The uneasy queen: Jean Arthur

Jean Arthur 01Who’s the greatest film actress of all time? Silly question, but fans will know what I mean. My choice is Gladys Greene. Like millions of people all over the world, I fall in love with her every time I see one of her films.

Her stage name was Jean Arthur. Between 1935 and 1943 she had one of the most successful careers artistically Hollywood has ever seen. She starred in:
The Whole Town’s Talking (1935, John Ford) with Edward G Robinson;
Mr Deeds Goes to Town (1936, Frank Capra) with Gary Cooper;
The Ex Mrs Bradford (1936, Stephen Roberts) with William Powell;
History is Made at Night (1937, Frank Borzage) with Charles Boyer;
Easy Living (1937, Mitchell Leisen) with Edward Arnold;
You Can’t Take It With You (1938, Frank Capra) with James Stewart;
Only Angels Have Wings (1939, Howard Hawks) with Cary Grant;
Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939, Frank Capra) with James Stewart;
Too Many Husbands (1940, Wesley Ruggles) with Fred MacMurray;
The Talk of the Town (1942, George Stevens) with Cary Grant;
• and The More the Merrier (1943, George Stevens) with Joel McCrea.
There were 58 other films, from 1923 onwards, and she bowed out with Shane (1953, George Stevens). There are better films than any one of these listed, but taken as a whole, no other actor in Hollywood before or since can match this achievement.

She was luminously beautiful (OK, they know how to do that in Hollywood), had the sexiest (and funniest, and endearing) voice in cinema, almost perfect comic timing, and most importantly, she knew how to make her characters real, no matter how absurd the situation they were in. George Stevens thought she was “one of the greatest comediennes the screen has ever seen”.

But Jean Arthur had problems. Hollywood had given her too many poor roles in rotten films and it had undermined her confidence. She thought she couldn’t act and suffered terribly before and after a shoot, throwing up each time the cameras were about to roll (so did Laurence Olivier, reputedly). She fled Hollywood for Broadway, but had the same problems there, and backed out of several productions at the last moment (one was Born Yesterday and her withdrawal gave Judy Holiday her chance).

She hated the star system, and the hoopla that Hollywood built up around stars’ lives, and refused to co-operate. She wouldn’t give interviews, and guarded her privacy so jealously that few people knew anything about her until an ex lawyer, John Oller, wrote a biography in 2004, called The Actress Nobody Knew.

In an era when the options for a young actress were bit parts or the casting couch, Jean Arthur was fiercely independent. She worked for Columbia, and feuded with Harry Cohn (most people did). She was suspended more than once. But she fought determinedly for better roles, going to other studios when necessary, and slowly succeeded. Virtually all her films of the late 30s are great, and the dozen mentioned above among the greatest. Then her contract expired and she retired.

Her colleagues were divided about her. Some thought her shyness and defensiveness, which erupted in bad temper or was shown by coldness and aloofness, was offensive. Others (Cary Grant was one) realised the extent that she suffered while making a film, and were more sympathetic. Capra loved her because she was always good on camera. And the public thought she was wonderful.

If I had to pick the quintessential Jean Arthur film I’d waver between Mr Deeds Goes to Town and Too Many Husbands, but the later one is less familiar so I’d prefer it. Jean Arthur ends up with two husbands, Fred MacMurray and Melvyn Douglas, in this satire directed by Wesley Ruggles based on a Somerset Maugham story. When the men start competing for her affection she realises it’s not a bad situation after all. Features three great actors at the top of their game. Available at

To put her in context, look at other great Hollywood actresses of the golden age. Barbara Stanwyck had a greater range and was a better actress, Carole Lombard a much more exuberant comedian, Irene Dunne came late to comedy and bought pathos to her comedic roles, and Jean Harlow was cut off before she was able to show what she could really do. Jean Arthur could trade wisecracks with her leading men as well as any of the above, but when she made her commitment to them she was heartbreakingly convincing. She was a wholly admirable combination of vulnerability and strength, and that was Gladys Greene.

©2009 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.

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