Thursday, February 04, 2010

In Praise of Thelma Ritter

One of the things that connects Husband and I is our love for old movies. Further than that, our love for the character actors that made so many of those old movies memorable. Character actors seem to have died out. But "way back when" every hotel clerk, every waiter, every wise-cracking salesgirl was someone worth remembering. Fans of old movies love to play the "hey, that's..." game where you realize the guy driving Myrna Loy's cab was seen two movies ago serving Humphrey Bogart a slice of pie. Today you might recognize a waitress in a movie as a dancing toothbrush from a TV commercial, but these actors have no names and there are as forgettable as a waitress is in real life (with apologies to waitresses everywhere).

My all-time favorite female character actor was Thelma Ritter. She wasn't so much a bit-part player as she was a supporting actress, and every movie she was in was made magical by her dry wit and delicious line delivery.

She was a wonderful actress, earning four Academy Award nominations for Best Supporting Actress, starting with her role as Bette Davis' dresser in All About Eve. Her movie career covered everything from Hitchcock (Jimmy Stewart's nurse in Rear Window) to romantic comedies (the scene in Pillow Talk where she drinks Rock Hudson under the table is a classic) to musicals (acting as Fred Astaire's secretary in Daddy Long Legs. But she was always flat-out fabulous.

She specialized in the smart-aleck roles. The secretary who likes a shot of rye and a snappy come-back. The maid who doesn't hesitate to tell her mistress that she's making a fool out of herself by treating the nice guy like dirt. And there's always something so spot-on about the way she slips in her comments. Of course it helps that back then they wrote scripts with dialogue that was equally memorable. Sadly, that kind of rough diamond with a heart of gold character seems to have gone the way of stockings with seams in them and men in fedoras. But very few people could ever compete with Thelma Ritter for delivering just one line with such an air of dry disdain that she could infuse a word with a world of meaning. In today's movies, I think only Alan Rickman can match her for that ability to make a single word drip with venom.

Only with Thelma, the venom really had no lasting sting. Only a smartness that would make you stand up and take notice.

Oh Thelma, we miss you.


Duke said...

I love Ritter too. Like you say, she was known for romantic comedies with zippy one-liners but I liked her best in dramatic roles. My favorite performance by far was in Pickup on South Street. She was awesome and broke your heart. Not many actresses could bring the emotion she did to that part. It got her an Oscar nomination too.

Another actress I love is Greer Garson. She brings a huge depth to anything she touched.

I won't hijack your blog with my movie blather. Movies are my thing and I tend to get carried away talking.

Decca said...

Oh Greer Garson! So beautiful and such a subtle and gentle actress. I've always thought she was underrated.

And yes, Pickup on South Street is amazing. She was wonderful. I liked Richard Widmark in that one too. I'm always surprised this one isn't better known.

I tend to blather about movies too. You should hear me wax rhapsodic about Eugene Pallette.

Duke said...

Eugene Pallette, I haven't thought of him in years. He was a real character. I remember him from a weird little movie called "Are Husbands Necessary? or something like that.

Duke said...

Here's a little write up I did on my blog about Pickup on South Street. I thought you might be interested. I posted it back in 2007 I think.