Fan Letter · With Thanks

Thank You, Thelma Ritter

This post is a contribution to the A Letter to the Stars blogathon, hosted by In The MoodFrankly My Dear and Best of the Past.

Watch out, honey, I might steal your scene
Thelma Ritter is arguably the most unassuming scene-stealer in Hollywood history.

Dear Thelma Ritter:

We think you’re the best thing since all-you-can-eat chocolate fondue.

As an actor, you never were leading-lady material, yet when we’re watching your movies, we can’t wait until your next appearance on screen. You can do no wrong in our eyes. Who cares that you stole just about every scene you were in? We expect that of you!

You made over 30 Hollywood movies, and were nominated for six Oscars, none of which were awarded to you. (This irks us every time we think about it, but we digress.) You did win a Tony in 1958 for Best Actress (Musical) for New Girl in Town. But even that was a tie, a shared victory with your co-star, Gwen Verdon. Public recognition by your peers in the most prestigious ways was never to be yours.

Why is that? Is it because you were famous for playing mothers, nurses, maids, assistants – maternal characters who only served the lead actors? All your famous roles, and your Academy Award nominations, were for these types of supporting characters.

No matter what role you played, you were utterly charming. You could wear an unattractive oversized coat and a squashed hat, yet we never really paid much attention to these. We saw only you, and your character’s humanity, and we loved you all the more for it.

Your first film role was in Miracle on 34th Street, and your name didn’t even appear in the credits. It wasn’t a big role; you played a harried mother and Christmas shopper trying to fight her way through the crowds. But producer Darryl F. Zaunck was so impressed by you, he insisted on giving you more screen time.

You proved you could hold your own against Bette Davis in All About Eve. You were Davis’ assistant, Birdie, a no-nonsense woman who gave Davis good advice that she airily dismissed. Davis was the star, Thelma, but you kept the movie grounded and we relied upon you to give us perspective.

Our favourite movie of yours is The Mating Season. Here you were Ellen McNulty, the unsophisticated hamburger-flipping mother of John Lund, who marries rich society girl Gene Tierney. You were completely credible in the unusual situation the character finds herself in, and you proved you could pull the rug out from under famed scene-stealer Miriam Hopkins.

Alfred Hitchock needed you as the no-nonsense nurse, Stella, in Rear Window. There had to be a character telling wheelchair-bound Jimmy Stewart to mind his own business, and to remind the audience that there was a big world outside of Stewart’s claustrophobic environment.

Thelma, you went all-out as the perpetually hung-over Alma in the romantic comedy Pillow Talk. You were Doris Day’s maid, but in your scenes together, Day’s impressive comedic talents seemed pale compared to yours. Your performance is so funny we find we’re constantly clicking the re-wind button. How could you say some of those lines and not be doubled over with laughter?

We liked you in The Misfits, but truthfully we’re annoyed that you were written out of the script too early. Here you were Marilyn Monroe’s friend, telling her to cool her jets with aging Clark Gable. It’s a magnificent, serious film, but it feels somehow wanting with your character’s early exit.

You also appeared on radio and television. It was in 1969, shortly after you taped an appearance on The Jerry Lewis Show, that you suffered a heart attack from which you did not recover.

Thelma, you knew what it meant to be in the movies. You knew that audiences expected charisma and perfection, and you gave it to us. Thank you for that, and for giving us some of the most enjoyable moments on film.

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39 thoughts on “Thank You, Thelma Ritter

  1. Another wonderful post! I remember her in Daddy Long Legs and Pillow Talk. Not sure if I’ve seen any of the other films she was in. Sounds like that’s my loss — though not without remedy!

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  2. I rushed over here as soon as I had the time. LOVE the letter! As you may remember, Ms. Ritter was my choice in the What A Character! blogathon last month. I adore her. Such a talent, memorable in everything she ever appeared in.

    I see that someone’s already recommended Pickup on South Street where Thelma NAILS her role! Also, if you have time, search on You Tube for Thelma Ritter as the Statue of Liberty. She delivered a wonderful monologue as the Lady in the Harbor in a 1953 TV special, Dinner for the President. I can think of no one else, with that distinctive Brooklyn accent, who could have been more affecting.

    Aurora

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    1. Hey Aurora, I remember your tribute to Thelma in the Character blogathon. We Ritter fans gotta stick together! 🙂

      I just watched Thelma as the Statue of Liberty and she really is terrific. The script is pretty good, but she turns it into gold…like she always does. Thanks for commenting!

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      1. Oh, so glad you took a look at that. She adds such depth to those words as the Statue, I think. Again, that accent adds realism. Now I know what the Statue of Liberty would actually sound like. She was soo great!

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  3. I’m also a big fan of Thelma Ritter, without a doubt the best supporting actress ever! She was easily recognizable in Miracle on 343th Street, and I was so glad to see her first film performance. My favorite character of hers is Stella in Rear Window.
    Don’t forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! 🙂
    Kisses!

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  4. Oh how I love everything about Thelma Ritter. My favorite movie of hers is The Mating Season too….I can’t see it enough. She’s nothing short of terrific! Your letter to her is sooooooooooo wonderful, I love it. Thanks for sharing this!

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  5. Great post, Ruth! I entirely agree, Thelma Ritter was a cinema treasure and made everything she was in better..it’s criminal she never received her Oscar due, but she’s in good company there. REAR WINDOW is where I first saw her and of course I adore her in it. It’s been ages since I’ve seen PILLOW TALK and completely forgot she was in that film! Just got the Blu-Ray of it and will give it a spin ASAP.

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      1. Thanks for the reply, I always love it in All About Eve when she says “What a story, everything but the bloodhounds snapping at her rear end”. Classic line.

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  6. It is great to see that Thelma Ritter has meant so much to so many movie fans. Obviously as a huge fan of Rear Window and All About Eve, Thelma has always been my favorite smart talking gal, but it was her painfully touching performance in Pickup On South Street that taught me the value and importance of having a woman of her stature in a film. I will always love her and what she selflessly did for so many movies. Thanks for the great post.

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  7. I really like Thelma Ritter as well. However, did you see her in her last film role? It was in ‘The Incident’ from 1967 in which passengers in a subway car are terrorized by a couple of hoodlums. Martin Sheen play one of the punks. It is taut and well acted.

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  8. Like Eve Arden, when you saw Thelma Ritter’s name in the cast you knew you were in for something special and they never disappointed. On Thelma, however, no one has mentioned the George Cukor underrated gem “The Model and the Marriage Broker” in which she is magnificent. She works beautifully with costars Jeanne Crain and Scott Brady and the supporting cast is excellent – Zero Mostel, Michael O’Shea, J. C. Flippen, Nancy Kulp, etc. Not to be missed. I’ve always loved Gene Tierney and in :The Mating Season” I she was never more relaxed acting on screen.

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    1. Thanks for visiting and for your comment. I agree – when you see Thelma’s name in the credits you know you’re in for a treat.

      “The Model and the Marriage Broker” is one I’ve always wanted to see, and I’m glad to hear you liked it so much.

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