Jean Arthur was born
Gladys Georgianna Greene on October 17 in upstate New York, not more than 20
miles south of the Canadian border. The year of her birth is reputed to be 1900,
although some accounts report that she could have been born either in 1905 or
1908. The discrepancy in Ms. Arthurís year of birth is not that unusual
considering the fact that many actresses lied about their age during that
Ms. Arthurís began her career as
a model and later turned to acting while still in her teens. Her screen debut
occurred in 1923 with a small role in John Fordís Cameo Kirby.
That role launched her movie career. Ms. Arthur spent several years after that
starring in comedy shorts and low-budget westerns. During her silent film
career, she wore her natural brunette hair color. However when the talkies
arrived on the scene, Ms. Arthur began bleaching her locks blonde and people
finally got a chance to hear her unique voice.
Some deemed Ms. Arthurís
distinctive voice as frog-like and squeaky, however it was this same voice that
proved to be one of her best assets and set her apart from many of the other
actresses of that era. Two of Ms. Arthurís other assets were her likeability and
great comic timing, causing many to deem her as one of the silver screenís
Because Ms. Arthurís hilarious
and highly energetic comic performances came across as effortless and natural,
one would never guess that she suffered from extreme anxiety both before and
after filming a scene and that she would often throw up after her scene was
finished. Fortunately, her understanding co-workers were very patient with her.
One would also never guess from
Ms. Arthurís amicable screen presence how painfully shy she was and how
hysterical she could become when besieged by fans or how standoffish and
unresponsive she behaved towards reporters.
Due to her introverted nature
and unwillingness to talk to reporters, little was known about Ms. Arthurís
personal life for years. However, one interesting fact does stand out - her
brief marriage to Julian Ancker in 1928. That union lasted for only one day.
Fortunately, Ms. Arthurís second marriage to Frank Ross lasted much longer than
that (1932 Ė 1949). Incidentally, Mr. Ross produced and co-produced several of
his wifeís films.
Jean Arthurís career took off
with her role in John Fordís The Whole Townís Talking (1935), a
wonderful comedy-drama that allowed the actress to demonstrate her innate comic
ability. But the real turning point came when Frank Capra, who deemed Ms. Arthur
as his favorite actress, chose her to star in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town
(1936) with Gary Cooper. Incidentally, Adam Sandler did a remake of this film in
After the success of Mr.
Deeds Goes to Town, Ms. Arthur did several more films in that decade,
soon becoming a favorite of other leading Hollywood directors. Some of those
1930ís movies were The Plainsman (1936), Easy Living
(1937), History Is made at Night (1937), Only Angel Have
Wings (1938), You Canít Take It With You (1938) and
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939).
In the early 40ís, Ms. Arthur
worked with Director George Stevens in two comedies. One was Talk of the
Town (1942) and the other was The More the Merrier (1943).
She received an Oscar nomination for the latter movie.
Towards the end of the 40ís, Ms.
Arthurís career began to fade. This decline may have had a lot to do with her
dispute with Columbia Pictures head Harry Cohm and the completion of her
contract with that studio in 1944. Whatever the case may be, Ms. Arthur was
reported to have been very relieved with the end of that professional
relationship and headed to New York to work on Broadway in the play called
Born Yesterday (1946). Unfortunately, she give in to a debilitating
case of stage fright at the last minute, which left the abandoned role open to
newcomer Judy Holliday. Of equal misfortunate is Ms. Arthurís 1949 divorce from
Frank Ross after a 17-year marriage.
After that, the reclusive Jean
Arthur made occasional stage appearances, one of which was as the lead in
Leonard Bernsteinís 1950 musical version of Peter Pan, which co-starred
Boris Karloff as Captain Hook.
Ms. Arthurís last two movies
were Billy Wilderís A Foreign Affair (1948) in which she played a
prim congresswoman from the Corn Belt who gets drunk and sings the Iowa State
Song; and George Stevensí Shane (1953) in which she portrayed the
wife of a besieged settler. Shane is considered to be Ms. Arthurís
swansong, her fond farewell appearance which allowed a mass audience to
appreciate her craft one more time.
In the early 1960ís, Jean Arthur
tentatively returned to show business in a 1966 TV sitcom called The Jean
Arthur Show in which she played an attorney. That show was canceled
mid-season. Afterwards, the introverted Ms. Arthur surprised many by pursuing an
extroverted drama teaching career at Vassar College and also later at the North
Carolina School of the Arts.
Ms. Arthur finally retired for
good in 1972 and retreated to her oceanfront home in Carmel, CA. She died in
1991 with still so little known about her personal life until a revealing
biography entitled The Actress Nobody Knew was published in 1997,
uncovering many of Ms. Arthurís well hidden secrets.
Suprina Frazier is a freelance writer from Augusta, Georgia. This is her
first submission to The Movie Profiles & Premiums Newsletter, though we have already accepted a future piece from
her covering Olivia de Havilland.
Other Jean Arthur Pages:
A Tribute to Jean
Arthur The squeaky-voiced, reclusive star of Mr. Smith and Mr.
Deeds would have been 100 years old in 2000, when this tribute was created.