Jean Arthur (born Gladys Georgianna Greene; October 17, 1900 – June 19, 1991) was an American film actress who began her career in the silents but is best known for her comedic roles during The Golden Age of Hollywood. She appeared in many films; most famously as Frank Capra’s favorite wisecracking, down-to-earth heroines in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town.
After appearing in films for various studios in the 1920s and early '30s, Arthur had a brief stint on the Broadway stage before signing with Columbia Pictures in 1934. Unfortunately, Columbia was headed by the notorious penny-pincher and all-around Scrooge Harry Cohn, who repeatedly angered her with subpar roles and needless suspensions – and, she later implied to writer and film historian Joseph McBride, included her among the list of actresses who he would routinely sexually harass. But she also made her best films for Columbia, claiming the throne as the matchless comedic leading lady. While she never won an Academy Award, she was nominated for Best Actress for her role in The More the Merrier.
Arthur was considered a recluse and rarely did interviews. She was naturally shy and never found the appeal of Hollywood fame. Asked if she would like to have an interview, Arthur replied, "Quite frankly, I'd rather have my throat slit." She also suffered from immense stage fright, making her seem aloof or cold; however, her screen presence said the opposite: warm, outgoing, and inviting.
Arthur went into semi-retirement after her Columbia contract expired in 1944, with her final film for the studio being The Impatient Years, released that same year; after filming wrapped she reportedly ran through the studio backlot, shouting "I'm free, I'm free!" Over the next several years, she turned down virtually all film roles that were offered to her, with two exceptions: as a congresswoman and romantic rival of Marlene Dietrich in Billy Wilder's A Foreign Affair (1948), and as a homesteader's wife helped by Alan Ladd in George Stevens's classic Western Shane (1953), which turned out to be the biggest box-office hit of her career. The latter was her final film, and the only color film in which she appeared. After filming Shane, she retired from the silver screen for good and went on Broadway; however, her insecurity would often get the best of her. In the mid-'60s she made a brief foray into television, guest starring in an episode of Gunsmoke and headlining the short-lived sitcom The Jean Arthur Show.
Her last days were spent in her home in Carmel, California. She died at the ripe age of 90.
Select Jean Arthur films:
- Seven Chances (1925) - An extremely small, pre-stardom role where Arthur plays an engaged girl who rejects Buster Keaton's advances.
- If You Could Only Cook (1935) - A Screwball Comedy where Herbert Marshall is a millionaire who pretends to be a butler to Arthur's cook to help her get a job.
- Public Hero Number 1 (1935) - Arthur is a gangster's sister, and Chester Morris is the infiltrating cop trying to stop him.
- The Whole Town's Talking (1935) - Edward G. Robinson plays dual roles as a gangster, and the innocent clerk who looks like him. This film is considered Jean's Star-Making Role.
- The Ex-Mrs. Bradford (1936) - Paula Bradford tries to get her husband Brad (William Powell) back by getting him involved with a murder.
- Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) - Gary Cooper as Mr. Deeds, and Babe Bennett is the reporter who falls in love with him.
- Easy Living (1937) - A woman down on her luck finds a fur coat and Hilarity Ensues. Ray Milland co-stars.
- History Is Made at Night (1937) - A woman's evil husband tries to stop her from divorcing and finding love with a headwaiter. Charles Boyer co-stars.
- You Can't Take It With You (1938) - A young woman's wacky family ruins her chances with her rich boyfriend, Jimmy Stewart. Also co-starring Lionel Barrymore and Ann Miller.
- Only Angels Have Wings (1939) - An adventure story about pilots in South America. An adventuress falls for daring pilot Cary Grant. An early appearance of Rita Hayworth.
- Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) - An assistant to newly made congressman, Jimmy Stewart, knows more about the law then he does. Also includes Claude Rains.
- Too Many Husbands (1940) - A woman finds out her dead husband is alive and well, but she's remarried since. With Fred MacMurray and Melvyn Douglas.
- The Devil and Miss Jones (1941) - A working woman tries to get her department store to unionize with the owner right under her nose.
- Talk of the Town (1942) - A fugitive hides at a woman's house with a judge lodging there. Co-starring Cary Grant and Ronald Colman.
- The More the Merrier (1943) - A young woman takes in an old man during a housing shortage, and his antics cause havoc. Co-starring Joel McCrea and Charles Coburn.
- A Foreign Affair (1948) - A congresswoman falls in love with a Captain, who turns out to be a cad. Co-starring Marlene Dietrich.
- Shane (1953) - Co-starring Alan Ladd.
Tropes related to Arthur's film roles:
- The Cutie: Practically all of the roles in her career. Even when she was a Ms. Fanservice, no one was convinced.
- Dawson Casting: She generally played women in their twenties while actually being in her mid-to-late thirties/forties.
- Deadpan Snarker: Her characters were wise-cracking and witty.
- Dumb Blonde: Averted. Always played the smart-aleck type of girl who mostly hangs out with the boys.
- Dye Hard: She dyed her natural brunette to blonde to avoid looking like an actress on the studio's lot and stuck with it.
- Older Than They Look: Born in 1900, she was in her late-thirties, early-forties when she played her most famous roles, but could easily pass for her mid-twenties. She was fifty when she played the young mother in Shane
- One of the Boys: Her most famous roles show her as this.
- Single Woman Seeks Good Man: Most of her roles are women finding honest, good guys.
- Those Two Actors: With Jimmy Stewart, Joel McCrea, and Cary Grant.
- Women Are Wiser: In films like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, she plays woman-of-the-world types, trying to teach these bumbling men how the real world works.