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Eleanor Parker - Star of the Month
Remind Me
,The Last Ride

The Last Ride

Eleanor Parker was one of those rare film figures who achieved stardom despite being able to act. Before the lens cover came off any Hollywood camera aimed at her, she demonstrated her seriousness by turning down screen tests from 20th Century Fox and Warner because she wanted to get more stage training. In 1941, after a stint at the Pasadena Playhouse, she took the filmic plunge, was immediately signed to a Warner's contract, and plunged into the studio routine of the novice, providing voiceovers, appearing in shorts and in other hopefuls' screen tests. Her first role, in They Died with Their Boots On (1941), was left on the cutting room floor. Her first appearance came in a wartime short, Soldiers in White (1942), as a nurse. When she was moved to the B unit, it was a promotion.

Between then and her A-list breakthrough, opposite John Garfield in Pride of the Marines (1945), she went before the cameras (or the microphones, in the case of voiceovers) 15 times in less than four busy years. It didn't take her long to make an impression. In 1950, she got the first of her three Oscar® nominations as a young widow toughened up fast in Caged (1950), which set the mold for women's prison movies. Her other nominations were for her performance as driven cop Kirk Douglas' wife in Detective Story (1951) and as Australian soprano Marjorie Lawrence in the biofilm Interrupted Melody (1955), detailing the diva's real-life struggle with polio. Many felt that her corrosive performance as the crippled wife of Frank Sinatra's junkie musician in The Man with the Golden Arm (1955) was far more powerful.

In all, Parker made some 60 films and segued smoothly into TV for the last decade of her performing career. She's probably most widely remembered for her performance as the Baroness in the vastly popular The Sound of Music (1965). Her biography by Douglas McClelland is called The Woman of a Thousand Faces. Its nod to Lon Chaney (and Joseph Campbell) is not, presumably, wholly unintentional. Parker's versatility and full submersion in character likely kept her from the highest ranks of stardom, where big fixed personas are a prerequisite. Let's just say that after her B-movie apprenticeship, Parker had many faces left to bring to her subsequent roles. A case in point is the crisp, workmanlike cop melodrama, The Last Ride (1944), which was practically the last film of its kind in which she appeared before going on to bigger and better things.

It would be satisfying to believe that even in this lesser but wholly professional effort Parker's star quality shone through. But the truth is she hasn't much of a role and many a young actress could have played it. She plays a boarding house keeper's daughter named Kitty Kelly. And yes, this is a film that requires you to indulge its stereotypes, circa 1944. The two grown brothers lodging there are Pat and Mike Harrigan. Pat (Richard Travis) is a cop. Mike (Charles Lang) is a crook, recycling the alignment that Jimmy Cagney and Donald Cook emblazoned across the screen in The Public Enemy (1931). (To round out the stereotyping, other cops are named Delaney, Shannon and O'Rorke; crooks are named Genna, Molino and Correlli!) The Harrigan siblings, working both sides of the moral street, are united on one thing. Both are sweet on Kitty.

Because a crook's life, at least in this film, is less demanding than a cop's, Mike has more time to schmooze Kitty. But both men rarely begin or end a meal at the Kelly table without a phone call yanking one or the other away to duty, leaving poor Kitty with little to do beyond expressing genteel dismay. To be fair, Travis energizes his scenes. Before turning to filmed crime, he performed in Western and daredevil cliffhangers, and brings to the table an ability to project urgency. It goes without saying that the brothers will find themselves on a collision course. One needn't be a seer to guess how it will end, with Kitty left to struggle bravely on with the survivor, assuming she hasn't had enough of both.

The most satisfying aspect of The Last Ride is its ability to reflect the year in which it was made. It revolves around a tire-bootlegging gang raking in plenty during the wartime years when almost all rubber went to the war effort. The gang headed by oily, treacherous Cy Kendall steals tires from cars, slaps a cheap retread on them and sells them as new. They even make house calls and accept checks. Offhand, this is the only film I recall where a murder weapon is a worn tire that explodes when a young hell-raiser floors it to 100 mph and dies with his date alongside him on a high-speed turn. Later, the killing reverts to gunplay, although in between the bad guys car-bomb a witness. The cars, by the way, pack a nostalgic punch, partly because they look like everyday cars, not sleek rentals for the latest Great Gatsby remake. It's fun to watch those pre-war Buicks, Plymouths, De Sotos and even a LaSalle on parade, even when much of the driving is against back projections!

Jay Carr



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