Jean Arthur Films: Three Frank Capra Classics Starring Progressive-Minded Actress

Jean Arthur films on TCM includes three Frank Capra classics of the 1930s

Five Jean Arthur films will be shown this evening, Monday, Jan. 5, '15, on Turner Classic Movies. Among these are three titles directed by Frank Capra, the man who helped to turn Arthur into a major Hollywood star. They are the following: Capra's Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), You Can't Take It with You (1938), and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) – in addition to George Stevens' The More the Merrier (1943) and Frank Borzage's History Is Made at Night (1937). (See TCM's full Jean Arthur film schedule further below.)

One the most effective Hollywood performers of the studio era, Jean Arthur – whose film career began inauspiciously in, would you believe it, 1923 (and as a brunette, to boot) – was Columbia Pictures' biggest female star from the mid-'30s to the mid-'40s, when Rita Hayworth came to prominence and, coincidentally, Arthur's Columbia contract expired. Today, she's best known for her trio of films directed by Frank Capra, Columbia's top filmmaker of the 1930s.

Jean Arthur-Frank Capra collaborations

Although Jean Arthur is mostly excellent in her three Frank Capra films – perhaps because in real life she was as progressive-minded as the heroines she incarnated – none of them is what one would refer to as “Jean Arthur star vehicles.” In fact, her roles in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington are (unfortunately) subordinate to those of her leading men, while You Can't Take It with You is an ensemble piece, with the top-billed Arthur as first among equals.

In my view, both of Capra's Mr. movies would have been much more dramatically cogent had Arthur been given as much to do as Gary Cooper (Mr. Deeds Goes to Town) and James Stewart (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington).

Jean Arthur Mr. Deeds Goes to Town Gary CooperJean Arthur in 'Mr. Deeds Goes to Town,' with Gary Cooper.

'Mr. Deeds Goes to Town': Romance and sentimental populism

Based a story by Clarence Budington Kelland's, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town stars Best Actor Academy Award nominee Cooper as a tuba-playing, bad poetry-writing hick (from small-town Vermont) who inherits $20 million – and who nearly becomes prey to a whole array of New York City slickers.

Adapted by future Fay Wray husband Robert Riskin, who should get “co-auteurship” credit for most of Frank Capra's 1930s hits (and for the 1941 Capra-directed effort Meet John Doe), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town mixes comedy, sentiment, New Deal-inspired social conscience, and, for the most part, some first-rate acting.[1] Not a bad mix at all despite Capra's (and possibly Riskin's) heavy-handed populism – which earned him his second Best Director Oscar. (The first one was for the 1934 sleeper hit It Happened One Night, a Columbia release starring Paramount's Claudette Colbert and MGM's Clark Gable.)

'You Can't Take It with You': Humor and b.s. populism

Though a bowdlerized version of Moss Hart and George S. Kaufman's Broadway play, You Can't Take It with You should rile sociopolitical reactionaries everywhere. The film's villain: a self-serving, greedy capitalist; its heroes: the members of a zen-like, working-class family and their pals, all of whom believe in living in the moment and in accordance with one's own inclinations. (How they actually manage to earn a living during the Depression Era is unclear.)

In case you didn't know, the film's title refers to death and the fact that you must cross that threshold without any money or personal belongings. As Lionel Barrymore's character tells both banker Edward Arnold and the audience, in the afterlife you're only allowed to bring along “the love of your friends.” Needless to say, that's populist, sentimental bullshit, but the sort of bullshit that wins movies lots of admirers and Best Picture and Best Director Academy Awards – as was the case here.

And in all fairness, You Can't Take It with You is humorous, beautifully acted (apart from James Stewart's poor imitation of Gary Cooper), and cleverly scripted b.s. As for Capra's third Best Director Oscar, it surely didn't hurt that he was the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' stalwart president from 1935–1939, a difficult period when the Academy found itself mired in labor disputes and nearly ceased to exist.

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

'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington': Corruption and bathetic populism

Except for the suicide-inducing It's a Wonderful Life, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington remains Frank Capra's best-known effort. This unabashedly sentimental, political-romantic melodrama stars the New York Film Critics Circle's Best Actor winner and Academy Award nominee James Stewart in Gary Cooper's Mr. Deeds Goes to Town role. Well, except that instead of inheriting millions and finding himself pursued by greedy, self-serving New Yorkers, Stewart's golden-hearted hick inherits a U.S. Senate seat while finding himself pursued (and later persecuted) by greedy, power-hungry Washington, D.C.'ers.

In Mr. Smith Goes to Washington – screenplay by Sidney Buchman, from an Oscar-winning story by Lewis R. Foster – Jean Arthur spends most of her time basically reacting to Stewart's idealistic platitudes. Yet, miraculously, Arthur manages to bring life, depth, truth to her otherwise conventional, offensively underwritten role. “Offensive” in that the heroine is little more than a (sexless) narrative appendage to the hero.

True, Arthur's Washington insider, Clarissa Saunders, gets several crucial plot points going, but only so the hero can reach the finish line victorious. Mr. Jefferson Smith may not be much without her, but without him, she's nothing. Never mind the fact that a woman – an individual – like Clarissa deserved her own movie, so that all of her hidden traits could be explored in full. She should have been the lead character in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.

Besides Jean Arthur, also stealing the movie from aw-shucksy James Stewart whenever they're on screen are two Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominees: Claude Rains as a corrupt senator and silent era cowboy Harry Carey as the President of the Senate. As an aside: Thomas Mitchell, who also has an important role in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, was that year's Best Supporting Actor Oscar winner for his drunken doctor in John Ford's Stagecoach.[2]

More Jean Arthur films: 'The More the Merrier'

Co-written by Jean Arthur's husband Frank Ross, The More the Merrier was Arthur's second film directed by George Stevens, following the previous year's superior – though lesser known – The Talk of the Town. (Arthur and Stevens would join forces once again in the 1953 Western classic Shane, which turned out to be the actress' final and most commercially successful movie.)

A box office and critical hit, The More the Merrier earned the generally press-shy Arthur her one and only Best Actress Academy Award nomination. She lost to Jennifer Jones, producer David O. Selznick's protégée (and future wife) and the star of 20th Century Fox's blockbuster The Song of Bernadette.

In The More the Merrier, the 42-year-old Arthur plays a youthful, anal-retentive government worker who, in overcrowded wartime Washington, D.C., shares a small flat with elderly gentleman Charles Coburn, who then proceeds to sublet his half of the tiny flat to handsome air force sergeant Joel McCrea. For playing cupid, Coburn, who is as much a lead as both Arthur and the likable McCrea, ended up winning that year's Best Supporting Actor Oscar.

As an aside, The More the Merrier would be remade – with a Tokyo Olympics setting – as Walk, Don't Run in 1966. In his last film role, Cary Grant landed the Coburn part; Samantha Eggar and Jim Hutton were the two young lovers-to-be. Charles Walters directed.

Jean Arthur History Is Made at Night Charles BoyerJean Arthur in 'History Is Made at Night,' with Charles Boyer.

'History Is Made at Night'

History Is Made at Night starts out relatively well as a sophisticated comedy featuring Charles Boyer as Hollywood's idea of a suave Frenchman out to rescue American divorcée-to-be Jean Arthur from her creepy ex-husband-to-be (Frankenstein's Colin Clive at his villainous best). Things go downhill rather rapidly when the comedy turns to cheesy melodrama in the film's second half, and we are served a ludicrous Titanic-ish finale with some cringe-inducing “philosophical” dialogue.

Two-time Academy Award winner Frank Borzage (7th Heaven, Bad Girl) directed this major disappointment, which features one of Arthur's rare unconvincing performances. Produced by Walter Wanger (Queen Christina, Elizabeth Taylor's Cleopatra), History Is Made at Night was a United Artists release.

And finally, while watching tonight's Jean Arthur films, don't forget to keep an eye out for several future leading men and women – e.g., Dennis O'Keefe in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Jack Carson in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington – in addition to a number of performers who had seen better days, among them silent movie players Jack Mulhall, Edwin August, and Rosemary Theby, plus Humphrey Bogart's wife Mayo Methot.

More Jean Arthur

See also:

'Mr. Deeds,' indecisive New York Film Critics

[1] In 2002, Adam Sandler and Winona Ryder starred in Steven Brill's widely panned Mr. Deeds Goes to Town remake, Mr. Deeds.

[2] Since the members of the New York Film Critics Circle couldn't agree on whether to hand their 1939 Best Film Award to either Mr. Smith Goes to Washington or David O. Selznick's Victor Fleming-directed Gone with the Wind, their top award ended up going instead to William Wyler's Wuthering Heights. It must have made sense at the time.

Jean Arthur You Can't Take It with You James StewartJean Arthur in 'You Can't Take It with You,' with James Stewart.

Jean Arthur films: TCM schedule (PT)

5:00 PM MR. DEEDS GOES TO TOWN (1936). Dir. Frank Capra. Cast: Gary Cooper. Jean Arthur. George Bancroft. Lionel Stander. Douglas Dumbrille. Raymond Walburn. H.B. Warner. Ruth Donnelly. Walter Catlett. John Wray. Uncredited: Margaret Seddon. Margaret McWade. Irving Bacon. Billy Bevan. Gino Corrado. Ann Doran. Emma Dunn. Muriel Evans. George Cooper. Bess Flowers. Robert Ellsworth. George 'Gabby' Hayes. Arthur Hoyt. Paul Hurst. Warren Hymer. Gladden James. Charles Lane. Edwin Maxwell. Frank McClure. George Meeker. Mayo Methot. James Millican. Dennis O'Keefe. Bert Moorhouse. Franklin Pangborn. Paul Porcasi. Hal Price. Lillian Ross. Arthur Rankin. Gustav von Seyffertitz. Pierre Watkin. B&W. 116 mins.

7:00 PM THE MORE THE MERRIER (1943). Dir. George Stevens. Cast: Jean Arthur. Joel McCrea. Charles Coburn. Richard Gaines. Bruce Bennett. Frank Sully. Donald Douglas. Clyde Fillmore. Stanley Clements. Uncredited: Ann Doran. Nancy Gray. Helen Holmes. Russell Huestis. John Ince. Mike Lally. Frank LaRue. Hal Price. Ann Savage. Jean Stevens. Grady Sutton. David Ward. B&W. 104 mins.

9:00 PM YOU CAN'T TAKE IT WITH YOU (1938). Dir. Frank Capra. Cast: Jean Arthur. Lionel Barrymore. James Stewart. Edward Arnold. Mary Forbes. Spring Byington. Ann Miller. Eddie 'Rochester' Anderson. H.B. Warner. Mischa Auer. Samuel S. Hinds. Donald Meek. Halliwell Hobbes. Clarence Wilson. Ann Doran. Dub Taylor. Josef Swickard. Lillian Yarbo. Christian Rub. Bodil Rosing. Charles Lane. Harry Davenport. Uncredited: Stanley Andrews. Johnny Arthur. Irving Bacon. Ward Bond. Anne Cornwall. Nell Craig. Bess Flowers. Sam Harris. Edward Hearn. Russell Hicks. Paul Irving. Pert Kelton. Edwin Maxwell. Frank McClure. James Millican. Wedgwood Nowell. Georgia O'Dell. Lee Phelps. Rosemary Theby. Pierre Watkin. Ian Wolfe. B&W. 126 mins.

11:15 PM MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON (1939). Dir. Frank Capra. Cast: Jean Arthur. James Stewart. Claude Rains. Edward Arnold. Guy Kibbee. Thomas Mitchell. Eugene Pallette. H.B. Warner. Beulah Bondi. Harry Carey. Ruth Donnelly. Astrid Allwyn. Grant Mitchell. Porter Hall. Larry Simms. Charles Lane. Pierre Watkin. William Demarest. Billy Watson. Delmar Watson. John Russell. Uncredited: Stanley Andrews. Edwin August. Tommy Baker. Jack Carson. George Chandler. Dorothy Comingore. Chester Conklin. George Cooper. Anne Cornwall. Gino Corrado. Maurice Costello. Ann Doran. Helen Jerome Eddy. Frances Gifford. Mary Gordon. Lorna Gray. Louis Jean Heydt. Lloyd Ingraham. Dickie Jones. Eddie Keane. Robert Emmett Keane. Milton Kibbee. Joe King. Evalyn Knapp. Paul Kruger. Vera Lewis. Wilfred Lucas. Mary MacLaren. Stanley Mack. Hank Mann. Margaret Mann. Philo McCullough. James Millican. Bert Moorhouse. Frank O'Connor. Frank Puglia. Charles Regan. Jack Richardson. Johnny Russell. Russell Simpson. Harry Stafford. Wyndham Standing. Robert Sterling. Craig Stevens. Carl Stockdale. Charles Sullivan. Dub Taylor. B&W. 130 mins.

1:30 AM HISTORY IS MADE AT NIGHT (1937). Dir. Frank Borzage. Cast: Charles Boyer. Jean Arthur. Leo Carrillo. Colin Clive. George Meeker. Ivan Lebedeff. Lucien Prival. George Davis. Uncredited: Edward Earle. Adrienne D'Ambricourt. Franklyn Farnum. Tim Holt. Louis Mercier. Carlyle Moore Jr. Jack Mulhall. Barry Norton. Dennis O'Keefe. June Preston. Georges Renavent. Robert Parrish. Pierre Watkin. Jack Richardson. B&W. 97 mins.


Jean Arthur films' schedule via the TCM website.

Jean Arthur films' cast information via the IMDb.

Charles Boyer and Jean Arthur History Is Made at Night image: United Artists, via Doctor Macro.

James Stewart and Jean Arthur Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and You Can't Take It with You image: Columbia Pictures.

Gary Cooper and Jean Arthur Mr. Deeds Goes to Town image: Columbia Pictures.

  Jean Arthur Films: Three Frank Capra Classics Starring Progressive-Minded Actress © 2004–2018 Alt Film Guide and/or author(s).
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