Best known for her roles in Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, Only Angels Have Wings, and You Can’t Take It With You.
Fast and Fearless
Biff Bang Buddy
Bringin’ Home the Bacon
The Drug Store Cowboy
The Fighting Smile
A Man of Nerve
The Hurricane Horseman
The Roaring Rider
Born to Battle
The Fighting Cheat
The Mad Racer
The Cowboy Cop
The College Boob
The Block Signal
Winners of the Wilderness
The Broken Gate
Bigger and Better Blondes
The Poor Nut
The Masked Menace
Easy Come, Easy Go
Sins of the Fathers
The Canary Murder Case
Stairs of Sand
The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu
The Greene Murder Case
The Saturday Night Kid
Half Way to Heaven
Street of Chance
Paramount on Parade
The Return of Dr. Fu Manchu
The Silver Horde
The Gang Buster
The Virtuous Husband
The Lawyer’s Secret
The Past of Mary Holmes
Get That Venus
The Most Precious Thing in Life
The Defense Rests
Public Hero No. 1
The Public Menace
If You Could Only Cook
The Ex-Mrs. Bradford
Adventure in Manhattan
More Than a Secretary
History Is Made at Night
Too Many Husbands
A Lady Takes a Chance
The Impatient Years
She was nominated for Best Actress in a Leading Role in The More the Merrier (1943).
Jean Arthur was born Gladys Georgianna Greene in Plattsburgh, New York on1900. She had three older brothers: Donald Hubert (1890–1967), Robert B. (1892–1955) and Albert Sidney (1894–1926). She lived on and off in Westbrook, Maine, from 1908 to 1915 while her father worked at Lamson Studios in Portland, Maine, as a photographer. The product of a nomadic childhood, Arthur also lived at times in Jacksonville, Florida; Schenectady, New York; Saranac Lake, New York; and, during a portion of her high school years, in the Washington Heights neighborhood – at 573 West 159th Street – of upper Manhattan. The family’s relocation to New York City occurred in 1915, where Arthur dropped out of high school in her junior year.
Presaging many of her later film roles, she worked as a stenographer on Bond Street in lower Manhattan during World War I and the early 1920s. Both her father and siblings registered for the draft. Her brother Albert died as a result of injuries sustained in battle during World War I.
Discovered by Fox Film Studios while she was doing commercial modeling in New York City in the early 1920s, Arthur landed a one-year contract and debuted in the silent film Cameo Kirby (1923), directed by John Ford. She reputedly took her stage name from two of her greatest heroes, Joan of Arc (Jeanne d’Arc) and King Arthur.
Following the small role in Cameo Kirby, she received her first female lead role in The Temple of Venus (1923), a plot-less tale about a group of dancing nymphs. Dissatisfied with her lack of acting talent, the film’s director Henry Otto replaced Arthur with actress Mary Philbin during the third day of shooting.
She agreed with the director, that she had no acting talent, and was planning on leaving the California film industry for good, but reluctantly stayed due to her contract, and appeared in comedy shorts instead.
Change came when one day she showed up at the lot of Action Pictures, which produced B westerns, and impressed its owner Lester F. Scott, Jr., with her presence. He decided to take a chance on a complete unknown, and she was cast in over twenty westerns in a two-year period. Only receiving $25 a picture. The films were moderately successful in second-rate Midwestern theaters, though Arthur received no official attention.
In 1927, Arthur attracted more attention when she appeared opposite Mae Busch and Charles Delaney as a gold digging chorus girl in Husband Hunters. Subsequently, she was romanced by actor Monty Banks in Horse Shoes (1927), both a commercial and critical success. Next, director Richard Wallace ignored Fox’s wishes to cast a more experienced actress by assigning Arthur to the female lead in The Poor Nut (1927), a college comedy which gave her wide exposure to audiences.
Fed up with the direction that her career was taking, Arthur expressed her desire for a big break in an interview at the time. She was skeptical when signed to a small role in Warming Up (1928), a film produced for a big studio, Famous Players-Lasky, and starring Richard Dix. Promoted as the studio’s first sound film, it received wide media attention, and Arthur earned praise for her portrayal of a club owner’s daughter. The success of Warming Up resulted in Arthur being signed to a three-year contract with the studio, soon to be known as Paramount Pictures, at $150 a week.
With the rise of the talkies in the late 1920s, Arthur was among the many silent screen actors of Paramount Pictures initially unwilling to adapt to sound films. Upon realizing that the craze for sound films was not a phase, she met with sound coach Roy Pomeroy. It was her distinctive, throaty voice – in addition to some stage training on Broadway in the early 1930s – that eventually helped make her a star in the talkies. However, it initially prevented directors from casting her in films. Her all-talking film debut was The Canary Murder Case (1929), in which she co-starred opposite William Powell and Louise Brooks.
In the early years of talking pictures, Paramount was known for contracting Broadway actors with experienced vocals and impressive background references. Arthur was not among these actors, and she struggled for recognition in the film industry. Her personal involvement with rising Paramount executive David O. Selznick – despite his relationship with Irene Mayer Selznick – proved substantial; she was put on the map and became selected as one of the WAMPAS Baby Stars in 1929. Arthur was given more publicity assignments, which she carried out, even though she immediately disliked posing for photographers and giving interviews.
Through Selznick, Arthur received her “best role to date” opposite famous sex symbol Clara Bow in the early sound film The Saturday Night Kid (1929). Of the two female leads, Arthur was thought to have “the better part”, and director Edward Sutherland claimed that “Arthur was so good that we had to cut and cut to keep her from stealing the picture” from Bow. While some argued that Bow resented Arthur for having the “better part”, Bow encouraged Arthur to make the most of the production. The film was a moderate success, and The New York Times wrote that the film would have been “merely commonplace, were it not for Jean Arthur, who plays the catty sister with a great deal of skill.”
By 1930, her relationship with Selznick had ended, causing her career at Paramount to slip. Following a string of “lifeless ingenue roles” in mediocre films, she debuted on stage in December 1930 with a supporting role in Pasadena Playhouse’s ten-day run production of Spring Song. When her three-year contract at Paramount expired in mid-1931, she was given her release with an announcement from Paramount that the decision was due to financial setbacks caused by the Great Depression.
In late 1931, Arthur returned to New York City and was cast in several short-running plays. Critics, however, continued to praise her in their reviews.
With an improved résumé, she returned to Hollywood in late 1933, and turned down several contract offers until she was asked to meet with an executive from Columbia Pictures. Arthur agreed to star in a film, Whirlpool (1934), and during production she was offered a long-term contract that promised financial stability. Even though hesitant to give up her stage career, Arthur signed the five-year contract.
In 1935, at age 34, Arthur starred opposite Edward G. Robinson in the gangster farce The Whole Town’s Talking, also directed by Ford, and her popularity began to rise. It was the first time Arthur portrayed a hard-boiled working girl with a heart of gold, the type of role she would be associated with for the rest of her career. By the time of the film’s release, her hair, naturally brunette throughout the silent film portion of her career, was bleached blonde and would mostly stay that way.
Her next few films, Party Wire (1935), Public Hero No. 1 (1935) and If You Could Only Cook (1935), did not match the success of The Whole Town’s Talking, but they all brought the actress positive reviews. With her now apparent rise to fame, Arthur was able to extract several contractual concessions from Harry Cohn, such as script and director approval and the right to make films for other studios.
The turning point in Arthur’s career came when she was chosen by Frank Capra to star in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. Capra had spotted her in a daily rush from the film Whirlpool in 1934 and convinced Cohn to have Columbia Studios sign her for his next film as a tough newspaperwoman who falls in love with a country bumpkin millionaire. Even though several colleagues later recalled that Arthur was troubled by extreme stage fright during production, Mr. Deeds was critically acclaimed and propelled her to international stardom. With fame also came media attention, something Arthur greatly disliked. She did not attend any social gatherings, such as formal parties in Hollywood, and acted difficult when having to work with an interviewer. She was named the American Greta Garbo – who was also known for her reclusive life – and magazine Movie Classic wrote of her in 1937: “With Garbo talking right out loud in interviews, receiving the press and even welcoming an occasional chance to say her say in the public prints, the palm for elusiveness among screen stars now goes to Jean Arthur.”
Arthur’s next film was The Ex-Mrs. Bradford (1936), on loan to RKO Pictures, in which she starred opposite William Powell on his insistence, and hoped to take a long vacation afterwards. Cohn, however, rushed her into two more productions, Adventure in Manhattan (1936) and More Than a Secretary (1936). Neither film attracted much attention. Next, again without pause, she was re-teamed with Cooper, playing Calamity Jane in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Plainsman (1936) on another loan, this time for Paramount Pictures. Afterwards, she appeared as a working girl, her typical role, in Mitchell Leisen’s screwball comedy, Easy Living (1937), with Ray Milland. She followed this with another screwball comedy, Capra’s You Can’t Take It with You, which teamed her with James Stewart. The film won an Academy Award for Best Picture with Arthur getting top billing.
So strong was her box office appeal by now that she was one of four finalists for the role of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind (1939). The film’s producer, David O. Selznick, had briefly romanced Arthur in the late 1920s when they both were with Paramount Pictures. Arthur re-united with director Frank Capra and Stewart for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), with Arthur cast once again as a working woman, this time one who teaches the naive Mr. Smith the ways of Washington, D.C.
Arthur continued to star in films such as Howard Hawks’ Only Angels Have Wings (1939), with love interest Cary Grant, The Talk of the Town (1942), directed by George Stevens (also with Grant), and again for Stevens as a government clerk in The More the Merrier (1943), for which Arthur was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress (losing to Jennifer Jones for The Song of Bernadette). As a result of being in dispute with studio boss Harry Cohn, her fee for The Talk of the Town (1942) was only $50,000, while her male co-stars Grant and Ronald Colman received upwards of $100,000 each. Arthur remained Columbia’s top star until the mid-1940s, when she left the studio, and Rita Hayworth took over as the studio’s biggest name.
After Shane and the Broadway play Joan of Arc, Arthur went into retirement for 12 years. In 1965, she returned to show business in an episode of Gunsmoke. In 1966, the extremely reclusive Arthur took on the role of Patricia Marshall, an attorney, on her own television sitcom, The Jean Arthur Show, which was canceled mid-season by CBS after only 12 episodes. Ron Harper played her son, attorney Paul Marshall.
Arthur next decided to teach drama, first at Vassar College and then the North Carolina School of the Arts. Her students at Vassar included the young Meryl Streep. Arthur recognized Streep’s talent and potential very early on and after watching her performance in a Vassar play, Arthur said it was “like watching a movie star.”
While living in North Carolina, in 1973, Arthur made front-page news by being arrested and jailed for trespassing on a neighbor’s property to console a dog she felt was being mistreated. An animal lover her entire life, Arthur said she trusted them more than people. She was convicted, fined $75 and given three years’ probation.
Arthur died from heart failure June 19, 1991, at the age of 90. No funeral service was held. She was cremated and her remains were scattered off the coast of Point Lobos, California. She had no children.