Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Always a bridesmaid

Thelma Ritter was nominated for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar six times, but never had the honor of winning. One of those six roles, in The Mating Season, is on TCM overnight tonight at 12:30 AM ET. The main story is about an engineer named Val McNulty, played by John Lund, who meets the wealthy socialite Maggie Carleton, played by Gene Tierney. They almost immediately fall in love and plan to get married. Despite being an engineer now, Val came from very humble beginnings, as his mother Ellen (played by Ritter) ran a hamburger stand -- and is not comfortable about having to tell this to his fiancée. You see, Ellen is very down-to-earth, while Maggie comes from a high-class family with an ambassdor for a father, and a mothe rwho likes to live the good life. Meanwhile, it turns out that the hamburger stand has run up quite a bit of debt, so Ellen decides to default on that debt and hitch a ride out to Ohio to see her son. Unforunately, poor Val never gets to tell his wife the truth about his mother, and things go from bad to worse when, on the day Ellen finally does show up to tell Maggie the truth, Maggie mistakes her for the temporary maid she's hired for the night! If that wasn't bad enough, Val eventually compounds the problem by having his mother play the part of their live-in maid, which works until Maggie's mother (played by Miriam Hopkins) decides to spend an extended amount of time with them. As Ellen says, there are things worse than having your mother-in-law live with you: you could have two mothers-in-law live with you!

Gene Tierney does a capable job in this romantic comedy, although her role doesn't really require to be that comedic. John Lund is somewhat wooden, and because of that woodenness, mildly unsympathetic as the husband; Lund, however, doesn't drag the movie down by his performance. The two who shine are the mothers-in-law. Miriam Hopkins has the smaller role, but is always good for a laugh as the poor put-upon mother-in-law who constantly seems to be pushed to second-fiddle status by something or other that happens in the plot. Ritter, of course, gets the most meat, and is absolutely wonderful as the decidedly blue-collar Ellen McNulty. She's the embodiment of all those stereotypes we think of when we see a fiftysomething "Dot" or a "Viv" waiting tables at the local diner. Yet, Ritter doesn't parody the stereotypes, instead imbuing her character with a depth and reality that makes all the characters (save Hopkins) love her, and will make you love her, too. She steals the entire movie, and deserved her Oscar nomination, unfortunately losing to Kim Hunter in A Streetcar Named Desire.

Interestingly, The Mating Season isn't all that well-known a movie. Perhaps it has something to do with Paramount's not doing as good a job as some of the other studios in releasing their classics to DVD; or, it might be because the cast didn't have anybody considered a true great today. Tierney is the best of the bunch, and is quite a good actress, but is definitely not remembered as much as a Rita Hayworth from the 1940s, or a Doris Day from the 1950s. But The Mating Season is well worth a look -- and worth a second look the next time it shows up on TV.

As for Ritter, perhaps her two best known roles are as Bette Davis' assistant in All About Eve, and as the nurse to James Stewart in Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window.

Thelma Ritter and James Stewart in Rear Window,
Thelma Ritter eating James Stewart's toast in Rear Window

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