Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Jean Arthur

It's hard to decide which aspect of Jean Arthur I tend to think of first. She had a distinctive voice, for one thing: a little squeaky, a little high, yet not a stereotypical dumb-blonde exaggeration. Its elocution is too refined for that. Then there's that chin of hers. It wasn't Reese Witherspoon-sized, but it does seem kinda prominent, in a subtle way. Basically, she was beautiful, but just unique-looking enough to distinguish herself from more traditional-looking comic beauties from the 30s and 40s like Carole Lombard and Betty Grable.

I haven't seen enough of Lombard's films to compare Arthur to her, but in my mind, Arthur stands out a bit more, partly because of her unique looks, and partly because of her role in some of the great films of Frank Capra, in particular Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. (I haven't seen You Can't Take It With You.)

I think what I like about her in those films is how active she is. She's not just a love interest, she does things, important things. Her perspective in Deeds is critical to the story, because she shapes the public's image of Longfellow Deeds, and once it gets out of control, she feels a responsibility to fix it. In Smith, it's she who suggests that Jimmy Stewart filibuster the Senate in order to clear his name and stop Claude Rains' bill from passing. She's spunky and full of verve and she embodies the spirit of these seminal films.

This quote attributed to her from IMDB seems to justify these kinds of roles: "It's hardly fair for women to do the same things at the same hours every day of their lives, while men have new experiences, meet new people every day. I felt that way as a little girl, with two older brothers around the house. It seemed to me that they led adventurous lives, compared with mine. I felt cheated and frustrated. I became a tomboy in self-defense. I decided that I was going to do things that were exciting, or at least interesting."

I was a little disappointed with The More The Merrier, which aired on TCM a couple of weeks ago. I had heard good things about it, and had missed it a couple of previous times that it aired. For one thing, Charles Coburn steals the movie right out from under Arthur and Joel McCrea. More importantly, though, despite a fairly passionate seduction scene late in the film,  I didn't completely buy the romance between Arthur and McCrea. I didn't care enough about it. 

The movie as a whole didn't feel screwball enough, except in the scenes with Coburn, and it kinda felt like the romance was there simply because the filmmakers felt one was needed. I was more interested in the bits about the wartime housing shortage in Washington, which was a real thing back then. Still, Arthur was game as she always was. Apparently this was her one and only Oscar nominated role. While it's always nice to see a comedic role get awards recognition, I wish she had gotten the nod for Deeds instead, like her co-star Gary Cooper.

A livelier Arthur film, for me, is A Foreign Affair. Her character in that has the stick-up-her-butt nature as in Merrier, but then she does things like this:

I think I love her for this scene alone.

Arthur never felt comfortable making movies, according to the 1997 biography Jean Arthur: The Actress Nobody Knew. She quit movies temporarily in 1944 and tried to take on the theater, but stage fright led to her dropping the role of Billie in Born Yesterday. Apparently she left the show during previews, and that's when Judy Holliday stepped in, but considering how much that role made Holliday's career, one can't help but wonder what might have been if Arthur had remained with it. I can kinda see her in the role, too. 

A Foreign Affair and Shane were her last two movies, made years apart late in her career, and after Broadway she tried to do television. The Jean Arthur Show only lasted one season, 1966. It aired opposite The Big Valley and couldn't match that show's success. Here's a promo for it. It doesn't strike me as anything special, sorry to say.

It's unfortunate that Arthur struggled with self-confidence and stage fright throughout her career. She always struck me as being quite self-assured and bold on screen. Still, I'm glad we got as much of her as we did, because she made some great movies.

Next: Edward G. Robinson

Jean Arthur movies:
Mr. Deeds Goes To Town
A Foreign Affair

Jack Lemmon


  1. Jean Arthur recommendations: "The Talk of the Town", "Only Angels Have Wings", "The Devil and Miss Jones".

    "Arizona" is too long, but features Jean at her tomboy best and it is on TCM this Friday morning. William Holden is impossibly young and Warren William is impossibly mean.

    My son Gavin often obsesses over "The Whole Town's Talking". He'll sit and watch her for what seems like hours.

  2. I think I've seen ANGELS, haven't seen the rest. I'll look out for them. Thanks!

  3. Off topic, Rich, but I finally ordered the Newtown Literary Journal that features your very own self. Can't wait to read your story!

  4. Awesome! Thanks a bunch. You'll like the whole thing.


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