“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 became one of Hollywood’s best comedy actresses. She first worked as a model and initially appeared in silent films. Because, yes, being born in 1900, Jean did indeed work in silents. After all, the first (partially) talking picture, The Jazz Singer (Alan Crosland), was released in 1927. The principal contrast between Jean of the silents and Jean of the talkies wasn’t only the colour of her hair (dark in silents, blond in talkings) but also how she developed her talent. We often hear of silent film stars who became instantly forgotten once they made the step in the world of talkies. There were various reasons, one of them being a voice that was not adequate. That was a sad reality. In Jean Arthur’s case, it was the opposite: she made her big break in the Talking Era. As a matter of fact, most of her silent films are forgotten today. 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 aspect of Jean’s acting talent was its contrast with her real-life persona. Indeed, Jean presented herself on screen as the dynamic, sure of herself, fierce and fun-to-be-around lady. However, behind this on-screen persona was a shy and insecure woman who probably never really knew what a brilliant performer she was. Some 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 impossible to completely un-appreciate a film starring Jean. The minute her character has a scene, a line, an entrance, you’re instantly mesmerized by her, and you become hooked to her energy. Therefore, 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 A-class actors like Gary Cooper, James Stewart, Marlene Dietrich, Cary Grant, Rita Hayworth (also born on October 17), Joel McCrea, John Wayne (not a fan, but still worth mentioning), etc. Jean might have been judged a difficult actress, especially during her stage career. She often had to cancel 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.
Due to her shyness and solitary spirit, Jean prefered living a very private life and distanced herself from the spotlight. She rarely granted interviews (she did some – it would be a mistake to think otherwise) and didn’t want to take part in publicity for her films in 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. She mostly connected with actors on film sets and didn’t necessarily become close friends with them (not that she didn’t appreciate working with them). However, she befriended some, such as the lovable Roddy McDowall. In a way, it’s easy for introverts to identify with Jean. She loved animals, prefer spending 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. IIn 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 would be a good example- Jean could recognize and acknowledge talent. She 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 watching Streep perform, she felt like she was watching a movie star. Her instinct was accurate.
When it comes to appreciating Jean’s acting talent, in my opinion, there are two schools of people. First, there are those instantly charmed by her talent. Second, there are those who have to give her a second chance, not immediately seizing what 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. I since have then learned to appreciate it. Perhaps I was not used to seeing such characters 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, via her roles, she brilliantly challenged those stereotypes that were often associated with female characters 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). So, she put 110% of her energy into each performance. That talent for comedy made her the perfect candidate for the screwball comedy genre. However, she was not perfect the same way Carole Lombard was. Indeed, Lombard developed a talent by making us laugh by playing the madcap heiresses. 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.
However, Jean, while being an excellent comedian, could also mould herself into all types of feelings and touch our soul not only 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 her character can be towards others and, with impressive strength, 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.
It is to wonder why, nowadays, Jean is a bit forgotten. Is it because she lived 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 we misunderstand her talent? 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.
Today, October 17, 2020, marks what would have been Jean Arthur’s 120th birthday. Like Tallulah Bankhead, Jean was one of those actresses who, despite being born at the very beginning of the 20th century, turned out to be ahead of her time and could 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. I chose the latter 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 written for this blogathon here.
Happy heavenly birthday, Jean!