Jean Arthur: Loving Portrait of a Unique Performer

“I guess I became an actress because I didn’t want to be myself.”

Jean Arthur

***

There was in Old Hollywood an actress named Jean Arthur whose chosen star name was a tribute to Joan of Arc and King Arthur, nothing less. She was born Gladys Georgianna Greene in Plattsburg, New York, had Norwegian blood and was to become one of Hollywood’s best comedians. She first worked as a model and initially appeared in silent films. Because yes, being born in 1900, Jean did indeed work in silent films. Remember – the first (partially) talking picture, The Jazz Singer (Alan Crosland), was released in 1927, and the first entirely talking picture, The Broadway Melody (Harry Beaumont), was released in 1929. The main contrast between Jean’s silent film years and the talking ones was, not only the colour of her hair (dark in silents, blond in talkies) but also how her talent developed itself. We often heard of silent film stars who became instantly forgotten once they made the step in the world of talkies (for various reasons, one of them being a voice that was not adequate). That was a sad reality. In the case of Jean Arthur, it was quite the opposite: she made her big break in the Talking Era, and most of her silent films are today forgotten. The film that truly put her on the map was Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (Frank Capra, 1936), in which she shared the screen with the handsome Gary Cooper – who became her favourite co-star. And that unique voice of hers became one of her assets that truly made her one of a kind. Jean was already in her mid-30s by then, but her energy was so vivid from one picture to another that she always appeared to be younger than she was.

The most impressive thing about Jean’s acting talent (and this is something you probably already know if you are a bit aware of the actress’s reputation) is how much it was in contrast with her real-life persona. Indeed, if Jean presented herself on screen as the dynamic, sure of herself, fierce and fun to be around lady, behind this on-screen persona was a shy and insecure woman who probably never really knew how brilliant a performer she was. It was assumed that she might have had an inferiority complex, but not confirmed either (do people have diagnostic for that? – tell me). Preparing herself for a scene could be hard labour and meant facing her fears drastically. But each time she appeared on screen, she instantly moulded herself in her character and practically always gave scene-stealing performances. It’s indeed quite impossible to completely un-appreciate a film starring Jean because the minute her character has a scene, a line, an entrance, you’re instantly mesmerized by her and you become hooked to her energy. Consequently, Jean Arthur was an excellent actress. She also worked with some of the best directors such as Frank Capra, George Stevens, Mitchell Leisen, Howard Hawks, Sam Wood, Billy Wilder, etc. And she acted alongside some A-class actors like Gary Cooper, James Stewart, Marlene Dietrich, Cary Grant, Rita Hayworth (who was also born on October 17), Joel McCrea, John Wayne (I’m not a fan – but still worth mentioning), etc. Jean might have been judged a difficult actress, especially during her stage career as there were often stories of her cancelling a representation for various reasons and have her understudy appear to the audience instead of her. However, it’s easy to forgive her because the beautiful and generous performances she gave us easily make us forget the incidents.

With George Stevens on the set of The More the Merrier

Due to her shyness and solitary spirit, Jean prefered living a very private life and distanced herself from the spotlight. She very rarely granted interviews (she did give some interviews – it would be a mistake to think that she never did) and didn’t want to take part in publicity promotion for the films in which she played or rarely. Therefore, Jean prefered to live a quiet life away from the parties and the Hollywood craze. Honestly, she has all my respect for that, and this was maybe a wise thing to do because we know how Hollywood could be highly damaging for its stars. If she mostly connected with actors while they were shooting films together and, therefore, maybe didn’t become close friends with any of them (not meaning that she didn’t appreciate working with them), she did befriend a few of them, such as the lovable Roddy McDowall. In a way, I think it’s easy for introvert people to identify with Jean. She loved animals, prefer to spend her evenings reading instead of going out and chose her friends wisely. Jean was one of those people who perfectly understood that rule that it is more important to have a few great friends than a bunch of meaningless friends. She came off as someone sensible and who was very aware and responsive to the world surrounding her. In my recent review of the book Jean Arthur: The Actress Nobody Knew, I mentioned that fact upon which Jean said that people when seeing a bug, prefer to crush it instead of observing it because people are not curious, which is a sad truth. She puts her finger right on the human being fear of the unknown. Despite often feeling in competition with some of her co-stars (Marlene Dietrich in A Foreign Affair (Billy Wilder, 1948) would be a good example), Jean was able to recognize and acknowledge talent. Jean stopped her film career quite soon in 1953 (her last film was Shane (George Stevens, 1953)) and later briefly taught acting at Vassar College where one of her students was no one else than Meryl Streep. Jean witnessed that, while she was watching Streep perform, she felt like she was watching a movie star. Her instinct was accurate.

Jean and a friend on the set of Arizona

When it comes to appreciating Jean’s acting, in my opinion, there are two schools of people: those who are instantly charmed by her talent and those, who have to give her a second chance maybe not immediately seizing how much of a big deal she was. That was the case for me when I first saw her in Mr. Deeds. Maybe part of the reason was her voice, which I initially didn’t like but have then learned to appreciate. Maybe it was the fact that I was not quite used to see such character in classic films (which, honestly, shouldn’t be a bad thing because Jean Arthur brilliantly fought the stereotypes). But then, I quickly understood her genius and that, through the roles she played, she was indeed able to brilliantly challenge those stereotypes that were often associate to female roles in classic films. Jean indeed played those women with a strong personality, who worked for a living and said what they were thinking. She embodied characters that never hesitated to take their place because they knew they deserved it and were entitled to it. That’s why watching Jean on-screen is so refreshing and satisfying. Jean was also hilarious and not afraid of ridicule. She made me burst into laughs on many occasions (think of the scene where she and Joel McCrea first “meet” in The More the Merrier (George Stevens, 1943)) and gave 110% of her energy in each performance. That talent for comedy made her the perfect candidate for the screwball comedy genre, but she was not perfect in the same way Carole Lombard, for example, was. Indeed, Lombard developed a talent by making us laugh by playing the madcap heiresses while Jean more often had the role of the working woman (often a journalist). She was, however, more than just the simple girl next door and came as somehow deliciously eccentric.

Surprised by Joel McCrea in The More the Merrier.

However, Jean, if an excellent comedian, was could also mould herself into all types of feelings and was able to touch our soul in other ways than by making us laugh. If her character was sad, we became sad along with her; if her character was in love, we could feel that love through our veins. She came off as extremely versatile and adaptable. In my opinion, one of the best examples of this is her role in History Is Made at Night (Frank Borzage, 1937). I also love how convincing she (her character) can be towards the other characters and, with impressive strength, can encourage them to fight for their ideals and surpass their boundaries. Here we can think of one of her best roles, Clarissa Saunders in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (Frank Capra, 1939). Her acting was true, sincere and made her one of a kind.

With Britis actor Colin Clive in History Is Made at Night

It is to wonder why, nowadays, Jean is a bit forgotten. Is it because she left a very private life? In my opinion, that’s not a valid reason because it was the same story with Greta Garbo, who is today considered an icon. Is it because her talent is misunderstood? Is it because her stardom might have been “stolen” by some of the big names with whom she shared the screen? That is not impossible, but, in a way, Jean was such a scene-stealer! The answer remains a mystery.

With James Stewart in a game-changing scene from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Today, October 17, 2020, marks what would have been Jean Arthur’s 120th birthday. Just like Tallulah Bankhead, Jean was one of those actresses whom, despite being born at the very beginning of the 20th century, turned out to be quite ahead of her time and was able to adapt herself to the years.

I wrote that tribute as part of the 120 “Screwball” Years of Jean Arthur Blogathon, which is hosted by yours truly.

Before leaving you, I’d like to present a little top 10 of my favourite Jean Arthur films. So far, I have seen a total of 17.

1 – Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (Frank Capra, 1939)

2- Easy Living (Mitchell Leisen, 1937)

3- The More, the Merrier (George Stevens, 1943)

4- Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (Frank Capra, 1936)

5- Too Many Husbands (Wesley Ruggles, 1940)

6- The Devil and Miss Jones (Sam Wood, 1941)

7- If You Could Only Cook (William A. Seiter, 1935)

8- A Foreign Affair (Billy Wilder, 1948)

9- The Talk of the Town (George Stevens, 1942)

10- Arizona (Wesley Ruggles, 1940)

Honourable mention to You Can’t Take It With You (Frank Capra, 1938). I hesitated between this one as Arizona as number 10, but I chose the latest because it’s a beautifully filmed western that deserves more attention. Oh, and there’s Bill Holden in it.

If you are one of those people who, so far, haven’t paid enough attention to Jean, I hope this article will change your vision. I now invite you to read the other fabulous entries that were written for this blogathon, here.

Happy heavenly birthday, Jean!

6 thoughts on “Jean Arthur: Loving Portrait of a Unique Performer

  1. I loved your entry. I agree with you that Jean’s reclusiveness should not be the reason behind why she isn’t more well known. Is it her unique voice? People tend to criticize something that isn’t conventional as “bad,” failing to see the beauty or charm in something different. Is it because Jean wasn’t usually presented as a glamorous woman, whereas Garbo was? Jean appeared in just as many “big” movies as some other actors. She definitely didn’t have any trouble getting A-list work. I love her working woman image, it makes her more relatable. While I love Carole Lombard, not everyone connects with a madcap heiress. My absolute favorite part of “The More the Merrier” is when she is giving Charles Coburn the run-down on the morning schedule, and it’s so unbelievably complicated, but planned to the last second. She’s so charming in that film (and others, of course). She proves herself just as capable of being a screwball comedienne as she does a romantic lead. I maintain that Jean’s scene with Joel McCrea on the stairs in “The More the Merrier” is one of the sexiest scenes in a Production Code-era film.

    My husband loves Jean Arthur too. He thinks she’s adorable and he also loves her voice.

    Thank you for hosting such a wonderful event and shining light on this amazing actress!

    Liked by 1 person

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