Who is actress Jean Arthur? From playing the mother in the classic Western “Shane” (1953) to Columbia Pictures’ most bankable star for the better part of the 1930s, does Arthur’s name induce even shallow recognition these days?
Jean Arthur (born Gladys Georgianna Greene, Oct. 17, 1900 – June 19, 1991) acted in almost 70 films. She shared the screen with male superstars such as Gary Cooper, Cary Grant, and Jimmy Stewart. She worked with legendary directors like Frank Capra, Howard Hawks, and George Stevens. Yet, as the decades piled up, Arthur’s once luminous star fell into the narrow chasm between capricious celebrity and enduring cultural icon.
Lars Nilsen — Austin Film Society’s lead programmer and engine behind the upcoming program “Half Angel: The Films of Jean Arthur” — recognizes this challenge.
“If you [program] Joan Crawford, you don’t have to explain who Joan Crawford is. But you do kind of have to explain who Jean Arthur is.”
In choosing five of her films, “If You Could Only Cook” (1935), “Easy Living” (1937), “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town” (1936), “Only Angels Have Wings” (1939), and “The More the Merrier” (1943), Nilsen aims to introduce contemporary audiences to her brilliant, often overlooked career.
“Sometimes people were able to acknowledge future generations, to speak and communicate with future generations,” he says. “I think Jean Arthur is one of those who we can see the hand of the artist in every performance in a way that can reach across the decades.”
This select body of work tracks Arthur’s ascent to, and exodus from, Hollywood stardom. Woven within every actor’s body of work is an inescapable conflation of their roles and their true self, another layer to peel back from the Arthur mythos. The headstrong yet winsome blonde made for an ideal romcom lead on screen, but offscreen these same qualities would spin the threads that would obscure Arthur’s accomplished career. A difficult woman, a recluse, the American Garbo, crippling stage fright, resistant — these are the skewers run through Arthur’s legacy. The lone substantial biography on this enigmatic star? “Jean Arthur: The Actress Nobody Knew.”
So again — who is Jean Arthur? The mystery is an alchemy of Hollywood illusion and her own intentional design.
“Reclusive is a loaded word, but she did not cooperate with studio publicity,” Nilsen says, coloring in the details. “Often times what we mean when we say reclusive is that she wasn’t willing to buy into the lie that was routinely put forward by studio publicity. Hollywood is a lie factory. There was this sort of expectation that you would live a lie, and it might be a harmless lie, but it’s a lie. Jean Arthur just wasn’t that interested in living any kind of lie.”
There is a moment in the 1937 screwball comedy, “Easy Living,” where Arthur’s character, Mary Smith, is inexplicably offered the penthouse suite at the posh Hotel Louis. In a fabulous sequence, the proprietor moves from room-to-room touting various amenities with increasing fervor and agitation. Mary Smith looks on cooly, a little bemused, a glint of incredulity, but firmly not in awe. When the owner invariably insists she stay, she offers her current rent: $7 a week. With a door cracked open to a decadent fantasy setting, a world where so many would do anything to stay, Mary isn’t willing to give a bit more than her own terms allow. This is an appealing overlay of the Jean Arthur in Hollywood narrative, but it is an elaborate projection.
From real life, later, Howard Hawks would tell a story about Arthur’s time in his 1939 drama “Only Angels Have Wings.” Hawks alleges Arthur was resistant to his direction saying, “Jean, I think you’re the only person I’ve ever worked with that I don’t think I helped a bit.” Hawks’ anecdote ends with a car idling in his driveway late at night. Arthur sits inside, fresh from a screening of Hawks’ 1944 war film “To Have and Have Not.” Arthur is stunned by the performance of newcomer Lauren Bacall. As Hawks tells it, “(Arthur) said ‘I wish I’d done what you asked me to. If you ever make another picture with me, I promise to do any goddamn thing you want to do.’”
By that time, Arthur and Hollywood were nearly done with each other. Notorious for turning down scripts, at odds with Columbia chief Harry Cohn, Arthur’s last transcendent turn would come in 1943’s “The More the Merrier.” A story about finding love in a war weary world, there is an unmistakable air of melancholy in this smart, sexy comedy. Arthur plays opposite Joel McCrea, but “opposite” here is not just a turn of phrase, separation is deftly deployed as both a visual and a narrative device by director George Stevens. For her role, Arthur would garner her lone Oscar nomination for Best Actress. Soon thereafter she entered a quasi-retirement, appearing in just two more films, “A Foreign Affair” (1948) and “Shane” (1953).
From a 1972 New York Times profile, Arthur, while teaching at Vassar, looks back. In her own words, in no particular order:
“Just because you like to hug and kiss someone for 10 years doesn’t mean it’s going to last forever.”
“You must cut out feeling abused. If you hang on to all that foolish stuff, it will prevent you from going ahead, from creating. I know, because that’s what happened to me once. But it will never happen again, no matter what.”
“I guess I became an actress because I didn’t want to be myself… Just recently, I’ve begun to realize what a fantastic life I’ve had, compared with most women. The fact that I did not marry George Bernard Shaw is the only real disappointment I’ve had.”
One is a reflection on her career, another are thoughts on a failed marriage, and the other is advice to a young person on how to navigate this world. Assign meaning where you like, but all rumination is a kind of self-appointed biography.
When asked if he has some sense of who Arthur really is, Nilsen responds with an anecdote. It starts with Arthur trespassing on her neighbors’ property to comfort a crying, chained up dog and ends with Arthur’s arrest for calling a cop, “goddamned stupid.” Nilsen likes the story because it highlights both Arthurs humanity in her concern for this dog, as well as her insistence to do what she believes is right. Nilsen then hits on something panoptic. It scoops up the films, the hearsay, her own words, and how little we know about anyone, despite our best efforts.
“It doesn’t tell you a lot in and of itself,” he said, “but it tells you a little bit when you piece everything else together.”
“Half Angel: The Films of Jean Arthur” will run the month of August at Austin Film Society.