Hello, Miss Parker…
Eleanor Parker certainly got around in terms of the roles she played, and in my opinion one of the more unusual ones was that of Zosh in the 1955 film, The Man With the Golden Arm. Oh golly, it’s a doozy. It’s a little bit beatnik. It’s a little bit Requiem For A Dream. In the end it’s sobering and disturbing with a big dash of exhaustion.
The movie begins in the slums of some unnamed city, where Frankie (Frank Sinatra) has just returned from prison and what they once called drug rehab. He’s a former heroin addict who’s been told to avoid his old haunts or he’ll get hooked again.
After stopping at the bar for a drink, Frankie goes home to his wife, Zosh (Eleanor Parker), who’s in a wheelchair after a car accident Frankie caused. She’s ecstatic that Frankie is home again and clings to him as if he’s been gone for ten years. Zosh is an extremely nervous person who has a whistle she blows when her nerves get the better of her.
Frankie’s all het up about about making a new start. He’s not going back to his old job as a poker dealer. He’s not hanging around with the people who got him in trouble anymore. Frankie learned to play the drums in jail and he’s going to join a band. He’s got a letter of reference from the doctor who treated him, so he’s as good as in.
Well, we all know what they say about good intentions. Frankie tries. He tries really hard. The problem is that Zosh doesn’t want him to change. She wants him back at his old job with the same people who get in trouble for the same things. She doesn’t believe Frankie can make it as a drummer. It’s not long before Frankie’s seeking out his old dealer for hits.
One person who does want Frankie to change is Molly (Kim Novak), Frankie’s girl on the side. She makes him promise not to touch heroin again and against her better judgement lets Frankie practice his drums in her apartment.
Frankie labors under the delusion that he can do it all, that his addiction is no big deal. So he deals poker sometimes and takes heroin on the sly. He can still nail his audition and become a first-class drummer. He’s the Man With the Golden Arm. Drumming, dealing, and shooting up? Frankie can take everything in stride. At least, that’s what he tells himself.
Unbeknownst to everyone, Zosh hides a secret. She doesn’t want her cover blown because she’s afraid Frankie will leave her. She’s mad that Frankie hangs out with Molly, which is understandable, but it’s hard to tell who’s more of an addict.
This film is tough to watch, though it’s not nearly as hardcore as it could be. We don’t see the heroin being prepared, but we see Frankie’s eyes as the drug takes effect. We also see his eyes when other people notice he’s fallen off the wagon. Frankie looks like a man who was beaten before he started.
Having never been addicted to drugs myself or been around many people taking illicit drugs, I can’t say from firsthand experience what it’s like to take them or come off of them. However, I have heard things from people who have observed this kind of behavior, like my husband, who used to be a corrections officer. We have a saying at our house: “Nothing’s worse than a leprechaun on PCP.”
Yes, I know that’s cryptic, but the takeaway is that addiction pushes people to do crazy stuff. It is a perennial part of the human condition that we didn’t understand very well until just recently. In the time of The Man With the Golden Arm, it was understood even less. Advances had been made in treating addictions by the nineteen fifties, at least psychologically, but addicts were often housed in insane asylums or regular hospitals. Ironically, one of the treatments for alcoholism in this period was LSD. It wasn’t until the eighties that addictions were recognized as diseases.
Nowadays treatment focuses on the whole person with various therapies coming into play. Simple isolation and detoxing are no longer considered effective. Looking at The Man With the Golden Arm through that lens, it’s easy to see how Frankie sets himself up for failure, and it’s hard not to hope he can find a way out somehow.
So. How did Man, with its overt drug use, intense violence, obvious adultery, and hardcore codependency get past the Production Code? It didn’t even try.
Originally a book by Nelson Algren, the rights were bought by John Garfield and then acquired by Otto Preminger after Garfield died in 1952. Filming a story like this was rather sticky since it broke all the rules, but Preminger decided to throw caution to the proverbial wind and the film had a “Forbidden” stamp put on it by the Hayes office.
This move only made the public flock to see The Man With the Golden Arm, which not only brought in mondo box office returns but a Best Actor nomination for Frank Sinatra, who ended up losing to Ernest Borgnine, his costar in From Here To Eternity. It also set the trajectory for the Production Code to lose authority in Hollywood and then be abandoned altogether.
While The Man With the Golden Arm is absolutely Frank Sinatra’s movie, loads of kudos must be given to Eleanor Parker, whose Zosh is so wound up she seems ready to snap at any moment. Really, this woman couldn’t be more neurotic. She sits in her wheelchair clasping her hands and squeezing her fingertips as if she wants to pull her digits off one by one.
While she’s a peripheral character for the most part, she tries to clamp onto Frankie like a bulldog. Zosh is at once repulsive and pitiful. It’s the right thing for Frankie to be faithful to his wife, but the relationship has nowhere to go but down.
Some thought Parker was miscast and Shelley Winters would have been better in the role, but Parker is her own kind of wonderful. She looks like someone Frankie would have been dazzled by at one time. Her energy is very intense, especially when she feels the walls of her deception closing in on her. I’m not sure Shelley Winters would have had the same effect, amazing though she was. Parker and Sinatra liked working together, and she later remembered him as a charming bad boy and a perfect gentleman.
The Man With the Golden Arm is a draining experience, but it’s also a valuable one, showing the dangers of drug abuse as well as what Parker could do when she played against her type.
For more of the great Eleanor Parker, please visit Maddy at Maddy Loves Her Classic Films. Thanks for hosting this, Maddy–it was a great idea! Thanks for reading, all, and I hope you’ll check back on Tuesday for my contribution to a certain surprise blogathon…
McClelland, Doug. Eleanor Parker: Woman of A Thousand Faces. Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 1989.