Exclusive Interviews Celebrate Thelma Ritter’s Legacy

The director of Airport, the biggest Universal blockbuster in 1970, whose $45 million in earnings wouldn’t be topped until Spielberg’s Jaws in 1975, and a character actress with 6 nominations had a connection that made history for both of them.

George Stenius, whose family hailed from Stockholm, grew up in Detroit, and he was determined to be an actor and not go to college, so he joined a stock company and also dabbled in radio. Credited with creating the “High Ho, Silver!” sound byte glorifying The Lone Ranger on radio because he couldn’t whistle, Stenius, who had changed his last name to Seaton because it was easier to pronounce, had the pluck to send his play to none other than MGM’s Irving Thalberg.

Thalberg may not have been as interested in the play as he was in the creative potential of young George, whom he hired as a $50 a week assistant to Ben Hecht and Charles McArthur so George could learn more about his craft, which was not a bad place to start for a newbie. Unfortunately, the MGM team Hecht/MacArthur soon parted company and George didn’t see Hollywood for awhile.

But George Seaton kept plugging away as a gag writer, a fixer, and a man with creative stories. His uncredited days were soon to be behind him as Groucho Marx liked what he came up with for A Night At The Opera, also starring Kitty Carlisle. Marx took him on board for the next Marx Brothers project as a collaborative writer on A Day at the Races, and soon after, he worked for a short while at Columbia and became affiliated with producer William Perleberg, who latched onto Seaton as a protege. Perleberg then joined 20th Century Fox in the early forties and Seaton went with him.

One of Seaton’s first assignments at Fox was the screenplay for the box office hit, The Song of Bernadette which initiated his long career as a successful screenwriter, director and producer.

Various projects followed, and eventually he worked on a period comedy with Betty Grable, but unfortunately, The Shocking Miss Pilgrim was a shocking failure even though it sported songs from George and Ira Gershwin. But as with all failures, everyone usually learns something.

For Seaton’s next project, he wrote the screenplay, and it more than made up for the failure of his last picture. Viewers still scream for it every year in December because of the story, because of the characters, and because of its endearing charm. And one of those endearing charmers was someone agent Meyer Mishkin found named Thelma Ritter. “Meyer was my agent, and he found Thelma for George,”according to actor Marvin Kaplan, who also appeared with Ritter in A New Kind of Love, a film that starred Paul Newman and his wife, Joanne Woodward. TCM Host Robert Osborne also commented during Thelma Ritter’s Summer Under The Stars comments prior to The Model and The Marriage Broker on Wednesday, that Ritter and Seaton were friends.

Officially uncredited in the cast of Miracle on 34th Street, but unforgettable in moviegoer´s memories as “Peter’s mother,” Thelma Ritter elbowed her way to the focal point of viewers’ memories, especially as she told her son something like “Momma wants to talk to Santa, now” after Edmund Gwenn, as Kris Kringle, had promised Peter a fire engine that his mother knew she couldn’t deliver by Christmas morning. Ritter has charged through cinematic history like a a steam roller ever since she had been given her big cinematic break by Director George Seaton, the man who was plucked from obscurity by Irving Thalberg, and cut his writing chops with none other than Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, of Front Page fame.

Born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1902 on St. Valentine’s Day, Thelma Ritter’s auspicious entrance on the day heralded as the most romantic day of the year meant to many classic cinema fans that she would be loved for her endearing, no-nonsense charm, and for telling it all like it is.

Ritter also studied at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York, and trained there as an actress. Her husband, Joe Moran, an executive with Young and Rubicam,  was also Ritter’s agent, and they had two children, daughter Nikki, who also was an actress and appeared with her mother in a production of Barefoot in the Park in 1966, and son Joseph Anthony Moran, who liked to be called ‘Tony.’

In my exclusive interview with Tony last year, he revealed that “I just saw Miracle on 34th Street a few weeks ago,” and for the few moments that his mother was in the film, “she just jumped off the screen,” and “took over the whole show.”


Actor Marvin Kaplan in a scene from A New Kind of Love

In a recent interview with actor Marvin Kaplan (It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World), he reminisced and revealed that Ritter was never “on” when she was present at a production, but was always prepared and a “pro,” indicating that she was confident about her part and thoroughly prepared. Kaplan claimed that “whenever Thelma was in a movie, I made sure that I went to see it.¨


Thelma Ritter wears a hat to celebrate St. Catherine’s Day during an event in A New Kind Of Love

Ritter mainly participated in dramatic endeavors while living and working in New York and appearing on television and in theater, but when she came out to Hollywood, ¨she mostly did comedies.” Kaplan also remembers that screenwriter and playwright Paddy Chayefsky “especially wanted Ritter” for the Goodyear Playhouse production of A Catered Affair in 1955.
In 1951, she appeared in All About Eve, and writer, producer, and director Joe Mankiewicz admitted that he liked real people “like Thelma Ritter,¨and believed that ¨Thelma Ritter was the best. I wrote Birdie Coonan in All About Eve for her. A wonderful person and a fine actress. I loved her, bless her. Do you remember that scene in Letter to Three Wives when Ritter and Connie Gilchrist are playing cards? I loved that.¨

Special attention from Joe Mankiewicz anointed Ritter as the go-to-gal to keep audiences focused on the silver screen, and when Ritter appeared in Sam Fuller’s Pickup On South Street, Richard Widmark recalled in Lee Server’s book, Sam Fuller: Film is a Battleground, that “I liked Thelma very much” as he “knew Thelma from the radio days back in New York. She was always a wonderful actress and a terrific lady.”

According to actress, singer, and comedienne Debbie Reynolds, the next SAG/AFTRA Lifetime Achievement Recipient in 2015, Thelma Ritter was one of the greatest scene-stealers that she ever worked with. In Reynolds updated autobiography, Unsinkable, Reynolds claims that Walter Brennan, Walter Matthau, and Thelma Ritter were all in a class by themselves and that “you couldn’t turn your back on any one of them…I’d say it was a three-way tie for who could get the most out of their camera time.” Ritter’s son Tony also revealed that “Debbie and she were very close, and when my Mom died, she called and called and wanted to know if there was anything she could do.”

In an exclusive interview about Thelma Ritter with Christa Fuller, Director Sam Fuller’s widow, Christa states that “Sam adored her. She should have won an award for her touching portrayal in Pickup On South Street.” Filmmaker Samantha Fuller, the director’s daughter, has recently screened A Fuller Life, the ultimate documentary on the life, work, and times of her father at MoMA from August 6-16.

According to esteemed Senior Researcher Alexa Foreman from Turner Classic Movies headquarters in Atlanta at Turner Studios, Thelma Ritter “is one of our ‘unsung heroines’ of movies. She never gave a lackluster performance and was nominated for an amazing SIX Academy Awards. One of the all time great character actresses.”

Ritter’s son, Tony Moran also shared that “evidently, everybody identified with my mother. She would tell it like it was. She was like that in real life.”

Fans of Thelma Ritter can immerse themselves in many of her stellar performances on Wednesday, August 20, all day on Turner Classic Movies. Some of her films will also be added to TCM Mobile.

A few of the many blog articles focusing on Thelma Ritter:

http://bettesmovieblog.blogspot.com/2011/10/spotlight-on-character-actress-thelma.html

http://aurorasginjoint.com/2012/09/22/thelma-ritter-what-a-character/

Thelma Ritter Filmography: http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0728812/?ref_=nmbio_bio_
Follow Christy Putnam on TWITTER: @suesueapplegate
TCM Message Boards: http://forums.tcm.com/index.php?/topic/ … ue-sue-ii/
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The Examiner: http://www.examiner.com/article/exclusive-interviews-celebrate-legacy-of-actress-thelma-ritter?cid=db_article

Christy Putnam is currently working on a biography of Thelma Ritter to be published in late 2018 or early 2019.

Copyright 2014

Debbie Reynolds’ auction surprises…

Vintage fashions and celebrity ensembles were part of the focus of Debbie Reynolds’ last auction Sunday for the closing day of items up for bids.

Debbie Reynolds had a dream to see her extensive collection of vintage clothing, props, cameras, and Hollywood memorabilia find a permanent home in a museum, but unfortunately her financial difficulties in organizing a museum and running a casino culminated in her last auction on May 18.

Some of the more popular items featured in the auction included dresses, costumes and jewelry of Hollywood celebrities. Items from Classic Hollywood stars like Vera- Ellen, Ginger Rogers, Marion Davies, Eva Gabor, Mary Pickford, Katherine Hepburn, Lana Turner, and Elizabeth Taylor graced pages of the voluminous online catalog which allowed bidders to select items of their choice.

Reynolds’ daughter Carrie Fisher had just flown back from London for the filming of the new “Star Wars”sequel in time to attend the beginning of her mother’s last auction, and Fisher also had a few items under the gavel, like personal photos of John Belushi, and “Star Wars” artwork and posters. It was her Judith Leiber ‘Faberge’ purse studded with rhinestones and pearls, a gift from her father Eddie Fisher, that brought the most from her offerings, however, at $2,250.

Harold Lloyd’s prosthetic fingers, one of the most unusual items up for bidding, brought in at least $4,250 when it was sold alongside a pair of his personal glasses.

Two drums used during the filming of “Quo Vadis” brought in a much higher price than the high-end estimate of $300 when they were sold for $2,250.

A pair of cologne decanters owned by actress Mary Pickford, and still bearing some of her perfume, went for $3,500.

Just one of Elizabeth Taylor’s dresses, a Thea Porter black jersey gown with spaghetti straps garnered $2,500. Taylor’s Halston dress and robe fetched $1,500, and the evening gown Taylor wore for her 75th birthday party brought $3,750.

One of the most expensive gowns was a silver-sequined costume worn by Diana Ross, which was sold for $14,000, but unfortunately the photo is unavailable.

A blue chiffon pantsuit trimmed with dyed fox and worn by singer, dancer, and actress Ginger Rogers brought $3,250.

A group of 24 Biblical caftans, capes, robes and tunics from Paramount Pictures were sold for $3,500.

Actress Marie Wilson’s Victory purse from World War II went for $1,200.

Reynolds’ personal linen-backed poster from her popular film, “Singin’ in the Rain,” signed by co-stars Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor, reached much higher than its original estimate when it sold for $9,500.

One of the surprises for me occurred when I saw several Gina Lollobrigida costumes from Lady L, a film which eventually starred Sophia Loren. I never knew Lollobrigida had been the original choice for the main character in Lady L, which also eventually starred Paul Newman.

Bidding from “the floor” occurred at the Debbie Reynolds Dance Studio, the actual auction house for Profiles in History in West Hollywood, and clients often competed with fierce online bidders as certain items had more interest with bidders than others.

During the online auction, preview party Friday evening, Reynolds revealed that she still plans to attend the Warner Brothers’ auction of property and memorabilia whenever it might occur as her passion for rescuing Hollywood’s past continues.

The first two Debbie Reynolds’ memorabilia auctions netted approximately 23 million. All figures quoted from yesterday’s auction are officially unverified, but were amounts that halted the advance of the bidding for each particular lot during the online event, which added two million more dollars to the Reynolds’ coffers. Elvis Presley’s Baldwin grand piano from his Holmby Hills mansion brought $50,000 yesterday, but the item bringing in the most from all of Reynolds’ auctions occurred in 2011, and it was the Marilyn Monroe dress from “The Seven Year Itch” for $4.6 million.

Actress Debbie Reynolds’ online auction party…

TCM Film Festival Guest and TCM Cruise favorite Debbie Reynolds appeared onscreen last evening in another royal blue suit (not this one!) looking lovely. That shade is so complementary and illuminates how vibrant she still is…

The Debbie Reynolds Auction Preview Party was live-streamed on USTREAM for the Hollywood Motion Picture Experience last night from The Debbie Reynolds Studio in West Hollywood. Reynolds was being interviewed by host Steven Sorrentino, with comments from time to time from her son, Todd Fisher, who was wearing a cap and t-shirt, and running around organizing guests and comments. Reynolds discussed the “Gone With The Wind” furniture, Charlie Chaplin’s hats, a carved, wooden buffet used in several Tyrone Power swashbucklers, posters, and dresses. Reynolds, remarking she had fallen earlier in the week and hit her head, even did her impression of Mae West (It’s still spot on!) Son Todd arrived with water for Reynolds, and his wife, actress Catherine Hickland, came to visit with play-by-play host Sorrentino about the collection while Reynolds took her break and did interviews with other media representatives. An open bar helped insure all the patrons were happy, and viewers were able to watch it for free online by following this link: http://www.ustream.tv/channel/hollywood-motion-picture-experience-presents

Fisher chatted with Stan Freburg, recording artist, comedian, and author, and right before the break, he reminded viewers that Reynolds had to leave to take a break and do a few interviews. Later on in the evening, an online drawing, entered by more than 1500 auction bidders, afforded one lucky participant an extra $1000 to use for bidding on the item of his or her choice. (Colleen from Minnesota was the winner. Two soft-cover catalogs were also awarded as 2nd and 3rd prizes.) Reynolds picked the winning slip out of a silver punch bowl.

After one of the interviews, the online audience was treated to a live-streaming of the “action” as patrons mulled around the exhibit in view of a stationary camera. A pianist was playing “Somewhere in Time” and helped everyone feel in a more expansive mood so that preparing a bid on a favored item wasn’t such a stressful activity. The live feed camera then settled on the “Gone With The Wind” chairs, and the cherubs on the mirrors that were so lovingly restored by Reynolds’ father were readily visible.

Sorrentino, who also offered his Sammy Davis impression while extolling the virtues of the Rat Pack suit colllection, and Reynolds also chatted about two lovely wooden/gilt mirrors that her father helped restore. She purchased them at the MGM auction, and they had been in several Judy Garland movies. Reynolds said it took her father about a year to completely restore them. After her interview, the live feed camera settled on the “Gone With The Wind” chairs, and the cherubs on the mirrors that were so lovingly restored by Reynolds’ father were readily visible.

All of these items were professionally well-preserved. Reynolds explained that Fisher carefully inventoried many of the costumes, and removed the labels which kept the clothing acid free, and she also stated that they consulted the experts at The Smithsonian about proper storage and restorations.

Also during the interview, I think I saw the portrait of Greer Garson from “Mrs. Parkington,” and then I saw the Norma Shearer dress from “Romeo and Juliet.” While they had some tech problems with the live feed sound, and Sorrentino kept trying to locate which camera to pitch to, Reynolds kept chatting and posing for photos with visitors. Laugh-In’s Joanne Worley, Dick Van Patten, and Reynold’s Thalians pal Ruta Lee were reported to be in attendance, but I never saw them onscreen.

Cameraman Roy Wagner, a good friend of Fisher’s, discussed some of the historic cameras featured in the auction with Todd. The Aikley camera Oscar-winning Cameraman Linwood Dunn owned was used on “King Kong,” “Citizen Kane,” and was used for many RKO films. The Vista Vision camera in the auction is one of the few remaining working Vista Vision cameras, and filmed special effects for the “Star Trek” television series, and many classic films like “Funny Face” with Audrey Hepburn. Wagner discussed the “six-foot” rule during filming (a safety zone which allowed only the Director of Photography within the 6 foot perimeter circling the camera while in use). Wagner also discussed the magic of the box and what each camera had experienced in its varied history.

Daughter Carrie Fisher supposedly made a quick appearance early in the evening.

The last of the lots go on the block this weekend.

Don’t forget to have some fun!

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