(October 17, 1900 – June 19, 1991)
Jean Arthur was an American actress and a major film star of the
1930s and 1940s. She remains arguably the epitome of the female
screwball comedy actress.
James Harvey wrote in his recounting of the era, "No one was more
closely identified with the screwball comedy than Jean Arthur. So much
was she part of it, so much was her star personality defined by it,
that the screwball style itself seems almost unimaginable without
her." Arthur has been called "the quintessential comedic leading
Arthur is best known for her feature roles in three Frank Capra
films: Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), You Can't Take It
With You (1938), and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
(1939), films that championed the everyday heroine. Her last
performance was the memorable—and distinctly non–comedic—role as the
rancher's wife in George Stevens' Shane (1953).
Arthur was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress in 1944
for her performance in The More the Merrier (1943).
Arthur was born Gladys Georgianna Greene in Plattsburgh, New York
to Protestant parents Johanna Augusta Nelson and Hubert Sidney Greene.
She lived off and on in Westbrook, Maine from 1908 to 1915 while her
father worked at Lamson Studios in Portland, Maine as a photographer.
The product of a nomadic childhood, Arthur also lived at times in
Jacksonville, Florida; Schenectady, New York; and, during a portion of
her high school years, in the Washington Heights neighborhood of upper
Manhattan. She came from a family of three older brothers: Donald
Hubert (1891), Robert B. (1892) and Albert Sidney (1894).
Her maternal grandparents were immigrants from Norway who settled
in the American West. She reputedly took her stage name from two
of her greatest heroes, Joan of Arc (Jeanne d'Arc) and King Arthur.
Presaging many of her later film roles, she worked as a
stenographer on Bond Street in lower Manhattan during World War I.
Discovered by Fox Film Studios while she was doing commercial
modeling in New York City in the early 1920s, Arthur debuted in the
silent film Cameo Kirby (1923), directed by John Ford, and made a few
low-budget silent westerns and short comedies.
She was selected as one of the WAMPAS Baby Stars in 1929, but she
became stuck in ingénue roles. It was her distinctive, throaty voice –
in addition to some stage training on Broadway in the early 1930s –
that helped make her a star in the talkies.
In 1935, at age 34, she starred opposite Edward G. Robinson in the
gangster farce The Whole Town's Talking, also
directed by Ford, and her popularity began to rise. By then, her hair,
naturally brunette throughout the silent film portion of her career,
was bleached blonde and would stay that way. She was famous for
maneuvering to be photographed and filmed almost exclusively from the
left; Arthur felt that her left was her best side, and worked hard to
keep it in the fore. Frank Capra recounted that producer Harry Cohn
described Jean Arthur's imbalanced profile as "half of it's angel, and
the other half horse."
The turning point in Jean Arthur's career came when she was chosen
by director Frank Capra to star in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town.
Capra had spotted her in a daily rush from the film Whirlpool in 1934
and convinced Cohn to have Columbia Studios sign her for his next film
as a tough newspaperwoman who falls in love with a country bumpkin
Arthur co-starred in three celebrated 1930s Capra films: her role
opposite Gary Cooper in 1936 in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town made
her a star, while her fame was cemented with You Can't Take It With
You (1938) and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington in 1939, both
with James Stewart. She was re-teamed with Cooper, playing Calamity
Jane in Cecil B. DeMille's The Plainsman (1936), and
appeared as a working girl, her typical role, in Mitchell Leisen's
1937 screwball comedy Easy Living opposite Ray
Milland. So strong was her box office appeal by 1939 that she was one
of four finalists that year for the role of Scarlett O'Hara in
Gone with the Wind; the film's producer, David O. Selznick, had
briefly romanced Arthur in the late 1920s when they both were with
She continued to star in films such as Howard Hawks' Only Angels
Have Wings in 1939, with love interest Cary Grant, 1942's The Talk
of the Town, directed by George Stevens (also with Grant), and
again for Stevens as a government clerk in 1943's The More the
Merrier, for which Jean Arthur was nominated for the Academy Award for
Best Actress (losing to Jennifer Jones in The Song of Bernadette).
As a result of being in the doghouse with studio boss Harry Cohn, her
fee for The Talk of the Town (1942) was only $50,000 while
her male co-stars Grant and Ronald Colman received upwards of $100,000
Arthur remained Columbia's top star until the mid-1940s, when she
left the studio and Rita Hayworth took over as the studio's reigning
queen. Stevens famously called her "one of the greatest comediennes
the screen has ever seen", while Capra credited her as "my favorite
Arthur "retired" when her contract with Columbia Pictures expired
in 1944. She reportedly ran through the studio's streets, shouting
"I'm free, I'm free!" For the next several years, she turned down
virtually all film offers, the two exceptions being Billy Wilder's A
Foreign Affair (1948), in which she played a congresswoman and rival
of Marlene Dietrich, and as a homesteader's wife in the classic
Western Shane (1953), which turned out to be the biggest box-office
hit of her career. The latter was her final film, and the only color
film she appeared in.
Arthur's post-retirement work in theater was intermittent, somewhat
curtailed by her longstanding shyness and discomfort about her chosen
profession. Capra claimed she vomited in her dressing room between
scenes, yet emerged each time to perform a flawless take. According to
John Oller's biography Jean Arthur: The Actress Nobody Knew (1997),
Arthur developed a kind of stage fright punctuated with bouts of
psychosomatic illnesses. A prime example was in 1945, when she was
cast in the lead of the Garson Kanin play Born Yesterday.
Her nerves and insecurity got the better of her and she left the
production before it reached Broadway, opening the door for Judy
Holliday to take the part.
Arthur did score a major triumph on Broadway in 1950, starring in
an adaptation of Peter Pan playing the Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up
when she was almost 50. She tackled the role of her namesake,
Joan of Arc, in a 1954 stage production of George Bernard
Shaw's Saint Joan, but she left the play after a nervous breakdown and
battles with director Harold Clurman.
In 1966, the extremely reclusive Arthur tentatively returned to
show business, playing Patricia Marshall, an attorney, on her own
television sitcom, The Jean Arthur Show, which was cancelled
mid-season by CBS after only twelve episodes. Ron Harper played her
son, attorney Paul Marshall.
In 1967, she was coaxed back to Broadway to appear as a midwestern
spinster who falls in with a group of hippies in the play The
Freaking Out of Stephanie Blake. William Goldman, in his book The
Season reconstructed the disastrous production, which eventually
closed during previews when Arthur refused to go on.
Arthur next decided to teach drama, first at Vassar College and
then the North Carolina School of the Arts. While teaching at Vassar,
she stopped a rather stridently overacted scene performance and
directed the students' attention to a large tree growing outside the
window of the performance space, advising the students on the art of
naturalistic acting: "I wish people knew how to be people as well as
that tree knows how to be a tree."
Her students at Vassar included
the young Meryl Streep. Arthur recognized Streep's talent and
potential very early on and after watching her performance in a Vassar
play, Arthur said it was "like watching a movie star."
While living in North Carolina she made front page news by being
arrested and jailed for trespassing on a neighbor's property to
console a dog she felt was being mistreated. An animal lover her
entire life, Arthur said she trusted them more than people.
She turned down the role of the lady missionary in Lost
Horizon (1973), the unsuccessful musical remake of the 1937
Frank Capra film of the same name. Then, in 1975, the Broadway
play First Monday in October, about the first female
Supreme Court justice, was written especially with Arthur in mind, but
once again she succumbed to extreme stage fright and quit the
production shortly into its out-of-town run in Cleveland. The
play went on with Jane Alexander playing the role intended for Arthur.
After the First Monday in October incident,
Arthur then retired for good, retreating to her oceanside home in
Carmel, California, steadfastly refusing interviews until her
resistance was broken down by the author of a book on her one-time
director Capra. Arthur once famously said that she’d rather have her
throat slit than do an interview.
Arthur's first marriage, to photographer Julian Anker in 1928, was
annulled after one day. She married producer Frank Ross, Jr. in 1932.
They divorced in 1949. Arthur did not have any children.
Jean Arthur died from heart
failure at the age of 90. Her ashes were scattered at sea near
Carmel-by-the-Sea, California. It is unknown if she had heard of the
death of Joan Caulfield, who had married Frank Ross, Jr. after
Arthur's divorce from him. She had died the day before Arthur at the
age of 69.
For her contribution to the motion picture industry, Jean Arthur
has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 6331 Hollywood Blvd. The
Jean Arthur Atrium was her gift to the Monterey Institute of
International Studies in Monterey, California.
Alternative country artist Robbie Fulks included a song titled
"Jean Arthur" on his 1999 compilation The Very Best of Robbie Fulks.
The track expounds on the actress's unique personality and style.
- The Roaring Rider Mary Watkins
- The Plainsman Calamity Jane
- Arizona Phoebe Titus
- Shane Marian Starrett
- Gunsmoke (1965) Julie Blane 1 episode