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Most Precious Thing in Life

Most Precious Thing in Life(1934)

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Most Precious Thing in Life (1934)

A tale of secret and selfless maternal devotion with elements of Madame X (1929) and Stella Dallas (1937), The Most Precious Thing in Life (1934) would seem to be an unlikely vehicle for a peppy modern actress like Jean Arthur. But the film was made the year before Arthur found her ideal film persona as a screwball comedienne. She is, indeed, miscast in The Most Precious Thing in Life, as a girl from the wrong side of the tracks who marries a spoiled rich boy, bears his son, and is pushed aside by his snobbish family, only to rediscover her son years later. But the role, surprisingly, was one that Arthur was eager to play.

Arthur had been in films since 1923, when she signed a one-year contract with Fox after being discovered modeling in New York. She spent several dreary years in Hollywood, first at Fox, then at Paramount playing a succession of vapid ingnues and leading ladies in comedy shorts and low-budget westerns. With the coming of sound, her distinctive voice became an asset, but her roles did not improve. When her Paramount contract ended in 1931, the frustrated Arthur returned to New York and began working in theater. Impressed by Arthur's theatrical success, several studios offered her contracts, which she turned down. But she did agree to make one film, Whirlpool (1934), for Columbia, and eventually signed a long-term contract with the studio and returned to Hollywood. Whirlpool displayed a newly blonde, newly confident Arthur playing a quick-witted reporter. Although the film was a melodrama, her character offered the first glimpse of the vibrant Arthur screen personality, and the critics took notice.

The Most Precious Thing in Life, her third film at Columbia, was also a melodrama, and a somewhat heavy-handed one. But Arthur relished the challenge of playing a middle-aged charwoman, complete with gray wig and aging makeup. As she explained in a 1936 interview, "Some of our most famous screen actresses had done [similar roles], such as Irene Dunne, Norma Shearer, and Helen Hayes. I fought for the chance to do such a characterization....Unfortunately, for me, it was wrong." According to Arthur's biographer, John Ohler, "despite her sincerity in the role, the critics found her lacking in authenticity."

Disappointed, Arthur took off for New York to appear in another play. When she returned to Hollywood, she finally got the role that would be her breakthrough, in The Whole Town's Talking (1935), a rare screwball comedy directed by John Ford, which co-starred Edward G. Robinson in a dual role as meek clerk and his look-alike, a notorious gangster. That film showed off Arthur's talent for verbal comedy, and established the brash and sassy Jean Arthur character that would make the actress Columbia's top female star until the ascent of Rita Hayworth almost a decade later.

Director: Lambert Hillyer
Producer: Robert North
Screenplay: Ethel Hill, Dore Schary, based on a magazine story by Travis Ingham
Cinematography: John Stumar
Editor: Richard Cahoon
Costume Design: Robert Kalloch
Principal Cast: Jean Arthur (Ellen Holmes), Richard Cromwell (Chris Kelsey), Donald Cook (Bob Kelsey), Anita Louise (Patty O'Day), Mary Forbes (Mrs. Kelsey), Jane Darwell (Mrs. O'Day), Ben Alexander (Gubby Gerhart).
BW-67m.

by Margarita Landazuri

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