31 Flavors of Noir on the Fringe to Lure You In! Part 1

“A man could spend the rest of his life trying to remember what he shouldn’t have said.”- Force of Evil

“All that Cain did to Abel was murder him.” –Force of Evil

“He pushed me too far!… So I pushed him just far enough.” –The Lineup

“You’re like a rat in a box without any holes” – I Wake Up Screaming

“From now on, no one cuts me so deep that I can’t close the wound.” – I Wake Up Screaming

“I’m gonna give you a break. I’m gonna fix it so you don’t hear the bullets!”- The Big Combo

“I was born on a Monday, I might as well go out on a Monday. Like dirty laundry.”- Man in the Dark 

Heads up… this feature includes spoilers…💣

1-I Wake Up Screaming 1941

I Wake Up Screaming is the first official noir produced by Fox, directed by H. Bruce Humberstone (he worked on Charlie Chan programmers and B-movies) who was not considered a noir director. With a screenplay by Dwight Taylor based on the novel by Steve Fisher. Eddie Muller said it personified film noir, and calls the 1941 film – Proto-noir, as it was the first of it’s kind.

Darryl F. Zanuck wanted the film’s location changed to New York City, so it wouldn’t reflect badly on L.A. There are a number of sleazy characters involved and he wanted to shift the story from Hollywood to Broadway.

The film was remade as Vicki in 1953 (with Jeanne Crane and Jean Peters, though it lacked the highly stylized artistry) Photographed by Edward Cronjager (Seven Keys to Baldpate 1929, Hell’s Highway 1932, The Monkey’s Paw 1933, Island in the Sky 1938, The Gorilla 1939, Heaven Can Wait 1943, Desert Fury 1947, Relentless 1948, House by the River 1950, The Girl in Lovers Lane 1960) pours out murky noir shadows, darkened streets, unusual camera angles, low key lighting and the high contrast, onepoint lighting that illuminates the ink black threatening spaces. The film is stark yet dynamic.

With music by Cyril J. Mockridge, you’ll hear the familiar often used noir leitmotif, the melody Street Scene by Alfred Newman. I Wake Up Screaming stars Betty Grable as Jill Lynn, Victor Mature as Frankie Christopher, Carole Landis as Vicki Lynn, Laird Cregar as Ed Cornell. The film also co-stars Alan Mowbray as Robin Ray and Allyn Joslyn as Larry Evans. Quirky character actor Elisha Cook Jr. plays Harry Williams the desk clerk in Vicki’s apartment building who’s a real weirdo. William Gargan plays Detective Jerry ‘Mac’ MacDonald.

Cook is great at playing quirky oddballs (Cliff the crazed drummer in Phantom Lady 1944, George Peatty in The Killing 1956, anxious trench coat wearing Wilmer in The Maltese Falcon 1941, Watson Pritchard in House on Haunted Hill 1959).

I Wake up Screaming bares a resemblance to a whodunit, as the killer is chased down with the story playing a bit of a shell game with us. There are common noir themes of obsession, perverse lust, corruption and homicidal jealousy. The film is also has a preoccupation with images and artifice, tossing up flashbacks like a circus juggler.

Right before model Vicki Lynn heads to Hollywood to reach for her rising star, she is brutally murdered. Delicious Betty Grable in her first non-music role, plays Jill Lynn, Vicki’s sister, who is drawn to the man (Victor Mature) who is presumably her sister’s murderer.

Vicki functions as an essential part of the narrative early on in the film and is resurrected by way of flashbacks. Frankie knows that while there are images that still exist of Vicki she is no longer present. In fact Vicki is a myth and a manufactured deception in some ways. Jill on the other hand is genuine, unpretentious and warmhearted.

Carol Landis who died at 28 from an overdose, plays murder victim Vicki Lynn. I Wake up Screaming back flips into the weeks leading up to her death. The film is also somewhat of a noir variation on Pygmalion, as Victor Mature who plays Frankie Christopher, sports and show business promoter, discovers a beautiful girl waiting tables and gets the hot idea of turning Vicki into a celebrity and society girl. Vicki’s appeal, is the sphere of influence that drives the plot. Mature always makes the screen sweat with his sexy brawny build, swarthy good looks, strong jaw line and the aura of his glistening obsidian hair.

The film opens with a sensational news headline ‘MODEL MURDERED’ right from the top Frankie is being grilled by the cops in the interrogation room. Burning white hot lights are up close in his face. He says to the shadow of Cornell (Cregar) who’s a bulky shadow shot with single source lighting) to his opaque figure, “You’re a pretty tough guy with a crowd around.”

The flashbacks begin. Frankie goes back to the first time he meets Vicki at the lunch room on 8th Avenue while eating with Larry Evans (Alan Joslyn) and Robin Ray (Alan Mowbray). Vicki asks “Is that all?” Lary Evans says “No, but the rest of it isn’t on the menu.” She handles his come on, “You couldn’t afford it if it was.” Frankie pours on the charm. He gets the notion to take Vicki and mold her into a celebrity. “You know I bet in 6 months I could take that girl and put her on top of the ladder.” Mature and Landis worked together in One Million Years B.C.

Has-been actor Robin Ray (Mowbray) and ruthless gossip columnist Larry Evans (Joslyn) decide to get involved in developing Vicki Lynn’s mystique and cultivate her glamour on the road to fame. Of course both men wind up having a yen for her. A cynical Ray (Mowbray) complains that all women are alike. Evans (Joslyn) tells him,“For Pete’s sake, what difference does that make? You’ve got to have them. They’re standard equipment.”

Frankie takes Vicki Lynn out into New York cafe society – All three schemers, the columnist, the washed up actor and Frankie, bring her to the cafe and make a big noise, grabbing the attention of Lady Handel (May Beatty) who invites them over to her table. In order give the impression that Vicki will now be a new sensation, Larry Evans brags in front of the table, that he’ll plug her In his column. They also think that it’ll help Vicki to get noticed if she’s seen on Robin Ray’s arm. The outing is a success. When they bring her home to her apartment building they meet the squirrly desk clerk Harry Williams (Elisha Cook), who takes his sweet time, getting up for Vicki. Frankie gives him a hard time after being so disrespectful. Williams sneers, “She ain’t nobody.”

Back to the present and Frankie’s still in the sweat box. They’re questioning Jill too. She’s telling the cops about Vicki’s plans. She’s got, “Grand ideas about becoming a celebrity.” They ask about Frankie’s involvement. Another flashback – the sisters are talking about Vicki’s new venture. Vicki tells Jill, “They’re gonna glamorize me.” Jill tells Vicki that she doesn’t trust Frankie’s promises, and apologizes for sounding stuffy. She warns Vicki about having unrealistic aspirations. Flashback even further. Frankie shows up at the cafeteria. Vicki keeps dishing out the wise cracks. He shows her the newspaper article about her making a splash at the El Chico Club.

“Why all the cracks you don’t even know me?” “I don’t know anything about art, but I know what I like.” Back at the present day, at the police station. Jill continues to tell the cops how successful Vicki’s climb was. Backwards once again-

Jill Lynn I don’t want to tell you your business, but don’t you think you’re making a fool of yourself?
Vicki Lynn What do you mean?
Jill Oh, this Frankie Christopher. People like that, what have they got to do with people like us?
Vicki Jill, they’re going to help me!
Jill In what way?
Vicki They’re gonna’ glamorize me. They may have started this thing as a gag, but, after taking one look at those million-dollar debutantes tonight, I realized I can give them cards in spades and still come out on top.
Jill Vicky, you’ll never come out on top by any shortcuts. One week your picture’s on the cover of a magazine, the next it’s in the ash can.

Frankie arrives at the girls apartment, and Vicki breaks the news to Frankie that she’s going away to Hollywood. She’d done a screen test and signed a long term contract. He’s angry. She went behind Frankie’s back after everything he did for her. She defends herself “Some people think I’m a pretty attractive girl. I’m no Frankenstein you know!” Frankie comments, “I wonder.”

Jill tells the cops she was pounding a typewriter breaking her finger nails, and Vicki did get the Hollywood contract, so she might have been right about taking the risk with an acting career and becoming a star.

Another flashback The three men are sitting around the bar..

Robin Ray [indignant] Can you imagine her walking out on me, after all that I’ve done for her? Me!

Larry Evans [slightly incredulous] “You’ve” done for her? What have *you* done for her?

Robin Well, I took her out to all the bright spots, I let her be seen with me everywhere… It made her feel important.

Larry Why, you parboiled old ham! You don’t think anybody thought there was anything between *you* two, do you? If it hadn’t been for my plugging in the column, people would’ve thought she was your trained nurse.

Robin Why, you ink-stinking word slinger! I was famous when they were changing your pants 20 times a day!

Jumping to the present again, Jill is still being questioned by the cops. They want to know if Vicki had anyone in her life. Jill remembers a peculiar thing that happened. She tells them she was sitting at the table in the cafeteria waiting for Vicki to get off work. The peeping prowling, Ed Cornell’s giant shape stares at Vicki through the window. He has a queer look on his face. Jill maintains her stare, holding her coffee cup, she is unable to put it down as she studies him, uncomfortably. Once he notices Jill catching him ogling Vicki, he skulks away. Mockeridge’s score undergoes a sinister change, emphasis on the rhythmic accents of a classic horror picture.

Jill tells her sister, “You seem to have an admirer there’s some guy looking through the window like the wolf looking for the 3 little pigs.” The girls are walking on the street, Cornell is leaning against a wall, Jill points out to Vicki that he’s the one. “He gives me the creeps” Vicki says, “You’ll have to get used to that, they’ve got more wolves in New York than they have in Siberia” She tells the cops she saw him several times after in odd places. He never said anything but watched Vicki, it frightened Jill. There was something strange about him, the way he looked at Vicki. Always turning up in strange places. The cops look skeptical about her “mysterious stranger.”

The cops think Jill is trying to protect Frankie “I just don’t believe he did it, that’s all” They ask if she’s involved with him, and accuse her of being in love with him and wanting Vicki out of the way. Jill demands to see someone in authority, so they tell Mac to get Cornell. Who walks in? The creep who watched Vicki through the plate glass!

Enter rabid, self-righteous homicide Detective Ed Cornell (Cregar). Once he sets his sights on Frankie he begins to mercilessly hound him to the ends of hell if necessary, going after him with a flaming vengeance, trying to pin the murder on him. Cornell knows that Frankie is innocent but he is determined to persecute him. Cregar made an all too short career out playing imposing characters. He died at 28 in 1944 due to complications from a crash diet, always struggling with his weight, striving to obtain leading man status.

Jill is startled, the room is smoky and this massive shape looms over her with his girth “That’s him, that’s the man!” They think she’s crazy. First it’s a mysterious stranger peeking through windows and now it’s Ed Cornell. “Thats my job to look at people.” Leaving the dark corner of the sweat box into the smoke factory with Frankie, things become more visible as Cornell emerges as a menacing force. She insists, “I did see you.” “Alright Alright I’m a peeping tom.”

Jill Relates what happened on the car ride with Frankie, the night he learned Vicki was leaving, and she tells him he’ll be glad to get rid of her, because Jill is in love with him. That Jill is just covering up her feelings. Frankie says Jill being in love with him, never entered his mind. Vicki is sure, “I know it’s much deeper than that. That’s why its so dangerous. Anything might happen.”

Cornell writes down everything in his pad. Jill says that Vicki didn’t mean the line about being glad to get rid of her, but he corrects her, “What she meant doesn’t count. It’s what she said.”

The night Jill found Vicki, as soon as she came out of the elevator she got a feeling something was wrong. There was  music blasting from the radio. Frankie was there already – ”Jill you don’t think I did it, do you?” Jill is in shock.

Cornell goes back into the interrogation room with Frankie and tells him he knows about Vicki’s ‘get rid of me’ statement. The obessed Cornell comes up with a scenario. Frankie’s mind got more and more inflamed with jealousy and hurt pride. Went up there and killed her in cold blood. Cornell loses his cool and lunges at Frankie, ”I’ve got a mind to kill you right now.”When Cornell gets rough, the other cops have to break it up. They all like Frankie and ask if he’s got any tickets to the fights. They ask Cornell “What’s the idea of riding him, so hard?” “I have years of experience in this racket. If that isn’t the look of a guilty man, I’ll take the rap myself.” The District Attorney winds up getting his back up with Cornell when he focuses so much on Frankie’s guilt.

The District Attorney (Morris Ankrum) apologizes to Frankie. Jill is in the office too, and tells him they think they know the identity of the killer. It’s the switchboard operator at the sisters’ apartment building. They think it’s Harry Williams. Jill leaves the police station and Frankie asks why they think it’s Williams. The D.A. tells him, William’s been missing since 5pm last night, probably hiding out scared and shaky.

Frankie is released and later that night, Mature wakes up to find the huge, menacing Cregar sitting beside his bed, “Well that’s the first time, I had a bad dream with my eyes open.” “Someday you’re going to talk in your sleep, and when that days comes I want to be around.” The scene hints at Cornell’s repressed homosexual passion.

Cornell tells him he’ll get all the evidence he needs and tie him up like a pig in a slaughter house. Frankie unrattled, tells him, ”You’re the bright boy” and reminds him that they think Williams murdered Vicki. Victor Mature is so smooth, so mellow when he’s playing at being sarcastic, He says, “You’re like something out of a museum you ought to have a magnifying glass and one of those trick hats with the ear flaps” Frankie throws Cornell out after he calls him cocky, and has had it his way too long. First with Vicki, then Jill. Cornell’s resentment is showing.

Jill finds Harry Williams who’s returned to the apartment building. She’s moving out, but he has already packed up her bags and taken them down to the lobby. Williams is a suspiciously hollow little insect who Jill finds strange. Frankie meets up with Robin at the police station. The cops show a reel of Vicki singing at a night club. Cornell watches her longingly which gives Frankie a window into Cornell’s longing for the dead girl. Cornell looks at Frankie with contempt.

The film of Vicki appears in the dark room filled with cigar smoke that makes wispy clouds float, and the rays of light from the projection booth. The light cast on Frankie’s eyes are like an illuminated mask, it accentuates his epiphany — that Cornell is obsessed with Vicki. He catches something in his stare. The light on Cornell’s face as HE stares back at Frankie, unmasks only half of his face, revealing the duplicity Cornell projects throughout the picture. It’s a brilliantly framed shot by Cronjager.

The film reel resurrects Vicki from the dead, like a ghost haunting the room. Robin Ray squirms in his chair and runs to get out. The door is locked. His behavior hints at his guilt. They put the lights on and bring him into the D.A.’s office. Ray tells them how he felt about her. She laughed at him. Called him “a has-been and didn’t want to hitch her wagon to a falling star.” He’s the one that arranged the screen test but she went down there alone. He is obsolete, they decided they didn’t need him. While he talks about her, Cornell looks out the window. Daylight casts patterns from the venetian blinds that cut across his face. Odd angle profiles tilt the two-shot of Cornell and Mac off kilter. Ray has an alibi. He was at a sanitarium. Cornell checked it out already and is gleeful that it rules out yet another suspect. He wants Frankie to fry for it. Cornell would have Frankie in the death house by now. “That won’t prevent you from going to the hot chair.” 

As Frankie is leaving the police station Cornell asks him for a lift uptown “Sure, always happy to oblige a goon”

Ed Cornell [bumming a ride in Frankie’s car] “I’m sorry to have to ask you to do this, but I’m a little short on cash lately. You see, I’ve spent so much of my own dough, trying to build up this case against you.”

Frankie Christopher (Victor Mature) Well, if there’s anything you need, just let me know.”

Ed Cornell Oh, I imagine they’ll make it right with me when I bring in the material for your trial. They usually do in these cases. I nick a guy on my own time and send him up to the chair, then I get back pay.”

Frankie Christopher “Must be a great life – like a garbage man, only with people!”

Ed Cornell “I got practically all the evidence I need now. I could arrest you today for that matter, but you might get some smart mouthpiece and get off with life instead of the chair. I won’t be satisfied until I’m *sure* it’s the chair.”

Frankie Christopher “You’re a gay dog, Cornell. You make me feel as if I’m driving a hearse!”

Ed Cornell Oh, I know your type. I’ve seen hundreds of them. I don’t scare you enough to make you commit suicide, but I worry you just the same. And when the day comes they all act different. Some scream, a few faint, some light a cigarette and try a wisecrack. But it sticks in their throats – especially when they’re hung.”

Cornell shows up at Jill’s new apartment to intimidate her. Jill “What’s the good of living without hope?” Ed Cornell signals his own personal torture- “It can be done.” He advises her to just play along, insisting that she’s not even sure Frankie’s innocent. Once he’s left, Jill pulls out a note from behind a framed painting on the wall. It’s from Frankie to Vicki, “After what you did last night, the sooner you’re out of the way the better it will be.”

Frankie takes Jill to the fights and then out on the town. She asks if he ever brought Vicki to the fights, and tells him it’s the first New York night club she’s ever been to. The El Chico club, he first took Vicki to. She sees how nice he is without all the flashy bluster and pretense. He’s actually very real. Cornell follows them. Frankie asks her why she suddenly called him, “The trouble with you is that you pretend you don’t care about things but you do. You were very upset about Vicki’s death weren’t You? He tells her he’d like to find the guy, “Save the State on it’s electric bill. She was a good kid” Jill doesn’t want him to be guilty. “Did you love her? “No, do you think if I’d loved her I would have tried to exploit her the way I did?… Vicki was pretty, gay and amusing She had lots to offer and I wanted to put her in the right place on the map. After all that’s my business But when a man really loves a woman, he doesn’t want to plaster her face all over papers and magazines. He wants to keep her to himself.”

Looking into her eyes, he tells her he’s in love with her. Larry Evans sees them together and calls in the story “Stepping out… Dancing on the grave.”

Frankie takes Jill to his favorite swimming spot. It’s a lovely scene, that brings some lightness to the external space in the story. She shows him the note he wrote to Vickie and he asks why she didn’t turn it into the police. Jill tells him she knew he was innocent and what the note meant, at the moment they were dancing at the nightclub. When they are back at the apartment, Cornell walks in and takes the note. They cuff Frankie. Cornell who is obviously framing him is just waiting for the chance to catch him. Frankie tells him anyone could have written a note like that. He was burned up when Vicki dropped the bomb that she was leaving. He finds out that Cornell has planted a set of brass knuckles in his apartment. Vicki was hit hard behind the ear with a heavy object. The depraved Cornell punches Frankie in the guts. “You’re like a rat in a hole.”

As Cornell is about to take him downtown, Frankie on the ground after Cornell’s hostile assault, Jill hits Cornell from behind, and helps Frankie escape. Big fat head bullying him, she says.

Frankie proposes, “Mind marrying a hunted man?” She tells him, “Most married men have a hunted look anyway.” He tells her his real name – Botticelli, the son of Italian immigrants. Then he shows her how to hide in the city. They duck into in an adult movie house, watching the same picture over and over. Then they decide to split up for the time being and she goes to the public library. The cops find her, and Frankie sees them taking her away. The newspaper headline says “Christopher eludes police dragnet.” Cornell stalks the streets. Frankie sneaks up on him. “Let Jill go”, and he’ll turn himself in. Ed Cornell (Laird Cregar) “I’ll follow you into your grave. I’ll write my name on your tombstone.” “You’re not a cop you’re crazy trying to frame an innocent man.” Frankie throws a tootsie roll at him and takes off. Cornell assures him, he’ll eventually get him. Always smirking like the devil.

Cornell tells the D.A. a parable about the African Butterfly and how to trap the male is to let the female free. He wants him to let Jill out of her box to lure Frankie. She goes home, sneaks out through the window, and surprises Frankie at the adult movie house. At the apartment she has found little cards from flowers that were sent to Vicki, and at the funeral. She shows them to Frankie. The message on the cards say, “Because I promised.”

They go to Rosedale Cemetery and when he meets the caretaker, Frankie pretends to be reporter and ask if anybody lately has been around Vicki’s grave. There were many flowers at the funeral, and the caretaker tells him that the grave’s been getting flowers each day since she died. Frankie learns where they were sent from, and goes to Keating Florist. It turns out the Larry sent them. Frankie confronts Larry who admits he was with Vicki the day she died. He had promised to send her flowers every day when she left for Hollywood, and he wanted to keep his word. Larry winds up giving Frankie a clue about the killer, and he goes to the old apartment and gets Mac to give him a half hour. He has a strong hunch.

The next scene is ripe with atmosphere when Frankie leans against the wall in Vicki’s old apartment. The lattice shadows fence Frankie in. Harry Williams is sleeping at the front desk. Vicki rings the desk and speaks in Vicki’s voice “Hello Harry, this is Vicki” He’s visibly shaken. Frankie watches his reaction. His eyes open wider as the buzzing mocks him, “Harry this is Vicki. Why did you do it Harry? Didn’t you love me?” Frankie confronts Williams. “You let yourself in with your pass key and waited for her. You loved her. She panicked and screamed.” William’s admits,  “I told the cop that when he chased me to Brooklyn. Cornell knew all along it was Williams. The dirty Cornell told him to just come back and keep his mouth shut. Mac hears the confession. Frankie tells him, he wants 5 minutes alone with Cornell.

He goes to his apartment finds a perverse and macabre shrine to Vicki. Her image is like a talisman in his sufficating little apartment. He discovers the prominent photograph of Vicki in an elaborate frame. Cornell unaware that Frankie is there, comes in and places fresh flowers underneath the photograph, as an offering. Frankie watches then emerges, “You knew. Why’d you want to fry me?”He tells Frankie, “I lost Vicki long before Williams killed her. You were the one who took her away from me” Cornell wanted to marry her. Had this furnished apartment set up. Bought her perfume. “Til he came along and put ideas in her head. She thought she was too good for me. He could had killed him then.” Frankie puts it to him, “Why didn’t ya?” “Cause I had the hook in your mouth and I wanted to see you suffer.”

Cornell resented Frankie’s closeness to Vicki, and inhabits a world that excludes him. In contrast to the suave Frankie Christopher, he is a lumbering and awkward outsider. To Cornell, Vicki will always be as unattainable as the first time he gazed upon her through the window. He was struck by her beauty, but she was completely and forever out of his reach. Cornell is like a lurking monster straight out of a classic horror movie. His uneasy presence lends to a surreal and menacing mood.

A Trailer a day keeps the Boogeyman away! I Wake Up Screaming (1941)

Continue reading “31 Flavors of Noir on the Fringe to Lure You In! Part 1”

What A Character! Blogathon 2019 Thelma Ritter “Always a bridesmaid and never the bride”

It’s here again, my favorite blogathon that honors those unsung actors we love to see inhabit films and most often enhance them immeasurably !

I want to thank Paula’s Cinema Club, Once Upon A Screen… and Outspoken & Freckled for hosting this important event that brings to light those essential personalities that populate memorable films and television programs with their own rare brilliance. This year I am honoring the great Thelma Ritter!

With her warm and weather worn face, Thelma Ritter is the quintessential expression of a working class dame, the working class mother, the everywoman. And no one can deliver a snappy quip quite like Thelma Ritter. Between her mournful tones of better days or raising a stink about this or that, you can almost see the cleaning rag over her simple brown hairdo hanging out the window in Brooklyn just chatting it up with the neighbors. Thelma Ritter, with hands on hip, spouts barbs and verbal gems from an endless fountain of every day wisdom.

And I want to make this clear from the start, Thelma is no plain, dowdy or shabby spinster, she’s a beautiful woman. So there’ll be no agism or misogynistic observations in this tribute.

“Usually looking like a cross between Mother Courage and a cafeteria lunch lady, [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… All About Eve (1950).” —Moira Finnie Streamline, The Filmstruck Blog

Thelma Ritter’s legacy is that of the wise-cracking and world weary characters who informs us in any role that she is just a regular gal like you or me. We feel empathy for her, and we laugh along with the sharp witted come backs she so famously utters. When ever she shows up on screen she enlivens what ever plot she was sent out in to explore with that cynical and bold approach to life offering that dialogue that had razor sharp teeth.

Ritter was one hell of a character actor/comedienne who worked on radio then quickly established herself in top billed supporting roles in post-war Hollywood. She was nominated 6 times without winning a single Oscar between 1950-1962. She tied with Deborah Kerr for the most nominated without winning the award. It is a crime that she never won a statue or a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

As writer Paddy Chayefsky wrote in his New York Times tribute for her death: “She was never properly publicly recognized as an actress. […] She was a character actress, which means only that they don’t write any starring parts for middle-aged women.”

Frank Capra called her “the best of all character actresses.”

Even in her performances of the most plain of women, she exuded sophistication, often classier than the upper class people that satellite around her. She often played characters who had the answers and the gumption to say it like it is, the truth that circulates through each story, driving sanity, stability, clarity, and compassion into the narrative.

None of her roles could ever be considered ordinary. Her characters always exuded her own brand of humanity. The people she played were immediately relatable to all of us.

Thelma Ritter was born in Brooklyn New York in 1902 on St Valentine’s Day on Hart Street in South Brooklyn. Born of a Dutch immigrant father and a Scottish mother. Thelma would have to rely on her wits as the family was not of an advantaged background. Maybe that’s why she has a keen witty charm, lovable persona and a certain pluckiness and curt wisdom that doesn’t allow for quick comebacks by the other actors. Though cast as a supporting actress, her name always appears on the bill or right up in the title close to the stars often being the more memorable in the picture. She brought cracking wise to a whole other level of artistry.

She attended the Academy of Dramatic Arts, the class of 1922, but did not graduate with her class as she had to quit to earn money. She made her Broadway debut in a comedy called The Shelf, costarring with other notable character actors Jessie Ralph, Lee Patrick and Donald Meek. She appeared in 32 performances before the show closed in 1926. Then she was in Times Square (1931) which didn’t have a very long run on Broadway. She took some time off to raise her children then went back to work initially in radio. Her daughter Monica Moran is an actress, they appeared together in the 1966 road company of Bye Bye Birdie co-starring Tab Hunter.

Thelma Ritter was actually 41 at the time of her wonderful film debut as the uncredited harried Christmas shopping mother in Miracle on 34th Street (1947). Ritter left such an impression on director George Seaton and 20th Century Fox head Darryl F. Zanuck that they lengthened her small part in the film and decided to cast her in other pictures. This sparked a career where she wouldn’t make a multitude of films, but a film a year from 1947 until her retirement in 1969. The films she did appear in were extremely popular and received well by the critics.

Ritter’s uncredited role of Captain’s secretary in Call Northside 777 (1948) was left on the cutting room floor. The credits were left in, but she is nowhere to be seen in the film. Though again uncredited she appeared as the sharp tongued maid Sadie Dugan in director Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s 1949 melodrama A Letter to Three Wives starring Jeanne Crain, Linda Darnell and Ann Southern.

In A Letter to Three Wives, Thelma Ritter plays the maid Sadie Dugan who works for an upper middle class couple George (Kirk Douglas) and Rita Phipps (Ann Sothern). Kirk Douglas plays an English teacher and his wife Rita is a writer for a radio soap opera, played by Ann Sothern. Sadie ingratiates herself into the family feeling right at home telling Rita “The cap’s out. Makes me look like a lamb shop with pants on” when Rita asks her to wear a frilly hat while serving dinner to important guests. Ritter has wonderful lines that she expresses with ease. The writing was handpicked for her brand of comedy that cuts through the melodrama of the film. While describing her disdain for Rita’s radio program she comments, ”Do you know what I like about your program? Even when I’m running the vacuum, I can understand it.”

Ritter’s first major role as a lady’s companion was Birdie Coonan in All About Eve (1950). Director Joseph L. Mankeiwicz was so taken with Ritters style, that she was first choice to play Birdie, the edgy ex-vaudevillian maid to theater Diva Margot Channing (Bette Davis in her Oscar-nominated role). He claimed he wrote the screenplay with Thelma Ritter in mind. Aside from Addison Dewitt (George Sanders), Birdie is the only one who isn’t fooled by Eve (Ann Baxter). Ritter’s character has a keen understanding of the realities of life and is honest and gruff with the waif-like manipulative and ambitious Eve. Her role was so impressive that she received her first of six nominations for the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.

When Eve first recounts her sad background to Margot, Birdies reacts with the infamous line “What a story! Everything but the bloodhounds snapping at her rear end.” The original line used was ‘ass’ instead of ‘rear end.’ But Joseph Breen’s office was clamping down on “morals” and found the original word too vulgar.

All through the film All About Eve, Birdie tries to inform Margot of Eve’s duplicitous nature, while everyone else is also taken in by the ‘kid’. Margot asks, “Birdie, you don’t like Eve, do you? Birdie answers, “You looking for an answer or an argument?” Margo, “An answer.” Birdie, “No.” Margo, ”Why not?” Birdie, “Now you want an argument.”

Thelma Ritter’s most significant trademark is her sassy streetwise meddling, to offer her wisdom and advice even when not being asked for it. After All About Eve, she would be cast in strong supporting roles for the rest of her career.

The next year she would once again be nominated for the wonderful picture directed by underrated directed Mitchell Leisen’s The Mating Season (1951) co-starring Gene Tierney, followed by With a Song in My Heart (1952), Pickup on South Street (1953) as Moe Williams (A film she should have won the Oscar for her outstanding performance) then came Pillow Talk in 1959 and Birdman of Alcatraz (1962).

John Lund and Thelma Ritter in a scene from the film ‘The Mating Season’, 1951. (Photo by Paramount Pictures/Getty Images)

While most older female character actresses go loveless in their films, Thelma Ritter is one who manages to not always fly solo in the story lines. She often gets to have a love interest. The Mating Season (1951) directed by M. Leisen, is a satirical look on class culture, and a hilarious story of mistaken identity. Thelma as Ellen McNulty runs a small hamburger joint in Jersey and when the bank forecloses she goes to Ohio to be with her son Val (John Lund), who has just married socialite Maggie (Gene Tierney). Maggie is not a snob, but Ritter’s son is embarrassed by his humble background. Miriam Hopkins plays Tierney’s mother and former ambassador’s wife and pretentious elitist, Fran Carleton.

Robert Osborne called The Mating Season a delightful romantic comedy that most people don’t know about. The film brought Thelma at age 48 “the closest to inheriting the mantle of the great Marie Dressler than anyone in Hollywood since Dressler’s death in 1934.”

Ellen secretly works to make enough money to buy an $18 hat to wear when she meets her daughter-in-law. The way Thelma Ritter uses the hat as a prop in the storyline adds an endearing touch in the film. Thelma drops in unexpectedly to meet her new daughter-in-law and is mistaken for a domestic that the new bride has hired to cook and serve at her dinner party. Her son’s boss, Mr Kalinger (Larry Keating) falls for Ellen after she rubs liniment on his chest while he is sick. She finds out he’s much like her dead husband— the kind of guy stray dogs take to.

Ellen –“If you’re a chicken, you can fool people about your feathers. But when you start laying eggs all over the place, they know you’re a chicken.”

Ellen: “You don’t know what it was like working with her yesterday. I felt like I was 21 again.”
Val: “Oh Malarky”
Ellen: “Look wiseguy, I didn’t feel like I was 21 when I was 21.”

“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.” -Moira Finnie

Ritter finally receives above the title star billing in George Cukor’s delightful romantic comedy starring Jeanne Crain and Scott Brady, The Model and the Marriage Broker (1951) Another highly underrated picture. Director Cukor’s adds a sensitive touch to this endearing film creating a world with plenty of witty dialogue and quirky characters. The cast is filled with lonely hearted misfits including Nancy Kulp, Zero Mostel, and Dennie Moore. Ritter plays good hearted, wryly witted yet sympathetic matchmaker Mae Swasey who just doesn’t want anyone to be alone after her own husband had left her for another woman years before. Mae goes on a mission of mischief to fix up Matt Hornbeck (Brady) with model Kitty Bennett (Jeanne Crain) though Hornbeck initially puts up a good fight saying he has no intention of getting married… that is until he meets Kitty.

Mae to Mr. Wixted (Zero Mostel) about planning a date with Nancy Kulp, “A real live wire, low voltage but steady.”

THE MODEL AND THE MARRIAGE BROKER [US 1951] SCOTT BRADY, JEANNE CRAIN, THELMA RITTER Date: 1951

“Anybody with four pints of blood that can stand on their two feet long enough to say I do is in a position to get married.”-Mae

Dan Chancellor (Jay C. Flippen) “Beautiful up here, isn’t it? Those trees. I’ve always liked that poem that said, “Only God can make a tree.”

Mae Swasey, “Yeah, but on the other hand, you gotta figure, who else would take the time?”

As Young as You Feel (1952) Monty Wooley, Allyn Joslyn and Thelma Ritter

Following the romantic comedies Ritter appears in one of the most extraordinary and evocative noir masterpieces by director Samuel Fuller, Pickup on South Street (1953).

In Pickup on South Street 1953 directed by Samuel Fuller, Ritter plays Moe Williams the best pick pocket stoolie in the business. A police informant who sells neck ties on the street corners and wants a fancy funeral and a nice plot out on Long Island. Robert Osborne couldn’t have stated it better, “Moe Williams lives in the underworld and ekes out a living by selling secrets and information for a price. It’s a far cry from the kind of roles Thelma usually plays. More sinister than lovable.”

Moe is streetwise and world weary. She’s broken down by her years getting by on the rough streets of New York City selling ties and secrets to the police. She’s also cares about what happens to Skip McCoy (Richard Widmark) one of the local petty thieves who picks pockets and chills his beer in the river.

Jean Peters is fantastic in the role of Candy, and Thelma Ritter in Pickup on South Street.

As Moe Williams In Pickup on South Street (1953), Ritter inhabits a darker world than we’re used to seeing her in. Worn down by life on the street as a tie hustler and informant to the law, her weakness for telling the truth puts her in harms way. It’s one of the most gloomy and heart-rending roles in any of her films as it takes a hardened dismal look at crime, postwar greed, and the fear of Communist infiltration. Throughout the picture Moe is fatalistic about her future. She is a character we feel empathy for, and I think it’s one of Ritter’s finest performances.

In a heartbreaking tour de force Ritter gives a performance that should have garnered her the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. Director Sam Fuller created a role just typed for Ritter’s blood, as she poured every ounce of her soul into the character that’ll make you hold your breath, then weep.

She appeared in the 1953 version of Titanic with Barbara Stanwyck. She plays affluent Maude Young who once again, is mistaken for a domestic, with some of the best lines in the picture added for the comic relief.

Maude Young: [after Richard (Clifton Webb) has rejected his son Norman and refused to play in the shuffleboard match with him] “It certainly clouded up. Well, word’ll do it faster than a hickory stick any time.”

Maude Young: “Where I come from this is either a revival meeting or a crap game.”

Maude Young: “I’ve seen that look before. He’s a runaway. Earl Meeker: From what, some woman?Maude: No, he’s running too fast for that.”

Ritter made several significant appearances on the small screen between 1953 and 1962. In 1955 she played Mrs. Fisher in The Show-off, Agnes Hurley in Paddy Chayefsky’s The Catered Affair (Bette Davis played Agnes Hurley in the film version a year later). Playwright Paddy Chayefsky was so taken with Thelma Ritter that he wrote about the 1955 television play, “The Catered Affair was an unfocused piece in which the first act was farce and the second was character comedy, and the third was abruptly drama. There aren’t a dozen actresses who could make one piece out of all that; Miss Ritter of course, did.”

The Farmer Takes a Wife 1954 as Lucy Cashdollar plays Betty Grable’s friend on the Eerie Canal Lucy Cashdollar- “Don’t forget, I’m a five time widow, and when they died they all left me everything they owned. Rest their souls.” Fortune Friendly “What do you want with me I’m broke?” Lucy Cashdollar-“Well, I figure after five rich husbands, the next one would be on the house.”

Also in 1955, Thelma Ritter played Abby in 20th Century-Fox Hour’s television adaptation of Sidney Howard’s play, Christopher Bean. Thelma is often compared to the great Marie Dressler, who played the same role in the 1933 film Christopher Bean. Thelma Ritter takes on the ironic and poignant role of a woman who’s worth is seen through the eyes of an alcoholic artist who paints a portrait of her.

Ritter finished her 6 year contract with Twentieth Century Fox in 1955, playing Alicia Pritchard in director Jean Negulesco’s Daddy Long Legs. Ritter did return in The Second Time Around in 1961.

When explaining why her contract had not been renewed, Ritter joked that “I don’t look so good in a toga.” Referring to Fox’s preference at the time for epics filmed in CinemaScope centered around all things ancient.

Rear Window 1954 Thelma plays the feisty wisecracking nurse, Stella. The scenes with Thelma and Jimmy Stewart were marvelous. Her character’s voice delivered both reason and common sense, and in their scenes we learn about Jimmy Stewart’s character. Thelma brought her comic flair to the role of Stella. As Pat Hitchcock explained “The humor that Thelma Ritter brought to Rear Window was absolutely wonderful. And my father, he loved that because he knew that you couldn’t keep going and keep going. You had to give the audience a break. You had to have them laugh at something. His whole life was the importance of having a sense of humor with whatever you do.”

Deborah Kerr rides in a jeep with Thelma Ritter in a scene from the film ‘The Proud And Profane’, 1956. (Photo by Paramount/Getty Images)

After twenty-six years away, Thelma returned to Broadway in 1957 to play Marthy in the hit musical New Girl in Town, based on Eugene O’Neill’s play Anna Christie. For her part she won a Tony Award (in a tie with Gwen Verdon who won for Anna). This was the first time in history that two actresses won from the same show.

Cameron Pru’Homme, Thelma Ritter and Gwen Verdon –On the set of New Girl In Town

American actors Thelma Ritter (1905 – 1969) and Cameron Prud’homme (1892 – 1967) in a performance of the Bob Merrill play, ‘New Girl in Town’ at the 46th Street Theatre, New York, New York, mid 1957. (Photo by Gjon Mili/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images)

At the Tony Awards with Robert Preston Thelma RItter Helen Hayes Ralph Bellamy

She went on to appear in the hit romantic comedy Pillow Talk (1959). She played the supportive lead with Doris Day and Rock Hudson, exchanging her usual barbs this time with Doris Day about her love life. “If there’s anything worse than a woman living alone its a woman saying she likes it.”

She continued to act in successful roles in the 1960s in films like John Huston’s The Misfits in 1961 (playing Isabelle Steers, co-starring Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable, Montgomery Clift, and Eli Wallach). Then, in How the West Was Won in 1962, and then she was once again paired with Doris Day and James Garner in Move Over, Darling in 1963.

Ritter also appeared on television shows like General Electric Theater in 1960 and the popular westerner Wagon Train in 1962. She appeared in Alfred Hitchcock Presents in a very chilling, nail-biting episode called The Baby Sitter.

In director John Frankenheimer’s Birdman of Alcatraz (1963) Thelma Ritter delivers quite a drastic departure from any of her other roles. She portrays the numb and obsessive mother, loyal to her son Robert Stroud (Burt Lancaster) in one of his most lucid performances. The movie creates a claustrophobic relationship between mother and son, as she is stricken with a miopic vision of championing for him while he is locked away in prison. Axel Nissen calls it “one of the most emotionally ugly characters in her filmography she is cold and uses stillness brilliantly.”

Ritter received her last Oscar nomination or her performance as Burt Lancaster’s controlling mother. She lost to Patty Duke for The Miracle Worker.

In 1963 she was in A New Kind of Love (1963) starring Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward. Ritter plays Leena, who wears a perfume called “My Sin” and is a buyer at Bergner’s Department Store. Leena is attracted to her boss, George Tobias.

She also appeared in the disastrous Broadway production of UTBU 1966 with Margaret Hamilton and Tony Randall.

Coming full circle, Ritter made her last big screen appearance in a small role in George Seaton’s What’s So Bad About Feeling Good? 1968 In Feb 1968 she co-starred with Tab Hunter and her own actress daughter Monica in a stock production of Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park at the Papermill Playhouse in New Jersey, before retiring. She did not live long enough to enjoy her retirement.

Thelma died of a heart attack in New York City just nine days before her 67th birthday. Thelma Ritter was very beloved amongst her colleagues and co-stars, and also critics adored her.

“On screen Ritter projected a wonderfully sanguine and calm acceptance of human frailty and need. It is this quality, combined with her rueful humor and notorious wisecracks, that give depth to her finest performances…{…} Though she played a few middle-or upper class women towards the end of her career, Ritter was obviously best suited to playing women on the lower echelons of the social ladder…{…} She represents the legion of women who keep the wheels of the world turning”– Alex Nissen

CLIPS

Miracle on 34th Street (1949) Peter’s mother

A Letter to Three Wives (1949) Sadie Dugan the maid uncredited

City Across the River (1950) Mrs. Katie Cusack

Perfect Strangers (1950) Lena Fassier

All About Eve 1951

I’ll Get By 1951 Miss Murphy

The Mating Season 1951

The Model and the Marriage Broker 1951 as Mae Swayse

As Young as You feel 1952 as Della Hodges

Titanic 1953

Pickup on South Street 1954

The Farmer Takes a Wife 1954 as Lucy Cashdollar

Rear Window 1955 as Stella

Daddy Long Legs 1955

Alfred Hitchcock Presents 1956 The Baby Sitter Lottie Slocum

The Proud and Profane 1956 as Kate Connors

A Hole in the Head 1959 as Sophie Manetta

Pillow Talk 1959 as Alma

The Misfits 1961

Birdman of Alcatraz 1962 as Elizabeth Stroud

Move Over, Darling 1963

The Incident 1967 as Bertha Beckerman

FILMOGRAPHY & AWARDS

Thelma Ritter won a Tony Award on Broadway in 1957 for the hit musical New Girl in Town, for which she won a Tony in a tie with Gwen Verdon in 1958. She won an Emmy (in 1956), Nominated for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for the Goodyear Television Playhouse production of The Catered Affair. A Golden Globe Awards Nominated for Best Supporting Actress for: All About Eve (1950) The Mating Season (1951)) With A Song in My Heart (1952), Pickup on South Street (1953), Pillow Talk (1959) and Birdman of Alcatraz (1962) and nominated for a Golden Globe for All About Eve, The Mating Season and Boeing Boeing (1965)

  • Miracle on 34th Street (1949) Peter’s mother
  • A Letter to Three Wives (1949) Sadie Dugan the maid uncredited
  • Call Northside 777 (1949) captains secretary uncredited her scene was left on the cutting room floor
  • City Across the River (1950) Mrs. Katie Cusack
  • Perfect Strangers (1950) Lena Fassier
  • Too Dangerous to Love 1951
  • All About Eve 1951 as Birdie Coonan —companion to theater Diva Margot Channing the only character aside from George Sanders’ Addison Dewitt who isn’t fooled by conniving Eve.
  • I’ll Get By 1951 as Miss Murphy
  • The Mating Season 1951 as Ellen McNulty
  • The Model and the Marriage Broker 1951 as Mae Swayze
  • As Young as You feel 1952 as Della Hodges
  • Radio Broadcasts 1953 Theater Guild on the Air “A Square Peg”
  • With a Song in my Heart 1953 as Clancy
  • radio shows such as Radio Broadcasts Theater Guild on the Air “A Square Peg” (1953).
  • Titanic 1953 as Maude Young playing a version of the Unsinkable Molly Brown done up to the nines again mistaken for a housekeeper or maid.
  • Pickup on South Street 1954 directed by Samuel Fuller as Moe Williams the best pick pocket stoolie in the business
  • The Farmer Takes a Wife 1954 as Lucy Cashdollar plays Betty Grable’s friend on the Eerie Canal
  • Rear Window 1955 as nurse Stella
  • Lux Video Theatre 1954 Christmas in July theatre guest
  • The Best of Broadway The Show Off 1955 Mrs. Fisher
  • Daddy Long Legs 1955 as Alicia Pritchard
  • Goodyear Playhouse 1955 The Catered Affair as Mother created the role that Bette Davis adapted to the screen.
  • Repertory Theatre 1955 The Ghost Writer as Muriel
  • Lucy Gallant 1955 as Molly Basserman
  • The 20th Century Fox Hour 1955 “Christopher Bean” as Abby
  • Alfred Hitchcock Presents 1956 The Baby Sitter Lottie Slocum
  • The Proud and Profane 1956 as Kate Connors
  • New Girl in Town (1957) on Broadway
  • The United States Steel Hour 1957 The Human Pattern as Ma Garfield
  • Telephone Time 1957 plot to save a boy as Mary Devlin
  • A Hole in the Head 1959 as Sophie Manetta
  • Pillow Talk 1959 as Alma plays her housekeeper who likes to drink she’s hilarious
  • General Electric Theater 1960 Sarah’s Laughter as Doris Green
  • Startime 1960 The Man as Mrs. Gillis
  • The Misfits 1961 as Isabelle Steers
  • The Second Time Around 1961 as Aggie Gate
  • Birdman of Alcatraz 1962 as Elizabeth Stroud plays Burt Lancaster’s mother
  • Wagon Train 1962 The Madame Sagittarius Story as Madame Delphine Sagittarius
  • How the West Was Won 1962 Agatha Clegg a middle aged woman looking for a husband on the wagon train heading west across America
  • For Love or Money 1963 as Chloe Brasher
  • A New Kind of Love 1963 as Lena O’Connor
  • Move Over, Darling 1963 as Grace Arden plays James Garner’s mother, a wealthy upper class woman which is an atypical character for her
  • Boeing, Boeing 1965 as Bertha
  • The Incident 1967 as Bertha Beckerman
  • What’s so Bad about Feeling Good? 1968 Mrs. Schwartz

This is your EverLovin’ Joey saying you may have thought you were often only a bridesmaid but to so many of us, you’ll forever be the Queen of character actors and unrelenting quips! We love you Thelma Ritter…

Twelve Neglected Characters from Classic Film.

nightmare-alley-edmund-goulding1947
1) The tragically poetic Pete Krumbein in Edmund Goulding’s Nightmare Alley 1947 played by Ian Keith
Franzi
2) The flamboyant Franzi Kartos in Caught 1949 portrayed by Curt Bois ‘darling’
Fred Foss- The Dark Corner 949
3) Stauffer, alias Fred Foss in The Dark Corner 1946-played by the wonderful William Bendix in the white linen suit…
Jan Sterling in Women's Prison -Brenda
4) Good hearted kite hanger, Brenda Martin in Women’s Prison 1955 – the eternal pixie Jan Sterling
Brute Force Jeff Corey Freshman Stack
5) Jeff Corey, as the cringing, cowardly informer ‘Freshman’ Stack in Brute Force 1947
Granny Tucker
6) Beulah Bondi as spiittin’ Granny Tucker in Jean Renoir’s The Southerner 1945 ‘Ah shuckity’
Ma Stone- Jane Darwell, The Devil & Daniel Webster
7) Ma Stone in William Dieterle The Devil and Daniel Webster 1941– the grand Jane Darwell
Wills and Jewel talk at tea-Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte
8) Cecil Kellaway as Harry Wills and Mary Astor as Jewel Mayhew in Hush Hush Sweet Charlotte 1964
Elisha Cook Jr. Jazz wild drummer Cliff-phantom ladyjpg
9) Cliff the jazz sexed drummer in Phantom Lady 1944– the ubiquitous Elisha Cook Jr.
(Ladies in Retirement)
10) Quirky sisters Louisa and Emily Creed in Ladies in Retirement 1941Edith Barrett & Elsa Lanchester
11) The wonderful stoolie Mo whose saving for her headstone and plot out on Long Island played with that razor sharp wit of Thelma Ritter in Pickup on South Street (1953)
12) Jack Oakie as Slob in Jules Dassin’s realism masterpiece Thieves’ Highway (1949)