In Joseph L.Mankiewicz’s 1950 film All About Eve, a huffy Thelma Ritter rebuffs a slight from some character who belittles her career as a vaudevillian: “I closed the first half for eleven years, and you know it!”
Virtually no one alive understands this line any more. It means that the character once enjoyed the second best spot on the vaudeville bill; the spot right before intermission. And twenty years after the death of vaudeville, it remained a point of pride for her character.
Today is Ritter’s birthday (1902-1969). Trained at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, she quit her stage career to raise a family, emerging at age 45 for a bit part in her first film Miracle on 34th Street (1947). She quickly became indispensable as a Hollywood character actor, as the wise-cracking, truth-telling housemaid with a Brooklyn accent from central casting. How one wishes we could resurrect her; I can’t think of anyone to play those kind of roles any more! Other memorable turns were in Sam Fuller’s Pick Up on South Street (1953, in which she portrayed a professional stool pigeon, one of the few times she was ever unlikable), Hitchock’s Rear Window (1954), Frank Capra’s A Hole in the Head (1959), and about two dozen others. Her last film was the psychedelic sixties comedy What’s So Bad About Feeling Good?
To find out more about the variety arts past and present, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.
And don’t miss my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc