Comedy, Capra & Screwball Sirens – Jean Arthur (1900 – 1991)

Posted in Rewind by - June 10, 2014
Comedy, Capra & Screwball Sirens – Jean Arthur (1900 – 1991)

“I became an actress because I didn’t want to be myself” – Jean Arthur

Gifted actress and comedienne; Jean Arthur, had a long wait before finding stardom. With her distinctive voice, both child-like and husky, hidden for a number of years in the silent era, she would have to wait until her mid thirties, before finding the recognition she deserved. A shy lady, sometimes lacking confidence, this talented beauty lit up the screen in some timeless comedy classics.

Born Gladys Georgianna Greene in New York, on October 17th, 1900, Jean spent most of the 1920’s in silent Shorts and westerns, before co-starring in the 1929 mystery ‘The Canary Murder Case’, which had William Powell as famed detective Philo Vance, and Louise Brooks as the ‘canary’ of the title. It wasn’t until1935, when she was cast alongside Edward G. Robinson, in John Ford’s wonderful farce ‘The Whole Town’s Talking’, that producers started sitting up and take note. Both Robinson and Jean were marvellous in it, and Jean would soon find her career taking off. The following year Jean re-teamed with William Powell for the neat comedy/ mystery ‘The Ex-Mrs Bradford’ (’36), and it remains one of my favourites from that whole screwball era. That same year Frank Capra cast her with Gary Cooper in the classic comedy ‘Mr. Deeds Goes to Town’, which saw her ambitious reporter, (the wonderfully named ‘Babe Bennett’), save Cooper from poverty. After playing Calamity Jane in ‘The Plainsman’ (’36), again with Cooper, Jean re-teamed with Frank Capra for the 1938 James Stewart screwball comedy ‘You Can’t Take It with You’. The movie was a huge smash, winning Best Picture and Best Director at the Academy Awards.

After narrowly losing out on the role of Scarlet O’Hara in ‘Gone With the Wind’, she was once again teamed with Capra and James Stewart, for the 1939 satire; ‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington’. In it, her wily secretary; Clarissa Saunders, rescues Stewart’s naïve senator; Mr Smith, from devious Washington politicians, and ends up being the heroine once again. In 1942 Jean played a schoolteacher involved in a love-triangle with Cary Grant and Ronald Colman, in George Stevens ‘The Talk of the Town’, an excellent comedy with a liberal dash of melodrama. 1943 would see Jean receive her only Oscar nomination, for her excellent turn in the domestic comedy ‘The More the Merrier’. Once again directed by George Stevens, this hugely enjoyable ‘housing shortage’ comedy co-starred Joel McCrea as a room-seeking Sergeant, and the delightful Charles Coburn in an Oscar-winning role as retired millionaire; Benjamin Dingle.

Jean retired from the screen the following year, when her contract expired at Columbia Pictures. She turned down many offers in the next few years, only returning to the screen for Billy Wilder’s romantic comedy ‘A Foreign Affair’ (’48), and later when she re-teamed once again with George Stevens, for his classic western ‘Shane’, as Van Heflin’s weary wife. ‘Shane’ would be Jean’s only colour film and the biggest box-office hit in her 30 year career. A short-lived comeback came in 1966 when Jean starred as a lawyer, in the CBS sitcom ‘The Jean Arthur Show’. In spite of some good guest stars (Mickey Rooney and Ray Bolger), the show only ran for 12 episodes before being cancelled.

As well as a couple of later stints on Broadway, Jean taught drama at Vassar for a while, where her students included a young Meryl Streep. Living modestly and privately, refusing nearly all interviews (stating that she’d rather have her throat slit!), Jean settled into full-time retirement, living out her reclusive years in Carmel, California.

Married and divorce twice, Jean Arthur died from heart failure on June 19th, 1991, aged 90. An immensely likable actress with a distinctive voice and spirited personality, Jean will forever be remembered for her roles in some of Hollywood’s classic screwball comedies and social satires.

Favourite Movie: The Ex-Mrs. Bradford
Favourite Performance: The More the Merrier

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