The big day has finally arrived! Check back to this post today and tomorrow to read all of the reviews and articles discussing Eleanor and her screen work. Thank you again for helping me celebrate the fabulous Eleanor Parker.
It would be all too easy to watch The Sound Of Music(1965) and to simply perceive Baroness Elsa Schrader(Eleanor Parker)as a wicked stepmother and the villainess of the piece. But if you pay closer attention to her, you will find she is actually anything but a villainess. I have long considered Baroness Elsa Schrader to be a very misunderstood character.
At first glance the Baroness does bring to mind the stereotype of the wicked stepmother as presented to us in films such as Snow White(1937),Cinderella(1950), and The Parent Trap(1961 and 1998) – women who are elegant and beautiful on the outside, but who conceal the fact that inwardly they are self-centred and harbour cold hearts riddled with callousness and cruelty.
Eleanor Parker as Baroness Elsa Schrader. Screenshot by me.
That description actually couldn’t be further from the truth in regards to Baroness Elsa.She is actually a kind and decent lady. She is also quite lonely and wants to find lasting love. She is someone who always puts on a brave face in public and comes across as being happy and outgoing all of the time, only very rarely does she allow someone to see the vulnerability she hides.
When I first watched The Sound Of Music I was a very young girl, but despite being so young, even I could see at that age that Elsa wasn’t really a horrible person. She may well struggle to connect with the Von Trapp children, but I’ve always thought that to be because they are distant with her and she’s unsure how best to win them over. She does try to connect with them though.
The Baroness and Gretl. Screenshot by me.
She also seems genuinely moved and happy when Gretl presents her with some flowers and she gives her a cuddle. I know that she jokes with Max about sending the children to boarding school, but I’ve always considered that to be just a passing joke when he remarks that he doesn’t see her as a mother to that many children. Does any of this make her a wicked stepmother? No.
Elsa is also genuinely in love with Captain Georg Von Trapp and she has been his saviour and safe harbour for several years. He loves her in return.The Captain shunned the world for a long time after the tragic death of his wife. It was Elsa who rescued him from his despair.
As they take a stroll in his beautiful back garden, the Captain gazes tenderly at Elsa and tells her what she means to him. “Charming,witty,graceful. The perfect hostess. And, uh- You’re going to hate me for this – in a way, saviour. I would be an ungrateful wretch if I didn’t tell you at least once that it was you who brought some meaning back into my life.”
The Captain does indeed love Elsa, but as the film goes on he listens to his heart and realises he is actually in love with Maria. If Elsa does a bad thing in the film, it is when she conspires to break up Maria and the Captain by pressuring Maria to leave her job as governess at the Von Trapp home.
Although my heart breaks for Maria at this moment it also breaks for Elsa. You see it is Elsa who picks up on the love developing between Maria and Georg, and she not only picks up on it, but she does so even before Georg and Maria themselves really understand what they’re starting to feel for one another.
Elsa is understandably confused and hurt by this development. She does what any woman would do when she detects something developing between her man and another woman – she does everything in her power to nip it in the bud before it has a chance to fully bloom. Is she unkind and harsh forcing Maria to believe the Captain’s attentions are a mere passing interest and meaningless? Absolutely. Does this make her a villainess? Not at all, she is simply a scared woman trying to keep her man.
I love the ball scene where she sees the Captain and Maria dancing. As the dance comes to end, Elsa walks over to the couple – who are being watched by all the children, who are absolutely delighted to see these two falling for one another – and says “That was beautifully done. What a lovely couple you make.” As she says that, Liesl and Friedrich, the two eldest Von Trapp children,share a knowing look with one another. They know that she knows what’s going on.
Bit chilly out tonight, isn’t it? Screenshot by me.
I always get a good giggle out of the wonderfully bitchy exchange between Elsa and Georg which follows that scene. As they walk back into the party, Elsa says “all that needless worrying, Georg. You thought you wouldn’t find a friend at the party.” To which he replies “Bit chilly out tonight, isn’t it?” Elsa then replies “Oh, I don’t know. Seemed rather warm to me.” 🤣👍
If you still doubt she isn’t a villainess, then you need look no further than the scene where she willingly gives up her beloved Georg to Maria. She spares him from having to break up with her. She also makes it clear that she knows where his heart truly lies and that she has accepted that. Their farewell scene on the balcony is so touching and beautiful.
Elsa bids farewell to the man she loves. Screenshot by me.
The way Eleanor performs in that final scene is just heartbreaking. Elsa gives up the man she loves because it is the right thing to do morally. She also retains her dignity and self respect through the classy way she ends the relationship. I hope she found herself a good man who loved her very much and treated her like a queen for the rest of her life.
I think we have Eleanor to thank for being able to convey all of this subtext and character depth to us, often through expressions and body language alone. In the enjoyable and extremely underrated The Trapp Family(1956), an earlier German film telling the same story, the Captain’s girlfriend is very much an obvious and unlikable villainess. It is a credit to Eleanor that her portrayal of Elsa made the character much more complex, relatable and very human.
The Sound Of Music was the film which first introduced me to Eleanor Parker. I became a fan of hers instantly, something which was confirmed for certain when I watched Scaramouche(1952) next. She was such a superb actress. She had that rare gift to be able to elevate even a small and not well developed character into someone we don’t forget. She gave a lot of depth to the characters she played. Baroness Elsa Schrader remains one of Eleanor’s finest screen moments.
The Naked Jungle is one wild film. There’s a vast amount of sexual tension crackling away between Eleanor Parker and Charlton Heston, something which leads to their shared scenes and dialogue delivery being so sexually suggestive that you really do have to wonder quite how those moments got approved by the infamously prudish and sharp eyed censors. Throw some oppressive jungle heat,killer ants(known as the Marabunta)and deadly native rituals into the mix, and you’ve got yourself quite the exciting and fun flick.
The Naked Jungle is directed by Byron Haskin and is based upon the short story Leiningen Versus The Ants, which was written by Carl Stephenson and published in the December 1938 issue of Esquire magazine. The story was adapted for the screen by Philip Yordan and Ranald MacDougal. The original story is more about man struggling against the elements than anything else, and while that remains the case here, the main focus of the film is really on the relationship between Leiningen and his bride, Joanna.
Joanna arrives and is greeted by Incacha and then her new husband. Screenshots by me.
The year is 1901. Joanna Leiningen(Eleanor Parker)travels from New Orleans into the sweltering heat of South America to join her husband, Christopher Leiningen(Charlton Heston) on his plantation.She is a strong willed, intelligent and cultured lady, who isn’t afraid of a challenge. She is met off the boat by Incacha(Abraham Sofaer), her husband’s right hand man. Her husband however has not come to meet her.
We very quickly learn that she and her husband have never even met before now! She is a friend of his brother and he picked her to become Christopher’s wife. Joanna married Christopher by proxy(something which I never even knew existed before seeing this film), with Christopher’s brother standing in for her husband to be at the ceremony back home.
Eleanor Parker as Joanna. Screenshot by me.
Now, I’m pretty sure that most of my male readers would be overjoyed and punching the air upon getting Eleanor Parker as their missus, but not so Christopher Leiningen. When Joanna arrives, this dude stands around being all moody,constantly clenching his granite jaw, and trying to find fault with his lady at every opportunity. He has no desire to hold her hand, much less to move things into the bedroom. It’s clear that she likes him and admires what he has achieved and built through years of incredible hard work, although considering his attitude towards her when she first arrives it’s a bit difficult to see why she likes him.
The piano scene. Screenshot by me.
When Christopher learns that Joanna was once married before(cue some truly epic dramatic music courtesy of Daniele Amfitheatrof)he has a meltdown because it means she isn’t untouched and ‘pure’ any longer, so he goes on a rant about all the things in his home being pristine and new because that’s how he wants them. He says “Madam, this piano you’re sitting at was never played by anyone before it came here.” This leads to Joanna delivering one of the best and most sexually suggestive lines ever written,”If you knew more about music, you’d realise that a good piano is better when it’s played”. You tell him, girl!🤣
We soon learn that Christopher has no experience whatsoever with women, and that it is Joanna who is actually the sexually experienced and more worldly of the two; this role reversal being something which is quite daring and unusual for the time the film was made. You’d struggle today to find a situation like this in a film, much less find such intimate subject matter in a flick from the classic film era.
With this development, Christopher becomes the most interesting character in the film. He left home when he was still in his teens and against the odds built up the plantation from nothing and made money. He denied himself female companionship for years,choosing instead to wait on finding a wife until he could support her and had plenty of free time to focus on his personal life.
Now that he finally has a wife, he has to come to terms with the fact that she is not inexperienced and nervous like him, but instead she knows more about love and sex than he could ever dream of. You can understand how all of this could mess the guy up a bit. It also becomes apparent that his gruffness and bad temper is a facade to hide his insecurities and worries behind, he’s really not an unpleasant person.
Who knew that applying insect repellent oil could be this sexy? Screenshot by me.
It soon becomes obvious that Christopher can’t deny his growing feelings for Joanna and he softens and opens up more to her. But will they ever get around to acting on their desire for one another? Things are further complicated by the arrival of the Marabunta, a ferocious colony of army ants. Unlike most other ants these do not build stationery nests and instead remain constantly on the move. The ants start destroying the land and nearing ever closer to the Leiningen plantation. Can they be stopped?
Elizabeth Taylor and Dana Andrews in Elephant Walk. Image source IMDb.
The film and characters remind me very much of another film which was made just the year before, Elephant Walk. Both films feature a young woman leaving her previous life behind her to join her husband on his distant plantation; the husbands in both films are consumed by their lifelong work on their plantations and are distant from their wives, yet at the same time they love their women deeply but don’t quite know how to show it;and both films have animals and nature proving they can be stronger and more damaging than man at times. Both films also star Abraham Sofaer as the trusted long-term employee to both Charlton Heston and Peter Finch’s characters.
The difference between these two films lies in the behaviour and reactions of the female characters – Eleanor Parker’s sticks with her man throughout and puts up with a lot, whereas Elizabeth Taylor’s struggles more and finds solace and love in the arms of another man(Dana Andrews), while never losing her love for her husband(Peter Finch).
Charlton’s performance is good enough and it’s interesting seeing him play a different type of character than we’re used to seeing him portray, but it is Eleanor who single handily steals the film. I love how bold and strong she is in this. This is one of my favourite performances of hers. I love how Joanna stands up to Christopher, isn’t easily afraid, and how she won’t back down without a fight. Joanna is feisty, kind and determined. Eleanor and Charlton are terrific together and it’s difficult to imagine other actors in those roles, much less two different actors being blessed with the same chemistry shared by Eleanor and Charlton.
Sadly the rest of the characters, especially the native people, are not well developed at all which is disappointing, but everyone in the cast does their best with the material they have. The film is a lot of fun with something in it for everyone and you sure won’t forget the scenes between Charlton and Eleanor in a hurry. The film ends much too abruptly for my tastes though.
This is one of my entries for my Eleanor Parker blogathon next weekend.