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Jean Arthur: Hollywood's Introverted Extrovert

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I love reading and writing about Old Hollywood - the actors and actresses, the directors and money men and of course the movies themselves.


A Very Private Movie Star

Jean Arthur was that rare commodity - an actress who shunned the limelight. She was reputed to be more reclusive than Greta Garbo, and she is often overlooked in descriptions of the Golden Age of Hollywood. However, she gave memorable performances in many high-quality movies ranging from The Whole Town's Talking in 1935 to Shane in 1953.

She originally made her name as a comedienne in comedies like Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. Her distinctive voice was ideal, but her acting ability made her a leading contender for the coveted role of Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind (1939).

She was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress in 1944 for her performance in The More the Merrier.

Teenager Jean, still a brunette

Teenager Jean, still a brunette

Early Years

Arthur was born Gladys Georgianna Greene in upstate New York on October 17, 1900. She had three older brothers. The family moved around various locations before settling in New York City in 1915. Arthur had to drop out of high school to help the family's finances. She started work as a stenographer and later became a model. While still in her teens, she began acting. She started on the stage before swiftly making the transition to movies, which were silent at the time.

She posed for many of the prominent photographers of the time. In 1923, as part of a publicity stunt, she was selected to be given a screen test by Fox Studios. Her beauty and personality shined through, and she was given a one-year contract by the studio. She made her debut in Cameo Kirby in 1923. She mainly worked as the attractive love interest in a variety of silent Westerns and low-budget comedy shorts. With the advent of sound, her career prospects improved dramatically due to her distinctive voice. It was slightly husky but pleasantly modulated, and it made Jean's transition to the talkies very easy. It was when the talkies arrived that Jean began bleaching her naturally brunette hair blonde. She would be a blonde for the remainder of her career.

Hard Work and Stardom

Arthur also improved her chances of stardom by spending two years away from Hollywood. In 1932, she started working on Broadway in order to improve her acting skills. She played comedy and drama equally well, and she came into prominence opposite of Edward G. Robinson in John Ford's The Whole Town's Talking in 1935. The film is a wonderful gangster comedy-drama that allowed Arthur to showcase her innate comic timing.

Jean with Gary Cooper (left) and Frank Capra

Jean with Gary Cooper (left) and Frank Capra

The real turning point in her career came when Frank Capra chose her to star in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) with Gary Cooper. Cooper, at the time, was a near godlike figure who was the top box office draw. The movie was a major critical and commercial success, and Jean capitlised on it by co-starring in two other Capra movies, You Can't Take It With You (1938) and Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939). Capra named Arthur as his favourite actress, and he was able to make great use of her femininity that lay beneath her apparent toughness. Arthur expressed these traits with her breathy voice. In both films, she played her speciality - a down-to-earth, independent woman who hinted at a romantic side, but no more. Both movies were spectacular successes, and Arthur seemed to have the movie world at her feet.

With Gary Cooper in The Plainsman

With Gary Cooper in The Plainsman

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Arthur played Calamity Jane opposite of Gary Cooper in Cecil B. DeMille's The Plainsman. She starred in various other adventure films as well, including Wesley Ruggles's Arizona and Howard Hawks's Only Angels Have Wings with Cary Grant. In the latter film, she turned in one of her best performances as Grant's sentimental sidekick. Arthur 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 as the spunky shopgirl who reforms her crotchety boss. She also appeared in two romantic comedies directed by George Stevens, The Talk of the Town and The More the Merrier; the latter was written specifically for her by Garson Kanin. For her performance in The More the Merrier, she received a Best Actress Academy Award nomination, but the award went to Jennifer Jones in The Song of Bernadette.

Just when Arthur was at her peak of popularity in 1944, she quit movies. She was still a top female box office attraction. The reason for her departure seemed to be a form of stage fright, which had developed from her innate shyness. She simply found that making movies had become agony for her.

She had also developed an innate dislike of the idolisation of movie stars, and she absolutely hated the studio contract system where an actor or actress was treated like a commodity by Hollywood moguls. She reacted fiercely against it, as did other strong actresses of the era, like Olivia de Havilland and Bette Davis. Arthur fought hard with Harry Cohn, the head of Columbia Pictures, against the restrictions of her contract. The end of her contract in 1944 was cause for much celebration.

After that, the reclusive Arthur made several attempts to find herself through theatre, but her nervous reactions got worse, and she developed a reputation for unreliability. Some of the plays she was in did not run beyond opening night. One of her stage successes was as the lead in Leonard Bernstein’s 1950 musical version of Peter Pan, which co-starred Boris Karloff as Captain Hook.

Final Years

Arthur's career waned during the second half of the 1940s. After starring with Marlene Dietrich and John Lund in Billy Wilder's A Foreign Affair in 1948, she made only one more film. Her last film was Shane (1953), directed by George Stevens and starring Alan Ladd and Van Heflin. This Western, considered to be one of the best in the genre, was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture. It won its only award for Best Cinematography.

In 1966, she made a brief transition to TV as a lawyer in The Jean Arthur Show, but it it had poor ratings and ran for only 11 weeks. She then turned to drama teaching at Vassar College and North Carolina School of the Arts.

Arthur would retire in 1972. In the final decades of her life, she snubbed all requests from autograph hunters and journalists. She was bedridden for the last two years of her life after suffering a major stroke. She died in 1991 at the age of 90.

Jean in 1938

Jean in 1938

Personal Life

Very little is known about the personal life of Jean Arthur. Her introverted nature and unwillingness to talk to journalists left behind a void of information.

She was married twice. Her first marriage was to Julian Anckner in 1928. The marriage only lasted for one day. According to Arthur, she fell in love with him because he looked like Abraham Lincoln. He proposed in a spur of the moment, and they immediately got married in a sheriff's office. The marriage ended, she said, because of their families' horrified reaction. It is a strange tale, particularly bearing in mind that Arthur was 28 at the time.

Her second marriage was to Frank Ross in 1932; their marriage lasted 17 years. He produced several of her films, and he was the scriptwriter of The More the Merrier.

Rumours circulated for years that Arthur was a lesbian or bisexual. She certainly had a long-term, live-in female friend for the last decades of her life, Ellen Mastroianni, but otherwise, her sexuality was her own private affair.

Jean Arthur was a complex woman. She was tormented by neuroses and self-doubt. Her mood swings were unpredictable, but she was a perfectionist and a talented actress who left a large body of high-quality work. Hollywood would have been poorer without her.

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