February 14, 1902– I just adore Thelma Ritter. She is one of the classiest character actors to have sent her individualistic groove across cinema screens. Ritter had cool. She could coolly wither many a co-star away with just a single line of dialogue. She played wives, mothers, maids, wise types, tough cookies, working-class gals, solidly real women, and take-no-lip/mince-no-words females. I love that seen-it-all demeanor and her crackling NYC accented voice.
Ritter was born in Brooklyn into a comfortable middle-class family. At Forest Hills High School she performed in her school plays. After graduation, she studied at The American Academy Of Dramatic Arts.
She took a variety of jobs including small roles on stage. While playing in summer stock, she met her future husband, Joseph Moran, a VP at the noted advertising agency, Young & Rubicam. Riiter briefly left acting to raise their two children. She revived her career in 1940, working steadily in radio.
Ritter’s big show biz break came relatively late in life. In 1946, when she was 44 years old, her friend, director George Seaton, offered Ritter a small role in what would become a favorite classic Christmas film Miracle On 34th Street. Her role was a walk-on, playing a tired mother doing Christmas shopping at Macy’s. That performance made an impression on, Twentieth Century Fox honcho Darryl F. Zanuck who signed her to a contract.
Her second role was another bit part, this one in Joseph L. Mankiewicz‘s A Letter To Three Wives (1949), which got Ritter her third film job, playing Birdie in Mankiewicz’s All About Eve (1950), one of the greatest films of all time. It brought Ritter her first Academy Award nomination, and she held her own alongside Bette Davis and Celeste Holm. Her performance shows Ritter at her wisecracking comic best.
She received a second Oscar nomination for Best Supporting for her work in the screwball comedy The Mating Season (1951) with Gene Tierney. She also received Oscar nominations for With A Song In My Heart (1952) and for my favorite Ritter performance in Pickup On South Street (1953). That’s an astonishing four nominations in four years.
Ritter either chose good scripts or the Gods of Show Biz were smiling down on her because she appeared in many top-notch films during the rest of her career including: Titanic (the good one, 1953), as James Stewart’s salty nurse in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954), Pillow Talk (1959) opposite Doris Day, and Birdman Of Alcatraz (1962) as the mother of Burt Lancaster’s character. She received her fifth and sixth Supporting Actress Oscar nominations for Pillow Talk and Birdman Of Alcatraz.
Ritter continued to give quality performances in films in many genres: Westerns like How The West Was Won (1962), frothy comedies such as Move Over Darling (1963) and thrillers, including The Incident (1967).
Ritter was a working actor and she was not afraid to happily take roles in the new medium of television: Goodyear Television Playhouse (1955), General Electric Theater (1960), and Wagon Train (1962). Her final appearance was on the variety series The Jerry Lewis Show (1968).
For one of Ritter’s few Broadway appearances, New Girl In Town (1957), choreographed by Bob Fosse, she won a Tony award for Best Actress In A Musical, tying with her costar, Gwen Verdon. Ritter liked working on stage and performed in summer stock and tours of national plays and musicals throughout her career. Ritter worked in screen musicals also, most notably in Daddy Long Legs (1957) with Fred Astaire.
In 1968, Thelma ended her film career much as she started it, with a walk-on role in a film directed by George Seaton, What’s So Bad About Feeling Good?. She’d come full circle. Ritter took her final bow in 1969, just days before her 67th birthday, suffering a heart attack after that fateful appearance on The Jerry Lewis Show, which might have killed me too.
As mentioned earlier in this #BornThisDay tribute, my own favorite Ritter performance is in the great film noir, Pickup On South Street. Ritter plays a tough NYC lady hustler. She is only in the film for about 20 minutes, but every moment is a lesson in crucial, affective, scalpel-sharp acting. Her character is unlike anything else Ritter has ever done. Brilliantly and truthfully written by the film’s director Samuel Fuller, Ritter’s character is a seen-it-all woman, a stool pigeon positioned between the cops and the crooks, selling secrets, knowledge, and alliances. Ritter has a scene that is heart stopping and heartbreaking. She is like a character out of a Tom Waits song. Seek this one out.
In All About Eve, it’s not only the snide quips, the innuendos, the straight out comedy that are so effective in the way Ritter portrays Birdie. She is able to show disdain and judgment in scenes even when she doesn’t speak. There’s a scene where she is severely disapproving of Bette Davis’ Margo Channing and she displays it simply, yet significantly, by entering Channing’s room, setting down the breakfast tray she’s brought in, walking over to open the shades without saying a word. It says so much while saying nothing.
Ritter is probably most famous for Rear Window. Oddly, it failed to earn her another Oscar nomination. It is a Hitchcock masterpiece, and it would not be nearly as great without Ritter’s work. Her nurse character, Stella, admits that she has “a nose for trouble.” A self-described “maladjusted misfit“, Stella weaves herself into all the plot lines in this story. Her dialogue, delivered in that familiar, Brooklyn, working-class cadence is wise and very funny: “nothing has caused the human race more trouble than intelligence.”
I always perked up when I heard a casting director announce: “Get me a Thelma Ritter type!” Unbelievable, I know, but I actually played a Thelma Ritter role (sort of). In Applause (1970), the stage musical based on All About Eve, I was Birdie, renamed Duane, and made into a gay male hairdresser for no particular reason at all. Still in my teens when I did this role in summer stock, I still used Ritter’s work in film as my jumping-off place for my character, aping her voice and persona.
I nominate Ritter for Coolest Character Actor Of All Time. Don’t you feel that she deserves it? I would really like to receive a review that could read: “Stephen Rutledge was brilliant as a male version of Thelma Ritter, world weary, wise-cracking and wise…”