Chapter 1: Queers and Dykes in the Dark: Classic, Noir & Horror Cinema’s Coded Gay Characters:

“I wish to join the Legion of Decency, which condemns vile and unwholesome moving pictures. I unite with all who protest against them as a grave menace to youth, to home life, to country and to religion. I condemn absolutely those salacious motion pictures which, with other degrading agencies, are corrupting public morals and promoting a sex mania in our land… Considering these evils, I hereby promise to remain away from all motion pictures except those which do not offend decency and Christian morality.”

—Catholic Legion of Decency pledge

And now here at The Last Drive In, the subject of “The Third Sex in the Shadows of Cinema.”

Clifton Webb as Hardy Cathcart in The Dark Corner 1946 directed by Henry Hathaway. Waldo Lydecker: “I’m not kind, I’m vicious. It’s the secret of my charm.”

“Oh, it’s sad, believe me, Missy, when you’re born to be a sissy without the vim and voive…” -Bert Lahr as the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz (1939)

Growing up as a gay woman, though gender and sexuality are fluid, there was not a well spring of characters in film or television that I could grab onto as a buoy for my burgeoning self awareness – I was ‘different than the others.’ Though there are the obvious icons who became heroes and heroines to many of us because of their peerless image. And while films could not overtly represent ‘queerness’ directly, they could posit mixed messages and a whole generation of us could understand the subtext, unsheltered from an array of homophobic language.

We still had Barbara Stanwyck, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Marlene Dietrich, and Greta Garbo, who gave us immortal androgyny– there was no one who could shatter the silence, and ceremoniously ring the bells out in the open. There were no ‘obvious’ gay role models. We had to create that worship ourselves through iconography and a variety of sublime, convention-smashing signals. For those of us who knew how to look in the dark corners, right under your nose, corners, or should I say coded corners.

There’s one thing I want to be very clear about. I am not asserting that the actors themselves were gay in their personal lives, but that what was coded was merely the particular characters they played in the film. Or that the narrative might seemingly be ‘queer’. Which I will go on to explain. Particular actors or directors private lives are not up for conversation, unless they were clearly open about themselves and their influences on their artistic work.

For instance, I am not saying that I suspect Doris Day is a lesbian, just that the character of Calamity Jane is throwing out messages for those of us ‘in the life,’ to feel a special affinity. Using comforting symbology gives us a place in the universe, especially when the story is presented by the stars we most admire. Not all coded gay characters are portrayed by gay actors, and not all coded comedy, jokes or situations denotes that the character themselves are gay, just that the humor is cannily made to be queer in the moment. It can be an off-the-center remark that speeds by almost unnoticed except for the sake of the hurried laugh or two. Sometimes it’s all subjective and at times it’s pretty obvious which way the deliberate wind blows.

(Stacey) categorizes her range of material into several kinds of identification broadly dividing them into two categories. “Cinematic identifcatory fantasies” —devotion, worship transcendence, inspiration are proper to the act of spectatorship and appear to be based primarily on difference from the star ideal and “extra-cinematic identifactory practices” —imitation and consumption —attempt to close the gap between subject and star even as they take place outside cinema.

The worship of Doris Day is not surprising, she was one of the top box office draws of the 1950s. Day performs a cross-dressing role in the biopic of a legendary lesbian. Indeed, Day and Calamity Jane in particular in which the star sings both “Secret Love” and a duet with another, feminine character called “ a woman’s touch” are regularly cited by lesbians as crucial cinematic texts. (Jackie Stacey’s Star Gazing)

There was a period when Peter Lorre, George Sanders (and his equally effete brother Tom Conway), Anne Revere, Judith Anderson, and Agnes Moorehead played movie villains, fanatics or oddballs. Each of these actors suggested queerness in their androgynous personas. Each became iconic character actors of classic cinema.

Characters like Ernest Thesiger as Dr. Pretorius, Clifton Webb’s Waldo Lydecker in Laura (1944), Judith Anderson in Rebecca (1940), or Gloria Holden as Countess Zaleska in Dracula’s Daughter (1936), stood out to us, though they were despicable and unwelcoming characters. Although I see Gloria Holden’s character as strangely sympathetic. Usually queerness that was veiled behind a coded role, exhibited a disturbed or desperate personality. They might be a person who is ambiguous in their maleness or femininity. And at times, they were full on, deadly.

However, there was so little for those of us who are part of the ‘hidden audience’, we needed to catch sight of something familiar. That meant grabbing onto what ever little crumbs were thrown to us. So whether those characters were inherently insensate evil had nothing to do with our empathy or revulsion. The real power lay in the ability to identify with the essence of ‘otherness’ and more to do with familiarity and belonging. I longed to find that ‘something‘ that signified a relative identification of their sexuality. To see that subtle finger motioning, come closer, you’re in the right place kiddo, you’re one of us. Andrea Weiss writes: “[In the 1930s] for a people who were striving toward self-knowledge, Hollywood stars became important models in the foundation of gay identity.”

The films I have uncovered throughout my endeavor to write this immense blog post, either commonly fall within the queer canon or can be liberally dissected and/or challenged. We can read into any film if we so choose. I am merely putting it out to you that these films do seem to meet the criteria for coded queer paradigms. I also began this piece thinking that in order to understand the evolution of coded characters, you first have to look at the origin of the queer presence in silent and Pre-Code films, and how the Code influenced and constructed the way being queer had to be hidden in plain sight.

I echo Susie Bright, in her feelings that we (the queer community) would hang on anything close to a hint of gayness, and it would change the whole world of the motion picture, just to see that famously analyzed moment when Marlene Dietrich plants that sensuous kiss on a woman’s lips in Josef von Sternberg’s Morocco 1930. Or the first cinematic lesbian romance when vamp Louise Brooks slinks on the dance floor with her androgynous female admirer Alice Roberts as Countess Anna Geschwitz in director GW Pabst’s Pandora’s Box (1929).

The boldly androgynous Marlene showcased another masculine appearance when she ascends the throne at the end of The Scarlet Empress (1934).

Greta Garbo portrays the Swedish monarch who declares herself not an “old maid” but “a bachelor” in Queen Christina (1933)

Because of the social relationship between non-normative gender and sexuality and the symbology of fashion and the role of work, women only had to dress like their male counterparts and be employed in a man’s job to seem queer. In the movie directed by George Cukor, What Price Hollywood? (1932), the very drunk filmmaker notices a woman having lunch at a fashionable Hollywood restaurant. The drunks inquiry goes like this, “I beg your pardon, old man… who’s you tailor?

In Victor Fleming’s Red Dust (1932), Jean Harlow is adorable as Vantine as she she handles the heat, and hands out the jibes.

Other members of the lesbian parade inhabit spaces that, as with the men, connote queerness. Consider the lesbian couples in the Greenwich Village dive in Call Her Savage (1932), seated alongside male same-sex couples while pansy entertainers, dressed as maids, perform for their amusement. Mannishly garbed women barflies, sometimes wielding cigars, often pal around with men, or sometimes confuse and emasculate them, in Lawyer Man (1932), Grand Slam (1933), and Blood Money (1933). (Lugowski)

Blood Money (1933) Rowland Brown’s atmospheric jaunt that embraces the gritty underworld, includes racy subjects like sadomasochism, empowered women, and fluid sexuality. Kathlyn Williams credited as the “Nightclub Woman Wearing Monocle”, is a beautiful androgynous off-cut in the film. In one notable scene George Bancroft as Bill Bailey enters Ruby Darling’s (Judith Anderson) nightclub and comes across a young woman at the bar, dressed in a man’s tuxedo and sporting a monocle. Baily offers her a cigar. She smells it and nonchalantly mocks the husky guy, “Why, you big sissy!” and hands it back to him. The nature of this adventurous passage into a subversive world, it generated a lot of sexual tension. With Blood Money, the subject of homosexuality is a non issue, belonging to a subculture that invites those who are outsiders.

In Blood Money and Call Her Savage, 
homosexuality is just another pocket of an underworld that exists outside the law. When George Bancroft warns a timid taxi driver not to betray his destination to the police, he threatens, “Lissen fag” -and is rebuked by Judith Anderson for “scaring the little fellow half to death.”

Keeping along the lines of the connection between women working at men’s jobs, within a wide range of social status, you can see this example in Heat Lightning (1934) starring interestingly handsome actress Aline MacMahon when she, covered in grease, working on cars in her desert garage/gas station wearing a filthy jump suit and hair wrapped in a bandana. She sheds her desire to be desired by men, and exudes a solitary quality, as if she has given up on, performing femininity for men. She seems independent and strong and in her ‘male’ attire, you can see her projecting a queer attitude, though the film deposits a past love interest with bad boy Preston Foster as a distraction. The attraction is doomed from the start.

Olga (MacMahon) balances the duality of loving Preston Foster, donning her ‘womanly’ dress when she decides to submit to a heterosexual liaison which goes wrong. Then she shuns the idea of her femininity, re-asserting her hyper-masculine posture in greasy mechanics overalls and once again hiding her ravenous hair under her bandana, to protect herself from performing as a straight woman again.

To be clear it is not my belief that she’s not “all woman,” even using these props to represent masculinity. She is not truly changing her gender but for the purposes of the narrative, in the movie’s time period, it suggests a superficial interpretation of gender for our spectatorship.

In Jame’s Whales’ The Kiss before the Mirror (1933) there is sophisticated female lawyer Hilda Frey (Jean Dixon) who is stern and stiff-backed, is dressed in severe clothing, a “new kind of woman” which allows for an undercurrent of lesbianism.

In The Kiss before the Mirror (1933), Nancy Carroll as Maria Held is a career-oriented lawyer, who wears men’s suits and considers herself a “new woman.” There are tinges of heterosexuality, which serve to shield her character from scrutiny. But, she does appraise heterosexuality in vaguely cynical terms. She talks to another woman about a case where the husband has murdered his wife, “At least no one will ever murder me.” She also responds to , “What are you? A lawyer, or a new kind of woman?” by saying, “By day, I’m a lawyer. At night, well, you might be surprised.” Either it went undetected by the SRC (Studio Relations Committee) or they felt that the connotations of her lesbianism were ambiguous enough to slip by an unsophisticated audience.

We learn to watch out for signs that there are ‘others’ out there on the screen – those we can relate to. A young person exposed to old films, as I grew older and dove head first into classic film with a critical eye, I could read those sign posts and cues that led me to become consciously aware of the invisible affinity laid out in plain site for me, and those of us who knew the secret whispers behind the storyline.

Women wearing men’s apparel, like Dietrich’s wonderful drag performance, kissing a women in Morocco 1930. Or Clifton Webb’s often effete superiority as with his character, Waldo Lydecker in Otto Preminger’s Laura 1944, or his role as Hardy Cathcart’s with a pathological objectification of his wife Mari’s aesthetic beauty in Henry Hathaway’s The Dark Corner. Greta Garbo in Queen Christina 1933 “I shall die a bachelor!” Gloria Holden’s vampiric desire to embrace the necks of beautiful young female models in Dracula’s Daughter 1936.

Nan Gray and Gloria Holden in Lambert Hillyer’s Dracula’s Daughter (1936)

The Production Code Administration (PCA) saw the obvious connection between vampirism and lesbian sexual desire in Dracula’s Daughter (1936) They only gave two warnings concerning the ‘queerness’ of Countess Zaleska and her thirst for young female victims. Universal, even hyped the idea that women were not safe from unnatural desire using this publicity catch phrase, “Save the women of London from Dracula’s Daughter!”

Throughout these films coded lesbian characters, scattered their rose petals of longing for their dead lost loves or the nymphs just out of their reach. There was the tragedy within the tragedy of the horror story! As long as these queer women monsters also became victims, the PCA could negotiate it’s release, being comfortable with the narrative in that form.

The most overt representation of lesbians was her stylized look, a severely tailored suit, monocle, slicked back or bobbed short hair, or stuanch, with a strait backed, severely repressive temperament. The coded dyke is typically less seen on screen than the pansy who enjoyed more of a character actors trademark in popular films. However, it could be said that covert lesbians are more subtle in their presence than their queer male counterpart – the sissy.

Major female stars could be seen as having indirect lesbian undertones, though their ambiguous sexuality might be camouflaged by her independent streak, her strong spirit or shaded by her exotic, mysterious nature. Thus we find some of our lesbian icons like Marlene Dietrich, Joan Crawford, Katharine Hepburn, Clara Bow, Greta Garbo, and Barbara Stanwyck. Lesbian vibes, can often be signaled by a playful tomboyishness. And what we have is a diametrically opposed result, the pansy is perceived as failed manhood, but conversely the lesbian performing manhood is perceived as a threat.

And if they weren’t tomboys they could be man-less shrews, castrating veragos or in need of a man, who can make her come to her senses, give up her career and her disruptive way of life. The threat of strong women is still equal to the threat. The gay man elicits a laugh.

Thus, discourses about queer sexuality in this period are never purely homophobic against men. To a sizable extent, they have their basis in sexism against women, for it is the power of femininity, the “feminization” of 1930s culture mentioned, and the threat of working women “wearing the pants” that are being policed.

The metaphorical nature of the pants-wearing, money-earning woman attaining independence from men connoted lesbianism as a complete break from the interwoven financial and sexual economies of patriarchy. Thus, if “clothes make the man,” the wearing of pants in and of itself suggested a link to lesbianism that films of the time simultaneously offered as spectacle and punishment. (Lugowski)

In particular classical horror and science fiction films spoke to the sense of “otherness” installed in my psyche. That does not mean that I viewed things through a dark lens, but classical horror and science fiction are effusive metaphors and inherently philosophical. When some of us, like Frankenstein’s monster were figuratively chased with flaming torches, horror and sci-fi movies afforded us shelter from the angry mob. Their use of mythic undertones and symbolic context provided for so many of us, psychic release and catharsis.

It’s also why I love and identify with the monster in classical horror films. The iconic or tragically fated monster has always been portrayed as the ‘other’. Gay people understand what it means to be an outsider. And filmmakers encoded that sui generis into our beloved classical horror genre. It worked like waving that meaningful finger at the audience, saying, you found us, we’re here.

WHAT IS A CODED GAY CHARACTER?

CODED–verb [with object] 1 convert (the words of a message) into a particular code in order to convey a secret meaning: express the meaning of (a statement or communication) in an indirect or euphemistic way: (as adjective coded)

films allude to homosexual meanings in more of less coded ways. From today’s perspective, one can view these films as excellent examples of the very discourse of the closet-they employ connotative and symbolic meanings to signify homosexuality for those ‘in the know’ while ostensibly being about something else. Such connotative meanings were the way homosexuality could be signified under the dictates of the Hollywood Production Code.

Although it was continually challenged throughout the 1950s (by films such as The Moon is Blue 1953 and Baby Doll 1956) The Production Code still exerted a profound effect on the content on Hollywood film, especially in relations to homosexual themes. The Production Code Administration (PCA) edited queer backstories and subtexts of the film adaptations of Tennessee William’s plays A Street Car Named Desire (1951) , Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) and Vincente Minnelli’s film of the Broadway hit Tea and Sympathy… (Jeffrey Sconce)

 

Continue reading “Chapter 1: Queers and Dykes in the Dark: Classic, Noir & Horror Cinema’s Coded Gay Characters:”

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…