Jean Parker

Spirited B-movie heroine
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Luise-Stephanie Zelinska (Jean Parker), actress: born Butte, Montana 11 August 1916; married 1936 George MacDonald (marriage dissolved 1940), 1941 Douglas Dawson (marriage dissolved 1943), 1944 Curtis Grotter (marriage dissolved 1949), 1951 Robert Lowery (one son; marriage dissolved 1957); died Woodland Hills, California 30 November 2005.

Filmgoers of the Forties will have fond memories of the actress Jean Parker as the shapely, spirited heroine of a series of vigorous B-movies. Produced by the team of William C. Pine and William H. Thomas (known as "The Dollar Bills"), they usually had backgrounds that promised fast action, such as oil derricks, high explosives or airfields, with titles like Power Dive, The Wrecking Crew and I Live on Danger, and Parker was often the subject of rivalry between two brawny leading men - usually played by Richard Arlen and Chester Morris.

Although these films brought Parker her greatest notoriety and popularity, she had already spent nearly a decade in movies, with her image in the Thirties that of a far softer ingénue, with appealingly wide hazel eyes, a beguiling innocence and a non-cloying sweetness - she was an effective Beth, for instance, in George Cukor's version of Little Women (1933). When her film career faded, she was to have a successful period as a stage actress, particularly with an acclaimed performance opposite the legendary comic Bert Lahr in the classic play Burlesque.

Of Polish-French descent, she was born Luise-Stephanie Zelinska in Butte, Montana, in 1916 (although studio publicity had her real name as Lois Mae Green and her birthplace as Deer Lodge). Her parents separated soon after her birth, and she moved with her father to various locations before settling in Pasadena, California, where she displayed a flair for drawing while in high school. With ambition to be a commercial artist, she entered a poster competition in 1932 and won.

Her picture (in a bathing suit) appeared in the Los Angeles press and caught the eye of Louis B. Mayer's secretary, Ida Koverman, who persuaded Mayer to give her a screen test. A contract followed (along with a new name, Jean Parker) and she made her screen début in Rasputin and the Empress (1933), the only film to star all three Barrymores. "Lionel was so kind to me," she said,

giving me helpful advice, and John was a charmer, who said I had "maddeningly beautiful ankles", but Ethel hated me. But I wasn't impressed with her either, come to think of it.

Parker played small roles in six more MGM releases of 1933, including Gabriel Over the White House with Walter Huston, and Secret of Madame Blanche with Irene Dunne. She was also loaned to RKO for her first substantial role, as a young girl who thinks her mother (a street pedlar) is a society matron, in Frank Capra's classic sentimental comedy Lady for a Day (1933). Gangsters help the mother to pose as a wealthy dowager when the girl visits New York before her wedding, and the scenes between Parker and May Robson (as the mother) had an affecting poignancy.

RKO (and George Cukor) were impressed enough for the studio to borrow her again to appear in Little Women (1933), with the other March girls played by Katharine Hepburn, Frances Dee and Joan Bennett. "Playing Beth was the hardest thing I ever did," she said:

I was scared stiff, for I had no real training in acting. To make it harder still, I was only 16 while the others were all over 24. I was terribly shy then . . . but all the girls did everything they could to help me, particularly Miss Hepburn.

RKO then gave Parker her first starring role, when she replaced the ailing actress Dorothy Jordan in the melodrama Two Alone (1934). Her roles at MGM included that of a lame girl in love with an ice-cream vendor in Have a Heart (1934) and a southern belle in a spy story set during the Civil War, Operator 13 (1934) starring Gary Cooper and Marion Davies.

One of her finest MGM movies was Sequoia (1935), the story of a puma growing up with a deer, which took over a year to make and, rarely for the time, was filmed mainly on location in Sequoia National Park. The studio then sent her to the UK for one of her most popular films, René Clair's The Ghost Goes West (1935), with Robert Donat:

My favourite co-star of all - I had a great schoolgirl crush on him. I was so in love with him I shook all over all the time. He had such a sense of humour and we had such a good time. I left my heart in England . . .

In March, 1936, Parker secretly eloped with the writer George MacDonald, and she blamed the move for alienating the studio. Three years later, she wrote in the magazine Movie Mirror of her return to MGM after the marriage:

I was looking forward to all the nice things people would say, the luck they would wish us. But

on everyone's face was an expression of frank disapproval . . . the studio was deeply distressed and upset. Marriage was the last thing they wanted for me.

Let go by MGM, Parker played the female lead in the King Vidor western Texas Rangers (1936), but the following year, in financial difficulties, she accepted (against friends' advice) an offer from the B-movie studio Monogram, to star in Romance of the Limberlost with Eric Linden. "My friends told me that it was the worst move I could have made, I'd never get an 'A' picture after that, but I refused to let my pride interfere."

Parker made nearly 40 B-movies from 1937 to 1945, including Penitentiary (1938), Romance of the Redwoods (1939), She Married a Cop (1939) and Sons of the Navy (1940), along with such Pine-Thomas titles as Flying Blind (1941), Power Dive (1941), Torpedo Boat (1942), The Wrecking Crew (1942), Minesweeper (1943) and High Explosive (1943). In The Navy Way (1944) her co-star was another B-movie stalwart, Robert Lowery, who would become her fourth and final husband.

Her finest low-budget film was released in 1944, the PRC production Bluebeard, starring John Carradine as the infamous 19th-century strangler and directed by the cult figure Edgar G. Ulmer. Nineteen forty-four also included two other popular films, Lady in the Death House and Detective Kitty O'Day, the latter spawning a sequel, The Adventures of Kitty O'Day (1945).

Parker then left Hollywood to make her Broadway début in Loco (1946), a comedy by Dale Eunson and Katherine Albert. Parker won praise in the title role of Loco Dempsey, a glamorous but over-talkative model, but the play lasted for only 37 performances.

Later the same year Parker co-starred with Bert Lahr in a revival of the 1927 backstage drama Burlesque, which ran for over a year - longer than the original production. Although Lahr dominated the show, as an alcoholic music-hall performer, Parker was fine as his faithful and long-suffering wife, the role that had made a star of Barbara Stanwyck. In his Theatre Book of the Year, the critic George Jean Nathan stated that all the major performances were superior to those of 1927.

Parker then toured as Billie Dawn in the hit comedy Born Yesterday, co-starring with Lon Chaney Jnr as her gangster boyfriend. She returned to the screen when Gregory Peck personally asked that she be cast in The Gunfighter (1950), but she was disappointed when her role was switched at the last minute from that of Peck's wife to that of a blowsy saloon singer.

She made seven more films, the best of which was Black Tuesday (1954), in which she played the sweetheart of a condemned killer (Edward G. Robinson), then retired to raise her son by Lowery.

Tom Vallance

Comments