This Week’s Birthday: Jean Arthur

The fetching Jean Arthur relaxes on her rooftop beach, admiring Joel McCrea (offscreen) in The More the Merrier.

Is it wrong to be in love with someone, oh, sixty-eight years your senior? Who is, I might also add, uh, deceased (and for almost two decades)? Honestly, you can’t blame me–it’s nothing I can control. I mean, you’ve seen Jean Arthur, haven’t you?

Actually, I wouldn’t be surprised if you haven’t. Arthur was one of the great comediennes of her time, her time being the 30s and 40s, before retreating into matronly roles for which she was ill suited. Later, at age 50, she was Peter Pan on Broadway and after that… gone. Honestly, I’ve never understood the whole Peter Pan situation of casting a grown woman as a young boy, especially since there’s tons of child actors out there (and you could cast a girl in the part), and… well, I digress. Ignore Arthur in Shaneshe’s OK in that very good movie, but both her and Ladd, urbanites both, seem out of place. There’s about six great comedies featuring Jean Arthur, who wasn’t only a brilliant actress, but funny as all hell, and, well, gosh check out those gams.

According to David Thomson, in his Biographical Dictionary of Film (a must read), Arthur grew up on the fabled island of Manhattan, and worked for a time as a model. She palled around with men who threw a lot of weight around: David O. Selznick and Howard Hawks among them. She married a producer, Frank Ross, who had a bit of clout and pushed her into the right projects. Look first at The Whole Town’s Talking (1935), a John Ford comedy (believe it.) Thomson describes her here as “an ordinary but very decent young woman,” which makes me wonder whether he’s actually seen this movie. Look at the scene in the link–Arthur walks in, and like Frank Sinatra, I’m left wondering if anyone so short has ever filled a room quite like her. She’s tough, walks with extreme confidence, and when she smiles it’s a racy combination of sex appeal and a look as if she’s just told the most wonderful joke in the world. Do you get it? she seems to be asking. Oh, I get it.

I like that confidence. And I like that humor. That, for me, is what knocks me out about certain actresses, this sense that, in a time when it was the men who ran the (picture) show you had to grab those roles with both hands and really wrestle them to the ground. All the while laughing.

Arthur took this energy and channeled it into a variety of different roles, working with the finest directors who knew how to use that talent. Hawks plugged her right into his ensemble machine (as he always did with actors) in Only Angels Have Wings (1939), and in the scene in that link, you can see her range–energetic, walking straight into a place where once she was unwelcome, head high, shoving the guy aside to actually jam on the piano. There’s even a touch of melancholy.

And that smile. Behind that smile was that voice, almost like a child’s, and maybe that’s the point: she disarmed you with that childish voice, but she was mature… probably more mature than the guys around her.

She was seen in a trio of Capra “classics”: Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), You Can’t Take it With You (1938), and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). I write that with quotation marks because only You Can’t Take it With You is truly enjoyable–and Capra doesn’t seem to get that Ms. Arthur is the best thing he’s got. In both of the innocent “Mr.” movies, Arthur’s the only honest character there is, explaining life to Messrs Deeds and Smith, two rubes we’re supposed to relate to, but simply cannot. Who would live like those two men, with a worldview so delineated between black and white and without room for nuance? Arthur was nuanced. In Deeds, she seems like a true small town girl, someone who understands the beauty but also the stifling nature of a tiny hamlet, the urge to get away, the urge to return. And in Smith, only she seems to understand that democracy is compromise.

My two favorites, the two that show off Arthur at her best (literally and figure-atively) are Easy Living (1937) and The More the Merrier (1943). Living is a madcap tale of love and money–as in, not having enough of either during that terrible time they called The Depression. Arthur plays a nearly broke young woman in Gotham, and one day a mink coat drops on her head as she rides a double decker bus. The great irascible bellower Edward Arnold plays a tycoon sick of his family’s wealthy habits, and he’s the one who tosses the coat out the window. Arthur’s one of the few sane ones here (it is a Preston Sturges script, after all), but that hint of madness flavoring her performance means that she’s not going to settle for straight man. Arthur doesn’t settle for anything.

The More the Merrier is probably in my top twenty favorite films (you can see a batty review I wrote here.) This is the story of a businessman, Benjamin Dingle (a wonderful Charles Coburn, who won an Oscar for the role), who comes into Washington, D.C., which is overrun with people working for the war effort. All the hotels are full. He needs a room. Poor Connie Milligan! As played by Arthur, Connie’s a very upright young woman, who rents an extra room in her apartment to Dingle. She keeps to a strict schedule, is engaged to be married to the much older and financially sound Charles J. Pendergast (Richard Gaines, oh my God he’s funny), and, darn it all, falls in love with Joel McCrea’s Joe Carter, a pilot going to Africa to fight, and perhaps die.

Merrier is a masterpiece. If you click the link in the title above, you get the full scene in which Milligan meets Carter for the first time, as set up by Dingle. Dingle’s sharing her apartment, essentially against her will, and makes matters worse by renting out his half of his room to the handsome Carter. See, Dingle wants Connie and Carter together–he’s lived a full life, he wants to see young people enjoying this precious gift. Marrying a guy like Pendergast… well, that’s too safe.

“Who are you?” Connie asks, and I ask you, has anyone ever looked sexier with a face frosted in cold cream? The answer’s no. Arthur communicates anger and, equally and perhaps more importantly, a sudden desire for this dashing man suddenly standing half naked in her apartment–that’s the little gasp in the middle of the word “you”. Perfect.

Arthur is pure comic genius as Connie, but she’s a lot more than just a bucket of laughs. She’s funny, scares you when she’s angry, has just about the best crying jags I’ve ever seen, and the first kiss between her and McCrea… well, since Arthur was known in real life to marry older, wealthier men, I can only wonder if she wasn’t trying to sow her wild oats through her character. Not to mention she’s sporting a variety of dresses that, well, they take your breath away, all these years later. At least my breath vanishes when Arthur’s Connie takes to sunbathing on the roof.

After The More the Merrier, Arthur was just about done. She went from that burst of great comedy to acting in a few more staid dramas, culminating in Shane, and a return to Broadway, teaching acting in California, before retiring rich and, according to Thomson, “preferring not to talk about the old days.” Was she sick of Hollywood? Was there a nagging pain, a frustration of always, always, having to fight for good roles? Hollywood doesn’t know what to do with women as they age, and comediennes especially find themselves marginalized. Sad, then, that Arthur’s career was so short.

But we have those films, and the worst (Deeds and Washington) are worth watching for Jean Arthur, and Arthur alone. She ran the gamut: life, death, tears, laughter, terribly sexy and possessed of an irreverant attitude but also capable of great respect for people who were worthy of such sentiment.

Jean Arthur, nee Gladys Giorgianna Greene, was born October 17, 1900 in New York City and died on June 19, 1991 in Carmel by the Sea.

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2 Responses to This Week’s Birthday: Jean Arthur

  1. F.T. Rea says:

    Peter, my crush on Jean Arthur goes back to when I was a kid.

  2. Paul Nevills says:

    I’m watching The More the Merrier right now…
    methinks that she just forgot her diary on the
    rooftop beach ;^)

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