Jean Arthur: Tough Veneer, Tender Core, Hollywood Icon

Jean Arthur starred in You Can't Take It  with You (1938)While Hollywood only managed to maximize Jean Arthur’s talents over a period spanning less than a decade, the petite blonde with the inimitable nasal delivery and indomitable demeanor accrued a resumé laden with indisputable comedy classics.

Born in upstate New York on Oct. 17, 1900 to a commercial photographer, Gladys Georgianna Greene knew a nomadic childhood that literally took her from Maine to Florida. Her family was situated in upper Manhattan when she dropped out of high school and turned to modeling, and her layouts led to a movie contract from the Fox Film Corporation. In 1923, she got her first screen role with a small part in John Ford’s western Cameo Kirby, and within five years, she had over four dozen credits, the bulk of which were largely unremarkable.

With the advent of the talkies, her stage name permanently changed to Jean Arthur, and Paramount Pictures started giving her a push in some series vehicles: with William Powell as Philo Vance in The Canary Murder Case and The Greene Murder Case (both 1929), and opposite Warner Oland as Fu Manchu in The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu (1929) and The Return of Dr. Fu Manchu (1930).

She did manage to get fifth billing in The Silver Horde (1930) with Joel McCrea and moved up to third billing in Danger Lights (1930), but career traction didn’t materialize, and after her deal was up, Arthur headed to Broadway for the professional seasoning she desired. His natural brunette locks now bleached to the familiar blonde, she received increasingly substantive parts and good notices for her stage work over the next few years, and she returned west in 1933 to sign with Columbia Pictures. The studio quickly busied her in a string of dramas and light farces.

As a reporter, Arthur was assigned to cover a high-profile mob trial in Whirlpool (1934), and followed with a courtroom drama, The Defense Rests, that same year. Also in ’34, Jean played a cleaning lady who becomes confidante to a young student in the tearjerker The Most Precious Thing in Life. In 1935, a small town’s gossip mill nearly ruins Jean’s reputation when a misunderstanding leads everyone to wrongly assume she’s gotten pregnant out of wedlock in Party Wire. But it was up to director John Ford, working on loan, to first give her considerable comic gifts effective rein with 1935’s The Whole Town’s Talking.

She continued her streak in ‘35 when a chance meeting with debonair Herbert Marshall leads the two to masquerade as butler and cook –with disastrous results–in If You Could Only Cook; and Arthur was seen as a manicurist on an ocean liner in the comedic crime caper The Public Menace. She wowed audiences in 1936 as The Ex-Mrs. Bradford opposite William Powell as her once and future husband, and her popularity continued with Adventure in Manhattan when she and journalist Joel McCrea got mixed up in an art gallery heist. Jean”s penchant for delightful romantic romps has her meeting her match with sexist magazine mogul George Brent in More Than a Secretary (1936), and a change-of-pace historical outing found her cast as Calamity Jane co-starring with Gary Cooper’s Wild Bill Hickok in The Plainsman (1936).

Mr. Deeds Goes To Town (1936) starring Gary Cooper, & Jean ArthurArthur swiftly became a favorite of director Frank Capra, who gave her the most memorable leads of her career in three of his biggest successes. In Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), she’s a reporter whose job was to make a fool out of newly-minted millionaire Gary Cooper, and who instead fell in love with him. In You Can’t Take It  with You, the Oscar-winning Best Picture of 1938, she and co-star James Stewart must find a way for their decidedly different families to get along, and the duo was reunited the following year for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. This acclaimed look at Capitol Hill wheeling and dealing indelibly established her persona as the tough-veneer, tender-core career woman which followed Jean throughout her career.

Other highlights from Arthur late ’30s/early ’40s heyday included such breezy fare as Easy Living (1937), with Ray Milland and fellow Capra alum Edward Arnold; Too Many Husbands (1940), where she found herself the object of affection of two men (Melvyn Douglas and Fred MacMurray), and George Stevens’ The Talk of the Town (1942) with Cary Grant and Ronald Colman.  She reunited with Joel McCrea in 1943 for The More the Merrier, another George Stevens classic, which led to her sole career Oscar nomination. And the war-themed The Impatient Years (1944) featured her and about-to-ship-out Army inductee Lee Bowman marrying after a whirlwind three-day romance, then struggling to keep their marriage together after he returns home. Her farcical portfolio tends to obscure how effective she could be in drama, as well evidenced by the south-of-the-border aviation tale Only Angels Have Wings (1939), with Grant and her Mr. Smith sidekick Thomas Mitchell.

Despite her success and popularity, the introverted, painfully shy Arthur had little love for studio and industry demands. Her constant chafing kept her relationship with Columbia honcho Harry Cohn contentious, and when he released her from her contract in 1944, she drove off the lot without looking back. Arthur would only resurface onscreen twice more, as a U.S. Congresswoman in Billy Wilder’s post-WWII Berlin-set tale  A Foreign Affair (1948)  and as Brandon De Wilde’s mother in the classic 1953 western Shane.

From the 1950s through the ’70s, Jean intermittently appeared on Broadway; named as the original lead in both Born Yesterday and First Monday in October, health issues related to stage fright forced her to bail out before opening in each case. Arthur had a very short-lived, self-named TV situation comedy in the mid-’60s, and taught theatre arts at Vassar and other colleges before retiring in the early ’70s. She thereafter lived a largely reclusive existence at her Carmel, California home until her passing in 1991.

And now, enjoy Jean Arthur’s brilliance in the 1936 theatrical trailer for Mr. Deeds Goes to Town:

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Please See these additional Jean Arthur articles:

Jean Arthur Drama Collection

Classic Film Review: Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Jean Arthur Article Archives

  • Joel

    I have never questioned Ms Arthur’s talent, but I have never been able to buy into her personna….

  • Wayne P.

    She should be right at the top of anyones list of all-time great comedic actresses…she could do act at a consistently high level with that twangy voice of hers or with just a wink and a nod!  Plus, shes been in a lot of the classics of the golden age of the studios…not a bad recommendation and she did her best work as a lead not in support, so her record speaks for itself.  I also liked that she walked away from the screen on top in Shane

  • Blair kramer

    I have always been a big fan of THE TALK OF THE TOWN.

    • Wayne P.

      Thats another classic for the ages and mixes fine comedic banter with a good dose of suspense…typical fare for Jean and Cary Grant but a bit against type for the wonderful Ronald Colman, who proved he really could do anything he put his stellar talents to…ala Lost Horizon and Random Harvest, to name just a few.  One of my overlooked faves of Jean’s is The Whole Towns Talking (1935) directed by the fab John Ford in a rare comedy turn in the chair and starring Edward G. Robinson in a hilarious and suspensful double-role…the under-rated Donald Meek also turns in the type of good support the studio age stable of character actors is so well known for!

  • Don kane

    I was a great fan of Jean Arthur.  I saw her on Broadway i n the Leonard Bernstein version of Peter Pan with Boris Karloff.  Years layer I booked her for an appearance on the MERV GRIFFIN show..Backstage before the show I asked her if she would sign my cast album of Peter Pan…She smiled and said she never  gave autographs, so I put the album in my office upstairs at the Hollywood Palace.   Because she was quite nervous about  appearing on the how I booked two guests with her who were friends:  Fred Capra and Richard Arlen.   Capra was the ist interview and then Miss Arthur.  We ran clips from  Mr Smith and Mr Deeds during the show and everything went well.   After the program was over, in the wings, Miss Arthur asked me where the album was.  I told her in my office.  She said “go get it:   She signed the album and whispered to me “I was the best Peter Pan:…..I had to agree…. 

  • Susan

    The one Jean Arthur performance that is almost never mentioned is in The Devil and Miss Jones. Jean is cast among some wonderful character actors who are at the peaks of their abilities, and she holds her own. Charles Coburn and Edmond Gwen are locked in an hilarious romantic battle over the innocent charms of the lovely Spring Byington here. And the battles continue as Jean and her love Robert Cummings launch a labor attack against their villainously wealthy and incognito boss, Coburn. Just because he owns their source of income, a huge department store, doesn’t mean he can push them around. And just because he is from the older generation, doesn’t mean they can’t teach him a thing or two about how to win his lady, Byington. Jean is the center piece around which all the action takes place. She is the best friend and teacher to Coburn and Byington, the romantic lead and patient teacher to Cummings. And in the end brings all the parties together in a board room meeting that blends chaos and comedy in a ending to end all endings. She is so feminine and funny, she makes you forget that she is really in charge of making the whole film work. It’s a mystery that this excellent film has been overlooked for so many years

    • Steve in Sacramento

      Couldn’t agree with you more, Susan.  A wonderful movie, and one that always puts a smile on my face.  I admit to having something of a crush on Jean Arthur, and she’s wonderful here, but so is Charles Coburn, and Spring Byington was always an appealing presence.  Truly one of my favorite movies.

    • dog888k

      Years ago on All Things Considered a guy who ran a movie house in Richmond related that his pictureshow house had recently had a halfprice ticket showing of The Devil and Miss Jones, but the crowds had packed in to see The Devil In Miss Jones (Marilyn Chambers) and were surprised when they saw a Jean Arthur/
      Spring Byington movie, but the guy said everyone stayed and enjoyed ..And, instead of …In.

  • Wayne P.

    I love that movie…its a comedic masterpiece and has so many great lines from its too-funny scenes…like when she tries to hit Charles Coburn on the head with shoe in the stockroom and is scared to do it so then a real shoe box falls off the top shelf to conk him out for her and then, the banter between the friends at Coney Island leads to some classic moments when Coburn gets arrested for trying to hawk his watch and then, in court, the befuddled cop tries to keep Jean and Charles from getting their stories straight because theyre really trying to lie their way out of trouble!Bob Cummings comes in to save the day by reading the Constitution and threatening to go to trial with them for violating their rights if they arent set free…when they havent even been charged with anything yet; are you laughing yet? 

    • Wayne P.

      Sorry, Susan…meant to reply to your fine comments below, but better above than not at all and thanks for the fine remembrances to Jay and you plus the others who have posted!

  • Bryan Ruffin

    I have always enjoyed her performances regardless who she may be opposite. She seems always to be  able to the one to keep them honest, or their “straight man”. I liked her!

  • Mickeymike

    Being a huge Jean Arthur fan always on the look out for her movies to add to my 27 movie collection and
    with 15 more to go I will have them all. Of course some of them are lost forever and will never be seen.
    Still looking for “The Whole Town’s Talking” with Edward G.

    • Steve in Sacramento

      Hey Mickeymike, just so you know, TCM shows “The Whole Town’s Talking” now and then.

  • disqus_MowvPxtBuA

    Shane. Jean Arthur’s last performance. A different kind of role, but as always Jean makes the role real in an iconic movie.

  • dog888k

    If she was as nervous during shooting of scenes as is reported, it must have been a mess while making The Plainsman, where she had to act with Gary Cooper,and the movie was directed by CB DeMille. Nervous Jean and tyrant CB must have had a time getting the flick finished. (I don’t really like The Plainsman that much.)