Born October 17, 1900 in Plattsburgh, New York, Gladys Georgianna Greene quit school at 15 to become a model. With modeling jobs tough to come by, she worked as a stenographer in Lower Manhattan during World War I. Back in modeling in the 1920s, she was discovered by a Fox Film executive and changed her name to Jean Arthur after her two greatest heroes, Joan of Arc and King Arthur.
Alternating between her screen and burgeoning stage career, Arthur made more than fifty silent feature and short films, mostly in western and ingénue roles.
Dying her hair blonde, Arthur excelled in such early talkies as Clara Bow’s sister in The Saturday Night Kid and as William Powell’s sister-in-law in Street of Chance, but her career didn’t really take off until she signed with Columbia in 1934.
Her 1928 marriage to photographer Julian Ancker was annulled after one day due to family interference. Her 1932 marriage to Oscar winning producer Frank Ross lasted until 1949, after which he married actress Joan Caulfield who coincidentally died one day before Arthur.
Arthur was a hit in her first Columbia film, Whirlpool, in which she played the daughter of former convict Jack Holt. Her next film, Most Precious Thing in Life a Madame X style film, provided her with a strong role as a woman who ages a quarter of a century before reuniting with her son without revealing her true identity. It was John Ford’s 1935 film The Whole Town’s Talking opposite Edward G. Robinson, however, that first made use of her natural affinity for comedy.
By 1936, she was starring opposite Gary Cooper, her favorite actor, in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, the first of three classic comedies she made for Frank Capra. In 1937 she was at her romantic best opposite Charles Boyer in History Is Made at Night as well as her comedic best in Easy Living opposite Edward Arnold and Ray Milland.
She was top-billed over James Stewart in Capra’s 1938 Oscar winner, You Can’t Take It With You, but billed below him in his signature role in Capra’s 1939 classic, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
She had one of her best dramatic roles opposite Cary Grant in Howard Hawks’ 1939 aviation drama, Only Angels Have Wings, and returned to her western roots opposite William Holden in Wesley Ruggles’ 1941’s film, Arizona.
She was at the top of her game in three successive major comedies from 1941 to 1943, Sam Wood’s The Devil and Miss Jones opposite Charles Coburn and Robert Cummings; George Stevens’ The Talk of the Town opposite Cary Grant and Ronald Colman and Stevens’ The More the Merrier opposite Coburn and Joel McCrea. It was the latter film, centered around the Washington, D.C. wartime apartment shortage, for which she received her only Academy Award nomination.
After two bland films, 1943’s A Lady Takes a Chance opposite John Wayne and 1944’s The Impatient Years opposite Lee Bowman, she left Hollywood at the end of her Columbia contract. She was persuaded to return only twice more. The first time was for Billy Wilder’s 19498 post-war comedy A Foreign Affair in which she was top-billed as a spinsterish U.S. Congresswoman in Berlin but took a decided backseat in the glamour department to a sensational Marlene Dietrich as an ex-Nazi cabaret singer.
She attempted to return to Broadway, but stage fright and her natural shyness forced her to quit Born Yesterday, which made a star of her replacement, Judy Holliday.
She did successfully star on Broadway in a 1950 production of Peter Pan opposite Boris Karloff.
She made her final screen appearance in George Stevens’ 1953 western Shane opposite Alan Ladd and Van Heflin.
A guest star appearance on TV’s long-running Wagon Train led to her own series, The Jean Arthur Show in 1966 but it was cancelled after just eleven episodes.
A drama teacher in her later years, one of her students as Vassar was Meryl Streep who she said was “just like watching a movie star” in a production of Strindberg’s Miss Julie.
Long retired to her home in Carmel, California, the reclusive star whose 1997 biography was titled The Actress Nobody Knew was long championed as someone who ought to have a career achievement Oscar, but the accolade never came.
Jean Arthur died of heart failure on June 19, 1991 one day after Joan Caulfield, her former husband’s second wife, died of cancer at 69. Both actresses had their ashes scattered in the Pacific Ocean. Ross had died the previous year at 85.
MR. DEEDS GOES TO TOWN (1936), directed by Frank Capra
In the first of her three films for Capra, Arthur plays a hot-shot reporter who poses as a damsel in distress in order to get close to small town tuba player Longfellow Deeds, played by Gary Cooper, who has come to the big city to collect his inherited fortune. The result was one of the best screwball comedies of the era and the one that established her as a major star. It would be Cooper, however, who received the Oscar nomination and director Capra who received the Oscar.
She played practically the same role opposite James Stewart in Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington three years later. Again, it was her leading man and director who attracted Oscar’s attention. In the interim she and Stewart starred in Capra’s Oscar winning 1938 film, You Can’t Take It With You. She would consider Cooper, with whom she also made Cecil B. DeMille’s 1936 film, The Plainsman to be her favorite actor. Although she and Stewart clicked on-screen, they never did in real life even though Stewart considered the best comedy actress of all time and Capra considered her his all-time favorite actress. She later turned down the female lead in Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life because she didn’t want to make another film with Stewart.
HISTORY IS MADE AT NIGHT (1937), directed by Frank Borzage
Andrew Sarris once called History Is Made at Night the most romantic film of all time, and he was right. Borzage had previously won Oscars for two deeply romantic films, Seventh Heaven and Bad Girl, but he surpasses himself with this film in which a never more beautiful Arthur and a never more charming Charles Boyer fall in love in Paris and pick up where they left off in New York.
Colin Clive, at his most villainous, is also in top form as Arthur’s insane ex-husband who commits a murder that is blamed on Arthur. The climax aboard a Titanic-like ship that hits an iceberg on its maiden voyage is stunning. The film, which is in the public domain, is available for free on IMDb. and other venues.
THE DEVIL AND MISS JONES (1941), directed by Sam Wood
Charles Coburn is the undercover boss, a tycoon who masquerades as an employee in his own department store intent on ferreting out and firing union organizers, only to find himself on their side. Coburn is absolutely delightful and deserving of his Oscar nomination, but Arthur, Robert Cummings and Spring Byington, previously nominated as Arthur’s whacky mother in You can’t Take It with You, are perfectly cast as the agitators.
Coburn and Arthur work especially well together, so much so that it’s hard to believe this wonderful film was just a warm-up to their even bigger success two years later.
THE MORE THE MERRIER (1943), directed by George Stevens
Arthur is reunited with Coburn in her second film for Stevens, who had directed her in the delightful The Talk of the Town with Cary Grant and Ronald Colman the year before.
The film, which takes place during the World War II housing shortage in Washington, D.C., finds office worker Arthur, believing it to be her patriotic duty, subletting her apartment to Coburn, a tycoon turned diplomat in town to help solve the crisis. Coburn, in turn, sublets his half of the apartment to a young engineer, played by Joel McCrea, and proceeds to play Cupid between the other two. The film was nominated for six Oscars and won one for Coburn. Arthur received her only nomination for Best Actress and her husband Frank Ross received two, for Best Story and for Best Screenplay. Ross would win an honorary Oscar two years later for the patriotic short, The House I Live In, and later s Best Picture nomination for producing The Robe.
SHANE (1953), directed by George Stevens
Arthur once said of Stevens, “George was a darling man, so great with comedy. It’s too bad he got serious.” One hopes he she wasn’t referring to his direction of this classic western in which retired gunfighter Alan Ladd is forced to pick up his guns again to fight the bad guys to protect the local homesteaders including the family he’s working for, consisting of Arthur, her husband Van Heflin and young son Brandon de Wilde.
Young de Wilde was nominated for an Oscar as was Jack Palance as the archetypal bad guy, Stevens, and the film itself, which won for Best Color Cinematography. Once again Arthur was ignored, although her stoic frontierswoman is every bit as memorable as the one played Geraldine Page opposite John Wayne in the similarly themed Hondo for which Page received the first of her eight nominations.
JEAN ARTHUR AND OSCAR
- The More the Merrier (1943) – nominated – Best Actress