Middle-aged actress Thelma Ritter was movie gold. She could make a good movie even better with her supporting role wit, wisdom and wisecracks. Just look at Miracle on 34th Street (1947), A Letter to Three Wives (1949), All About Eve (1950), The Mating Season (1951), Rear Window (1954) and the Fred Astaire musical Daddy Long Legs (1955). No one played a working class New Yorker like Thelma Ritter, the kind of New Yorker you wanted to have as a friend. She was nominated for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar six times but never won. She did, however, win a big place in our hearts. Renowned director George Cukor gave Ritter one of her few lead roles in a film. In 1951's The Model and the Marriage Broker, she's the marriage broker. This comedy/drama is a must-see for Thelma Ritter fans. The model is played by gorgeous Jeanne Crain.
This little gem was made during what I like to call Cukor's "De Sica Period." Like Vittorio De Sica in Italy, he made lower-budgeted black and white movies that had a sweet touch of neo-realism about them. They were set in New York City and focused on working class characters. Like De Sica, Cukor's vision in these films is that ordinary people are some of the most extraordinary people you'd ever hope to meet. We see this in two films that starred the incomparable Judy Holliday -- the touching comedy/drama The Marrying Kind (1952) and the satire on reality TV celebrities, It Should Happen To You (1954). Cukor directed Holliday to a Best Actress Oscar win for 1950's Born Yesterday. The Model and the Marriage Broker is a look at loneliness in a big city. I didn't catch that when I was kid and saw this movie frequently on local TV. I thought it was just fun. But, through the years, I've grown into the serious theme of it. I really connected to its theme in the years following my partner's death in 1994. Despite my career on TV in New York City, one that put me on local and network shows, I didn't meet anyone new who developed a romantic interest in me. I resorted to online dating. Or, in my case, online lack of dating. Now I understand the loneliness Cukor looks at in this movie. Honestly, it was a jab to the heart and ego to feel that online dating was my only option at middle age. Notice how often the word "lonely" comes up in the film's dialogue. In the first ten minutes, a married woman brings her sister-in-law in for Mae's services. The sister-in-law is tall and skinny, like Olive Oyl in the Popeye cartoons. And she's no spring chicken.
When the unmarried skinny dame goes to to the ladies' room, her relative and Mae have this exchange.
Bea: "She's so lonely. Even though she ought to be used to it by now."
Mae: "Don't kid yourself. You can get used to being poor. Guess even blind. You never get used to being lonely."
That's so true. Believe me. And believe Mae. Later, a good friend will describe her to the model as once having been "the loneliest woman on the face of this earth." You'd never know it to look at Mae because she's so energetically using each and every angle she can to match clients up with a good mate. One handsome client was close to saying "I do" but he didn't make it to the altar. He feels he's not in a position to get married. Mae shoots back, "Anybody with four pints of blood that can stand on their two feet long enough to say 'I do' is in a position to get married."
A store fashion model comes into Mae's life and office. She misplaced her purse and Mae found it. The model, Kitty Bennett, is on the verge of having an affair with a married man because she's lonely. Mae takes to her like a daughter and is determined to talk to the model back to her senses and forget the married man. Mae wants to match her up -- and not for money. All her manipulation and meddling comes out of kindness and affection. But when Kitty discovers what Mae does for a living, she's finds it a bit vulgar. Mae's friend Doberman gives her some NYC realness as he stands next to Mae's file cabinets full of folders on lonely clients:
"Look, you wouldn't know the score. You got a pretty face. These people here, they don't have pretty face. Go ahead, check. Know what you'll find? A lot o' plain Janes. A lot o' guys starting in to get bald, have to be led and pushed around. Haven't got the guts to say what should come natural to them. Lonely? Shy? Sounds kind o' comical when you read it in an ad. Ain't so comical when it happens to you."
The Model and the Marriage Broker is a very good movie. Not excellent. One of the supporting characters, a Swede played by Frank Fontaine, is a bit too goofy. Fontaine overdoes the accent and dimwit act. Fontaine became very popular in the 1960s on a Jackie Gleason weekend TV variety show. He did sketch comedy and sang. His character in The Model and the Marriage Broker seems like a TV sketch comedy character. Others, like Zero Mostel as an optometrist, come off much better.
Will the model find true love thanks to the marriage broker? You know she will. And what once made Mae "the loneliest woman on the face of this earth"? When Mae fears she's lost Kitty's friendship with all her well-intentioned meddling, the rethinks her matchmaking career and humbly says this to Kitty: "You were right. Romance is something that's got to happen to you unexpected, like falling down a manhole."
Only Thelma Ritter could do full justice to a line like that.
The Model and the Marriage Broker shows us different kinds of loneliness. There are middle-aged, never-been-married plain Janes and Joes. There's a widow, a widower and a beautiful young woman. And there's Mae. Plus, there's the reminder that love is not just for the young and photogenic. This is a vehicle for Thelma Ritter that she drives like a pro. The Model and the Marriage Broker is available on DVD.
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