Jean Arthur (October 17, 1900 – June 19, 1991) was an American actress and a major film star of the 1930s and 1940s. She remains arguably the epitome of the female screwball comedy actress. As James Harvey wrote in his recounting of the era, "No … see full wiki
Being a huge fan of the silver screen classics of the late 1930's and 1940's I can rattle off my favorite actors of that period without giving it a second thought. What's not to like about Jimmy Stewart, Spencer Tracy, Humphrey Bogart, Cary Grant and Clark Gable? Each and every one of these gentlemen is an enormous talent in his own right and the work of each of these splendid actors has stood the test of time. Now if you had asked me five years ago who my favorite actress of that period might be my reflex response would no doubt have been Katherine Hepburn. Not a bad choice for sure but over the last few years my thinking on that question has changed dramatically. These days my answer to that query would definitely be Jean Arthur.
Jean Arthur was one of the busiest actresses in Hollywood during her heyday. In fact, Jean appeared in a total of 89 films between 1930 and 1953. This really surprises me because quite frankly before I started sampling some of her work a few years back I had never even heard of her. So what gives here? Why is Jean Arthur not a household name? In his 1999 biography "Jean Arthur: The Actress Nobody Knew" author John Oller reveals that Arthur "kept her personal life private, disdained the Hollywood publicity machine, and was called "difficult" because of her perfectionism and remoteness from costars on the movie set." She died a virtual recluse in 1991 at the age of 90. I am flabbergasted by all of this because it is the exact opposite of her personna on screen.
Thus far I have sampled only a relatively small percentage of the films in Jean Arthur's portfolio of work. I have been favorably impressed by her performances in each and every one of them. Jean seemed to be equally at home in dramas like Howard Hawks' 1939 production of "Only Angels Have Wings" (with Cary Grant) and the Frank Capra classic "Mr. Smith Goes To Washington" and in the zany "screwball" comedies of the period like "The More The Merrier", "Mr. Deeds Goes To Town" and "You Can't Take It With You" which I believe is just about the funniest flick I have ever seen. In each one of these varied roles Jean Arthur comes across as a sympathetic, down to earth woman who you are completely comfortable with. Frankly, I can't take my eyes off her. There is not a scintilla of aloofness there and I always get the feeling that I have known her all my life. That is an extremely rare quality in an actor or actress and I know of less than a handful that were able to achieve this on a consistent basis. I certainly plan to view several more of Jean's films in the coming months including "A Foreign Affair" (directed by Billy Wilder) and the 1953 American western "Shane" which co-starred Alan Ladd and Van Heflin.
So while Jean Arthur was certainly an enigmatic figure in her personal life I choose to remember her as that beautuful and compelling actress who gave memorable performances in some of my all time favorite films. Upon her death in 1991 film reviewer Charles Champlin wrote the following in the Los Angeles Times:
To at least one teenager in a small town (though I’m sure we were a multitude), Jean Arthur suggested strongly that the ideal woman could be — ought to be — judged by her spirit as well as her beauty… The notion of the woman as a friend and confidante, as well as someone you courted and were nuts about, someone whose true beauty was internal rather than external, became a full-blown possibility as we watched Jean Arthur.
Precisely! Very highly recommended.
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