The Ritter Fix
One hundred years ago. 1922. That’s when Thelma Ritter left The American Academy of Dramatic Arts and entered the gritty business of acting. Gaining little recognition at the start of her career, it would be a couple of decades before she would be a household name, she would eventually leave behind a legacy of rich characterizations in wonderful films that culminated in a record six Academy Award nominations.
Ritter was born February 14, 1905, in South Brooklyn, New York to Dutch immigrant, Charles Vaname Ritter, and Scottish lady, Lucy B. Hale. Charles was an office manager at a shoe company and like a lot of blue-collar immigrant families of the time, money was tight. However, the acting bug had bitten Ritter after performing in school plays during high school and she developed this unwavering dream to attend the prestigious American Academy of Dramatic Arts and become a professional actress. She worked hard and saved, eventually making enough to make the dive and pursue her dream.
After leaving The Academy, Ritter’s career began to rise steadily doing stock theater, radio, and even two plays on Broadway; The Self in 1926 and In Times Square in 1931. While working for a theater troupe in New England in the late 1920s she met actor Joseph Moran. The two fell in love and were married in 1927. They continued to try and make a living out of being actors and performers, doing everything from jingle contests to vaudeville, but with the Great Depression upon them, hard economic times pushed Joesph to take up a job at the advertising agency Young and Rubicam. This would prove to be a fruitful decision as Joseph became quite successful at being an ad man, rising to the position of vice-president of the company. Nineteen thirty-seven brought the birth of the couple’s first child, Joseph Anthony, and with that Ritter decided to retire from acting to raise little Joseph and live a quiet, comfortable life in Forrest Hills, New York. For a lot of people, the story would end here, but for Ritter, it was just a rest stop on the journey to becoming one the most renowned character actresses of all time.
During her time away from the acting world she became good friends with neighbor Phyliss Seaton. Wife of George Seaton. Hollywood director George Seaton. In the late 1940s, Seaton was casting his new picture Miracle on 34th Street, and he “[needed] a suitably anonymous ‘salt-of-the-earth’ type actress to play a weary Christmas shopper at Macy's with her child in tow” (Nissen 170). Well, this description fit Phyliss’ friend to a tee, and seeing as Ritter had begun acting again doing radio, she decided to do it. Her part in the picture may have been a small humble one that went uncredited but it caught the eye of famed movie producer Darryl F. Zanuck who also happened to be the head of 20th Century Fox. Zanuck was transfixed by Ritter and demanded that she be put under contract.
For her next two films, Ritter would stay uncredited. Call Northside 77 is a memorable film-noir starring James Stewart and Lee J. Cobb, directed by Henry Hathaway. A Letter to Three Wives, which featured alumnus Kirk Douglas (Class of 1941), was also a hit and proved to be more advantageous for Ritter as it was directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz who was so enchanted by her that he wrote the role Birdie in All About Eve just for her.
Considered one of the best films of all time, All About Eve was Ritter’s big break and it saw the come-back of one of Hollywood's premiere leading ladies, Bette Davis. The film is about a seemingly innocent naive girl, Eve, who is enchanted by the theater and the acting world. She develops an obsession with renowned actress Margo, who she eventually befriends - becoming her protege, but her true colors are eventually shown as she is willing to do anything to rise to the top. Ritter plays Birdie, Margo’s assistant and the only one who warns her about the treacherous Eve. The film is beloved for its taut script filled with one-line zingers and a high-energy performance from Bette Davis, whose career took a new direction after this film. The film was nominated for a whopping fourteen Academy Awards winning six. Ritter earned her first “Best Supporting Actress” nomination.
Eve shot Ritter into notoriety and she suddenly was finding her name billed next to the stars. In 1951, The Mating Season brought her another Oscar nomination. A classic tale of mistaken identity, Ritter plays Ellen McNulty, who loses her New Jersey hamburger stand and decides to surprise her son who is busy getting married to a socialite in Ohio. When Ellen arrives the bride mistakes her as their new cook. Ellen does not correct her and convinces her son to keep up the charade. The bride’s mother, played by Miriam Hopkins, comes to visit and doesn’t approve of the son or mother and, of course, hilarity ensues. Ritter occupies some of this romp’s best scenes and once again riddles out some witty dialogue.
The next two years brought some hits and misses. The Model and the Marriage Broker houses one of Ritter’s finest performances and marks the first time she received above-the-title, star billing, an unusual feat for a character actress at the time. Titanic was a modest hit that starred Barbara Stanwyck and Robert Wagner. With a Song in My Heart is a less-memorable film but, nonetheless, still garnered Ritter her third nomination. Another Oscar nomination was thrown her way for her turn as Moe Williams in the Samuel Fuller directed, Richard Widmark-led Pickup on South Street. A thrilling film-noir, the film follows a pickpocket who accidentally picks a secret message and becomes a target of a Communist spy ring. Ritter runs away with the film with her performance in a gut-wrenching scene about the price of living low. This film would garner Ritter her fourth Academy Award nomination and would mark the end of her consecutive nominations, having gotten one every year from 1951 to 1954.
Not only is it considered one of Hitchcock’s finest films, Rear Window is considered one of the finest-crafted films of all time. Currently, at a 100% Metascore on IMDb, a 98% Rotten Tomato Critic Score, and a 95% Rotten Tomato Audience Score, it's safe to say that the film is beloved many times over. A film like this has to hit every note just right, from the story and dialogue to the camera work and atmosphere, to the music, to the pitch-perfect performances, everything has to fall into place. It certainly did for Rear Window. Ritter hit her note perfectly as the hard-nosed nurse, Stella, to James Stewart’s L.B. Jefferies. The story follows Jefferies as he is recovering from a broken leg in his New York apartment. Suffering from boredom Jefferies begins to spy on his neighbors through his rear window. He witnesses what he thinks must be murder and vows to get to the bottom of it with the help of his love, socialite Lisa Fremont, played by alumna Grace Kelly (Class of 1949), his detective friend Tom Doyle, and his nurse Stella, who is also tasked with fixing Jefferies and Lisa’s relationship. The film was nominated for four Academy Awards. To this day it is studied and lauded around the world.
Over the next few years, Ritter stayed busy doing mostly television, appearing on such shows as Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Lux Video Theater, and The 20th Century-Fox Hour. She made a few movies during this period but most of her time was occupied with returning to Broadway in the run of the 1957 musical New Girl in Town. Based on Eugene O’Neill’s play Anna Christie about a former prostitute returning home to New York City to visit her aging father. She falls in love with a sailor who knows nothing of her past until the beans are spilled. The musical was written by George Abbott and Bob Merrill. It was nominated for five Tony Awards, which included “Best Musical” and “Best Choreography” for Bob Fosse. It became the first show to win two “Best Performance by a Leading Actress in a Musical” Tony Awards, they went to stars Gwen Verdon and Thelma Ritter. The show ran from May 14, 1957, to May 24, 1958, for a total of 431 performances.
With 1959’s Pillow Talk Ritter had another hit film on her hands and another Oscar nomination to go with it. Pillow Talk revolutionized the romantic comedy and created a new sub-genre, the sex comedy. Remarkably tame for our time, the film was incredibly risque for 1959 audiences. Rock Hudson plays a songwriting playboy, Brad Allen, who shares a phone line with Doris Day’s Jan Morrow, much to her chagrin, she can never get on the phone because he is always on it with some girl. Having never seen each other, Brad catches Jan’s eye and develops an alternate persona in order to swoon Jan. Of course, she eventually finds him out and everything goes wrong but along the way Brad has fallen in love with Jan, now it’s up to Jan’s maid Alma, played by Ms. Ritter, to try and fix their relationship. While the film is never graphic, many scenes drip with sexual tension and will-they-won’t-they ping-pong matches that are a pure delight to watch.
The 1960s for Ritter’s career was very similar to the past two decades with several romantic comedies such as A New Kind of Love, with Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward; Move Over, Darling, with the charming James Garner, Doris Day, and alumnus Fred Clark (Class of 1938); and Boeing, Boeing, with Tony Curtis and Jerry Lewis. Like in the forties and fifties she also gave some great dramatic turns in The Misfits, Birdman of Alcatraz, How the West Was Won, and The Incident. While she had given dramatic performances before, these were different types of movies, as times had changed, so were the films being made. These pictures were more introspective and often tackled social issues more head-on.
The Misfits has gained notoriety in the years following its release for it being the last film of two of its stars, Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe, both of whom passed away following the completion of filming. The cast also includes heavy-weights Montgomery Clift and Eli Wallach. The film follows recently divorced Roslyn (Monroe) falling in love with aging cowboy Gay Langland (Gable) after being introduced to him by Perce Howland (Clift) who is also in love with Roslyn. Tensions rise even further when Roslyn finds out what Gay does with the horses he raises. The screenplay was written by Arthur Miller and was directed by the famed John Huston.
Burt Lancaster. Karl Malden. Thelma Ritter. Neville Brand. Telly Savalas. Edmond O’Brien. Hugh Marlowe. James Westerfield. Talk about a stacked cast of who’s who character actors. That is the cast of the film Birdman of Alcatraz. Directed by the illustrious John Frankenheimer, the film calls into question the motives of the American incarceration system. Based on the true story of Robert Stroud, played by the imposing Burt Lancaster, and how he began raising birds, as well as, becoming an expert in ornithology all while being held in solitary confinement for murdering two people. Ritter plays Stroud’s mother who is very protective of her son and rather manipulative, a somewhat different note for Ritter. She becomes very jealous when another woman comes into Stroud’s life. The film is exceptionally thrilling not because it's a “thriller” but rather because the performances are so riveting and enchanting, from everyone involved, that you can’t help but sit on the edge of your seat and beg for more. Ritter would receive her sixth and final Oscar nomination for her performance in this classic picture.
Ritter’s final screen performance was ironically in the 1966 George Seaton comedy What’s So Bad About Feeling Good? Her film career had started and ended with her old friend George Seaton. Before retiring completely, however, she did return to doing stock theater with her daughter, Monica. They appeared together in a 1966 roadshow production of Bye Bye Birdie and Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park at the Papermill Playhouse in New Jersey in 1968, both of which featured actor Tab Hunter. After appearing in Barefoot Ritter decided to retire from acting. On February 5, 1969, she suffered a heart attack and passed away at the age of sixty-six.
One would be hard-pressed to find a negative word on Thelma Ritter, from critics and audiences alike. “She was a doll, the character actress, I think,” recalled her co-star, Rock Hudson. Renowned film director Frank Capra called her “the best of all character actresses.” The maestro with a pen, Paddy Chayefsky observed, “she was a character actress, which means only they didn’t write many starring parts for middle-aged women.” But what made Ritter stand out was that she was granted top-billing, she was often given love interests which was instrumental in creating dimensional characters, and she was just down-right good. During her career, she would be nominated for a grand total of six Academy Awards, though never winning, holding the record for the most nominations in the category of “Best Actress in a Supporting Role.” She once said on the matter of being nominated but never winning, “Now I know what it feels like to be the bridesmaid and never the bride.” While she may not have strayed too much from her home-spun “fixer” type-cast she was always grounded in who her character was and the role they played in the stories she was helping tell, the calling sign of a great character actress.
"When I married Miles, we were both a couple of maladjusted misfits.
We are still maladjusted misfits, and we loved every
minute of it."
- Thelma Ritter as Stella in “Rear Window”