Nationality: American. Born: Gladys Georgianna Greene in New York City, 17 October 1905 (other sources say 1900, 1901 or 1909). Family: Married 1) the photographer Julian Anker (divorced); 2) the producer Frank J. Ross Jr., 1932 (divorced 1949). Career: 1920—quit school to become a model; 1923—film debut in bit role in John Ford's Cameo Kirby; 1932–34—actress on New York stage; mid-1940s—released from Columbia contract; 1955—played Peter Pan on Broadway; 1966—in own TV series The Jean Arthur Show; 1970s—taught drama at Vassar and other colleges. Died: In Carmel, California, 19 June 1991.
Films as Actress:
Cameo Kirby (Ford)
Biff Bang Buddy (Ingraham); Bringin' Home the Bacon (Thorpe); Travelin' Fast; Fast and Fearless (Thorpe); Thundering Romance (Thorpe); Spring Fever; Case Dismissed; The Powerful Eye; The Temple of Venus
The Drugstore Cowboy (Frame); The Hurricane Horseman (Eddy); Seven Chances (Buster Keaton) (as receptionist); Tearin' Loose (Thorpe); The Fighting Smile (Marchant); A Man of Nerve (Chaudet); Thundering Through (Bain)
The Block Signal (O'Connor); Born to Battle (De Lacey); The College Boob (Garson); The Cowboy Cop (De Lacey); Double Daring (Thorpe); The Fighting Cheat (Thorpe); Lightning Bill (Chaudet); Twisted Triggers (Thorpe); Under Fire (Elfelt); The Mad Racer (Stoloff); Eight Cylinder Bull (Leys); Hello Lafayette (Lafayette, Where Are We?) (Gold and Davis)
The Broken Gate (McKay); Flying Luck (Raymaker); Horse Shoes (Bruckman); Husband Hunters (Adolfi); The Poor Nut (Wallace); The Masked Menace (Heath—serial); Bigger and Better Blondes (Parrott)
Brotherly Love (Reisner); Sins of the Fathers (Berger) (as Mary Spengler); Wallflowers (Meehan); Warming Up (Newmeyer); Easy Come, Easy Go (Tuttle)
The Canary Murder Case (St. Clair) (as Alice LaFosse); The Greene Murder Case (Tuttle) (as Ada Greene); Half Way to Heaven (Abbott) (as Greta Nelson); The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu (Rowland V. Lee) (as Lila Eltham); The Saturday Night Kid (Sutherland) (as Janie); Stairs of Sand (Brower); Sins of the Fathers (Berger)
Danger Lights (Seitz) (as Mary Ryan); "Dream Girl" ep. of Paramount on Parade (Arzner and others); The Return of Dr. Fu Manchu (Rowland V. Lee) (as Lila Eltham); The Silver Horde (Archainbaud) (as Mildred Wayland); Street of Chance (Cromwell) (as Judith Marsden); Young Eagles (Wellman) (as Mary Gordon)
The Gang Buster (Sutherland) (as Sylvia Martine); Virtuous Husband (Moore) (as Barbara Olwell); The Lawyer's Secret (Gasnier and Marcin) (as Beatrice Stevens); Ex-Bad Boy (Moore) (as Ethel Simmons)
Get That Venus (Grover Lee); The Past of Mary Holmes (Thompson and Vorkapich) (as Joan Hoyt)
Whirlpool (Neill) (as Sandra Morrison); The Defense Rests (Hillyer) (as Joan Hayes); Most Precious Thing in Life (Hillyer)
The Whole Town's Talking (Passport to Fame) (Ford) (as Wilhelmina "Bill" Clark); Public Hero Number One (Ruben) (as Theresa O'Reilly); Party Wire (Kenton) (as Marge Oliver); Diamond Jim (Sutherland); Public Menace (Kenton) (as Cassie); If You Could Only Cook (Seiter) (as Joan Hawthorne)
Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (Capra) (as Babe Bennett); The Ex-Mrs. Bradford (Roberts) (as Paula Bradford); Adventure in Manhattan (Manhattan Madness) (Ludwig) (as Claire Peyton); The Plainsman (Cecil B. DeMille) (as Calamity Jane); More Than a Secretary (Alfred E. Green) (as Carol Baldwin)
History Is Made at Night (Borzage) (as Irene Vail); Easy Living (Leisen) (as Mary Smith)
You Can't Take It with You (Capra) (as Alice Sycamore)
Only Angels Have Wings (Hawks) (as Bonnie Lee); Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (Capra) (as Saunders)
Too Many Husbands (Ruggles) (as Vicky Lowndes); Arizona (Ruggles) (as Phoebe Titus)
The Devil and Miss Jones (Wood) (as Mary Jones)
The Talk of the Town (Stevens) (as Nora Shelley)
The More the Merrier (Stevens) (as Connie Milligan); A Lady Takes a Chance (Seiter) (as Mollie Truesdale)
The Impatient Years (Cummings) (as Janie Anderson)
A Foreign Affair (Wilder) (as Phoebe Frost)
Shane (Stevens) (as Marion Starrett)
By ARTHUR: article—
"Jean Arthur, Great Star as Great Lady," interview with J. Springer and others, in Inter/View (New York), June 1972.
On ARTHUR: books—
Rosen, Marjorie, Popcorn Venus, New York, 1973.
Pierce, Arthur, and Douglas Swarthout, Jean Arthur: A Bio-Bibliography, New York, 1990.
On ARTHUR: articles—
Current Biography 1945, New York, 1945.
Vermilye, Jerry, "Jean Arthur," in Films in Review (New York), June/July 1966.
Harvey, Stephen, "Jean Arthur: Passionate Primrose," in Close-Ups: The Movie Star Book, edited by Danny Peary, New York, 1978.
Shipman, David, in The Great Movie Stars: The Golden Years, rev. ed., London, 1979.
Classic Images (Indiana, Pennsylvania), September 1981, and March and April 1984.
Bauer, Steven L., "A Star of the Golden Era: Remembering Jean Arthur," and Ralph Haven Wolfe, "For Jean Arthur: In Appreciation," in Journal of Popular Film and Television (Washington, D.C.), vol. 17, no. 1, 1989.
Obituary in New York Times, 20 June 1991.
Obituary in The Times (London), 22 June 1991.
* * *
Jean Arthur began her film career in John Ford's Cameo Kirby, which she followed with a series of ingenue and other lead parts in some 20 silent, low-budget Westerns and comedy shorts, graduating to a wider variety of roles for bigger studios by the coming of sound. In 1932, feeling that she needed to improve her acting skills, she left Hollywood and worked on the stage, both in New York and in summer stock, for the next two years. She played a variety of parts, even touring as Kalonica in a production of Lysistrata. In 1934 she returned to California to appear in Whirlpool, but received her first real break the next year, once again under John Ford's direction, in The Whole Town's Talking. In this movie she created the light-comedy character of a good-natured, sentimental girl-next-door, a character she later transformed into the vivacious, often oddball heroine most fully realized in the comedies of Frank Capra, who described her as his favorite actress.
Capra's Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington provided Arthur with her most memorable roles. In both films she played a somewhat hard-boiled urbanite who is at first appalled and later smitten by the honest country boys: Gary Cooper, as Deeds, and James Stewart, as Smith. Capra made fine use of the femininity just beneath the toughness expressed by her distinctive husky, cracked voice, a voice which became her trademark though it initially kept her out of roles in early talkies.
She was very active in films from the later 1930s to the mid-1940s. She played Calamity Jane opposite Gary Cooper in Cecil B. DeMille's The Plainsman, and starred in various other adventure films as well, including Wesley Ruggles's Arizona and Howard Hawks's Only Angels Have Wings with Cary Grant, turning in one of her best performances as his sentimental sidekick. She was at her peak in a number of classic Hollywood comedies, including Mitchell Leisen's Easy Living (with a Preston Sturges script) and Sam Wood's The Devil and Miss Jones, in the latter as the spunky shopgirl who reforms her crotchety boss, working incognito in his own department store. She also appeared in two romantic comedies directed by George Stevens, The Talk of the Town and The More the Merrier, the latter written specially for her by Garson Kanin. She received her only Oscar nomination for the second of these, but lost to Jennifer Jones.
After being released from her Columbia contract following a long dispute with Harry Cohn, the studio's boss, she appeared in only two productions, Billy Wilder's A Foreign Affair and Stevens's Shane. Though she stopped making films, she appeared occasionally on the stage (winning critical acclaim for her part in Peter Pan on Broadway) and on television, in both guest spots and in a short-lived The Jean Arthur Show.
—Charles L. P. Silet, updated by Frank Uhle