Sunday, December 16, 2018

Thelma Ritter, Queen of Wisecracks

When it came to delivering wisecracks, perhaps no one was better than Thelma Ritter. Throughout her career she played a variety of sharp-tongued characters. While Thelma Ritter played characters from maids to millionaires, all of them had one thing in common. Every character she played had an acidic wit that they were not afraid to use. While her film career was not as long as that of some well-known character actors, her talent for wisecracks has insured that she has remained one of the most popular.

Thelma Ritter was born on February 14 1902 in Brooklyn, New York. She started acting while she was only in her teens, appearing with various stock companies. After high school Miss Ritter received formal training in acting at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. Her career would not be an overnight success by any stretch of the imagination. She would not make her debut on Broadway until 1926 when she appeared in The Shelf. She would not appear on Broadway again until 1931, when she appeared in In Times Square

In 1927 she married actor Joe Moran. During the Depression they worked primarily in Vaudeville and small theatres. Unfortunately, as the Depression continued, it became harder and harder to find work. Eventually Miss Ritter left the stage to raise their two children. Joe Moran gave up acting entirely to become an agent. Still later he would go into advertising.

Fortunately for movie goers everywhere, Thelma Ritter eventually returned to acting. Initially this was in radio. In the late Thirties she appeared on such radio shows as Big Town, The Aldrich Family, and Mr. District Attorney. The Forties would see Thelma Ritter with a very busy career in radio. She appeared in several episodes of the radio shows Over Here, Treasury Star Parade, and The Theatre Guild of the Air. Her radio career would continue into the Fifties, when she appeared several times on Lux Radio Theatre.

Of course, like many radio actors, Thelma Ritter would make the transition to film. Director George Season was one of Thelma Ritter's old family friends. He asked her to play a small, uncredited part in his latest film, Miracle on 34th Street. The part was that of a mother who had been looking for a toy fire engine at the various department stores in New York City, who receives assistance from Kris Kringle as Macy's Santa. While the role was not a particularly big one, it was memorable. In fact, after seeing her in the film, 20 Century Fox head Darryl F. Zanuck placed Miss Ritter under contract. 

It would not be long before Thelma Ritter's film career would take off. In A Letter to Three Wives (1949) she once more appeared in an uncredited role, although one with more screen time. She played the Phipps' tart-tongued servant Sadie, whose favourite pastimes are drinking beer and playing cards. Miss Ritter made an impression on A Letter to Three Wives director Joseph Mankiewicz, who would cast her in his film All About Eve (1950).  In the film she played Birdie, the maid to Broadway star Margo Channing (played by Bette Davis). Like most of Thelma Ritter's characters, Birdie has a sharp tongue. Birdie is also sharp witted. Of the characters, it is Birdie who realises Eve's true nature from the very beginning. For the part Thelma Ritter would be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.

The Oscar nomination Thelma received for All About Eve would hardly be her last. In fact, she proved to be a favourite with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in the early Fifties. Thelma Ritter followed All About Eve immediately with The Mating Season (1951). In the film Miss Ritter played Ellen McNulty, a former hamburger stand operator whose son has married a socialite. Due to some confusion on the part of daughter-in-law Maggie (played by Gene Tierney), Ellen finds herself masquerading as a servant in order to better get to know her in-laws. For her role in the film Thelma Ritter would receive a second Oscar nomination for Best Actress in a Supporting Role. 

Thelma Ritter was  on a bit of a roll with regards to Oscar nominations in the early Fifties. After appearing in As Young as You Feel (1951) and The Model and the Marriage Broker (1951), Thelma Ritter appeared in With a Song in My Heart (1952), for which she received a third Academy Award nomination for Best Actress in a Supporting Role. In the film Thelma Ritter played Clancy, a wisecracking nurse who cares for injured singer Jane Froman (played by Susan Hayward).

Thelma Ritter would receive a fourth Oscar nomination for Best Actress in a Supporting Role in as many years for Pickup on South Street (1953).  Both film noir and an espionage thriller, Pickup on South Street was somewhat different from many of the films in which Miss Ritter appeared. What is more, her role is somewhat different from many she had played before as well. She played Moe Williams, ex-pickpocket and police informant (who is not below selling her information to criminals as well). While most of Thelma Ritter's characters had soft hearts beneath their acid tongues, for the most part Moe is an opportunist who looks out primarily for herself. That having been said, even Moe had her limits. Thelma Ritter's performance as Moe numbers among her best, particularly as it is fairly different from most of the roles she played.

After Pickup on South Street, Thelma Ritter would not receive any more Oscar nominations for a few years, although she would play one of her best known roles during that period. In Rear Window (1954) she played the insurance company nurse Stella, who is assigned to take care of photographer "Jeff" Jefferies (played by Jimmy Stewart) as he recovers from a broken leg. Like most of Thelma Ritter's characters, Stella is down-to-earth, plain spoken, and sharp tongued. While she wouldn't receive an Oscar nomination for the role, Stella remains one of the best known and arguably the most quintessential roles Miss Ritter ever played.

It was also during this period that Thelma Ritter began appearing on television. Her television debut would be as a guest on Lux Video Theatre in 1954. Her first actual role on television would be in an episode of The Best of Broadway in 1955. Over the next few years Thelma Ritter guest appeared on such shows as Goodyear Television Playhouse, Philco Television Playhouse, The 20th Century Fox Hour, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and The United States Steel Hour. In 1957 she returned to Broadway in the musical New Girl in Town

Of course, Thelma Ritter continued to appear in films. In addition to Rear Window, she also appeared in the movies Daddy Long Legs (1955), Lucy Gallant (1955), The Proud and Profane (1956), and A Hole in the Head (1959). It was her movie following A Hole in the Head for which she would receive her next Academy Award nomination for Best Actress in a Supporting Role. Thelma Ritter played Alma, the alcoholic housekeeper of interior decorator Jan Morrow. Not only does Alma hit the bottle a bit too much, but she is also earthy and possessed of a great deal of common sense. It seems quite possible that Alma is Thelma Ritter's most famous character, with the possible exceptions of Birdie in All About Eve and Stella in Rear Window.

Thelma Ritter would follow Pillow Talk with a very different role in a very different movie. She played Isabelle Steers in The Misfits (1960), best known as the final film of both Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable. As might be expected, Isabelle makes her share of wisecracks and has a wry sense of humour. She is also gutsy and possesses a bit of a self-destructive streak. Indeed, she has been married multiple times. 

Thelma Ritter's sixth and final Oscar nomination for Best Actress in a Supporting Role would be for Birdman of Alcatraz (1962). In the film Thelma Ritter played a very different sort of role from those she was best known for. She played Elizabeth McCartney Stroud, the mother of prisoner Robert Stroud (played by Burt Lancaster). Mrs. Stroud is fiercely devoted to her son, to the point that she is overprotective of him. To a large degree Mrs. Stroud is a one-note character until later in the film, which makes it surprising that Miss Ritter was nominated for the role when she had played much better ones for which she was not nominated (The Misfits being an example). Regardless, Thelma Ritter is always entertaining and she makes the most of the role.  Sadly, along with Deborah Kerr and Glenn Close, Thelma Ritter holds the record for being the most nominated actress for an award in an acting category without a win.

Over the next few years Thelma Ritter would appear in several more notable films. In How the West Was Won (1963) she played Agatha Clegg, a woman travelling on a wagon train and looking for a husband. In For Love or Money (1963) she played millionaire Chloe Brasher, who hires a matchmaker for her three daughters. In Move Over, Darling (1963), she played Grace Arden, the mother of Nick Arden (played by James Garner), who remarried after his first wife (played by Doris Day) has been lost at sea only to turn up alive. Boeing, Boeing (1965) saw Thelma Ritter playing another housekeeper, this time Bertha, who must help her employer, journalist Bernard Lawrence (played by Tony Curtis), juggle his various girlfriends. 

While Thelma Ritter continued to appear in movies throughout the Sixties and would even return one last time to Broadway in the production UTBU in 1966, she would only make two appearances in dramatic TV shows during the decade. She guest starred on the obscure Western Frontier Circus in 1961. Her last ever appearance in a dramatic television show was playing fortune teller Madame Delphine Sagittarius on an episode of Wagon Train in 1962.

Thelma Ritter's last appearance in a feature film would be a cameo in What's So Bad About Feeling Good in 1968. She made her last appearance on television on January 23 1968 on The Jerry Lewis Show. It was only a little over a year later, on February 5 1969, that Thelma Ritter died from a heart attack at age 66.

While Thelma Ritter continues to be known for wisecracking characters, it must be pointed out that there was still a good deal of variety in those characters. While most of Thelma Ritter's characters were very intelligent, in Perfect Strangers (1950) she played scatterbrained juror Lena Fassler. In The Model and the Marriage Broker (1951), she played matchmaker Mae Swasey who, unlike many of her characters, is primarily motivated by money. She played Maude Young (essentially a fictional version of Molly Brown) in Titanic (1953). Over the years Thelma Ritter played everything from secretaries to a rancher to a millionaire, and while they all uttered wisecracks, their personalities could vary. What is more, while Thelma Ritter is probably best known for her work in comedy, she was equally adept at drama. After all, two of her best performances are in Pickup on South Street and The Misfits. While at 21 years Thelma's Ritter's film career was much shorter than those of many character actors, she remains well remembered and beloved because she was so very good. 


Anonymous said...

When I saw this entry on the blogathon list I couldn’t wait to read it, and it was worth the wait! I love Thelma and I think this is a great tribute, Terry. I didn’t realize she had won so many accolades! Thank you for the great read! Again ��.

Caftan Woman said...

You are so right to point out the variety of characters that Thelma Ritter played to perfection while retaining that wit that audiences came to expect. It must have been a thrill for writers to know that Thelma would be reading their lines.

Silver Screenings said...

I can't choose a favourite Thelma Ritter role, but I think I admire her performance in "Pickup on South Street" best, just because it is so different from her other roles, as you noted.

This is a wonderful tribute to Thelma Ritter.

Brittaney said...

Ritter was taken from us much too soon! She improved every movie she appeared in with her solid, talented presence. Her performance as Alma will always be one of my very favorites though.