Arthur, Jean (1905–1991)

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article Share Article
views updated

Arthur, Jean (1905–1991)

American actress. Born Gladys Georgianna Greene on October 17, 1905, in the Washington Heights section of New York, New York; died in 1991; daughter of a New York photographer; attended a New York City high school; married Julian Anker, in 1928 (divorced 1928); married Frank J. Ross, Jr., in 1932 (divorced 1949).

Filmography—sound feature films: Easy Come, Easy Go (Par., 1928); The Canary Murder Case (Par., 1929); The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu (Par., 1929); The Greene Murder Case (Par., 1929); The Saturday Night Kid (Par., 1929); Half Way to Heaven (Par., 1929); Street of Chance (Par., 1930); Young Eagles (Par., 1930); Paramount on Parade (Par., 1930); The Return of Dr. Fu Manchu (Par., 1930); Danger Lights (RKO, 1930); The Silver Horde (RKO, 1930); The Gang Buster (Par., 1931); Virtuous Husband (Univ., 1931); The Lawyer's Secret (Par., 1931); Ex-Bad Boy (Univ., 1931); Get That Venus (Regent, 1933); The Past of Mary Holmes (RKO, 1933); Whirlpool (Col., 1934); The Defense Rests (Col., 1934); Most Precious Thing in Life (Col., 1934); The Whole Town's Talking (Col., 1935); Public Hero Number One (MGM, 1935); Party Wire (Col., 1935); Diamond Jim (Univ., 1935); The Public Menace (Col., 1935); If You Could Only Cook (Col., 1935); Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (Col., 1936); The Ex-Mrs. Bradford (RKO, 1936); Adventure in Manhattan (Col., 1936); The Plainsman (Par., 1936); More Than a Secretary (Col., 1936); History Is Made at Night (UA, 1937); Easy Living (Par., 1937); You Can't Take It With You (Col., 1938); Only Angels Have Wings (Col., 1939); Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (Col., 1939); Too Many Husbands (Col., 1940); Arizona (Col., 1940); The Devil and Miss Jones (RKO, 1941); The Talk of the Town (Col., 1942); The More the Merrier (Col., 1943); A Lady Takes a Chance (RKO, 1943); The Impatient Years (Col., 1944); A Foreign Affair (Par., 1948); Shane (Par., 1953).

Hollywood was not always an easy fit for husky-voiced comedienne Jean Arthur, who at the height of her career was one of the least-known stars off screen. Surviving a notorious 12-year climb to her breakthrough part in John Ford's The Whole Town's Talking (1935), Arthur played by her own rules, turning down roles she felt were bad for her and refusing to dance to the tune of the usual Hollywood publicity machine. She believed she would rise or fall on the merits of her performance alone, remarking, "If people don't like your work, all the still pictures in the world can't help you and nothing written about you, even oceans of it, will make you popular."

Jean Arthur grew up in New York, a roughneck who climbed trees, jumped fences, and dreamed of becoming a dancer. As a pretty teenager and the daughter of a photographer, she had no trouble finding employment as a model, once working for Howard Chandler Christy. One of her pictures landed in the lap of a 20th Century-Fox representative and, at 18, she was handed a one-year contract. Arthur was on her way, or so she thought.

Her movie career began auspiciously with a supporting role in John Ford's silent Cameo Kirby (1923). But Arthur had no acting experience and was in over her head. Fulfilling her contract playing insignificant parts in minor movies, mostly two-reel comedies and westerns, she continued throughout the 1920s in one forgettable movie after another, mostly for Paramount. The silents were never able to utilize her chief asset as an actress, a unique voice with a zither-like twang. In 1931, dissatisfied with her roles, she left Hollywood and returned to New York, bent on honing her acting skills. The following three years were spent in stock and on Broadway, playing leading roles in short-run stage productions: Foreign Affairs, with Dorothy Gish ; The Man Who Reclaimed His Head, opposite Claude Rains; and, her favorite, The Curtain Rises.

Back in Hollywood, Arthur's first solid supporting performance was in the 1934 movie hit

Whirlpool, and she was signed by Harry Cohn at Columbia to a long-term contract. After appearing in back-to-back bombs, she reunited with Ford for The Whole Town's Talking. It was here that she firmly realized her screen persona—the cynical, resourceful, wisecracking woman who, wrote Barbara and Scott Siegel, "usually started out taking advantage of an idealist, eventually fell in love with him, and then used her worldly knowledge to help him beat the bad guys by the end of the picture." She starred in three Frank Capra classics: Mr. Deeds Goes toTown (1936), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), and You Can't Take It With You (1938).

Other superb performances included, Public Hero Number One (1935), Diamond Jim (1935), and The Ex-Mrs. Bradford (1936). Arthur's husband Frank J. Ross, Jr., was coproducer of the successful The Devil and Miss Jones (1941), a comedy-drama about New York "subway society." Teaming with George Stevens, she made The Talk of the Town (1942), for which she received rave reviews. Time magazine commented on her "expert energy," while Bosley Crowther of The New York Times observed: "Miss Arthur is charming, as usual, in her bewilderment." The More the Merrier followed in 1943, for which she received her only Academy Award nomination, for Best Actress.

Throughout her career, Arthur's best movies were made on loan-out from Columbia. (Actors signed with a specific studio could not work at another studio, unless they were loaned out; their home studio could then pocket a large percentage of the income.) She often feuded with Cohn over his choice of material, which led to her suspension on a number of occasions. When her contract finally expired in 1944, she not only walked away from Columbia but from her movie career, even though she was still a box-office attraction. She would make only two more movies: A Foreign Affair for Billy Wilder in 1948, followed by her masterful swan song, Shane, for George Stevens in 1953.

In 1955, Arthur scored a major success on Broadway in Peter Pan, though her other vehicles ended in disaster. (At the last minute, Judy Holliday replaced her in the Broadway-bound Born Yesterday, and Arthur's version of St. Joan folded in Chicago.) Except for a guest-star appearance in television's "Gunsmoke" and a short-lived series "The Jean Arthur Show," in 1966, Arthur retired to a quiet life out of the limelight. Much of her time, before her death in 1991, was devoted to teaching her craft at several colleges.

From her opening scene in The Whole Town's Talking, she "revealed that the key element of the Jean Arthur character was fearlessness—nothing, not Babbitty bosses, tommy-gun-wielding gangsters, or even a national economic crisis was going to faze her," writes Danny Peary. "She exuded those qualities that Depression-era moviegoers liked to think as typically American. Energetic and optimistic, she was guileless enough to utter phrases like 'Gee whiz!' and mean it."

sources:

Peary, Danny, ed. Close-Ups. NY: Workman, 1978.

Rothe, Anna, ed. Current Biography, 1945. NY: The H.W. Wilson, 1946.

Siegel, Scott, and Barbara Siegel. The Encyclopedia of Hollywood. NY: Facts on File, 1990.