Thelma Ritter: Wonderful and Humane
Thelma Ritter (1902-1969) was a character actor par excellence whose film career extended from 1947 to 1969 when she died suddenly of a heart attack. During those years she appeared in 31 films and countless TV shows. Due to the general excellence of her acting and her down-to-earth personality she became a reassuring presence in films no matter what role she played. At a certain time her appearances in films was so ubiquitous that we (I know I did) took the excellence of her performances for granted. Sort of the way we accept certain natural phenomena like the sunrise for granted. Fortunately her peers in the industry didn’t because she was nominated a record 6 times for the Academy Award as Best supporting Actress.
Her performances were never showy or ostentatious. Just simple and direct without any show of emotional embroidery. In fact Ms. Ritter was so good that she could’ve easily been called “The Female Spencer Tracy” for the fact that like him, you could never catch her acting. In acting classes students are always urged to be “in the moment” if they want their performances to be somewhat worthwhile. On screen Thelma Ritter was always in the moment and that I think was the reason for her great success. On screen she was a very good listener. That I think was the secret of her success. She listened closely and then as in life reacted to what she heard. That in short is the secret to good acting across the board and she was a master at it.
Many of her roles were what in other hands would be called stereotypical parts. She played a number of servants, mothers and drunks. But she invested those parts with so much genuineness and clarity that they became interesting, individual and most importantly human. And because of this she was always able to transcend the stereotype.
Some of her best known films include: Miracle on 34th Street (1947), A Letter to Three Wives (1949), All about Eve *(1950), With a Song in My Heart *(1952), Pickup on South Street*(1953), Rear Window (1954), Pillow Talk* (1959),The Misfits (1961), How the West Was Won (1962) and Birdman of Alcatraz* (1962). The titles with the * along with The Mating Season (1951) were films for which she was nominated as Best Supporting Actress.
I had the good fortune to meet Ms. Ritter and get to know her briefly. It was in 1955 when she came to St. Thomas, Virgin Islands to shoot a film called The Proud and Profane (1956), a war picture starring William Holden and Deborah Kerr, directed by George Seaton. I interviewed her for the radio station I worked for just as I had done all the other creative personnel on the picture. I was 16 years old at the time and the world of motion pictures and the people who made them seemed like a magical wonderland to me. I badly wanted to become a part of that world, primarily from a writing standpoint. I wanted to become a screenwriter but I had no idea what a screenplay contained or even what one looked like. The interview with Ms. Ritter went so well that afterwards we sat around just talking about things in general. There was something so informal and caring about her manner that I felt as though I had known her all my life. So somewhere in our conversation I mentioned my screen writing ambitions and the fact that I had never seen an actual screenplay.”Oh we can remedy that,” she said and gave me her script for the film to take home and peruse. So I did. Now this was before Xerox and other copy machines for reproduction were available. So I did the next best thing and read the script in one sitting and then began to copy it in longhand exactly as it was structured on the page. I could keep the script for two days I had been told so I did and copied as much as I my free time allowed. I wasn’t able to finish it but I got enough down to tell me all I needed to know at the time. Later on I would go back to it over and over again in order to learn and relearn the format.
In Tennessee William’s A Streetcar Named Desire there is a line about “The kindness of strangers” that has been quoted and requoted multiple times. I think that line aptly describes Ms. Ritter’s kindness to me. I’ll never forget her for it and whenever I see any of the films she appeared in I always think about what a wonderful person she was as well as being a wonderful actress.