"A 17-film tribute to the quintessential comedic leading lady."
Pathologically shy and quite difficult off-screen, Jean Arthur exuded great charm, warmth, and genuine feeling on-screen — qualities as rare then as they are now. Perhaps it’s true that she vomited each time before she had to appear in front of a camera, but you could never tell by looking at her in classics such as Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and A Foreign Affair.
Along with Claudette Colbert, Carole Lombard, and Irene Dunne, Arthur was one of the top light comediennes of the studio era. (Myrna Loy was always a pleasure to watch, but she wasn’t really funny; Katharine Hepburn could be funny, though in her relatively few comedies of the ’30s and ’40s she often displayed a metallic quality that made her lightheartedness feel quite heavy indeed.)
Arthur’s comedy characters, however, were more complex than those played by the other stars of the period. As author John Oller explains in Jean Arthur: The Actress Nobody Knew, "in both comedy and drama, she projected an unusual mix of toughness and vulnerability, of skepticism and idealism, of confidence and fear. The Arthur heroine’s pluckiness is almost always accompanied by a nagging sense of anxiety and bewilderment. Comparing her to another famous Jean, author James Harvey has aptly observed that ’if Harlow is the tough girl who doesn’t know what it is to be nervous, Arthur is the tough girl who does.’"
As a teenager watching Jean Arthur’s mostly black-and-white movies on television decades after her film career was over, I became fascinated by this most unlikely of Hollywood stars. Arthur wasn’t beautiful, glamorous, sexy, or exotic. Her professional women — reporters, secretaries, salesgirls with names like Mary Smith, Mary Jones, and Molly Truesdale — didn’t project a larger-than-life screen persona. To this cynical romantic — her characters and myself have that paradox in common — Arthur’s allure lay in her deceptive "averageness." She looked like a blonde, sparkling-toothed version of millions of women everywhere, while displaying an unusual mix of resilience, intelligence, and compassion the likes of which are hardly ever found either in life or on screen. Those qualities also help to explain why Arthur, despite (or perhaps because of) her obvious vulnerability, almost always came across as stronger, more mature, and more interesting than her leading men.
Now, a distinction should be made between two radically different Jean Arthurs.
During the 1920s, those days when movies didn’t have a voice, Arthur was nothing more than an insipid brunette ingénue who was rapidly demoted to insipid brunette nothingness in grade Z Westerns in which the heroes’ horses had better roles and more screen time than she did. Near the end of the decade, apparently thanks to her intimate relationship with David O. Selznick, she was promoted back to ingénue roles, or to parts in which she was the girl who lost the boy to the star.
The advent of talking pictures in the late 1920s did little to enhance her uncharismatic screen presence in spite of a delightfully grating (gratingly delightful?) squeaky voice which she herself once described as a "foghorn."
Film historian Anthony Slide once told me that while watching the campy 1929 slice of exotica The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu, he couldn’t tell the difference between the "normal" Jean Arthur and the hypnotized Jean Arthur — a victim of the malefic Dr. Fu’s powers — for the actress looked and sounded as if she was in a trance throughout the whole film. (Having seen both The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu and its follow-up, The Return of Dr. Fu Manchu, I have to concur.)
Curiously, after leaving Hollywood for Broadway in the early ’30s, Arthur underwent a dramatic makeover. When she took another stab at film acting a couple of years later, she had not only turned into a full-fledged blonde but she had also — as if by magic — developed the required technique for "effortless" film acting. Whether the result of solid stage training or of the hypnotic powers of some Broadway Dr. Fu, the new Jean Arthur returned to Hollywood in possession of a seemingly self-confident style that allowed the actress to use her eyes, mannerisms, and foghorn to best advantage.
Both Jean Arthurs can be seen, examined, and compared to one another in the TCM film series.
In fact, the best thing about TCM’s Jean Arthur tribute — apart from the fact that it is taking place — is that TCM hasn’t relied solely on Arthur’s handful of films made for, or distributed by, MGM and RKO (e.g., Public Hero #1, The Devil and Miss Jones, A Lady Takes a Chance).
Instead, even though TCM will show a few of the films found in the Time Warner library (The Silver Horde, Danger Lights, the aforementioned Public Hero #1), its tribute will focus on Arthur’s work at Columbia, including several rarities such as If You Could Only Cook, Adventure in Manhattan, Party Wire, and The Impatient Years. (A minor complaint: As far as I know, TCM has never shown the 1933 RKO crime melodrama The Past of Mary Holmes, in which Arthur has a supporting role. To the best of my knowledge, that film still exists.)
The tribute, being held every Tuesday evening, started this past Jan. 2 with Howard Hawks’ macho Only Angels Have Wings, Frank Capra’s Americorna tales You Can’t Take It with You and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (above, with James Stewart), and John Ford’s all-but-forgotten little gem The Whole Town’s Talking. (If I were to pick between the revered Stagecoach and the funny, unpretentious The Whole Town’s Talking, the latter would definitely be my choice.)
I’m not a fan of Only Angels Have Wings, a contrived adventure melodrama set among air couriers in South America, in which Arthur manages to hold her own opposite a badly miscast Cary Grant (who talks tough, but looks like he’d rather be taking a foam bath in a Park Avenue bathtub), a sultry Rita Hayworth (who would replace Arthur as Columbia’s top star in the mid-1940s), and comeback kid Richard Barthelmess (who steals the movie).