December 11, 2009

Acting New York: Thelma Ritter, An Appreciation

Based on an uncanny ability to communicate the wisdom of the streets, Brooklyn-born character actor Thelma Ritter (1902 or 1905?-1969) found her way into some of the best supporting roles in motion pictures of her generation. After performing in school plays at Public School 77 and then studying at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, she acted in a few radio and stage parts before putting her show business career on hold to raise a family with her husband, an actor turned ad executive.

She was in her forties when a friend of hers, the director George Seaton, invited her to play a small role of a Macy's shopper in his new film, Miracle on 34th Street (1947). With many scenes filmed on location at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade and inside the store, Ritter's bit of New Yorkese added a sense of authenticity to the fantasy holiday tale. According to biographies, Darryl F. Zanuck was so impressed with her performance that he had her small role expanded.

In time Ritter would make powerful appearances in subsequent pictures, often playing a kind of quintessential street savvy New Yorker. In a Letter for Three Wives (1949) director Joseph Mankiewicz (1909-1993) gave her a juicy role as a funny beer-loving neighbor. In one of the director's next films, the great All About Eve (1950), Ritter played the part of Birdie, an ex-vaudevillian and aide to Bette Davis's Margo Channing, who saw straight through the emotional manipulations of rising star Eve Harrington.

Bringing a hard-boiled Brooklyn cynicism to many roles, Ritter often played the truth-telling realist to balance the starry-eyed qualities of the main protagonist. She was nominated as Best Actress in a Supporting Role for All About Eve, annually repeating Academy Award nominations in the same category with The Mating Season (1951), With a Song in My Heart (1952), and Pickup on South Street (1953). She was later nominated for her funny role in Pillow Talk (1959) and for a serious role as the mother of the imprisoned Robert Stroud (Bert Lancaster) in Birdman of Alacatraz (1962). Her other notable roles include featured supporting performances in Rear Window (1954), The Misfits (1961), and How the West Was Won (1962).

Looking at this scene for Sam Fuller's Pickup on South Street, Ritter's focused portrayal of the streetwise "Moe" seems informed by a keen awareness of human behavior. Though playing specifically a type of New Yorker that many of us know, her attention to detail and timing raise her blend of natural and studied acting methods to the highest art.



Image: Screenshot of Thelma Ritter in All About Eve.

Additional links:
• The blog Jew Eat Yet? has an informed and thorough Ritter appreciation - In Defense of Thelma Ritter.
Thelma Ritter page on TCM (Turner Classic Movies).
• For more on Pickup on South Street, see the post here on Shot in the Naked City: Cinematic Mysteries and Film Noir Before 1960

1 comment:

Tinky said...

Brava to you and to Thelma, one of my all-time favorite actresses......

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