Classic Film Guide

Jean Arthur

Jean Arthur was born Gladys Georgianna Greene on October 17, 1900 in upstate New York. She first appeared onscreen in director John Ford’s silent Cameo Kirby (1923), which features John Gilbert in the title role, but her career didn’t really take off until she worked with Ford again, appearing in the producer-director’s crime comedy The Whole Town is Talking (1935) opposite Edward G. Robinson. Within a year, she’d appear in her first of three Frank Capra comedies – Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), featuring Gary Cooper in the title role – and play Calamity Jane (opposite Cooper’s Wild Bill Hickok) in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Plainsman (1936). The role that Arthur plays in Mr. Deeds – a politically aware, more than competent career woman that’s romantically vulnerable but is still single largely because she’s yet to meet her match – is similar to those that she would play in many of her other films. In these (her best known) roles, the actress’s leading man is cast as a naïve good-hearted idealist and/or a fish-out-of-water bumpkin – that the world would ‘chew up and spit out’ without her rescuing them: for example, James Stewart’s title character in Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), William Holden’s character in Wesley Ruggles’ Arizona (1940), Robert Cummings’ role in director Sam Wood’s The Devil and Miss Jones (1941), to a lesser extent those played by Cary Grant and Ronald Colman in George Stevens’ The Talk of the Town (1942), and Joel McCrea in Stevens’ The More the Merrier (1943), which finally earned lead actress Arthur her only Oscar nomination.

Despite the Academy’s snub of her individual performances – Arthur is widely recognized as one of the screen’s best comediennes ever – she did help Capra win the majority of his many statuettes by starring in (his aforementioned comedies as well as) the producer-director’s second Best Picture You Can’t Take It with You (1938) with Stewart which, like Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), also earned Capra the Best Director Oscar. The title roles of Mr. Deeds and Mr. Smith represented the first Best Actor nominations for both Cooper and Stewart, respectively. Plus, veteran character actor Charles Coburn received the first two of his three Supporting Actor nominations while appearing in Stevens’ comedies with Arthur: in the title role (a business tycoon dubbed ‘The Devil’) opposite Arthur’s Miss Jones and winning the Oscar by playing the matchmaker of McCrea’s and Arthur’s characters in The More the Merrier (1943), which earned director Stevens his first nomination. During the course of her career, she worked with most of Hollywood’s other top directors of the day as well, having appeared previously with Grant in Howard Hawks’ Only Angels Have Wings (1939) and with Marlene Dietrich in director Billy Wilder’s A Foreign Affair (1948), after a four year layoff, which was Arthur’s last film until Stevens was able to coax her out of retirement once more to play Van Heflin’s sturdy pioneer wife in Shane (1953), the essential Western featuring Alan Ladd in the title role which earned her producer-director two more Oscar nominations. Even though she was 52 at the time, Arthur played mother to eleven year old Brandon De Wilde, who earned his only Academy recognition with a Supporting Actor Oscar nomination.

With the exception of Ladd, nearly all of Arthur’s leading men – including Fred MacMurray and Melvyn Douglas (in Ruggles’ Too Many Husbands (1940)) and John Wayne (A Lady Takes a Chance (1943)) – towered over her 5’3” frame, but neither her height nor the actress’s curly blond tresses were her most distinguishing physical characteristic. It was that voice. While the IMDb.com biographer refers to it as frog-like, I would have to disagree with that adjective, which more aptly describes potbellied character actor Eugene Pallette’s vocal range. No, the sound that came out of Arthur’s mouth was truly unique: the combination of a sweet little girl quality (without seeming mismatched to her, ala supermodel Kathy Ireland) with a huskiness that frequently squeaked or occasionally crackled during her delivery. Arthur’s voice enabled her to play romantic leads that were younger than her own age (late 30’s through early 40’s) while it softened the truth that her characters were (street) smarter and/or at least as strong as her male counterparts. The actress died shy of her 91st birthday in June, 1991.

© 2008 Turner Classic Movies - this article originally appeared on TCM's official blog

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