The Mating Season of 1951 is Thelma Ritter’s film through and through. She’s an unlikely centerpiece. Small, middle-aged, decidedly dowdy, Ritter was never a Star in the conventional box-office-and-glamour sense. She looked like a cleaning lady or a short-order cook (variants of which she frequently played in her films). Yet no matter how lowly her film characters, she always stood out, her bright-button eyes and Brooklyn-accented rasp pressed into our hearts. Her very plainness made her the most real person onscreen. What is it about these Brooklyn-born ladies? Like fellow Brooklynite Connie Gilchrist, Ritter was immediately endearing, immediately memorable whenever she appeared. Has anyone thought of scheduling a Brooklyn-actress series? (I’m throwing out that idea, TCM.) Gather together the films of Ritter, Gilchrist, Mae West, Barbara Stanwyck, Susan Hayward—I think that’d be one helluva show.
In the film Ritter plays John Lund’s working-class mom, who’s been running a failing hamburger joint (dishing out beef and sympathy to customers) until the bank takes over the place. Now broke, she hitchhikes cross-country to join the upwardly aspiring Lund, who’s just married an ambassador’s daughter (Gene Tierney). The upper-class bride mistakes the visiting mother-in-law for an agency-sent maid and sends her to work in the kitchen. Mom, being a good sport, lets the error ride, even persuading her embarrassed son to go along with it. Complications ensue, of course. Sonny is reluctant to admit the live-in help is Mom, particularly to his elegant wife, whose playmates growing up were the offspring of royalty. Further messing up things are the bride’s wealthy and not-easily-discouraged ex-suitor (son of the president of the company where Lund works), and her own snobbish mother, who moves in with the couple and tries to break them up. As that old column in The Ladies Home Journal used to ask, Can This Marriage Be Saved?
For a slight story, there’s a lot going on. Not only are there class issues, but also marriage issues (the title refers to those adjustments newlyweds must make to make a marriage a go), business-rivalry issues (the president’s son and Lund are vying for the same job as well as for the same woman), and tangled parent-child relationships among all concerned. Both young spouses are flawed (and rather unappealing): the husband would prefer not to admit his mom’s a burger-flipper from Jersey City; the wife makes assumptions based on people’s non-couture-designed appearance. Looked at in this clinical sense, that’s a dour load for a comedy to carry, but the film skims over it all like a dragonfly over a pond. It’s a soufflé, really, fluffy fare for dating couples; not meant to weigh viewers down or settle in like a lump of philosophical lead.
It’s also beautifully directed by Mitchell Leisen, who, while keeping the story bubble-light, focuses on an aspect of domesticity rarely highlighted in marital comedies: how people interact as they inhabit their living spaces. Often, films in the genre are staged as farces, with actors placed on one plane and running in and out of the frame as if through doors. Leisen instead opts for depth, showing in long, gliding takes how characters move through and between rooms, how they maneuver around furniture demarcating areas of function (the way a room is divided between living and dining spaces), and how this maneuvering affects their relations with each other. Space, and the objects within, is both access and barrier. Ritter, for instance, is unable to tell her son that she’s been “hired” as maid and cook for the party Tierney is throwing in their apartment; tables, doorways, walls, even people, keep getting in the way, like a dance where the partners keep missing each other.
Tierney and Lund are billed over the title, though, when seeing the film, you wonder why. True, Tierney was an established star and Lund was being pushed as one (although his career would soon after decline). They’re attractive enough, but, next to Ritter, they have the impact of cotton balls in a barrage. Tierney brings her usual small set of skills to her part; as an actress she was limited in range, relying mainly on a vacuous sweetness and a rather smug complacency in her manner. And John Lund I do not get. His was not a cinematic talent. He’s not at all photogenic; his small eyes are always in a squint, his lips seem frozen in place, and his face has all the animation of one of those burgers cooked by his film mother (per quotes on his IMDB bio page, he once acknowledged this shortcoming, noting how he became “face conscious” after viewing his rushes). At the most, Lund comes across as a stalwart prop, always ready to lend a hand; could that have come from supporting such powerhouse actresses as Olivia de Havilland, Jean Arthur, Marlene Dietrich, and Barbara Stanwyck? Stand six inches to the left and don’t block my light, there’s a good fellow?
No, it’s all Ritter’s film. Everyone seeing Ritter here will want her for a mom. She’s funny, warm, and adorable. How small and round she looks, running around in a tailored suit that doesn’t flatter her. Tailored suits are not meant for short, doughy women; and Ritter is shaped like three squashed dumplings placed one atop the other. But she had heart, real heart, and feeling. And she had a great, expressive mug. Just note the rueful look on her face when, after she’s blown eighteen bucks on a new hat (plus a suit and gloves to go with it), her privileged daughter-in-law looks her over and assumes she’s come to serve (“I know good help when I see it,” the bride boasts). The moment’s both funny and sad, its meaning rippling beyond the surface joke. Such is the lot of unbeautiful people in this world. There’s something absurdly gallant in Ritter’s tiny, bustling form onscreen; scenes of her by herself, such as walking down a street in a downpour, shielded only by pluck and an umbrella, have that bittersweet quality you find in the great silent comics—of the fundamental loneliness of the human figure in the big, busy landscape. You sense how Ritter’s character, this friendly yet solitary woman, has essentially had to make her way alone through life, with only her own gumption to see her through.
Two other middle-aged actresses stand out in the film. One is the formidable Cora Witherspoon, playing the snooty wife of a well-to-do business client, with a malicious bent for gossip. Witherspoon specialized in harridans; she has a face that looks bleached out in its outlines (her chin seems to disappear when she talks); its shape dissolves and then re-forms as you watch, like an animated cartoon’s. You’re never sure what she actually looks like. And then there’s the grand Miriam Hopkins, who plays Tierney’s mother, and who, as George Raft once said of Mae West, steals everything but the cameras. Per Stephanie Thames in a TCM article, Hopkins behaved badly during filming, persisting in an odd belief that she had the starring role; and Leisen was forced to shoot around her. Usual Hopkins stuff. The thing about Hopkins is that thin line you sense about her, between self-awareness and self-dramatizing (her own, not her character’s). It make her so interesting to watch.
And she is supremely watchable here. By this point, career-wise, Miriam had honed her scene-stealing down to a minimalist art—adept at the stiletto thrust as well as the broadsword swipe. And she spared no one. Two examples: Sneaking into the kitchen at night to nibble on cold chicken, Miriam’s character overhears a conversation between Lund and Ritter, in which Ritter asks her son for a goodnight kiss. Having no idea of their familial relationship, Miriam goes all out in the Shocked-and-Appalled department (what Somerset Maugham calls “enjoying an alarming experience”). She flops against the fridge door, eyes bulging, jaw dropping, hand feebly waving a half-chewed drumstick. I screamed with laughter. In another scene, Tierney’s bride emotes about her husband, glassily declaring that “I love him more than anything in the world.” To which Miriam responds with just the teeniest, tiniest little scoff. Like a dry run for a spit. That’s what you remember. Oh, Miriam, you are priceless.