Terry, and I think Parker saw herself as a character actress as well. Her biographer called her the Woman of One Thousand Faces, or something like that, and I agree. I love all of her faces too. One of my favorites.

  3. Excuse me if I'm double posting here. I prefer to think of Eleanor Parker as a Cameleon who changes her screen characterization according to the script or whatever is called for. Lon Chaney, the true man of a thousand faces, changed according to his personal makeup box which never really left his side.

  4. I posted once again as I just uploaded an entire website dedicated to this most highly talented "Lady Chameleon" as I prefer to call her. It's at www.eleanorforever.com in case you'd like to visit sometime.

  5. Having just uploaded a new website dedicated entirely this amazing actress, www.eleanorforever.com , I'd like others to take note that other than an occasional change of hair coloring or a stylish wig for whatever part she was playing, her makeup remained virtually the same. It was the personality of the character that changed--and quite effectively.

  6. Thanks for sharing the website. I look forward to checking it out!