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Greer Garson delivered an unsinkable performance in Mrs. Parkington (1944), a sweeping romance that bore more than a passing resemblance to the life of mining queen Molly Brown (played by Debbie Reynolds in the 1964 musical The Unsinkable Molly Brown and Kathy Bates in the 1997 epic Titanic). Her decades-spanning performance kept her many fans happy while also bringing her fourth Best Actress Oscar® nomination in a row. When she scored again for The Valley of Decision in 1945, she tied Bette Davis with a record for consecutive nominations that still stands.
Garson was the reigning queen of the MGM lot when the studio bought the rights to Louis Bromfield's best seller for her. She had scored a hit in 1941 aging several years as a real-life social crusader in Blossoms in the Dust. This time, she would stretch to fill a role spanning seven decades and spend a considerable amount of her screen time as a grand dame in her 80s. Just to make the challenge more comfortable -- and add some more box office insurance -- they re-teamed her with Walter Pidgeon, her co-star not just in Blossoms but also in the Oscar®-winning Mrs. Miniver (1942) and the previous year's Madame Curie. They would ultimately team for eight films.
Also reunited with Garson on Mrs. Parkington was director Tay Garnett, although he had never worked on an actual film with her. Rather, he had discovered her for American pictures back in the mid-'30s when he was in England scouting locations for an independent film to star Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. He was also scouting talent there and tested Garson for a leading role after being impressed with her stage work. He wanted to sign her for the role, but production delays led to the film's cancellation. The test wound up in MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer's hands a few years later, and he signed Garson to a long-term contract, making her a star with her first U.S. film, Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939). When Garnett came to MGM in the early '40s and scored hits with two wartime dramas, Bataan (1943) and The Cross of Lorraine (1943), assigning him to a Garson film seemed a natural choice.
Garnett's training as a gag writer for Mack Sennett and Hal Roach stood him in good stead working with Garson on Mrs. Parkington. In the film's early scenes, the 35-year-old actress had to overcome her typecasting as the great lady of the MGM lot to play a teenaged girl raised in a western mining town. Garnett got some help early on when Pidgeon agreed with him that Garson was playing her scenes with too much dignity. He slapped her on the rear end and advised her, "Relax, Honey. It was LAST year that you won the Oscar®." Garnett also came up with a piece of business Garson could use throughout the film to bring back her roots as a boarding-house maid: Whenever she became exasperated she would stick out her chin and blow a stray curl off her forehead. The first few times Garson did it, however, it didn't work. Finally, he told her she was trying too hard to be funny. "You mean I'm wearing a spangle on my nose?" she asked him. "Neon," he replied. From then on, whenever she overdid things, all Garnett had to do was put his finger on his nose, and she would pull back.
Also facing a challenge on Mrs. Parkington was character actress Agnes Moorehead. After years of playing spinsters and neurotics, she had to fight to convince studio executives that she could be elegant and witty enough for the role of Pidgeon's rejected mistress, who teaches Garson how to behave like a lady and ends up becoming her best friend. It helped greatly that she had just scored in a small role as Claudette Colbert's catty best friend in Since You Went Away (1944). Moorehead made the most of her few scenes in Mrs. Parkington, landing an Oscar® nomination and a Golden Globe. Her performance would anticipate her most famous role, as Elizabeth Montgomery's witty, glamorous mother on the hit TV series Bewitched.
Mrs. Parkington pleased Garson's growing legions of fans and even earned a few solid reviews, though most critics thought it a little too soapy for their tastes. It also brought Garnett and Garson another chance to work together the following year, in the upstairs-downstairs romance The Valley of Decision, which turned out to be an even bigger hit. With her popularity at MGM clearly growing, Garson won a new contract from the studio with very generous terms.
Producer: Leon Gordon
Director: Tay Garnett
Screenplay: Robert Thoeren, Polly James
Based on a novel by Louis Bromfield
Cinematography: Joseph Ruttenberg
Music: Bronislau Kaper
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, Randall Duell
Principal Cast: Greer Garson (Susie Parkington), Walter Pidgeon (Maj. Augustus Parkington), Edward Arnold (Amory Stilham), Frances Rafferty (Jane Stilham), Agnes Moorehead (Aspasia Conti), Selena Royle (Mattie Trounsen), Gladys Cooper (Alice, Duchess of Brancourt), Lee Patrick (Madeleine Parkington Stilham), Dan Duryea (Jack Stilham), Rod Cameron (Al Swann), Tom Drake (Ned Talbot), Cecil Kellaway (Edward, Prince of Wales), Hugh Marlowe (John Marbey), Tala Birell (Lady Nora Ebbsworth), Peter Lawford (Lord Thornley), Fortunio Bonanova (Signor Cellini), Kay Medford (Minnie), Hans Conried (Mr. Ernst), Alma Kruger (Mrs. Jacob Livingston), Doodles Weaver (Caterer), Chef Milani (Maitre d'Hotel), Donna Reed (Bit).
BW-124m. Closed captioning.
by Frank Miller