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Jean Arthur - Star of the Month
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 Jean Arthur

Jean Arthur Profile

* Films in Bold Will Air on TCM in January

In her film appearances, Jean Arthur projected an image of a strong, self-confident, outgoing woman. But behind the scenes, it was a very different story. She probably had a harder time being a "movie star" than anyone who has ever made it onto the silver screen. And that includes Greta Garbo.

John Oller, author of what may be the only book written on Arthur, Jean Arthur: The Actress Nobody Knew wrote "Jean Arthur shrank from public attention because of a pathological shyness born of fear and self-doubt. Often this was mistaken for aloofness or temperamentalism; Arthur had a reputation in the business for being 'difficult'. But whatever difficulties she caused others were rarely deliberate, and instead arose from conflicts that lay hidden below her surface. Arthur's inner conflicts manifested themselves both on and off the set. For one, she was plagued by stage and camera fright throughout her career. [Frank] Capra claimed she vomited before and after every scene, and hid crying in her dressing room between takes. When called for the next scene, she would drum up every sort of excuse for not being ready. 'And it wasn't an act,' [Capra] said. 'Those weren't butterflies in her stomach. They were wasps. But put that neurotic girl forcibly, but gently, in front of the camera and turn out the lights - and the whining mop would magically blossom into a warm, lovely, poised and confident actress.' Despite all this, Capra often said that of all the actresses he directed, she was his favorite."

Arthur was an intensely private person, once remarking on Hollywood "I hated the place - not the work, but the lack of privacy, those terrible prying fan magazine writers and all the surrounding exploitation." When asked if she would do an interview, she replied, "Quite frankly, I'd rather have my throat slit." It should come as no surprise, then, that she kept even her date of birth a secret. Although it was attributed to 1905 or 1908, Jean Arthur was born Gladys Georgianna Greene in Upstate New York on October 17, 1900. Little is known about her early life apart from the fact that her parents had a tempestuous marriage with her father moving in and out of the house frequently; and that she had three older brothers, one of whom later died of injuries received in World War One. The on-screen self-confidence may have come from being the only girl in the family, as she once said about her choice of career: "It's hardly fair for women to do the same things at the same hours every day of their lives, while men have new experiences, meet new people every day. I felt that way as a little girl, with three older brothers around the house. It seemed to me that they led adventurous lives, compared with mine. I felt cheated and frustrated. I became a tomboy in self-defense. I decided that I was going to do things that were exciting, or at least interesting."

The family moved to New York City where her father had trouble finding work and Arthur had to quit school in her junior year of high school and go to work as a stenographer and later a model. She posed for many prominent artists of the time, including Howard Chandler Christy, and Florenz Ziegfeld's photographer, Alfred Cheney Johnston. While working as a model, she often ran into another model and future movie star Norma Shearer.

In 1923 Arthur was selected by a group of New York photographers to be given a screen test as a publicity stunt by Fox Studios, which led to a one year contract. At the start of her film career, she was asked to change her name. She chose "Jean" from her childhood hero Jeanne d'Arc (Joan of Arc) and "Arthur" from King Arthur. Once in Hollywood her roles were barely more than an extra, with the occasional supporting part, which she found difficult, "First I played ingénues and Western heroines; then I played Western heroines and ingénues. That diet of roles became as monotonous as a diet of spinach. The studio wouldn't trust me with any other kind of role, because I had no experience in any other kind. And I didn't see how I was ever going to acquire any other experience if I couldn't get any other kind of role. It was a vicious circle."

Her contract at Fox ended and she worked for several years as a free-lancer at various studios, eventually ending up at Famous Players-Lasky (soon to be renamed Paramount Pictures). There, because of a resemblance to star Mary Brian, Arthur bleached her dark hair and, except for a few exceptions in the early 1940s, remained a blonde for the rest of her career.

Her Paramount career was less than stellar. "I bumped into every kind of disappointment, and was frustrated at every turn. Roles promised me were given to other players, pictures that offered me a chance were shelved, no one was particularly interested in me, and I had not developed a strength of personality to make anyone believe I had special talents. I wanted so desperately to succeed that I drove myself relentlessly, taking no time off for pleasures, or for friendships - yet aiming at the stars, I was still floundering." In 1932 she left Paramount and returned to New York with her real estate developer husband, Frank Ross (who would later become a Hollywood producer), and went on the stage in various productions until Hollywood beckoned again two years later.

This time, Arthur was signed by Columbia Studios, headed by the notorious Harry Cohn (who was so vicious to everyone that he was known as "White Fang"). Like many under contract, her repeated battles and refusals of what she considered bad roles led to suspensions. The time she spent on suspension was then added to the length of her contract, much to her frustration. It was reported that when her contract finally ended in the 1940s, Arthur ran down the streets of the studio yelling, "I'm free! I'm free!" Regardless of how she felt about Cohn and the studio, she did do her finest work at Columbia for directors like Frank Capra (Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (1939), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, 1936); Howard Hawks (Only Angels Have Wings, 1939); John Ford (The Whole Town's Talking, 1935); and George Stevens (The Talk of the Town (1942) and The More the Merrier (1943) for which Arthur would receive her only Academy Award nomination).

Her contract with Columbia did not exclude her from loan-outs to other studios, like MGM where she co-starred with Lionel Barrymore in Public Hero No. 1 (1935) and her old studio, Paramount. There she would make The Plainsman (1936) directed by Cecil B. DeMille and starring Gary Cooper who she had already worked with at Columbia. It would be her favorite role to date. As John Oller wrote, "Arthur's enthusiasm for the role was partly the result of her re-teaming with Gary Cooper, whom she described in later years as her favorite leading man. Cooper, a native Montanan whose parents had known some of Arthur's relatives, was a consummate professional in the actress's eyes. 'He never went up on his lines - he was always there,' she told publicist John Springer in 1972. As she later recalled for biographer Joseph McBride, 'I can't remember Cooper saying much of anything. But it's very comfortable working with him. You feel like you're resting on the Rock of Gibraltar.' Arthur may also have harbored a small crush on the handsome actor ('If I had married him he wouldn't have gotten cancer and died,' she once told a friend), but despite Cooper's tendency to court his leading ladies there was never anything between them."

When her Columbia contract finally ended in 1944, Arthur took a four-year absence from the screen to do theater and study briefly at Stephens College. She only made two more films after that, A Foreign Affair (1948) and Shane (1953). A Foreign Affair got off to a bad start, with Arthur demanding top billing over Marlene Dietrich and John Lund. She was also jealous of Dietrich, as Oller wrote, "While [director Billy] Wilder visited Marlene in her dressing room to sample her German cooking, Arthur sulked, with growing jealousy, in her own quarters. She became convinced that Wilder was trying to sabotage her and that he was having an affair with Marlene (a "hallucination," the director later said). One midnight, Wilder recalled, Arthur showed up at his doorstep with [her husband] Frank Ross, and with tears in her eyes accused the director of burning her close-ups in order to satisfy Dietrich's desire to make her co-star look bad. The flabbergasted Wilder took Arthur to the projection room the next day just to prove it wasn't true. In fact, he had to admit, Arthur was "simply wonderful" in her rushes, which was about the only thing that kept him from getting rid of her. Arthur eventually made her peace with Wilder, though it took forty years. In 1988, after watching what she called "our film" on television the night before, she called Wilder and said that she "absolutely loved it." Arthur had already confessed to Roddy McDowall that she had been very unfair to her former director, and she used the occasion of her call to Wilder to apologize to him. She inquired whether, after four decades they could still be friends. An amused Wilder responded affirmatively."

After her film career ended with Shane in 1953, Arthur returned to the stage, most notably to play her favorite character, Peter Pan, but her chronic insecurity became crippling. She would sign on to do a play and then have to cancel at the last minute with "illnesses". Most of the time she lived quietly in her home in Carmel, California, seeing a few friends and taking care of her beloved pets. She died on June 19, 1991 at the age of 90.

by Lorraine LoBianco


Oller, John, "Jean Arthur, The Actress Nobody Knew", 1997

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