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 Garbo and so is often overlooked in descriptions of the Golden Age of Hollywood, but she gave memorable performances in a significant number of 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She originally made her name as a comedienne in comedies like ‘Mr.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’ for which her distinctive voice was ideal but her acting ability was such that she was also 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’.
She was born Gladys Georgianna Greene in upstate New York. The year was probably 1900 – she was always coy about her real age, as were many actresses at that time. She had three older brothers. The family moved to New York City where she had to quit junior high school to help the family’s finances. She started work as a stenographer and later became a model. Whilst still in her teens she began acting, first on stage and then, swiftly made the transition to movies, which at the time were, of course, silent.
She posed for many of the prominent photographers of the time and in 1923, as part of a publicity stunt, she was selected to be given a screen test by Fox Studios. Her beauty and personality shone through and she was given a one year contract by the studios. She made her debut in the silent Cameo Kirby in 1923 and continued, working mainly as tne 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 one natural advantage – her distinctive voice. It was slightly husky but pleasantly modulated and it made Jean’s transition to Talkies very easy. It was when 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
She also improved her chances of stardom by spending 2 years from 1932 away from Hollywood and working on the stage in order to improve her acting skills. She played comedy and drama equally well, coming to prominence opposite Edward G. Robinson in John Ford’s ‘The Whole Town’s Talking’ in 1935, a wonderful gangster comedy-drama that allowed Jean to showcase her innate comic timing.
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 earned more than anyone else in
the USA, not just more than any actor, more than any other person. The
movie was a major critical and box-office success and Jean capitlised
on it by co-starring in 2 other Frank Capra directed movies, ‘You Can’t
Take It With You’ (1938) and ‘Mr Smith Goes To Washington‘(1939). Frank
Capra named Jean Arthur as his
favourite actress and he was able
to make fine use of the femininity evident just beneath the apparent
toughness which was expressed by her trademark husky, but sexy voice.
In both films she again played her speciality – a down-to-earth,
independent, woman – who hinted at a romantic side, but no more. Both
movies were spectacular successes and Jean, it seemed, had the movie
world at her feet.
Jean 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. For her performance in The More
the Merrier (1943), in which she starred with Joel McCrea and Charles
Coburn, she received a Best Actress Academy Award nomination, but the
award went to Jennifer Jones in The Song of Bernadette.
Just when she was at her peak of popularity in 1944, she quit movies. She was still Columbia Pictures’ top female box-office attraction. and the reason seems 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 wherby an actor or actress was treated like a commodity by the moguls who ran Hollywood. She reacted fiercely against it, as did the other strong actresses of the era, Olivia de Havilland and Bette Davis. Jean fought hard with Columbia Pictures head Harry Cohn against the restrictions of her contract and the ending of her contract in 1944 was the cause of much celebration.
After that, the reclusive Jean made several attempts to find herself through the theatre but her nervous reaction got worse and she developed a reputation for unreliability. Some of the plays she was in didn’t get beynd the 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.
Her career waned during the second half of the 1940s and after
starring with Marlene Dietrich and John Lund in Billy Wilder’s movie
about post-World War II Berlin, A Foreign Affair in 1948, she made only
one more film – but what a swansong! Her last film was Shane (1953),
directed by George Stevens and also starring Alan Ladd and Van Heflin.
This Western was nominated for six Academy Awards including Best
Picture, and won its only award for Best Cinematography.
In 1966 she made a brief transition to TV starring as a lawyer in ‘The Jean Arthur Show’, but it it had oor ratings and ran for only 11 weeks. She then turned to drama teaching, at Vassar College and North Carolina School of the Arts.
She retired in 1972, and in the final decades of her life, true to form, snubbed all requests from autograph hunters and journalists.
Jean was bedridden for the last two years of her life after suffering a major stroke. She died in 1991 at the age of 90.
The personal life of Jean Arthur has been little commented on precisely because so little is known of it. Her naturally introverted nature and unwillingness to talk to journalists for the last decades of her life left an information void.
She married twice and the first one, to Julian Anckner in 1928, incredibly, lasted for only one day. According to her own explanation she fell in love with him because he looked like Abraham Lincoln. He proposed on the 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 Jean was 28 at the time.
Her second marriage, to Frank Ross in 1932, lasted 17 years. He produced several of Jean’s films and was the scriptwriter of ‘The More the Merrier’.
Rumours circulated for years that Jean 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, as was everything else about her, her own private affair.
So, Jean Arthur was a complex woman, a woman tormented by neuroses and self-doubt, whose mood swings were unpredictable and the despair of her friends and colleagues. But she was a perfectionist, a talented actress who left a large body of high quality work. Hollywood would have been poorer without Jean Arthur.