Born in Brooklyn, New York on St. Valentine’s Day in 1905, Thelma Ritter was doing stock company bit parts around New York even before finishing high school. Thelma later trained at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and worked for 14 years on stage, mostly in New England stock companies. She worked on radio for much of the 1940s, would go on to win a Tony Award for Best Actress in a musical in 1958 for “New Girl in Town,” would receive six Academy Award nominations, all for Best Supporting Actress and received an EMMY nomination in the same category for a “Goodyear Playhouse” 1951 version of “The Catered Affair.” Thelma Ritter was the epitome of what I consider a “working actress,” both because she continued to work in several mediums while gaining accolades in film and because of the “down to Earth,” everywoman persona she portrayed throughout her screen career. She remains one of my favorites, here’s a look…
In 1946, when director George Seaton came to New York to film Miracle on 34th Street, he asked family friend Thelma Ritter to play a small part. That uncredited role, a mother who is sent to Gimbel’s department store to complain about a toy Kris Kringle promised her son, made such an impression on producer Daryl F. Zanuck that he ordered her part be expanded.
Thelma may have caught the attention of Zanuck in Miracle but she remained unbilled in her next films, as a receptionist in Henry Hathaway’s 1948’s film noir, Call Northside 777 and as Connie Gilchrist’s card playing partner in Joseph L. Mankiewicz‘, A Letter to Three Wives (1949). She finally received billing in her first Oscar nominated role as Bette Davis’ wisecracking dresser/maid/companion, Birdie, in Mankiewicz’ 1950 classic, All About Eve but I’ll get to Birdie in a bit.
Thelma Ritter’s Oscar nominations mean her work was recognized more by her peers than were most, if not all, other character actors of repute. In fact, she is one of the most nominated actors who never won the statue, tied with six nominations and no wins with Deborah Kerr (although Kerr’s nods were for lead roles). In the overall scheme of things those nominations mean little as the number of great supporting roles in film by the many faces we love are numerous – any one leaving as lasting an impact as the next. However, these accolades do probably mean Ritter’s name has been recognized by more people through time than many of those other great actors. Although it would have little impact on her career. As far as roles went, Ms. Ritter’s career followed that of other character actors’ down the line. She was typecast almost from her entrance into film as a strong female presence, often portraying the comic second. She never played a lead in the movies. Ritter’s characters usually represent reliability through their possession of wit and wisdom – often times allowing us, as audience members, an insight the main players are only privy to as the action plays out. There are two particularly good examples of this that come to mind, All About Eve and Rear Window.
As Birdie in All About Eve, Thelma plays a retired Vaudeville actress turned dresser, assistant and confidant to mega stage star, Margot Channing (Bette Davis). Although Ritter’s Birdie is not a huge role, it is extremely important to the story. Because Birdie is one of the holy few who can speak candidly to Margot and tell her how it “really is,” through exchanges with Birdie we get to see sides of the real Margot we’d otherwise never get to see. Not to mention that from the moment Margot’s friend, Karen Richards (Celeste Holm) introduces the innocent, starstruck Eve Harrington (Anne Baxter) to all of us, Birdie sees right through her and her sob story. Everyone else in the cast buys Eve’s story, hook line and sinker. As is the norm, only through hard knocks do they learn the plight of Eve – as the story unfolds.
“What a story! Everything but the bloodhounds snappin’ at her rear end.”
Most interesting of all, if one pays attention, is that in Birdie we get the conscience of All About Eve. The character disappears for a good portion of the film. It’s no coincidence that she’s absent for almost the entire time when Margot loses her grip, her career wanes. In other words, we lose site of Birdie and Margot loses perspective and her judgment, which gives Eve full reign to cast her web of deceit unencumbered. Very interesting, if I do say. As much as I would have loved many more scenes of Thelma in Eve, the truth is the story could not have materialized in the same way with Birdie being a constant reminder of the obvious.
In the end, Eve Harrington proves Birdie was right all along. But of course, when is Thelma Ritter ever wrong? And ever not funny as there are many instances when her unique delivery and great comedic timing is on full display.
Margo: You bought the new girdles a size smaller. I can feel it. / Birdie: Somethin’ maybe grew a size larger. / Margo: When we get home, you’re going to get into one of those girdles and act for two and a half hours. / Birdie: I couldn’t get into the girdle in two and a half hours.
One final note of Thelma Ritter’s acting in All About Eve and her physicality. It’s not only the snide remarks, the innuendos, the straight out comedy that are so effective in the way Ritter portrays Birdie. This woman also shows disdain and judgment in scenes even when she doesn’t speak. There’s a scene in the film where she is severely disapproving of Margot and displays it simply, yet ever so significantly, by entering Margot’s room, setting down the breakfast tray she’s brought in, walking over to open the shades without saying a word. As someone who knows Margot and whose opinion Margot trusts, she could not have made a stronger indictment. It’s quite something to see the power of that silent presence force the powerful Margot (and Davis) to look away. Why, it’s worthy of an Academy Award nomination.
Ritter’s best remembered role is as James Stewart’s wisecracking (what else?) nurse, Stella, in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 classic, Rear Window. Oddly, it failed to earn her a fifth consecutive Oscar nomination. So much for basing performances on those types of accolades. Stella is a great part, meatier than some of the other roles for which Ritter received Academy acknowledgement, and she kills it. My all-time favorite of Alfred Hitchcock’s films, the one I consider his masterpiece would not be nearly as great without Thelma Ritter. And certainly I cannot discuss Ritter, the “character” who speaks the truth, who tells it like it is, who tells US what we should know and not mention…
“We’ve become a race of Peeping Toms. What people ought to do is get outside their own house and look in for a change.”
Well, HELLO! There’s the entire movie in a nutshell and the reason why we’re at the movies. Throughout scenes during which Stella, the insurance nurse, warns Jeff Jeffries of the wrong path he’s taking in his life, she admits she should have been “a gypsy fortuneteller” because she has “a nose for trouble.” A self-described “maladjusted misfit,” Stella weaves herself into all the plot lines in this story both on and off-camera. From playing the role of match-maker by trying to knock sense into Jeff regarding his commitment problems to long-time love interest, Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly) to getting involved in the “investigation” through the rear window to, finally, becoming the incarnation of how we ourselves are unable to resist the power of the image. Her words, delivered in that familiar, Brooklyn, working-class cadence and vernacular, are wise and often very funny, “nothing has caused the human race more trouble than intelligence.” But she cannot resist acting against her own wisdom, just as we cannot resist Hitchcock. Stella has always represented Hitchcock’s message in the film to me. As if he dares us to look away even though we know we are being manipulated.
Ritter is perfect as Stella for all the reasons I’ve mention thus far. Her comic delivery of this character’s strong convictions, sense of right and wrong, despite the fact her actions eventually go against her beliefs, are representative of who we are. Although she takes it to the extreme, becoming worse, in a sense, than Jeff himself who she warns throughout the film about the dangers of “looking.” While Jeff’s physical limitations offer at least some excuse for his obsession, increasingly, as the film progresses, Stella crosses the line being present in Jeff’s apartment to “peep” well beyond the call of nurse duty. Anyway, I can go on and on about this one, a film that deserves a hell of a lot of attention. For now suffice it to say Alred Hitchcock knew that Thelma Ritter was the one to be in the know. It’s a great performance by an outstanding actress in a brilliant film. Although it keeps in line with Ritter’s familiar on-screen persona, the street-wise mixed with the hopeless romantic.
“When a man and a woman see each other and like each other they ought to come together – wham – like a couple of taxis on Broadway, not sit around analyzing each other like two specimens in a bottle.”
In Michael Gordon’s, Pillow Talk (1959) Thelma plays another housekeeper, confidant, and maid except this time to Jan Morrow, played by Doris Day. I have to admit, I saw this movie recently and found it difficult to get through. I’d seen it countless times before, loved it as a child from watching it on television but…well, this is one I outgrew. The premise is so silly. And I know, I’ve defended “camp” in other posts and will always do so. Some great film fun is found in campy, old movies. But this one isn’t fun camp, it’s silliness trying to be sincerely funny. I don’t know. Anyway, the best part? Thelma. She’s wonderful in it and that’s what this post is about. I only wish she was in more of it.
Not unlike some of Thelma’s other parts, she’s somewhat of a fool in Pillow Talk but seeing her is a delight even before she speaks. Even while nursing a hangover, as Alma likes to imbibe quite often, she’s the voice of reason. The “reason” in this case has to do with that no nonsense voice telling Day’s character, Jan Morrow, to open her eyes and heart to the sites and sounds of the ever-handsome Rock Hudson. Always with that impeccable delivery…
“If there’s anything worse than a woman living alone, it’s a woman saying she likes it.”
Despite his womanizing ways, Alma swoons for Brad Allen (Hudson) – she’s ever the romantic. This is not that unlike the “match-making” stance she takes in Rear Window, described above, when she tries to convince Jeff Jeffries to open his eyes and see what he has in front of him in Grace Kelly’s character.
I love Thelma in Pillow Talk and she received one of her Academy Award nominations for playing Alma. But in truth, it’s a silly role that has her either nursing that hangover or listening to Brad on the party line. Only someone with the acting chops of a Ritter could pull it off as far as making it memorable, in my opinion. She does. One final thought on what is perhaps the most important reason why it’s important to even have an Alma in Pillow Talk and that is the role the character plays in relation to the social norms of the times. While the still-pressing production code demanded the ever-prudish Jan (Day) could not have an open attitude regarding sexual relationships before marriage, Alma’s attitude was the “hey, that’s the natural order of things and what you’re missing out on” one. It’s refreshing and her innuendos are the only spice in this all-too-sweet movie.
A 1953 noir, Sam Fuller’s Pickup on South Street(1953) is about a petty thief (Richard Widmark) who ends up with secret microfilm that leads to his getting caught between the FBI and communist spies who both want the film. I haven’t seen this film in quite a while but enjoyed it immensely when I watched it with my favorite part being, (surprise) Thelma Ritter. In Pickup, Thelma plays Moe, a street-wise sales woman, of sorts, who turns snitch. She’s great in this dramatic role, although her familiar witty asides and wisdom are present in most of her scenes. Once again Thelma shows what a great physical actress she was but here she emphasizes the dramatic instead of the comedic. There’s a scene, the one she probably received her Academy Award nomination for, that’s unforgettable. When I think of this film it’s the scene that comes immediately to mind – wonderful. Instead of describing it, take a look for yourself…”A Fancy Funeral” (MAJOR SPOILER ALERT!)
It always gets to me, that one. So many noir films were stylized to adhere (strictly) to the genre formula, part of which was a certain speech cadence of the actors, a recognizable manner and speed of speech, if you will. Then here’s Thelma, grittier than usual with that voice and accent, such a great contrast that fully realizes the character as separate, distinct from everyone else in this. Seems all the more real. So tired and worn. No pretense. Like all of us when we too are tired and worn.
I might add in keeping with the theme at hand that even the role of snitch points to the fact she knows more than other people. Ritter’s natural talents made her a no-brainer to play street-wise characters, as already mentioned, but it’s also worthy of note that these were resourceful and highly perceptive. All of the examples given in this write-up illustrate that. She brought, with or without words, a sense of having lived through a lot – a “been there / done that” essence and attitude. In Moe, we get that in spades, as we do in Pillow Talk, only manifested through comedy.
I think I’ve presented a few of the key examples of Thelma Ritter’s great film career. I’d be remiss, however, not to mention an episode of the classic television show, Alfred Hitchcock Presents that I watched a couple of weeks ago titled, “The Baby Sitter,” directed by Robert Stevens. The episode, which aired in 1956, stars Thelma Ritter as a baby sitter who gets involved in a murder. This is not one of the best episodes of the show I’ve seen and I am a fan of the series, but it’s noteworthy not only because Thelma stars but also because her co-star is another of the great character actresses, Mary Wickes. A grand comedic talent in her own right. Watching both of these ladies together is a thrill for film geeks like me, not to mention appropriate for this blogathon event. Also, Thelma has her full-on romantic showing in this one. To her detriment, I might add. So here’s a recommendation – take a look at this episode, at only 28 minutes long, it’s well worth your time. (By the way, Mary Wickes is covered in this event by Brandie over at True Classics).
Thelma Ritter continued her film career through the 1960s, garnering her sixth and final Academy Award nomination in an eery, dramatic role as an obsessed mother in John Frankenheimer’s, Birdman of Alcatraz in 1962, starring Burt Lancaster in the title role. She also reprised the “comedic second” type of role in Michael Gordon’s, Move Over Darling in 1963, which stars Doris Day and James Garner in a remake of the 1940, Garson Kanin hit, My Favorite Wife. Although it can’t be compared to the original, Move Over Darling is enjoyable. I’ve always preferred the pairing of Doris Day and James Garner to Day and Rock Hudson, for the record, plus there’s Thelma Ritter in another role as the voice of reason, which is never a waste of time.
By the mid-1960s, Thelma Ritter’s roles progressively disintegrated, relegating the great actress to nonsensical parts. In 1968, Thelma ended her film career much as she started it, with a minor role in a film directed by George Seaton, What’s So Bad About Feeling Good? She’d come full circle. But on her journey she’d made her mark. She earned, bit part by bit part and Oscar nod by Oscar nod, perhaps the greatest accolade that can be bestowed on a character actor – when producers and/or directors through the years want “a Thelma Ritter type,” everyone, whether cinephile or casual film fan, knows precisely – sight and sound – what they are referring to. Thelma Ritter, WHAT A CHARACTER!
- All About Eve (1950) – nominated Best Supporting Actress
- The Mating Season (1951) – nominated Best Supporting Actress
- With a Song in My Heart (1952) – nominated Best Supporting Actress
- Pickup on South Street (1953) – nominated Best Supporting Actress
- Pillow Talk (1959) – nominated Best Supporting Actress
- Birdman of Alcatraz (1962) – nominated Best Supporting Actress