Jean Arthur (1900-91)

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Jean Arthur
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Jean Arthur was an exceptionally talented actress and marvellous screen comedienne who appeared in a total of 89 films, making her name with some memorable performances in classic Hollywood movies of the Golden Age including 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington' in 1939 and 'Shane' in 1953.

Her distinctive asset, apart from her great beauty, was her husky, sexy and instantly identifiable voice. Director George Stevens called her "one of the greatest comediennes the screen has ever seen" while Frank Capra for whom she made two classic movies, described her as "my favorite actress".

Her other unique quality, highly unusual in an Hollywood actress, was her shy, introverted nature which eventually caused her to turn her back on the publicity machine.

Jean received one Academy Award nomination, for Best Actress in 1944 for her performance in 'The More the Merrier'.


Jean Arthur was born Gladys Georgianna Greene in Plattsburgh, New York on October 17, 1900, the youngest of four children. The year of her birth has been disputed but 1900 is generally accepted.

The family moved several times, ending up in New York City where she worked as a stenographer in lower Manhattan during World War I to help the family's finances. She later became a model in New York City and her great beauty made her popular with many of the city's most prominent photographers.

Movie Debut, 1923

She was selected for a screen test with Fox Studios in 1923 and in that year she made her movie debut in 'Cameo Kirby' directed by John Ford. Her stage name is believed to have been taken from two of her heroes, Joan of Arc and King Arthur.

She spent the last few years of the Silent era in low-budget comedies and westerns and in 1929 she was chosen as one of the 13 WAMPAS (The Western Association of Motion Picture Advertisers) Baby stars, along with Loretta Young, amongst others. She was getting noticed and with the arrival of sound her career prospects improved considerably, as her distinctive husky voice made her transition to the new medium much easier than many of her contemporaries. It was at this time that Jean began to bleach her naturally dark hair blonde.

Early Sound Movies

The studio mishandled her career at first. In 'Paramount on Parade' in 1930, Jean was given two numbers despite her obvious lack of musical talent. She realised she needed to do something to get herself out of the rut of cheap westerns and love interest parts. She had the good sense in 1932 to leave Hollywood to spend two years working in the New York theatre in order to improve her vocal technique.

Hollywood Stardom

In 1934 she signed a contract with Columbia Studios, led by the ruthless and highly unpopular Harry Cohn. Her personality and skill showed through and in 1935 she started a series of memorable performances which were to make her a star. First, in 1935 she starred opposite Edward G. Robinson in the gangster comedy-drama 'The Whole Town's Talking', again directed by John Ford, and her ability as a comedienne began to show through. The following year she appeared in Frank Capra's 'Mr. Deeds Goes to Town' with Gary Cooper, followed in 1938 by 'You Can't Take It With You' and 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington' in 1939, both with James Stewart. Frank Capra could see the comedic talent in her acting and he made fine use of the femininity evident just beneath the veneer of toughness expressed by her trademark husky voice.

She played opposite Gary Cooper again, in the role of Calamity Jane in Cecil B. DeMille's 'The Plainsman' in 1936 followed the next year by Mitchell Leisen's screwball comedy 'Easy Living' opposite Ray Milland. It seemed that she could do no wrong and she was a strong contender for the highly sought-after role of Scarlett O'Hara in 'Gone with the Wind' in 1939.

She continued to star in other films in the early 1940's, such as Wesley Ruggles's 'Arizona' and Howard Hawks's 'Only Angels Have Wings' with Cary Grant and she was at her comedic best in classics such as 'The Devil and Miss Jones' in 1941, and two romantic comedies directed by George Stevens, 'The Talk of the Town' in 1942 and 1943's 'The More the Merrier', with Joel McCrea and Charles Coburn for which she received a Best Actress Academy Award nomination, losing out to Jennifer Jones in 'The Song of Bernadette'.

In 1944 when her contract with Columbia Pictures ended she was their top female box-office attraction, but her love affair with movies had ended. She had developed a nervous reaction to performing, a type of stage fright and also an intense dislike of the movie star system itself. She said she didn't like having to "live up to the way you look on the screen".

End of Columbia Contract, 1944

She also had just won a fierce, long-running battle with Harry Cohn, the head of Columbia Pictures, against the restrictions of her contract. She objected to being treated like a commodity and she fought bitterly against the studio contract system, as did other strong actresses of the era like Olivia de Havilland and Bette Davis. Her contract with Columbia ended in 1944 and was the cause of great celebration.

In 1945, in one of several attempts to find herself through stage acting, she was part of the original cast of "Born Yesterday," but her nerve failed and she dropped out before the play reached Broadway and was replaced by Judy Holliday.

One of her stage performances which was a great success was as the lead in Leonard Bernstein's 1950 musical version of 'Peter Pan', co-starring Boris Karloff. In 1954 she left the production of 'Joan of Arc' after a nervous breakdown and a confrontation with director Harold Clurman.

Jean made only two more movies. In 1948 she was tempted by Billy Wilder to star with Marlene Dietrich in Wilder's movie about Berlin after the war, 'A Foreign Affair'. Wilder noticed the difference between his two female stars, saying that Marlene revelled in her sexuality whilst Jean tried to hide from hers.

Shane, 1953 and end of movie career

Jean made one final film, the magnificent 'Shane' with Alan Ladd and Jack Pallance, a classic Western, directed by George Stevens, which became the biggest box-office hit of her career. The movie was nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and won one, for Best Cinematography.<

In 1966 she flirted briefly with television, starring as a lawyer in the series 'The Jean Arthur Show' but the show ran for only 11 weeks.

Arthur next became a drama teacher, first at Vassar College and then the North Carolina School of the Arts. In the final years of her life her introverted nature took over and she turned down all requests from fans and journalists alike.


Jean was married twice. Her first marriage in 1928, to Julian Anckner, lasted for only one day. She explained that she was attracted to him because he looked like Abraham Lincoln. The horrified reaction of their families was what ended the marriage. It is a surprising incident considering that Jean was 28 when the marriage occurred.

Her second marriage, in 1932, to Frank Ross lasted 17 years. He was the producer of several of Jean's films and was the scriptwriter of 'The More the Merrier'. They divorced in 1949. There were no children.

Onscreen, Jean always appeared confident and in control but in reality she suffered from chronic stage fright and social anxiety. She hated giving interviews and doing Hollywood publicity stunts. When on set she often suffered from vomiting between takes. For the last decades of her life Jean lived in her oceanfront home in California with Ellen Mastroianni, an unmarried friend. Rumours circulated that Jean was a lesbian or bisexual but her sexuality was, as was everything else about her, her own private affair.

After breaking her hip in 1989, Jean suffered a stroke and was bedridden for two years until her death on June 19, 1991. She was 90 years old.

Jean Arthur Academy Awards

No Wins:
One Unsuccessful Nomination:
Best Actress ... The More the Merrier (1943).

Jean Arthur Filmography

Cameo Kirby
The Temple of Venus (uncredited)
Somebody Lied
Spring Fever
Case Dismissed
The Powerful Eye
Wine of Youth
The Iron Horse
Fast and Fearless
Biff Bang Buddy
Bringin' Home the Bacon
Thundering Romance
Travelin' Fast
Seven Chances (uncredited)
The Drug Store Cowboy
The Fighting Smile
Tearin' Loose
A Man of Nerve
The Hurricane Horseman
Thundering Through
Under Fire
The Roaring Rider
Born to Battle
The Fighting Cheat
Eight-Cylinder Bull
The Mad Racer
Ridin' Rivals
Double Daring
Lightning Bill
The Cowboy Cop
Twisted Triggers
The College Boob
The Block Signal
Husband Hunters
Winners of the Wilderness (uncredited)
Hello Lafayette
The Broken Gate
Horse Shoes
Bigger and Better Blondes
The Poor Nut
The Masked Menace
Flying Luck
Easy Come, Easy Go
Warming Up
Brotherly Love
Sins of the Fathers
The Canary Murder Case
Stairs of Sand
The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu
The Greene Murder Case
The Saturday Night Kid
Halfway to Heaven
Street of Chance
Young Eagles
Paramount on Parade
The Return of Dr. Fu Manchu
Danger Lights
The Silver Horde
The Gang Buster
The Virtuous Husband
The Lawyer's Secret
Ex-Bad Boy
Get That Venus
The Past of Mary Holmes
The Most Precious Thing in Life
The Defense Rests