Saturday, November 22, 2008

Thelma Ritter

"The best of all character actresses" was how Frank Capra referred to her, and he should certainly know. Thelma Ritter was the go-to actress for sassy confidants and gritty but warm mother figures. Her New York toughness contrasted with a gentle face and bearing that made her an essential part of such classics as "Miracle on 34th St," "Rear Window," and "All About Eve."

Born in 1905 in the center of the world, Brooklyn, New York, Ritter entered the theater world during the Great Depression, no mean feat, but still managed to gain notice for several parts during the 1920s and 30s. By 1940, Ritter had seemingly retired to Forest Hills, with two small children to raise. But like something from a studio publicity release, Ritter lucked out. A chance friendship with Phyllis Seaton, wife of director George Seaton, led to her being cast in a bit part as a bedraggled shopper at Macy's in 1947's "Miracle on 34th St." Ritter had never acted on camera before and hadn't been on stage in nearly ten years. Yet her part is a standout in the film; certainly as the mother of two in New York she brought her own experience to bear, but Ritter seizes her moment and runs with, leaving a lasting impression as the New Yorker redeemed by the uncynical attitude of old Kris Kringle.

Once Ritter's performance hit the screens, the 42-year old found herself in high demand. As a contract player she was free to go from studio to studio, an arrangement that worked out well for her. In 1950 Joseph L. Mankiewicz cast her in his sharp black comedy "A Letter to Three Wives":

After enjoying working with her, Mankiwicz brought Riter back for his next production, putting her in "All About Eve" as Bette Davis' sarcastic housekeeper. She achieved the unthinkable: holding her own against Bette Davis in scene after scene:

Enterting her film career after already enjoying a family life, Ritter was in an enviable position, and was able to pick and choose roles. Consequently she never appeared in more than a few films a year at most, but her hits generally outweighed her misfires, and Ritter herself was never less than superb. Often in life we should celebrate the simple pleasures, and if there's anything more enjoyable than watching Thelma Ritter and Jimmy Stewart banter back and forth in "Rear Window," I don't wanna know about it:

In the 1950s, Ritter would also return to her first love, the stage. She starred in "New Girl in Town," the musical adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's "Anna Christie" and took home a Tony for her performance. And her great performances kept on coming: "Pickup on South Street," "Titanic," "Pillow Talk,"  and co-starring with Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe in "The Misfits" (1961):

Perhaps the worst thing that can be said about Thelma Ritter is that she either chose not to or wasn't offered a great deal of variety in her movies roles. She was almost always cast as a working-class mother or maid with a heart of gold. Occasionally she would play an unsympathetic role, as in 1962's "Birdman of Alcatraz," but these were rare exceptions.

Some tend to look at this as a failing; I personally think it charming, as it links Ritter to the Golden era of character actors, who were lauded for inhabiting the same persona over and over. Writer Paddy Chayefsky, seemingly chafing at Ritter's inability to become an A-list star, said of her "She was a character actress, which means that they don't write many starring parts for middle-aged women." She was nominated six times for an Academy award but never won  In the book "Actresses of a Certain Character," author Axel Nissen refers to Ritter as "The Last Character Actress"and it's a fitting title to a point. Perhaps "The Last Great Classic Character Actress" would be more appropriate. Or maybe just "Thelma Ritter: Awesome."

Before we go, let's enjoy Ritter's ability to liven up an otherwise dull movie. Here she is fumbling around with Jerry Lewis in 1965's "Boeing Boeing." You're welcome:

Suggested Viewing:
-Miracle on 34th St
-All About Eve
-Rear Window
-The Misfits

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