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Exclusive interviews celebrate legacy of actress Thelma Ritter

Twelve Thelma Ritter films highlight her stellar performances
Twelve Thelma Ritter films highlight her stellar performances
Turner.com PR, Heather Sautter, Director

On Wednesday, August 20, Turner Classic Movies celebrates the cinematic legacy of actress Thelma Ritter with 12 of her stellar performances.

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.

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 was a popular talent agent, and they had two children, daughter Nikki, who also was an actress and appeared with her mother in a road show production of "Bye, Bye Birdie" in 1966, and son Tony.

During 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."

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.¨

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."