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Jean Arthur on TCM

Jean Arthur

Jean Arthur"A 17-film tribute to the quintessential comedic leading lady.”

That's how Turner Classic Movies describes its January '07 homage to Jean Arthur, Columbia's reigning queen from the mid-1930s to the mid-1940s – and one of my all-time favorite performers.

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.

Jean ArthurDuring 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.)

Jean ArthurCuriously, 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.)

Jean Arthur, James Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

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).

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11 Comments to Jean Arthur on TCM

  1. tom manning

    What a cute dish Jean Arthur was, and what a sharp intellect she had. Her role in 1943's “The More the Merrier” with Joel McCrea and Charles Coburn is not to be missed. Her lines and their quips come with a well-honed sublety that many big names never seemed to match in their acting. (That one earned her a Best Actress nomination.) She truly was one of the greats of Hollywood's golden age.

  2. r. hibbs

    i dont think shane was a good movie for her, but not her fault,i always saw her as a city gal.

  3. r. hibbs

    i was in love w/her when i was a little boy and watched reruns of the late,late show on t.v.
    i always wished i could find a girlfriend that had a voice like hers.

  4. Andre

    Thanks for sharing your views.

    That Jean Arthur piece came out as a “tribute” because she is, after all, one of my very favorite performers — and the piece, of course, wasn't a full-fledged biography. Also, as far as I'm concerned, her shyness as a person was a strength, not a weakness, and in fact I think it makes her characters seem more grounded. Arthur was never a ham. (Though pre-1934 she could be — and from what I've read and seen usually was — a stiff actress. I mention that in the article.)

    As for James Stewart, my perception of his acting skills has nothing to do with his political views. Irene Dunne was quite conservative when it came to politics and that doesn't stop me from finding her one of the best film actresses ever.

    I've just never found the Stewart-Arthur pairings very believable. To me, they always seemed mismatched irrespective of their off-screen worldviews.

  5. Doug MacMartin

    I am an avid older movie buff and have enjoyed everything that Jean Arthur was in, especially Foreign Affair and The More the Merrier. I have seen Shane many times and I loved the movie, but frankly felt that Jean Arthur was a weak point in the movie, and it was maybe not her fault. I have lived in Jackson Hole, Wyoming and know much about its history. The part that Jean played was of a lady that never got dirty and never had a hair out of place and her make-up was always perfect (it appeared that they maybe put a soft lens on her) was way too much of a contrast with her hard working, dirty sod buster of a husband. There was not one woman in the beginning days of Jackson Hole that appeared to just come out of a beauty salon like her character often did and there was not another woman in the movie that even looked like she did and it was just an unbelievable character. The strong points in Shane in my opinion were the beautiful scenery and the character development of the contrast between the sod busters and the cattlemen. As you said we all have our a right to our opinion, but your piece sounded much more like a tribute to her rather than an objective critque of her career, as the only thing that you didn't do was put the crown on her head. There truly was not one negative thing that you said about her. Even her weakness of her being shy was handled as if it were a strength, and the issue with Jimmy Stewart was cast as solely his vault and that Jean Arthur had no hand in the issues with Jimmy Stewart. The only thing that I have read Jimmy Stewart said about Jean Arthur was despite their differences, she was the best actress he ever worked with, this doesn't sound like a snake to me, but a gentleman. I feel that much of the issues might have to do with difference in political beliefs and how that colours peoples viewpoints, and that truly should have not have any place here. Even Henry Fonda who differed greatly with Jimmy Stewart politically, greatly respected Jimmy. Jean Arthur was a wonderful actress and has left a remarkable legacy in the body of work that she did on the screen. First and foremost she was a human being with weakeness and strengths and from some of the comments certainly had some deep seeded animosity toward some people, everyone does but to her credit it never came across in her performances, and she was a true artist.

  6. Andre

    Actually, no.
    I was simply pointing out that my views re: James Stewart are different than most people's.
    See, everyone has the right to have different likes and dislikes.
    Myself included.

  7. Alan Wogberg

    “Stewart — seemingly most everyone's idea of the perfect all-American Average Man — is my idea of the perfectly phony All-Hollywood Actor.”

    In this society ,everyone has the democratic right to be wrong…phony observation…

  8. Andre


    First of all, thank you for writing. And I'm glad you enjoyed the article.

    Now, James Stewart. I've liked him twice: “Harvey” and “Anatomy of a Murder.” In both films he was cast against type, and I found him effective — though that's most likely because I saw (creepy) elements in his performances that most people didn't see. (Certainly, the creepiness could have been in my own imagination — but it worked!)

    As for Frank Capra, I've never found him naive, even if his movies come across that way. My problem with Capra's touch is that to me it often felt calculated, ungenuine.

    I'd suggest a look at Joseph McBride's Frank Capra biography, which I'm currently reading. The man described in that book is quite unlike the kind-hearted, naive heroes played by Gary Coooper or James Stewart.

    Thanks again for writing, and my apologies for taking so long to respond.

  9. James D. Haeberle

    Your article on Jean Arthur is wonderful. I've loved her in everything I've seen her in. I must take issue gently with you about Jimmy Stewart. I'm one of his millions of devoted fans.

    Jean Arthur's greatest strength as an actress was her adorable voice. Her wheedling and pleading at Shane and her husband when they are fighting over who gets to be killed by Wilson (Jack Palance) was utterly real, just how one would expect a farm wife to sound under the circumstances.

    Good people bring good into the world. You may bridle at Mr. Capra's naivte', but I loved the world he created. He made us want to be better people. Any director can show the world as it is. It takes a special person like Frank Capra to show things and people at their best. This inspires and encourages us to improve ourselves and the world around us.

  10. Howard Partch

    Jean Arthur
    King Arthur
    Play Arthur
    why not?

    Jean Arthur
    King Arthur
    An actress
    By God.

    Jean Arthur
    King Arthur
    I've seen her
    at her best.

    Jean Arthur
    King Arthur
    She remains Queen
    Even at rest.

    By Howard Partch

  11. Abby

    Great Article. :)