This post is part of the third annual What a Character! Blogathon hosted by three classic movie bloggers: Aurora (@CitizenScreen) of Once Upon a Screen, Kellee Pratt (@IrishJayHawk66) of Outspoken & Frecked, and Paula Guthat (@Paula_Guthat) of Paula’s Cinema Club. The Blogathon is devoted to those wonderful actors who rarely got leading parts, exhibiting instead a versatility and depth many leading players wished they had.
I’ve always loved character actors — those talented folks who hardly ever received above-the-title billing but immeasurably enhanced every movie in which they appeared. It’s a funny distinction. I’ve interviewed some A-list stars who balk at the term, proclaiming (quite correctly) that all good actors are “character actors” if they’re doing their jobs right. But there’s no question that there have been many performers over the years who truly deserve this moniker for their ability to transform every movie they’re in, even if they lacked their own fan clubs. For me, one of the greatest character actors of all time was the wildly talented Thelma Ritter (1902-1969). Ritter was best known for playing a series of no-nonsense New York-born working class women who spoke frankly to everyone, regardless of their station in life. Although she trained as an actress and appeared in many plays when she was younger, Thelma Ritter left the stage for many years to raise her two children. The actress was 45 years old when she made her first film.
When director George Seaton went to New York to film the classic Miracle on 34th Street (1947) starring Maureen O’Hara, Edmund Gwenn, and Natalie Wood, he called on Ritter, who happened to be a family friend, to take a tiny part as the exhausted mother of a little boy waiting in line at Macy’s to meet Santa Claus. Ritter ends up fighting with the bearded old man when he promises the boy new skates for Christmas. Her scene was brief but highly memorable. Ritter’s second film role, in Joseph Mankiewicz’s A Letter to Three Wives (1949) with Jeanne Crain, Linda Darnell, Ann Sothern, and Kirk Douglas was also small but the actress made a similar impact in that film.
Mankiewicz remembered Ritter the following year and cast her as Birdie, the veteran theatre actress who works for Bette Davis’ Margo Channing in the near-perfect All About Eve. I say “near-perfect” because my one complaint about All About Eve is that the character of Birdie inexplicably disappears midway through the film. But when she’s there, she steals every scene. When Anne Baxter’s Eve Harrington first meets the gang in Margo’s dressing room, everyone buys the sad, tragic tale of her life and her seemingly innocent idol worship of Margo. Everyone but Birdie, that is. After Eve brings the group to tears with stories of her dead soldier husband and how she found a reason to live by going to see Margo Channing’s performance every night at the theatre, Ritter’s Birdie breaks the spell with the following perfectly delivered line: “What a story! Everything but the bloodhounds snappin’ at her rear end!”
The banter between Davis and Ritter as Margo and Birdie is perfect in every scene:
Margo: You bought the new girdles a size smaller — I can feel it.
Birdie: Something 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.
Later, just before Ritter disappears from the film, Margo questions Birdie about her dislike of Eve.
Margo: Birdie, you don’t like Eve, do you?
Birdie: You looking for an answer or an argument?
Margo: An answer.
Margo: Why not?
Birdie: Now you want an argument.
Thelma Ritter didn’t write that sparkling dialogue herself, of course, but she delivered every line with such expertise and great comic timing that she always left you wanting more. Ritter got a much-deserved Academy Award nomination for All About Eve and five other supporting actress nominations in her career. She never won the award but was highly respected among her peers in Hollywood. Alfred Hitchcock recognized her talents and cast her as Jimmy Stewart’s physical therapist in Rear Window (1954). In addition to helping him with his broken leg, Ritter’s Stella freely dispenses advice to Stewart’s Jeff, particularly about his gorgeous girlfriend, Lisa, played by Grace Kelly. Once again, every line that comes out of Ritter’s mouth is a gem.
Stella: When two people love each other, they come together — WHAM! — like two taxis on Broadway.
Jeff: She wants me to marry her.
Stella: That’s normal.
Jeff: I don’t want to.
Stella: That’s abnormal.
Hitchcock hired Ritter again in 1956 to play the lead in an episode from his TV anthology, Alfred Hitchcock Presents. I recently watched her episode, called “The Baby Sitter,” and loved every minute of it. When I logged onto the Internet Movie Database to read up on the rest of the cast, I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw a comment from a user that described the episode as follows: “Over-acting ridiculously as always, Thelma Ritter is a thoroughly classless mess and ruins any potential this one may have had. I did watch it to the end, though, so I must be some sort of masochist.” What?! Flabbergasted by this commenter’s review, I went through the laborious process of registering on IMDb just so I could defend Ritter’s expert acting.
“Thelma Ritter is a ‘thoroughly classless mess?’ As far as I’m concerned, Ritter immeasurably lifts every film or TV show she’s in, including this one. Her comic timing, delivery, and poignancy are beyond reproach and I find her completely believable in every scene in this teleplay. I think she is one of the most talented character actresses of the 20th century.”
I can’t think of a single Thelma Ritter performance I don’t love, even when she was in movies that would never make my Top Ten list. She was great in The Mating Season (1951), With a Song in My Heart (1952), Titanic (1953), Daddy Long Legs (1955), and The Proud and the Profane (1956); she added priceless comedy bits to two deliciously fun Doris Day movies, Pillow Talk (1959) and Move Over, Darling (1963); and she managed to hold her own beautifully with co-stars Clark Gable, Marilyn Monroe, and Montgomery Clift in Arthur Miller’s troubled but brilliant The Misfits (1961) directed by John Huston. She made a strong impression in the all-star Cinerama extravaganza How the West Was Won (1962) and received her final Oscar nomination that same year for her stunning portrayal of Burt Lancaster’s mother in The Birdman of Alcatraz.
Though passed over by the Motion Picture Academy, Thelma Ritter won a Best Actress Tony Award in 1958 for New Girl in Town (in a rare tie with co-star Gwen Verdon), a musical based on Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christie, and an Emmy Award for the original TV version of Paddy Chayefsky’s The Catered Affair which was later made into a film starring Bette Davis and Debbie Reynolds. Following her death in 1969, Chayefsky wrote a poignant tribute to the actress in The New York Times:
I did one show with Thelma Ritter, a television play called The Catered Affair, an unfocused piece in which the first act was farce and the second was character-comedy, and the third was abruptly drama. There aren’t a dozen actresses who could make one piece out of all that; Miss Ritter, of course, did. The fact is, she was never properly publicly recognized as an actress. She was blessed—or cursed—with a tough urban wit and a voice to match so she got all the gravelly Tenth Avenue parts. But anyone who saw her as Burt Lancaster’s rigidly obsessed mother in Birdman of Alcatraz got an idea of what this woman could do.
In my show, she was enormous, not the sort of epithet usually pinned on Miss Ritter, who was known particularly for the astringency of her performance. Her acting emotion had first to filter through that urban crust of hers before it exhibited itself externally. Her power as an actress was consequently one of depth. Even her sketchiest roles had this substance of human embattlement. Given a role with implications like Linda Darnell’s beer-swigging mother in A Letter to Three Wives or Marthy in New Girl in Town, she revealed to her audience the tragedy of the human condition, which is the definition of great acting. She was a supreme comedian and a kind and gentle woman who was esteemed by everyone who ever worked with her.
In the end, that has to be, I suppose, the final tribute to an artist. She had become archetypical in her own profession; for many years now, there has been a wide range of women roles described by casting directors as “a Thelma Ritter type.” She was a character actress, which means only that they don’t write many starring parts for middle-aged women. The point is, she was a great character actress, the best we had, and she was not expendable.