Sometimes I think a forgettable professional name is all that prevent some public figures from achieving a lasting place in the popular memory. Such might be the case with regards to Jean Parker (Lois May Green, 1915-2005). As a handle, hers is a bit “Jane Smith”, forgettable, yet she played key roles in numerous lasting classics. The two which will mean the most to comedy fans are Zenobia (1939) in which she played Oliver Hardy’s daughter, and Flying Deuces (1939), in which she plays Georgette, the French girl whose rejection causes Laurel and Hardy to join the Foreign Legion.
Originally from Montana, Parker was adopted by a family in Pasadena. She originially intended to be a fine artist or illustrator. When she was 17 she won a drawing contest and had her picture published in the newpaper, bringing her to the attention of casting people at MGM. You can see how that happened in almost any photograph of her. Her large luminous eyes jump out you. She looked something like a young Claudette Colbert. Initially she was cast in juvenile parts. Though inexperienced, they threw her into the deep end of the pool immediately. You can see her in Rasputin and the Empress (1933, the only film featuring all three Barrymore siblings), Gabriel Over the White House (1933) with Walter Huston, Frank Capra’s Lady for a Day (1933), George Cukor’s Little Women (1933), and Rene Clair’s The Ghost Goes West (1935). In adulthood, she was more commonly cast in B movie fare. Some of the more notable films of this period include Bluebeard (1944) with John Carradine, and the title character in the pictures Detective Kitty O’Day (1944) and Adventures of Kitty O’Day (1945).
In 1946 Parker made her Broadway debut in the play Loco with Elaine Stritch, followed by Burlesque (1946-47) with Bert Lahr. She then went in as a replacement for Judy Holiday in the original production of Born Yesterday (1948-49), remaining with the show through its national tour. Holiday reclaimed her most famous role for the 1950 screen version. That year, Parker was in The Gunfighter with Gregory Peck. Another notable late Parker film was Black Tuesday (1954) opposite Edward G. Robinson. Otherwise, she worked mostly in B movies and television through 1959. Then, after a six year absence she returned to films in late 1965 to appear in Paramount’s Apache Uprising with Rory Calhoun, Corinne Calvert, Richard Arlen, Lon Chaney Jr, Red Barry, Johnny Mack Brown, Arthur Hunnicutt, DeForest Kelly, and George Chandler.
For more on classic comedy read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.