A New Sybil's "WHO'Z DAT?"... Thelma Ritter (February 14, 1902 – February 5, 1969)

THELMA RITTER Collage.jpg

Darlings! Mummy has made a decision! After reading dozens of posts and having hundreds of conversations with well-meaning folks who just don't know about the great CHARACTER actors who gave films the depth and genius that surrounded and supported the so-called "stars", I am going to post a regular, special entry called SYBIL'S "WHO'Z DAT??"....there'll be photos and a mini-bio, and the next time you see one of those familiar, fabulous faces that you just "can't quite place".......well, maybe these posts will help. Some of these actors worked more, had longer and broader careers, and ended up happier, more loved, and even wealthier than the "stars" that the public "worships"......I think there may be a metaphor in that! What do you think??? With a face, a voice, and a manner that could be described as "every woman", but as unforgettable as the most luminescent star, she remains Hollywood royalty: THELMA RITTER! (February 14, 1902 – February 5, 1969)....born on Valentine's Day in Brooklyn.

She typically played working class characters and was noted for her distinctive voice, with a strong Brooklyn accent. After appearing in high school plays and stock companies, she trained as an actress at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. She established a stage career but took a hiatus to raise her two children by her husband, Joseph Moran, an actor turned advertising executive. Ritter's first movie role was in MIRACLE ON 34TH STREET in 1947- She was 45 at the time!!! She made a memorable impression in a brief uncredited part, as a frustrated mother unable to find the toy that Kris Kringle has promised to her son. Her “big break” came in 1950’s ALL ABOUT EVE in which Ritter played Birdie, the long-suffering personal maid to stage diva Margo Channing (Bette Davis). Down-to-earth Birdie is the first person in EVE to grow wise to the title character’s machinations, and Ritter does a wonderful job in helping the audience see the first glimmers of deception in Eve’s story. And it’s no wonder Ritter is so phenomenal in the role: the film’s writer/director, Joseph L. Mankiewicz, wrote the part with Ritter specifically in mind after having worked with her in the previous year’s A LETTER TO THREE WIVES (although she was uncredited!) Ultimately, Ritter’s performance was noteworthy enough to garner her first Academy Award nomination (one of fourteen nominations for that film, incidentally). A second nomination followed for her work in Mitchell Leisens' classic ensemble screwball comedy THE MATING SEASON (1951) starring Gene Tierney and John Lund. She established herself among costars, directors, and studio heads alike as a master of the "throw-away line" and perhaps Hollywood's most lovable "scene-stealer". When she was onscreen, even the greatest stars knew that audiences might be watching Ritter not just for her own one-liners, but for her shrugs, smirks, eye-rolls, or deadpan stares in reaction to their lines.

Ritter enjoyed steady film work for the next dozen years. She also appeared in many of the episodic drama TV series of the 1950s, such as Alfred Hitchcock Presents, General Electric Theater, and The United States Steel Hour. Other film roles were as James Stewart's nurse in REAR WINDOW (1954) and as Doris Day's housekeeper in PILLOW TALK (1959). Though she found a great deal of success in Hollywood, Ritter was also an accomplished stage actress, winning a 1958 Tony Award for Best Leading Performance in a Musical for her role in NEW GIRL IN TOWN, a musical adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s play ANNA CHRISTIE (which was so memorably brought to the screen as Greta Garbo’s first “talkie” in 1930). Ritter shared the Tony award with her costar, Gwen Verdon in a rare tie.

The 1960s brought Ritter several more acclaimed roles, including a supporting part in THE MISFITS (1961), the final completed film for Hollywood icons Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe; a sixth Oscar-nominated performance as the mother of the titular character in BIRDMAN OF ALCATRAZ (1962) with Burt Lancaster; an appearance next to Debbie Reynolds in the star-studded Western epic HOW THE WEST WAS WON (also in 1962); and a reunion with Doris Day in 1963’s MOVE OVER DARLING. Although best known for comedy roles, she played the occasional dramatic role, most notably as an underworld figure who is eventually murdered in the film noir PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET (1953) with Richard Widmark and as a character based on (“the unsinkable”) Molly Brown in TITANIC (1953). Her last work was an appearance on THE JERRY LEWIS SHOW on January 23, 1968. Ritter died of a heart attack in New York City, just nine days before her 67th birthday in 1969. 

At the time of her death, she was survived by her husband of forty-two years, Joseph Moran, an actor turned advertising executive, and her two children Monica and Joseph Jr. She left behind a body of work comprising more than thirty films and a wide variety of stage and television performances. She never won an Oscar, but she was one of the most-nominated actors of all time. During her career, Ritter was nominated for an Oscar six times, tying with Deborah Kerr and Glenn Close as most nominated for the award in an acting category without a win. Kerr DID eventually receive an honorary award from the Academy, however, (coincidentally presented to her by Close!) but Ritter has the distinction in 1954, of having co-hosted the Oscar ceremony, notably trading wisecracks with Bob Hope. Despite having only spent two decades in Hollywood, Thelma Ritter certainly is an unforgettable and iconic presence on the classic cinematic landscape. A birthday on February 14th??... For me, Thelma Ritter is truly one of the greatest Valentines of all time!!

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