Thelma Ritter: All About Birdie

An image of Thelma Ritter created by TCMOn days like this, when the wind blows across from Canada and the thermometer never creeps much above 12 degrees, I look for my favorite winter hat. It’s a shapeless black felt one, but cozy, durable, and it never seems to mind if I wind up stuffing it into my coat pocket. I call it my “Thelma Ritter” hat because, like the actress, (who was born and died in the month of February), it is unpretentious and always welcome, even if it will never be chic. And I’d miss it if it were gone.

Like Miss Ritter, who was nominated for a remarkable six Academy Awards® in twelve years*, that hat is familiar, yet remarkably versatile in its useful life. Despite the fact that she usually played variations of a Shakespearean “wise fool”, she often played a person whose keen awareness of her place in our supposedly classless society made her secure enough in it to voice her opinions without fear. As a matter of fact, her essential characters are often too exhausted not to be wholly honest. In one of her darkest and most poignant roles, that of the necktie street vendor in filmmaker Samuel Fuller’s Pickup on South Street (1953), Ritter’s bone tiredness took on a tragic resignation as she hung on, she hoped, just long enough to “go on making a living so I can die” and not wind up in Potter’s Field as she feared.

The film, which cast an unrelenting, cold eye on the law, the lawless and the chill in the air caused by postwar greed as much as by fear of Communism, offered up one person the audience could feel compassion for: Thelma Ritter‘s character, Moe Williams.

Thelma Ritter facing an expected guest in Pickup on South Street (1953)

Just after making this film, in a bizarre moment in American cultural history, President Dwight Eisenhower presided at a “Dinner With the President” on Thanksgiving night, in 1953. Lots of high powered types showed up for the live program, which was broadcast on three networks, (though the soon to be doomed Dumont network gave it a pass). The extravaganza, which was hosted by Rogers and Hammerstein at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington, D.C., commemorated the 40th Anniversary of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith and tried to promote an air of philosophical tolerance in a time of political darkness that characterized the McCarthy era. Numerous celebrities were anxious to participate, including everyone from media bigwigs such as David Sarnoff, Leonard Goldenson, and William Paley to Lucy and Desi. Helen Hayes even impersonated Harriet Beecher Stowe and Rex Harrison and Lili Palmer lent their sophisticated presence to a very American show while J. Edgar Hoover reportedly ducked his chance for a close-up behind a table lamp.

Something tells me, however, that the show may have been stolen right at the beginning when the camera panned in on the gray figure of the Statue of Liberty, who heaved a sigh and explained that she got pretty tired of holding up the lamp of liberty, especially when she got snowed and rained on. She even wondered aloud do “people really appreciate Liberty?”

thelma portrait in the '50s
Naturally, for a show that was such a hodge-podge, the Statue of Liberty was played by that American Everywoman, Thelma Ritter. Unfortunately, kinescopes of this strange event only exist of the last thirty minutes of the show, if at all, and we can only read about this “typecasting” of Miss Ritter. Usually looking like a cross between Mother Courage and a cafeteria lunch lady, Thelma, like the lady in the harbor, never seems to have been fully appreciated either. Sure, they awarded her six Oscar nominations in her time, but received no wins. What were they thinking?

An actress from the time she was about 8, who described herself as “an obnoxious child actress—a poor man’s Cornelia Otis Skinner…”, she was 45 by the time she first stepped in front of the camera in director George Seaton’s Miracle on 34th Street (1947). Even that part was uncredited, though audiences noted her amusingly blunt attitude when she told off Macy’s Santa (Edmund Gwenn) for making a promise to a boy of a toy that couldn’t be found, (only to discover that St. Nick was sending her to Gimbel’s for the desired item).

Thelma Ritter‘s indelibly real presence was noted by studio head Darryl F. Zanuck who soon put her under contract at Twentieth Century Fox. Thelma had been given her part in “Miracle…” largely because she’d grown up in Brooklyn with George Seaton‘s wife. Audiences however, knew the real thing when they saw her and her career on screen took off the following year when Joseph L. Mankiewicz gave her a plum role in A Letter to Three Wives (1949), (for which she was also uncredited).

Mankiewicz, who would repeatedly explore the theme of the effects of ambition on his characters, was blessed with Ritter‘s presence in allegedly subservient roles as truth-tellers disguised as maids in this picture and All About Eve(1950).

In the funniest of the segments in A Letter to Three Wives, Ritter is given lines by Mankiewicz that you instantly forget she didn’t write. Playing a maid named “Sadie Dugan” in the home of the upwardly mobile couple, English teacher Kirk Douglas and radio soap opera writer Ann Sothern, she is more at home in their house than they are. Sadie has known everyone she works for since they were children. Their airs cut no ice with her. Eyeing a maid’s frilly hat that the earnest yet ambitious Sothern asked her to wear while serving dinner to their important guests, Sadie announces, “The cap’s out. Makes me look like a lamb chop with pants on.” Commenting on Sothern‘s ghastly radio show, she smiles and asks appreciatively, “”Do you know what I like about your program? Even when I’m running the vacuum, I can understand it.” Best of all are the silent moments of Ritter‘s performance, as when she struggles laboriously with the screen separating the living room from the dining area during a dinner party. Almost overwhelmed by the unwieldy and heavy screen, it finally collapses, disrupting any pretense of polite chit chat among the guests as Sadie (Thelma Ritter) announces wanly “Soup’s on.”

thelma ritter and ann sothern in a letter to three wives

Later in the film, in a segment when Ritter and another masterful character actress, Connie Gilchrist pause while a train goes by outside the kitchen of the shanty Irish home where they are playing cards, you are able to see, (please click here ), two old friends used to fending off reality with a lifetime of wisecracks.

In All About Eve (1950), Joseph Mankiewicz, (finally giving Ritter name recognition in the credits), fashioned her role as the ex-vaudevillian turned ladie’s maid for Ritter‘s gift for wariness tempered by her ability to express gruff affection with a look and a few words. When, at the beginning of the film, Thelma responds to the waif-like Eve (Ann Baxter) and her tale of woe with the classic comment “What a story! Everything but the bloodhounds snappin’ at her rear end,” her employer Margo, (Bette Davis) accuses her of lacking finer feelings. Throughout the film, Birdie, like a wise-cracking sybil, drops several hints that the “kid” as Davis begins calling Eve, may not be quite what she appears to be, while the alleged sophisticates surrounding Ritter fall, one by one, at least for awhile, for Eve’s stratagems. Finally catching on, Margo finally asks Thelma: “Birdie, you don’t like Eve, do you? Birdie: “You looking for an answer or an argument?” Margo:”An answer.” Birdie: “No.” Margo:”Why not?” Birdie: “Now you want an argument.” Clearly, with the exception of the venomous Addison DeWitt, (George Sanders in one of his best roles), Birdie is the only person who sees things as they are.

Thelma Ritter looking skeptical with Bette Davis in All About Eve (1950)

As Ritter‘s dramatic and comic qualities came to be appreciated, (and popular with the public), the actress, who had trained at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts , found herself in demand by several talented directors. She lent her sound instincts and flair for revealing characters beyond what was on the pages of a script to Mitchell Leisen’s The Mating Season, George Cukor’s The Model and the Marriage Broker, Jean Negulesco’s Titanic, Hitchcock’s Rear Window, old friend George Seaton’s The Proud and the Profane, and Frank Capra’s A Hole in the Head.

Thelma Ritter with Burt Lancaster in Birdman of Alcatraz

Most interestingly of all, to me, was one of her least likable roles. Ritter‘s portrait of the deeply loyal yet coldly disciplined mother of Robert Stroud is among her very best. She plays a seemingly ordinary woman emboldened by her single- minded drive to protect and control her son, played by Burt Lancaster, in an eloquent performance that was said to be miles away from the real, quite violent Mr. Stroud, in John Frankenheimer’s Birdman of Alcatraz. She also found energy and time to play a part that had been played earlier by Marie Dressler in the late actress’ last role on screen in 1933. In a 1955 “20th Century Fox Hour” television production of Sidney Howard‘s play, The Late Christopher Bean Miss Ritter played a woman whose beauty had only been perceived by a drunken artist whose vision only became valuable after his artwork, in particular a portrait of Ritter‘s humble character became valuable to the art world. Part comedy and wry drama, a recording of this one hour program does pop up on cable occasionally and Ritter makes it memorable.

Thelma had a mid-life renaissance, after years of struggle, despite the fact that she’d almost left show business in the thirties to concentrate on raising her two children with fellow actor Joe Moran, whom she’d married in 1927. While Mr. Moran reportedly pursued more remunerative work as an actor’s agent, his wife, between auditions, was also said to add to the family’s funds during the Depression with various “civilian” jobs, (including entering numerous contests such as those that awarded consumers who wrote jingles for advertisers). Though both would remain somewhat active in radio and the theater throughout their careers, Ritter‘s prominence in the film world eventually gave her an opportunity to co-host the Oscar ceremony in the mid-fifties. In between her film appearances, Miss Ritter also found roles in the burgeoning television market, (other than that one night only gig playing Lady Liberty). In 1955, Paddy Chayevsky wrote the part of the mother expressly for Thelma in The Catered Affair, about an Irish American working class mother’s attempt to give her daughter the wedding she’d never had and the effect of this effort on her whole family. I can’t help wondering how the two co-stars, Bette Davis & Miss Ritter felt when Davis was given the film role of this play.

Thelma Ritter in her film debut in Miracle on 34th Street (1947)

Playwright and friend Paddy Chayevsky would write in the New York Times after Thelma Ritter‘s death that “…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…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.”

 

Please click here for upcoming Thelma Ritter films on the TCM schedule.

32 Responses Thelma Ritter: All About Birdie
Posted By carmelo : February 24, 2008 3:31 pm

Thelma Ritter was an actress who always registered the fact that she knew what was what both as an actress and as the character she was playing. As Birdie in "All About Eve" who else would have been savvy enough to alert Margo to the threat Eve posed in her life. Her naturalist style brought truth and compassion to all her roles that remain totally believable to this very day. It's always a joy to see her performances come up at TCM!

Posted By carmelo : February 24, 2008 3:31 pm

Thelma Ritter was an actress who always registered the fact that she knew what was what both as an actress and as the character she was playing. As Birdie in "All About Eve" who else would have been savvy enough to alert Margo to the threat Eve posed in her life. Her naturalist style brought truth and compassion to all her roles that remain totally believable to this very day. It's always a joy to see her performances come up at TCM!

Posted By Sunny : February 27, 2008 11:25 pm

What a beautiful, soulful piece of the heart this was! Who wouldn't want Thelma around to size up the competition or give her honest opinion of anything to whoever who asked? There are no character actresses like this anymore because no actress over 30 gets to play a real character who isn't a compliment or psychological extension of the so-called "heroine." Thelma is lucky to have lived in an era when she was valued and appreciated (and not just by Oscar) and we're the poorer for the loss, me lads and lassies! 

Posted By Sunny : February 27, 2008 11:25 pm

What a beautiful, soulful piece of the heart this was! Who wouldn't want Thelma around to size up the competition or give her honest opinion of anything to whoever who asked? There are no character actresses like this anymore because no actress over 30 gets to play a real character who isn't a compliment or psychological extension of the so-called "heroine." Thelma is lucky to have lived in an era when she was valued and appreciated (and not just by Oscar) and we're the poorer for the loss, me lads and lassies! 

Posted By CitizenKing : February 28, 2008 9:44 am

I share your affection for Thelma Ritter, and I treasure each role I see.  I can't think of another character actress that was her equal. 

Posted By CitizenKing : February 28, 2008 9:44 am

I share your affection for Thelma Ritter, and I treasure each role I see.  I can't think of another character actress that was her equal. 

Posted By Joe aka Mongo : February 28, 2008 10:59 am

Another swell profile, Moira. As with the slogan "Nobody doesn't like Sara Lee", nobody doesn't like Thelma Ritter. In fact I adore her. One of the first films I recall her in was "City Across the River" (1949) in which she played a weary tenement mom, and thereafer everything was gravy. Rumor has it that she lost the Oscar for "Pickup on South Street" by one vote? She was gypped by the Academy.

Posted By Joe aka Mongo : February 28, 2008 10:59 am

Another swell profile, Moira. As with the slogan "Nobody doesn't like Sara Lee", nobody doesn't like Thelma Ritter. In fact I adore her. One of the first films I recall her in was "City Across the River" (1949) in which she played a weary tenement mom, and thereafer everything was gravy. Rumor has it that she lost the Oscar for "Pickup on South Street" by one vote? She was gypped by the Academy.

Posted By RHS : February 28, 2008 11:03 am

Thelma Ritter had six Academy Award nominations, but was never a winner. What were they thinking? And Hillary Swank's got two Oscars!  Two!  (By the way, the mercury hardly rose above 80 degrees here yesterday.)

Posted By RHS : February 28, 2008 11:03 am

Thelma Ritter had six Academy Award nominations, but was never a winner. What were they thinking? And Hillary Swank's got two Oscars!  Two!  (By the way, the mercury hardly rose above 80 degrees here yesterday.)

Posted By KSO : February 29, 2008 1:41 am

Mr. Chayevsky is right on the money with regard to  Ms. Ritter's talents.   America's greatest character actress and certainly one of the warmest presence to every grace the screen.  It's a shame that she wasn't considered a "big enough name" to do the movie version of "The Catered Affair".  As great as Bette was, her appeal just doesn't have the heart that carried Ms. Ritter, thoughout her career.   Her humanity shines through everything she does. 

Posted By KSO : February 29, 2008 1:41 am

Mr. Chayevsky is right on the money with regard to  Ms. Ritter's talents.   America's greatest character actress and certainly one of the warmest presence to every grace the screen.  It's a shame that she wasn't considered a "big enough name" to do the movie version of "The Catered Affair".  As great as Bette was, her appeal just doesn't have the heart that carried Ms. Ritter, thoughout her career.   Her humanity shines through everything she does. 

Posted By Laura : March 2, 2008 9:00 am

Thanks for this great article on Thelma Ritter. I have watched several films just because she was listed in the credits, and I don't think I have ever been disappointed by her performances. My personal favorites are The Misfits and The Mating Season (which is a completely uninteresting movie, except for her role.) I always forget that she wasn't in The Catered Affair because that role was so obviously written with her in mind. 

Posted By Laura : March 2, 2008 9:00 am

Thanks for this great article on Thelma Ritter. I have watched several films just because she was listed in the credits, and I don't think I have ever been disappointed by her performances. My personal favorites are The Misfits and The Mating Season (which is a completely uninteresting movie, except for her role.) I always forget that she wasn't in The Catered Affair because that role was so obviously written with her in mind. 

Posted By viewer : March 2, 2008 5:43 pm

i loved thelma ritter in all about eve. to me, it seemed as though she were a more innocent and all-knowing character parallel to George Sanders, which i love. thelma knew ALL ABOUT EVE.

Posted By viewer : March 2, 2008 5:43 pm

i loved thelma ritter in all about eve. to me, it seemed as though she were a more innocent and all-knowing character parallel to George Sanders, which i love. thelma knew ALL ABOUT EVE.

Posted By Southernbelle : March 4, 2008 10:23 am

This was a wonderful blog! Thelma Ritter was a great actress. She was always the devoted friend, brought comedy to where a lighter touch was needed and overall was a lady. I wonder if she ever wanted to be a starlet? I think not. She was perfect in the roles she played. So many upcoming actors and actresses; today should watch movies that star Thelma Ritter in them. And take a lesson in how maybe you do not get to be the star, the most glamorous person in the movie, but Thelma was really the star! The glue that held it all together. As she was a mother offscreen, so she was to each of the characters onscreen.I really like the movie "The Mating Season" where Thelmacharacter Ellen McNulty, sells her business and than heads off to see her son. Of course the son Val (played by John Lund) is not happy about his. Because his new bride Maggie (played by Gene Tierney) is a rich young lady and really knows nothing about his mother. So Ellen takes on the role of a maid. This movie has a Stella Dallas feel to me. Ellen tries to help Maggie learn the role wife and trys to help her son be a good husband. What any mother would not do for her child? I think this role is overlooked. Just another example of Thelma Ritter taking a non-glamorous role and stealing the show!

Posted By Southernbelle : March 4, 2008 10:23 am

This was a wonderful blog! Thelma Ritter was a great actress. She was always the devoted friend, brought comedy to where a lighter touch was needed and overall was a lady. I wonder if she ever wanted to be a starlet? I think not. She was perfect in the roles she played. So many upcoming actors and actresses; today should watch movies that star Thelma Ritter in them. And take a lesson in how maybe you do not get to be the star, the most glamorous person in the movie, but Thelma was really the star! The glue that held it all together. As she was a mother offscreen, so she was to each of the characters onscreen.I really like the movie "The Mating Season" where Thelmacharacter Ellen McNulty, sells her business and than heads off to see her son. Of course the son Val (played by John Lund) is not happy about his. Because his new bride Maggie (played by Gene Tierney) is a rich young lady and really knows nothing about his mother. So Ellen takes on the role of a maid. This movie has a Stella Dallas feel to me. Ellen tries to help Maggie learn the role wife and trys to help her son be a good husband. What any mother would not do for her child? I think this role is overlooked. Just another example of Thelma Ritter taking a non-glamorous role and stealing the show!

Posted By Southernbelle : March 4, 2008 10:23 am

This was a wonderful blog! Thelma Ritter was a great actress. She was always the devoted friend, brought comedy to where a lighter touch was needed and overall was a lady. I wonder if she ever wanted to be a starlet? I think not. She was perfect in the roles she played. So many upcoming actors and actresses; today should watch movies that star Thelma Ritter in them. And take a lesson in how maybe you do not get to be the star, the most glamorous person in the movie, but Thelma was really the star! The glue that held it all together. As she was a mother offscreen, so she was to each of the characters onscreen.I really like the movie "The Mating Season" where Thelmacharacter Ellen McNulty, sells her business and than heads off to see her son. Of course the son Val (played by John Lund) is not happy about his. Because his new bride Maggie (played by Gene Tierney) is a rich young lady and really knows nothing about his mother. So Ellen takes on the role of a maid. This movie has a Stella Dallas feel to me. Ellen tries to help Maggie learn the role wife and trys to help her son be a good husband. What any mother would not do for her child? I think this role is overlooked. Just another example of Thelma Ritter taking a non-glamorous role and stealing the show!

Posted By Southernbelle : March 4, 2008 10:23 am

This was a wonderful blog! Thelma Ritter was a great actress. She was always the devoted friend, brought comedy to where a lighter touch was needed and overall was a lady. I wonder if she ever wanted to be a starlet? I think not. She was perfect in the roles she played. So many upcoming actors and actresses; today should watch movies that star Thelma Ritter in them. And take a lesson in how maybe you do not get to be the star, the most glamorous person in the movie, but Thelma was really the star! The glue that held it all together. As she was a mother offscreen, so she was to each of the characters onscreen.I really like the movie "The Mating Season" where Thelmacharacter Ellen McNulty, sells her business and than heads off to see her son. Of course the son Val (played by John Lund) is not happy about his. Because his new bride Maggie (played by Gene Tierney) is a rich young lady and really knows nothing about his mother. So Ellen takes on the role of a maid. This movie has a Stella Dallas feel to me. Ellen tries to help Maggie learn the role wife and trys to help her son be a good husband. What any mother would not do for her child? I think this role is overlooked. Just another example of Thelma Ritter taking a non-glamorous role and stealing the show!

Posted By Michael Wilk : March 30, 2008 6:58 am

Thelma was REAL, period. One felt they KNEW her when they watched her. We've all known people like Thelma, and we were all the better for it. My whole family adored her.  This blog is wonderful. Thank you! 

Posted By Michael Wilk : March 30, 2008 6:58 am

Thelma was REAL, period. One felt they KNEW her when they watched her. We've all known people like Thelma, and we were all the better for it. My whole family adored her.  This blog is wonderful. Thank you! 

Posted By Christy : March 30, 2008 4:51 pm

One of my favorites! Thank you, Moira…

Posted By Christy : March 30, 2008 4:51 pm

One of my favorites! Thank you, Moira…

Posted By Virginia Arnold : October 19, 2008 6:12 pm

I have adored Ms. Ritter ever since she starred in “The Mating Season”. Yes, I said “starred”! Although she was not listed above the title, the whole story revolved around her character. I have seen that movie so often (as with several other T.R. vehicles) that I can say her lines along with her. I loved her in all her films – even the clinkers; but my favorite will always be “Mating Season”! I wrote a lot of fan letters to her. Happily, not only did she send autographed pictures, but also wrote short notes to me, showing what a truly kind person she was.

I almost met her in NYC; but while I was there with my family, she left for Hollywood to make “The Farmer Takes a Wife”.

Posted By Virginia Arnold : October 19, 2008 6:12 pm

I have adored Ms. Ritter ever since she starred in “The Mating Season”. Yes, I said “starred”! Although she was not listed above the title, the whole story revolved around her character. I have seen that movie so often (as with several other T.R. vehicles) that I can say her lines along with her. I loved her in all her films – even the clinkers; but my favorite will always be “Mating Season”! I wrote a lot of fan letters to her. Happily, not only did she send autographed pictures, but also wrote short notes to me, showing what a truly kind person she was.

I almost met her in NYC; but while I was there with my family, she left for Hollywood to make “The Farmer Takes a Wife”.

Posted By texman : October 2, 2009 10:08 pm

Thelma Ritter was one of the most loved actresses of all time. I can’t say that I have seen every movie of hers, but I am mighty close to saying I have. There are so many to pick from. It is difficult to pick one over the other. She, simply put, was amazing.
Even though it was a short movie for tv, I thought Christopher Beane was absolutely one of her best. I have often wondered whatever became of the “portrait” of her that Beane had painted in the tv movie.

Posted By texman : October 2, 2009 10:08 pm

Thelma Ritter was one of the most loved actresses of all time. I can’t say that I have seen every movie of hers, but I am mighty close to saying I have. There are so many to pick from. It is difficult to pick one over the other. She, simply put, was amazing.
Even though it was a short movie for tv, I thought Christopher Beane was absolutely one of her best. I have often wondered whatever became of the “portrait” of her that Beane had painted in the tv movie.

Posted By muriel : March 30, 2011 4:02 pm

Thanks for a lovely posting about Thelma Ritter. She is always great no matter the plot. Who doesn’t love her? “The Mating Season” is my personal favorite because the plot revolves around her character, besides it also has Miriam Hopkins as the other mother! The scene where Hopkins sees Ritter and John Lund together late on night and thinks (logically enough) that they are having an affair is hysterical. It’s a fun movie.

Posted By muriel : March 30, 2011 4:02 pm

Thanks for a lovely posting about Thelma Ritter. She is always great no matter the plot. Who doesn’t love her? “The Mating Season” is my personal favorite because the plot revolves around her character, besides it also has Miriam Hopkins as the other mother! The scene where Hopkins sees Ritter and John Lund together late on night and thinks (logically enough) that they are having an affair is hysterical. It’s a fun movie.

Posted By moirafinnie : March 30, 2011 4:59 pm

Oh, Muriel, I love the contrast between Thelma and Miriam throughout the movie–and especially when Ritter finally spells things out for Hopkins in no uncertain terms. I wanted to cheer when I realized that Thelma’s character was going to triumph in a way that could not have been foreseen.

It is hard to pick one favorite role, but one I have only recently seen for the first time was her matchmaker part in George Cukor’s The Model and the Marriage Broker (1951). I didn’t care about the younger leads finding happiness as much as I was interested in Thelma’s card games and flinty philosophy of life.

Thank you for taking the time to read and comment on this piece.

Posted By Alex Raphael : May 8, 2017 10:47 am

Absolutely fantastic actress. Her role as mother Ellen McNulty in The Mating Season (1951) is one of the funniest performances ever. Thanks for all the background on Thelma Ritter – much appreciated!

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