Saturday, February 6, 2010

Favorite Actresses, #9: Jean Arthur

That's right, another favorite actress named Jean.

First Movie I Saw Her In: Shane (1953)

Three Favorite Movies: Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936); Easy Living (1937); You Can’t Take It with You (1938)

Honorable Mention: Only Angels Have Wings (1939)

Favorite Performance: Easy Living (1937)

Why I Like Her: My reasons might be reactionary in that everything I like about Jean Arthur is what her detractors dislike! They say she wasn’t pretty, whereas I think she’s beautiful. Others dislike her speaking voice, yet I adore it. And seeing as Arthur so often played comedic roles, it suited her perfectly, but she’s equally tremendous in dramatic parts, adding a sense of urgency to the characters she’s playing (Only Angels Have Wings is a fine example of this).

Jean Arthur was an underdog in every sense of the word, with those aforementioned “handicaps” presumably working against her, she still managed to be involved with many of the 1930s greatest films. Her work with Frank Capra alone would cement her immortality in these eyes. Her impeccable line delivery is a joy to behold. You can “hear” her thinking when she’s a character. Arthur, (along with Irene Dunne) had this quality where you never saw her acting. Comedic actresses who take on dramatic roles almost never get the credit or awards that predominantly dramatic performers get for the odd comedy part. Comedy always gets the short end, doesn’t it?

One of her best attributes was being able to “sell the drama” in any given situation. When Arthur did this, there was no sign of the daffy screwball comedienne; it was an impressive transformation. She was excellent at the dramatic speech in that she could give an impassioned “pep talk” to the likes of Gary Cooper or James Stewart in what could be viewed as a sort of “strong woman behind the man.” She often came off as the female best friend of the protagonist as well as their conscience. Not many actresses from the Golden Age had these multilayered character traits.

Jean Arthur’s last film was 1953’s Shane, though she was largely retired from movies at the height of her career in 1944. Arthur appeared in 1948’s A Foreign Affair (dir. Billy Wilder) and 1953’s Shane (dir. George Stevens), working for two legendary directors wasn’t a bad way call it a movie career. Arthur would try her hand at television with 1966’s The Jean Arthur Show, which lasted all of eleven episodes.

Jean Arthur also qualifies for Miserable Sod status, as she came off as perpetually unhappy in her private life, with two failed marriages and endless doubts about her abilities as a performer: “I guess I became an actress because I didn't want to be myself.” Whatever it was that bothered her, it didn’t interfere with Jean the actress, whom I’ve grown to enjoy a whole lot in only a short time.

Does anyone have an unadulterated copy of this photo?


  1. Jean Arthur is wonderful. Love her.

    By the way, the AFI theater in Washington Dc is having a Jean Arthur retrospective. You can check it out at

  2. Jean Arthur is delightful to watch! And I agree about comedy. I'm not sure why it gets the short end when it requires good comedic timing on top of everything else. Great post!

  3. Jean Arthur ranks up there with Carole Lombard. This coming week on TCM on the 14th THE MORE THE MERRIER, THE DEVIL AND MISS JONES and A FOREIGN AFFAIR. These are all must sees!

  4. I am friends with a young woman who grew up down the street from Arthur when she was a child. She had only ever known Arthur as 'the grumpy old lady down the street'.

    I had the distinct pleasure of showing her "You Can't Take It With You". After shrieking with laughter when the 'Nuts' sign is revealed on the back of Jean's gown, she wept for most of the rest of the picture. Saddened that she hadn't gotten to know the Grumpy Lady better.

  5. Hey! Just so you know, I nominated you for an award:

  6. “I guess I became an actress because I didn't want to be myself.” - Well, did she really mean that? Jean hated to be recognized in public personally. I feel she meant nothing but: I don't want to be myself in public. You know, Jean told them as well that she was born 1905, 1908 ... so nobody knew her real birthdate. Jean is a very tricky girl. Her only problem was being genious. People don't understand genious people, they dislike them and they don't treat them very well. No wonder Jean couldn't trust anybody...

  7. I'm still restless in this point: Many people are on the run, going to parties, because they're afraid to meet themselves. Jean was totally different from that, she liked to be alone, walking at the beach for hours and hours. Or she stayed at home, instead of going out. And did she really want to become an actress? At the beginning of the 30s she couldn't find any other job, because of the depression. It's kind of funny: Many girls in those days dreamt to be in shows and films to become famous and Jean was forced to do so. When her contract endet in 1944 she was happy to leave Hollywood. She didn't hate the job as an actress, but she was afraid to stand in public. Maybe she was afraid to loose herself? Jean was struggleing all her life to be herself - extremly individual, intellectual and full of self-certainty. Sometimes she fooled the newspapers, telling them kind of fairy tales. She was pretty successful fooling the world.

  8. "More the Merrier" is my favorite Jean Arthur movie, and one of the best screwball comedies ever.

    Lucille Ball said everything she learned about comedy she learned from watching Jean Arthur.

    Country songwriter/singer Robbie Fulks wrote a great song about her titled "Jean Arthur."


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