The CLASSIC CORONERS are Dr. Carruthers & Rosalie Kicks
“Dissecting films of our favorite dead guys and gals from the bygone era.”
For this edition of Classic Coroners, Doctor Ashley Jane Carruthers and The Old Sport, Rosalie Kicks pried open the coffin of America’s sweetheart, Thelma Ritter.
Born on St. Valentine’s Day in nineteen hundred and two, Thelma Ritter will always be a reminder that it is never too late to pursue your dreams. She may have known since the age of eight that she wanted to be an actor, but it was not until she hit forty-four years of age that she had her first on-screen role in Miracle on 34th Street. For many viewers, this has become one of her most memorable performances. She played a character simply known as Peter’s Mother, who gives old whiskers aka Santa Claus an earful after he informs her son Peter that the child can expect a sold-out, sought after toy fire engine under his tree for Christmas. Thelma’s performance made an impression in Hollywood and proved the point that there never really is a small part.
She went on to appear in two other films, that were also uncredited. One being a personal fave of the Old Sport’s; a Jimmy Stewart 1948 journo picture, Call Northside 777. Once again, Thelma is not given an actual character’s name, instead is just known as a secretary. It was in 1950 when she got her chance to shine in All About Eve as Birdie Coonan. The Joseph Mankiewicz film went on to win six Oscars and scored Thelma her first Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Birdie serves as the assistant and friend to Margot Channing (Bette Davis), an established actress that finds her life turned upside down when she befriends an upcoming actress, Eve (Anne Baxter). The character of Birdie Coonan cemented Thelma as a key player and someone that had the chops to make it in Tinseltown.
All About Eve showcases the first of many supporting roles that Thelma would play. These characters often embodied a no nonsense attitude and focused on the practicality of a situation. Thelma was cast perfectly for these parts as she had the capability to deliver often blunt, straight-forward lines with wit. The role of Birdie, in particular, is an excellent example of this. Birdie may have been a bit rough around the edges but she possessed two qualities that make for a stand-up pal: loyalty and honesty. One could also look at her roles in Pillow Talk, as Alma, and even Rear Window, as Stella, and come to a similar conclusion. It was not in these character’s DNA to tell you what you wanted to hear. These were characters that gave it to you straight just like the shot of liquor that followed the conversation.
There’s no question Thelma made each and every role memorable. However, when we decided to pry open her coffin, we of corpse wanted to explore a film that neither of us had seen. In reviewing her short, yet impressive filmography of forty-four films (reminder: she earned six! Academy award nominations) a film that stood out to both of us was Pickup on South Street. The coroners agreed, this is a film that can not be taken to the grave… it must be unburied and resurrected for all eyes to see!
Written and directed by Samuel Fuller, Pickup on South Street stars Richard Widmark, as grifter and pickpocket Skip McCoy, who mistakenly nabs a parcel that was destined for commies. He finds himself in a world of trouble after his latest grab. This is one of those movies that inspires you to hit play again as soon as the end credits hit the screen. There are so many fascinating and memorable scenes. Many of which feature Thelma, brilliantly playing the role of Moe Williams. Out of all the roles she has portrayed, the character of Moe Williams left the biggest impression on both of us.
If someone only describes this character as a snitch, you should question if they have a heart. Especially when being aware of this scene. This character is living a simple life, yet one that is filled with excitement. She’s just trying to get by and ensure that there is a “fancy funeral” awaiting her at the end of the tunnel. Nobody tells Moe Williams what to do. She’s a wisecracker, yet has a sentimental side. She is not afraid to speak her mind or let you walk around with a miserable necktie. This is Thelma at her best and it is filled with what will be unforgettable moments for those that have not seen it, such as refrigerating your beer in an ice chest at the bottom of a chilly lake… thanks, Skip!
A Heart to Heart with Moe…
As you may recall, the Classic Coroners have a way with spirits and summoning them back to life. It’s probably all our time spent strolling the graveyards, whispering to the dearly departed. Occasionally, we find these haunts will follow us home or in this case… into the bar.
“What’ll ya have?”, asked the bartender. I looked at the menu, trying to think. I’m one of those people who sometimes has a difficult time making a, shall we say, timely decision when faced with many options, even in simple scenarios such as this one. “Uh...um...well…”
“She’ll have a scotch. Neat,” said a recognizable voice from behind me. I turned to look over my shoulder and couldn’t believe it when I saw who it was - Thelma Ritter! Right here in 2019! I looked at Kicks in disbelief, was I really seeing this? I mean, I do have a creative imagination. “What’s the problem, kid? You look as if you’ve seen a ghost,” she exclaimed in her unmistakable Brooklyn accent. “Either that or you don’t like my drink choice. But ya don’t look like the frosé type.”
We introduced ourselves and explained that we were actually just writing about her. “Well in that case, why don’t you pull up a couple chairs and stay a while. I know a little about the topic, besides, I like writers.” We sat down across from her at the table she was at, moving slowly and deliberately in case any quick move could make her disappear. “Me? I’m more of a gin girl, myself.”
I’d say that I am getting used to these ghosts just popping up out of thin air… but nah. It is damn scary! Thankfully, I did not leave my ordering up to Thelma. Scotch and I -- well let’s just say we aren’t friendly. There was an incident. So I ordered something that would get the job done, quick n’ easy - whiskey.. NEAT.
Meeting someone like theeee Thelma Ritter, can be rather overwhelming. For one, she’s dead - I guess? I was surprised how comfortable I was around her. So much so, that I was ready to bare all my secrets to this woman that I literally met like three seconds prior and literally appeared (ta da!) out of thin air. She gave off this calming aura. Someone that was prepared to hear all my worries and take the anxiety away. Before I knew it, I started telling her about that time, on my last shift at Hollywood Video I checked the dvd copy of Volver back in and instead of putting it back on the shelf, I stuck it in my backpack. That movie traveled from Los Angeles to Philadelphia with me, right by my side. I was such a rebel, sticking it to the man.
I think she appreciated this story and approved of my radical ways.
The more time I spent with Thelma, the more inspired I felt. I’m 34 years-old and just started a whole new chapter of my life. Well, more accurately, it’s more like my life has finally begun. I’m constantly having to teach myself things many people take for granted as being normal parts of life, and I’m learning more about who I am as an individual - finally realizing that only I am in charge of my own destiny. It’s incredibly freeing but also overwhelming. Sometimes I can barely pick a cocktail! In lots of areas, I know exactly what I want and where I want to go, but when it comes to things like a career? Uhhhh, I dunno!
I admitted to Thelma that I went through a phase of feeling sorry for myself, being sad about the lost opportunities I didn’t take or make. “Well isn’t that a total waste of time?” Her straight-faced delivery made us both laugh. “Listen, I’ll tell ya. You’re still young, kid. I mean, not *too* young, you ain’t a spring chicken or anything, but you don’t look half bad (side note: must be the Korean beauty products my sweetheart gets for me). Fact is, if you’ve got the drive, you’re gonna thrive! Why don’t ya take a look around? Figure out what you love?” What she said made absolute sense, just like the characters she portrayed in the films I love. She had more life experience than I have when she took up acting, the career we all know and love her for, seriously. “And guess what? The beauty of it all is, it’s okay if you have a job that stinks or one that’s just okay… none of that matters. What matters is that you’re true to yourself in all the ways you can be. A person with passion is a person I wanna talk to! You can pursue it as seriously or as casually as you want, just know that it’s never too late to decide to do something. Never.” And with that, I felt like a lifetime of self-criticism was being laid to rest in the coffin, where it belongs. I’m not ready for my big sleep in the coffin yet. What’s ahead? Who knows! Maybe I’ll be like Thelma.
Note to self: It’s never too late. If there is one thing I took away from our meeting with Thelma, it’s that you can’t give up… especially on yourself. Everyone travels a different road to get to their destination. Sometimes it takes longer than others to get to where you are going and that is perfectly fine.
I suffer from the imposter syndrome and my guess is that I am probably not the only one out there that does. Simply, I feel like a fraud. I have feelings of low self-esteem and constant self-doubt. Especially about being a writer. Even after being accredited as press to attend the Toronto Film Festival and being offered a mentorship/shadowing opportunity at TIFF with the editor of IndieWire… I still feel like I am not a journo. I constantly feel that I am doing everything too late… like for example, I should have made a feature film already. I wanted to do that by the time I was thirty. And guess what? I am now thirty-five and still haven’t done it and I didn’t turn to ash or fall into a grave yet either. I asked Thelma, if she thought I would ever make a feature film and her response was, “Ask a silly question, you get a dopey look.”
Listen, I got time and I will make the carnival noir flick about INSURANCE FRAUD and MURDER that is rattling around in my head. Thelma’s right - you can’t give up. Some of us just get a late start. Before she left, Thelma gave me a pat on the back, and reminded me, “It’s just like Doc Brown says, “If you put your mind to it, you can accomplish anything.”” This pleased me to hear. As I took the last swig of my whiskey, I sighed with relief, knowing that watching movies is totally possible in the afterlife.
Looking for more from the Classic Coroners? Check out the newest addition to MJ’s Cinematic Podcast Universe: Cinematic Crypt, hosted by your favorite Old Sport, Rosalie Kicks. Each episode she goes six feet under to uncover cinema of the past. Available for download here or on your favorite podcatcher!