Wednesday, January 18

Thelma and Agnes

It is with great pleasure that I announce the arrival of two great ladies who will to spend this time with you and me.  I know them both pretty well.  They have provided me with many hours of joy and laughter and tears and epic entertainment.  One always reminded me of the red-haired mother of my fourth grade schoolteacher (it was a small town... everyone knew everyone) and the other was the spitting image of my paternal grandmother after a successful diet.  If you're of a certain age or just know a lot about the old movies, you know them, too.  But if you don't know them, then you sit back and relax and spend some time with Thelma and Agnes.  That is, Thelma Ritter and Agnes Moorehead.

In my quest to keep you ahead of the curve on some character actors, know that Agnes Moorehead and Thelma Ritter are as good as they get.  They have worked with some of the biggest names in the movie business and often stole the limelight right out from under those big egos.  While neither ever won an Academy Award, both should have.  Agnes copped four Oscar nominations while Thelma amassed an amazing six.  Thelma, I think, tied with one of her costars, Deborah Kerr, for the most-nominated-but-never-won actress.  We will discuss all the films that garnered the nominations and a whole lot more.

They worked once in the same film, both as rugged pioneer women, in the larger-than-life western, Cinerama's How the West Was Won, although they had no scenes together. 

Agnes may be slightly more well-known because late in her career and when the movie offers were no longer as viable, she jumped into television playing Endora, the mother on Bewitched.  I always thought the role was below her station, frankly, but undoubtedly she derived some pleasure from paying the bills.

Moorehead was an ambitious actress and I thought that showed in her work as well.  And she usually looked regal, her red hair all swept up on top of her brainy head.  Her demeanor was usually tough, stern, haughty, opinionated.  If she didn't get her way, she could flounce out of a room with more righteous indignation than you can possibly imagine.  One surprising thing about her foray into series television is that she so rarely did comedy.  When she was warm and caring in some films, I think one always wondered whether she might turn on you if you stepped out of line or didn't measure up to her expectations.  Usually she could hold her own.  When she was on a tear, she could turn Genghis Khan into a girly-man.  (More on that later.)

She was born December 6, 1900, near Boston, to a minister and a mezzo soprano.  She attended more than one college and had worked as a schoolteacher and a singer and ultimately found her way into radio where she ran into Orson Welles.  She worked with him on his famous/infamous radio broadcast The War of the Worlds in 1938 that scared the... um, listeners.  That resulted in her being signed by RKO and she made her movie debut with Welles and Joseph Cotten (and others in Welles' Mercury Players group) in 1941's Citizen Kane.  Not a bad start.

Shortly thereafter she gained her first Oscar nomination as a nutjob aunt in The Magnificent Ambersons (1942), again working with Cotten and directed by Welles.  She would also be cited by the Oscar folks for her work as a baroness in1944's Mrs. Parkington and as Johnny Belinda's aunt (1948) and memorably as a sneaky housekeeper in 1964's Hush... Hush, Sweet Charlotte.

Speaking of Charlotte, part of her startling performance came as a result of how she looked.  Might we say hag?  She must have loved it, looking like that, just as she had earlier making life difficult for Hayley Mills in Pollyanna (1960). And this from a woman who usually looked rather regal, even imperious, as she was as a queen in The Swan (1956) with Grace Kelly and as Kim Novak's acting coach in Jeanne Eagels (1957) and blonded as a Honolulu madam with Jane Russell in The Revolt of Mamie Stover (1956). 

She was a great pal of Jane Wyman's and they shared the screen in the aforementioned Johnny Belinda and Pollyanna and also in a great favorite of mine, The Blue Veil (1951), and two where they were joined by Rock Hudson, Magnificent Obsession (1954) and All That Heaven Allows (1955).

Aggie was hard to pigeon-hole... obviously her great versatility is what made her such a great character star.  She was a stern mother to Kathryn Grayson in Showboat (1951), a murderess in the 1947 film noir classic Dark Passage with Bogie and Bacall, a kind warden in the 1950 female prison movie Caged, sturdy pioneer women alongside Tyrone Power and Susan Hayward in another favorite of mine, Untamed (1955), and Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor in Raintree County (1957).

She rarely got starring roles but three that featured her very prominently were in the 1953 musical-romance Those Redheads from Seattle, mother to Rhonda Fleming and singer Teresa Brewer; as a westerner with Dick Powell and Jane Greer in 1948's Station West, and most conspiculously as a rich property owner alongside John Payne in 1952's The Blazing Forest.  As is often the case with gifted character actors, the bigger the part, the smaller the movie... the bigger the movie, the smaller the part.

Dick Powell wanted to work with Moorehead again and he directed her along with John Wayne and Susan Hayward in The Conqueror (1956) in the desert near St. George, Utah.   She was Genghis Khan's mother.  Now, don't laugh... the Duke was Genghis Khan.  Many did laugh.  But all the laughter stopped over the ensuing years as scores from the production died of cancer.  They were apparently unaware that nuclear testing was conducted nearby.

Although she was married twice, Moorehead was long-rumored to play for the other team and was one of those interviewed for Boze Hadleigh's revealing Hollywood Lesbians (Barricade Books, 1994).

She died of cancer in 1974.


The only way Thelma Ritter would have known about being regal and haughty and imperious is if she went to see an Agnes Moorehead movie.

Thelma was Hollywood's answer to Charmin Bathroom Tissue.  She was just so squeezable.  If Agnes had that red hair piled high on her head, you could see the bobby pins in Thelma's mousey brown tight curls.  If Agnes wore smart suits and scarves and caftans with baubles, bangles and beads, Thelma never met a housedress she didn't want to try on.   Agnes ate caviar, Thelma downed a greasy burger.  Thelma could belch out expletives like the working-class broad she was.  She had a smart mouth, that's for sure.  She probably needed it in her Brooklyn neighborhood where she first saw the light of day on February 14, 1902, a true sweetheart.

Migawd she was a fun actress.  If Agnes rarely did comedy, Thelma usually did comedy.  Even if the film wasn't essentially a comedy, Thelma had the witty lines.  Agnes could be threatening... Thelma?  Never.  All I ever wanted to do was hug her.  I would have loved to have sat on bar stools with her in Brooklyn, slugging down some brewskies and getting the lowdown on those she worked with.  I woulda/coulda/shoulda told her she was more than a contender.  When she was on the screen, I couldn't look at anyone else.

Like Agnes, Thelma attended the American Academy of Dramatic Arts and also like her they both worked in radio prior to films, which they both entered rather late.  Thelma was in her 40s when she was signed by 20th Century Fox and put into three astonishing films.  Her film debut was in the 1946 Miracle on 34th Street.  Darryl F. Zanuck had her small role as a Christmas shopper expanded when he saw the rushes.   Next came 1949's ode to friendship in A Letter to Three Wives, who were Jeanne Crain, Linda Darnell and Ann Sothern, and she was a family friend of Darnell's.  She was Bette Davis' sassy dresser in the iconic All About Eve (1950).  While there were some other films interspersed here, she was a fortunate new actress to be seen so early in such prestigious productions.  The first of her six Oscar nominations came for Eve and Thelma Ritter was a name.

In 1951 she had one of the best roles she ever signed on for as the blue-collar mother of an upwardly mobile son, John Lund, who was about to marry Gene Tierney, in The Mating Season.  Bang, another Oscar nomination for some screwball comedy stuff as she is mistaken for a maid during a visit to her son.

The next year she more than held the screen with always-feisty Susan Hayward in With a Song in My Heart (1952) where Ritter was her nursemaid.  Okay, another nod.  Are you counting?  Then came a real departure as a police informant who sold ties in the 1953 film noir Pickup on South Street... no comedy and she was murdered in the end.  Another Oscar nod followed... her fourth.

She was so winning as Jimmy Stewart's wise nursemaid in Hitchcock's 1954 Rear Window, had a too-small role as a Molly Brown-type character in 1953's Titanic (working with two more wise-ass actors, Barbara Stanwyck and Clifton Webb), dynamite as an army nurse (what's with her and these nurse roles?) in the very serious Proud and the Profane (1956) with William Holden and Deborah Kerr.  She was a little more restrained (but not down and out) in 1959's A Hole in the Head, but who wouldn't have been around Frank Sinatra and Edward G. Robinson?  All right, you guys.  And in between two more Oscar-nominated roles came her light-hearted turn as Marilyn Monroe's friend in the otherwise quite serious The Misfits (1961).  The only bummer was she left the film too inexplicably.

Then her last two Oscar nods came in the form of Pillow Talk (1959) as Doris Day's boozy maid (arguably the role for which she is most famous) and as Burt Lancaster's mother in the well-done Birdman of Alcatraz (1962).

Thelma may have played the same working-class woman over and over, but one thing I have always handed to Thelma... she was always fresh.  I always thought I was seeing her for the first time yet she was always my old friend as well.

She was always married to the same man and he outlived her.  Thelma died of a heart attack in 1969.

NEXT POST:  Favorite Musical Numbers

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