Monday, December 27, 2010
SPOTLIGHT ON JEAN ARTHUR
Jean Arthur was born on October 17, 1900 and was arguably the epitome of the female screwball comedy actress. As James Harvey wrote in his recounting of the era, "No one was more closely identified with the screwball comedy than Jean Arthur. So much was she part of it, so much was her star personality defined by it, that the screwball style itself seems almost unimaginable without her." Arthur has been called "the quintessential comedic leading lady."
Arthur is best known for her feature roles in three Frank Capra films: Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), You Can't Take It With You (1938), and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), films that championed the everyday heroine. A memorable later performance was in George Stevens' Shane (1953), her last screen appearance. Arthur was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress in 1944 for her performance in The More the Merrier (1943). However, she never won an Oscar.
Arthur was born Gladys Georgianna Greene in Plattsburgh, New York to Protestant parents Johanna Augusta Nelson and Hubert Sidney Greene. She lived off and on in Westbrook, Maine from 1908 to 1915 while her father worked at Lamson Studios in Portland, Maine as a photographer. The product of a nomadic childhood, Arthur also lived at times in Jacksonville, Florida; Schenectady, New York; and, during a portion of her high school years, in the Washington Heights neighborhood of upper Manhattan. She came from a family of three older brothers: Donald Hubert (1891), Robert B. (1892) and Albert Sidney (1894). Her maternal grandparents were immigrants from Norway who settled in the American West. She reputedly took her stage name from two of her greatest heroes, Joan of Arc (Jeanne d'Arc) and King Arthur.
The turning point in Jean Arthur's career came when she was chosen by director Frank Capra to star in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. Capra had spotted her in a daily rush from the film Whirlpool in 1934 and convinced Cohn to have Columbia Studios sign her for his next film as a tough newspaperwoman who falls in love with a country bumpkin millionaire. Arthur co-starred in three celebrated 1930s Capra films: her role opposite Gary Cooper in 1936 in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town made her a star, while her fame was cemented with You Can't Take It With You (1938) and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington in 1939, both with James Stewart. She was re-teamed with Cooper, playing Calamity Jane in Cecil B. DeMille's The Plainsman (1936), and appeared as a working girl, her typical role, in Mitchell Leisen's 1937 screwball comedy Easy Living opposite Ray Milland. So strong was her box office appeal by 1939 that she was one of four finalists that year for the role of Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind; the film's producer, David O. Selznick, had briefly romanced Arthur in the late 1920s when they both were with Paramount Pictures.
She continued to star in films such as Howard Hawks' Only Angels Have Wings in 1939, with love interest Cary Grant, 1942's The Talk of the Town, directed by George Stevens (also with Grant), and again for Stevens as a government clerk in 1943's The More the Merrier, for which Jean Arthur was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress (losing to Jennifer Jones in The Song of Bernadette). As a result of being in the doghouse with studio boss Harry Cohn, her fee for The Talk of the Town (1942) was only $50,000 while her male co-stars Grant and Ronald Colman received upwards of $100,000 each. Arthur remained Columbia's top star until the mid-1940s, when she left the studio and Rita Hayworth took over as the studio's reigning queen. Stevens famously called her "one of the greatest comediennes the screen has ever seen", while Capra credited her as "my favorite actress".
Alan Ladd and Jean Arthur in Shane (1953)Arthur "retired" when her contract with Columbia Pictures expired in 1944. She reportedly ran through the studio's streets, shouting "I'm free, I'm free!" For the next several years, she turned down virtually all film offers, the two exceptions being Billy Wilder's A Foreign Affair (1948), in which she played a congresswoman and rival of Marlene Dietrich, and as a homesteader's wife in the classic Western Shane (1953), which turned out to be the biggest box-office hit of her career. The latter was her final film, and the only color film she appeared in.
Arthur next decided to teach drama, first at Vassar College and then the North Carolina School of the Arts. While teaching at Vassar, she stopped a rather stridently overacted scene performance and directed the students' attention to a large tree growing outside the window of the performance space, advising the students on the art of naturalistic acting: "I wish people knew how to be people as well as that tree knows how to be a tree."
Her students at Vassar included the young Meryl Streep. Arthur recognized Streep's talent and potential very early on and after watching her performance in a Vassar play, Arthur said it was "like watching a movie star." Jean Arthur died quietly in retirement on June 19, 1991 at the age of 90...