‘What do you think I am, a goop?’ Jean Arthur

‘What do you think I am, a goop?’ Jean Arthur

Dennis Drabelle

Among Hollywood career moves, the most provocative is quitting while you’re hot. A star who walks away from the lights forces colleagues, fans, and gossipmongers not only to do without her but also to question their own gaudiest dreams. Garbo will always be notorious for her great renunciation (never mind that at first she envisioned a comeback). A generation later, Cary Grant cashed in when he was sixtysomething and still in demand. In the interim, two of his costars had freely bowed out: Irene Dunne and Jean Arthur.

If the others were surprise dropouts, Arthur surely was not. Even while she was late-blooming as Frank Capra’s favorite actress and the pivotal female figure in Thirties and Forties romantic comedy, she didn’t hide the ton movie acting took on her nerves, and often talked about quitting. Her career was stir in its great-guns phase in 1944 when her long-term contract with Columbia ended and, as Bob Thomas writes in his, biography of studio boss Harry Cohn, she “ran through the Columbia streets shouting ‘I’m free! I’m free!'” She didn’t make another movie until 1948; after that there was only one more (Shane, made in 1951, released ’53). She spent much of her down-time getting the college education she had missed out on, being psychoanalyzed, and teaching acting.

This scenario may be a bit oversimplified–she grew bored with all the time she had on her hands, made some later appearances on stage, and starred in a short-lived TV series–hut it continues to exert a fascination. More than fifty years after her heyday, the case of Jean Arthur still raises intriguing questions about acting versus being a movie star, about coping with personal shortcomings while trying to maintain professional integrity.

She wasn’t conventionally pretty–chin a little too long, nose a little too broad. But she was striking enough to smite Capra. Seeking a “heroine” to play opposite Gary Cooper in Mr Deeds Goes to Town (’36), the high-riding director noticed Arthur in a Western being shown in the Columbia screening room. By then Cohn had written her off as stale goods. “D’ja see her face?” he said after Capra praised her voice. “Half of it’s angel, and the other half horse” Capra promised that his cameraman, Joseph Walker, would take care of that, and, sure enough, Arthur’s prominent cheekbones and creamy skin made a good foundation for the Hollywood glamour treatment, especially after she went blonde. Boosted by Capra’s hunch, in the late Thirties she became Columbia’s top female star.

In her prime she was the epitome of winsomeness, giving off a non-fatale sex appeal that most other female stars refused to settle for. Compare her, for example, with the echt-fatale Marlene Dietrich in Billy Wilder’s A Foreign Affair (’48). Dietrich seems unapproachable unless you gallop up waving a sapphire–or better yet (this is bombed-out Berlin), a mattress. Although in the role of a no-nonsense Congresswoman Arthur carries herself like a nun, you sense that if you can just hit upon some clever way to communicate your hidden worth, she might be yours. Or as she admits to Cary Grant in Only Angels Have Wings (Howard Hawks, (39): “I’m hard to get. All you have to do is ask”

She had invested more than a decade in making herself the actress who could tantalize Grant, as well as tutor bumpkins Gary Cooper and James Stewart in big-city mores while they taught her something about matters of the heart. She was born Gladys Greene in 1900 (a date that later slipped forward five years, sometimes as many as eight), grew up in Manhattan, left school at 15 to work as a photographer’s model. In the early Twenties a Fox talent scout picked out one of her snapshots and she got a movie contract.

In Hollywood she renamed herself, cribbing grandiosely from Jeanne d’Arc and King Arthur. She made her debut with John Ford–a small part in Cameo Kirby (’23)–and for the next few years worked steadily, if without much panache, mostly in Westerns. Paramount signed her to a contract, saw fit to cast her opposite William Powell in The Canary Murder Case (Malcolm St. Clair, ’29), but dropped her in 1931.

Whereupon “in her quixotic fashion,” writes Elizabeth Kendall in The Runaway Bride: Hollywood Romantic Comedy of the 1930s, Arthur “went where no sane actress would have thought of going–New York. The Broadway theater in the early thirties was in a sorry state. Money had dried up; production had been cut back; theater people were mostly trying to get jobs in Hollywood. But Arthur was determined, she said, ‘to learn how to act.'”

The three plays she did in 1932-33 were nugatory, but Arthur got good notices. She mastered her craft while enjoying what she later cared “the happiest years of my life. I loved the stage” After Cohn promised her “major” movies, she signed with Columbia and returned to Hollywood.

It was in another Ford picture, The Whole Town’s Talking (’35), that she carved out her specialty: the Depression-era working girl who shields herself by raising a hard facade in front of her soft heart. (Almost alone among Hollywood stars of the era, Arthur actually utters the D-word onscreen, in William A. Seiter’s 1935 If You Could Only Cook, when Leo Carillo asks what made a poor girl like her fall in love with the preposterously wealthy Herbert Marshall.) Ford damned The Whole Town’s Talking with a faintly praising “all right” and claimed never to have seen the whole thing. But its male star, Edward G. Robinson, said that working with Ford made him feel “safe and secure,” and Arthur, too, undoubtedly thrived on his expertise. Her swaggering portrayal of a bluff professional woman, Wilhelmina “Bill” Clark, galvanized audiences at the time, and to see her slouching about the office is still a liberating experience.

Arthur incorporated elements of Bill’s tomboyhood into her portrayal of reporter Babe Bennett in Mr Deeds Goes to Town, the earliest of her three films with Capra. When first seen, Babe is toying with a rope in the newspaper office; later she does coin tricks while her editor natters away about business. This new, looser Arthur is not above roughhouse when it’s called for. She lands several blows on male heads in Easy Living (Mitchell Leisen, (37). In The Devil and Miss Jones (Sam Wood, ’41), picnicking on a crowded beach at Coney Island, she and Robert Cummings work a variation on the fisticuffs between Carole Lombard and Fredric March in Nothing Sacred: when Cummings slaps her on the ass, she slaps him right back on his.

She talks tough, too. Cummings tries to tell her that “woman’s place in the world is to tend the male.” “Not this woman,” she replies, then adds the gratuitous kicker–“and not this male” In Mr Smith Goes to Washington (Capra, ’39), she sketches her evolving personal philosophy: “Look, when I came here [to Washington] my eyes were big, blue question marks. Now they’re big, green dollar marks “

She’s the same dame in both Goes to movies: the jaded professional who’s grown an emotion-protecting carapace, only to have it pierced by Cooper and Stewart, respectively. Her third role for Capra, as Alice Sycamore in You Can’t Take It With You (’38), is something different. She’s still a working girl–secretary to son-of-the-boss Stewart–but the bravado is nearly gone. Her family is awash in lunacy, which her tranquil sanity almost keeps in check. She musters a virtue few actresses have captured as well: a goo-less decency that always steers clear of sanctimoniousness (well, almost always: she’s a prig during most of A Foreign Affair).

This bedrock goodness makes her especially poignant at the base of a romantic triangle. Her anguished closeups in History Is Made at Night (Frank Borzage, (37) bear witness to the misery she feels in spurning Charles Boyer and staying with jealous husband Cohn Clive in order to save Boyer’s skin. In Diamond Jim (A. Edward Sutherland, ’35) she seems harrowed by her preference for slim but callow Cesar Romero over tubby, affably generous Edward Arnold in the title role.

A rare departure from form comes in the witty Too Many Husbands (Wesley Ruggles, ’40), a Somerset Maugham play adaptation that has been unjustly slighted in books on romantic comedy. As Vicky Lowndes, wife of both Fred MacMurray (who, presumed drowned at sea, has been declared legally dead) and the incumbent Melvyn Douglas, she delights in being vied for. At times her smirking enjoyment of their rivalry and her power to sharpen it borders on the sadistic. Sticking her head into the room where she left the boys squabbling over her only to find them now sharing a chummy drink, she makes a disapproving moue. But the truce is only temporary, and soon she’s beaming again. Self-absorbed Vicky is the closest Arthur came to playing a bitch in her post-broadway career.

Exuberant or subdued, she can be counted on to sustain her half of a lusciously meandering love scene, typically conducted in whispers on a sofa or haystack or stoop with her leading man of the hour and a half: Ray Milland in Easy Living, John Wayne in A Lady Takes a Chance (William A. Seiter, ’43), Joel McCrea in The More the Merrier (George Stevens, (43). In You Can’t Take It With You, delivering her love-lines to Stewart in a feathery middle tone, she inspires him to anticipate all those tongue-tied moments in his later, more mannered performances: “Sometimes you’re so beautiful,” he gushes, “it just gags me.

There wasn’t anything put-on about her voice, a polyphonic contralto that imbued her every line with melody. Capra tried to capture the voice’s distinctive quality but trailed off in hyperbole: “low, husky–at times it breaks pleasingly into the higher octaves like a thousand tinkling bells.” Stephen Harvey economically summed it up as a “sandy chirp” Wiser, I think, are listeners who rave nondescriptively about it. Pauline Kael considers it “one of the best sounds in romantic comedies of the 30s and 40s,” and Andrew Bergman rates it simply “the most wonderful speaking voice anyone had ever heard.”

It was an instrument of striking versatility. She could crack on demand. In Easy Living Edward Arnold asks her whether she works. “Of course I dol” she indignantly replies, hitting a note that would stagger a coloratura. Tapping the low end of her range, she passes for a man on the phone in The Ex-Mrs. Bradford (Stephen Roberts, (36). High, low, or in the groove, her sound brushes against the car as tinglingly as Orson Welles’s Tiffany baritone.

But even the “most wonderful” voice occasionally lets its owner down. She can carry a tune (and proves it by leading a chorus of the “Ioway” song in A Foreign Affair), but tends to honk when she cries (too often in The More the Merrier). As Calamity Jane in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Plainsman (’36) she bellows a lot, and it’s not a fetching sound. But then the entire role is thankless: she’s stuck playing a crude, mannish pest whose burning goal is to trick Wild Bill Hickok (Gary Cooper) into admitting he cares for her, and Demille saddles her with one of the most demeaning fadeout lines in movie history. Embracing Cooper’s dead body, she says wistfully, “That’s one kiss you won’t wipe off.”

Generally when she falls short, though, it’s the fault of the script, not her pipes. Commentators have judged her not-quite-right as the Hawksian woman in Only Angels Have Wings, deficient in the roughness expected of Bonnie Lee from Brooklyn, a showgirl born in a trunk. For his part, Hawks complained that she balked at certain of his requests. “When the picture was over,” he told film historian Joseph McBride, “I said, `Jean, I think you’re the only person I’ve ever worked with that I don?t think I helped a bit.'”

There’s an edge of arrogance to this comment–an implication that Arthur was less an actress than a trainee. Hawks brings the story to a self-serving close by telling what happened one night a few years later, after Arthur had seen Lauren Bacall in his To Have and Have Not (’44): “I came home, and there was a car in the driveway. Jean was in the back seat. She said, `. . . I wish I’d done what you’d asked me to. If you ever make another picture with me, I’ll promise to do any goddam thing you want to do. If a kid can come in and do that kind of stuff, I certainly could do it.’ I said, `I know you could.’

With or without Hawks, though, she manages some deftly offbeat effects. When she is telling Grant goodbye for the second and, she supposes, final time, her stoicism crumbles. “I wanted to do this,” she confesses, “just the way you . . . do,” That pause before the last word gives the line as much world-weary weight as if she had tacked on a muttered “goddammit.” And her climactic “Hey” after she sees that Grant has tricked her into waiting for him by flipping a double-headed coin is one of the most joyous yawps ever recorded.

For me, the flaw in Angels lies not so much in Arthur’s performance as in the part as conceived by Hawks and writer Jules Furthman. Early on, she snaps off a retort that seems to be Setting the movie’s tone. Grant, the other fliers tell her, is the boss of the remote Andean airport at which she has alighted. “Well,” she says, “he’s not my boss.” I don’t want to burden the story with anachronistic political correctitude, but at this point the viewer might fairly assume it’s going to be about the movement of two strong characters toward a middle ground, a boss-free zone. No such thing happens. Arthur is obliged to cover all the distance, calling herself a “sap” and promising Grant not to “tie you down. I don’t want to plan. I don’t want to look ahead. I don’t want you to change anything. . . . Anything you do is all right with me” This forfeiture of authority leaves her an unequal partner and lessens the drama in their duel. (PS. It’s still a hell of a good movie.

Having toiled so hard at molding herself, Arthur was understandably picky about the roles she played, and in her the truculent Harry Cohn met his tenacious match. Garson Kanin sketches their long-running feud in his memoir Hollywood. Cohn kept sending Arthur scripts, which she kept vetoing. She prevailed upon Kanin to read some of these. “It seemed clear from the quality of the submissions,” he recalled, “that Cohn was simply going through the motions, that he would be horrified if by any chance Jean were to accept one of these scripts. Were this to occur, I believed he would find a way of pulling out.” (Arthur confessed to having turned down seven scripts in a row. Told of this, Cohn shot back, “Nine! She’s a liar on top of everything else. Not seven. Nine.”

Kanin broke the stalemate by co-authoring a screenplay about unorthodox living arrangements in wartime Washington, D.C., selling it to Arthur (evidently Kanin gave up all rights–his name isn’t among the film’s credits), tempting Cohn with the bait of a free script, then reading it aloud to him. Cohn liked it, and the result was The More the Merrier.

This is one to dwell on, not only because it contains some of Arthur’s best work and drew her only Best Actress nomination (she lost to Jennifer Jones for The Song of Bernadette) but also because the redoubtable James Agee loathed that very performance. Her “mugging and whinnying,” he wrote for The Nation, “seemed to me as redundant and, at length, as uningratiating, as if a particularly cute monkey, instead of merely holding out his hat for a penny which I might gladly have made a quarter, insisted that he was working his way through Harvard.”

This outburst strikes me as a prime candidate for one of The New Yorker’s old “Block That Metaphor” squibs, but let that pass. For a while, Arthur does appear to be overaccenting the maidenly side of landlady Connie Mulligan, who bridles at the intrusions of, first, Charles Coburn and then Joel McCrea into her two-bedroom apartment. Especially when measured against McCrea’s growling underplaying, her dudgeon seems a mite too high. But ultimately the exaggeration pays off, in one of the sexiest scenes in classic romantic comedy.

Walking her home after having pried her away from her pompous fiance, McCrea takes his cue from all the lovers entwined on park benches and leaning against lampposts on the way. First he tries draping Arthur’s fur cape over her bare shoulders, while she, aware that what he really wants is to trail his fingers across those same shoulders, fends him off. After they sit down on the front steps of their apartment house, the siege continues, this time along the route of her arms. McCrea launches seven sallies, each of which provokes a weaker defense from Arthur, who is trying to divert attention from her rising temperature with talk–a barrage of prattling, stammering, and gulping about some relative or other’s stamp collection. Suddenly it’s over–she’s fresh out of resistance. She lets his arms coil around her, but that’s not enough; she seizes his face with both hands and plants a long kiss on his mouth. Arthur performs these moves masterfully (the thrust-and-parry approach was not in the script but evolved from McCrea’s attempts to loosen her up in rehearsal), and the impact is greater because until this point she has been such a formidable citadel, “mugging and whinnying” and all.

While at Paramount, Arthur had been romanced by David O. Selznick, who a decade later gave her a tryout for the role of Scarlett O’Hara. (A clip from her test can be seen in the documentary The Making of a Legend: Gone With the Wind.) In 1928 she had married photographer Julian Anker, a union that lasted as long as it took her to realize she’d made a terrible mistake: a single day. Four years later she married Frank Ross, who produced some of her films. Temperamentally mismatched–he a bon vivant, she a homebody–they divorced in 1949.

By the time Capra was directing her, Arthur’s camera fright had become acute. “Never have I seen a performer plagued with such a chronic case of stage jitters,” he wrote. “I’m sure she vomited before and after every scene. When the cameras stopped she’d run headlong to her dressing room, lock herself in–and cry.” Capra’s solution was to “push that neurotic girt forcibly, but gently, in front of a camera and turn on the lights–and that whining mop would magically blossom into a warm, lovely, poised, and confident actress.”

Eleanor Broder, a longtime assistant to director Mitchell Leisen, outlined his suaver approach to the Arthur problem during the filming of Easy Living: “Everybody in Hollywood was always talking about how difficult Jean Arthur was to work with, but we didn’t have any trouble with her at afl. She was on the set on time every morning and she knew all her fines. She was painfully nervous and she stuttered terribly through the rehearsals. But the minute the camera turned, she was fine, she became a different person, brash and sure of herself.

“She was terribly concerned with the way she looked on the screen. Mr. Leisen came in the week before and personally directed afl her wardrobe and hair tests, he even styled her hair himself. She was very pleased when she saw the results, and from that moment, she had complete trust in Mr. Leisen” The payoff was Arthur’s finest performance, as working girl Mary Smith, whose, life veers off-track after she collides with a fur coat thrown from a Manhattan skyscraper roof In this role as in perhaps no other, her brusque and delicate sides merge seamlessly. She lands those blows, scolds Edward Arnold–as New York’s “third-biggest banker”–for failing to understand how interest is computed, and tells Ray Milland to “shut up” Yet she can’t bear to smash her faithful piggy bank without blindfolding it. And she is so awed by the sumptuous Deco digs in which a scheming hotelier ensconces her (in the mistaken belief that she is the third-biggest mistress) that her softspoken reaction lines–“yes” and “Golly”–seem to float away from her like balsam boats on a still take.

Capra and Broder went too far in suggesting that no shred of Arthur’s insecurity carried over into her performances. David Thomson offers a cannier assessment in his Biographical Dictionary of Film: “She had difficulty making up her mind about projects, and she was often indecisive about how to play scenes. None of that shows on-screen, except that she could bring earnest, furious thought to comedy and romance. What her character elected to do was often in the balance because of the actress’s innate, heartfelt fluctuations.” Yes, and this visible propensity to weigh options makes her easier to empathize with than almost any other star of her era–we who are watching her, after afl, go about our daily business often indecisive about how to play [our] scenes.”

By the same token, one practice an Arthurian character almost never engages in is repartee, which tends to sound meticulously scripted out of all but the most fluent mouths. The lone exception I can think of is her banter with Charles Boyer in the Club Bleu scene of History Is Made at Night, but they trade their quips through the medium of Coco, the puppet he has drawn on his hand. It’s as if their glibness depends on their circumventing g mutual shyness by not addressing each other directly. Until the Method people came along, few Hollywood stars seemed more natural than Arthur.

When she went back to work after her four-year respite in the Forties, she was more fearful, not less. An anecdote about the making of A Foreign Affair from Maurice Zolotows’s Billy Wilder in Hollywood depicts an actress on the verge of paranoia:

Billy had known Marlene since his Berlin days. They were old personal friends. Foreign Affair was her first film for him. It was also Jean Arthur’s first Wilder picture. Ms. Arthur observed, with jealous twinges, that Wilder would be engaged in animated German conversations with Dietrich. Sometimes he went to her trailer and partook of her cooking. Billy did not know [that] Ms. Arthur was seething over this. One night, after midnight, the front doorbell rang. Outside stood Jean Arthur, accompanied by her husband, producer Frank Ross. Her eyes were red from weeping.

“What is it, Jean?” Billy asked.

“What–what, did you do with my close-up?” she cried.

“What close-up?”

“The one where I looked so beautiful

“What do you mean, what did I do with it?”

“You burned it, Billy. Marlene made you burn that close-up. She doesn’t want me to look good.”

He took her with him alone into a projection room the next day and showed her the rushes, including her unburned closeup. Thereafter, he ceased talking German to Marlene and taking refreshments with her in her trailer. He made certain that Jean Arthur knew she was loved and appreciated by her director.

Arthur may have had reason to be wary of Dietrich; in daughter Maria Riva’s biography, Dietrich refers to Arthur as “that ugly, ugly woman with that terrible American twang.” But the incinerated closeup sounds dangerously close to delusional.

Arthur credited psychoanalysis (by Erich Fromm, no less) with teaching her to laugh at herself. Unfortunately, it didn’t spare her a slew of postwar failures. She triumphed in Peter Pan on Broadway in 1950 and acquitted herself well as a generic Great Plains mom in Stevens’s Shane. But she walked out on Kanin’s play Born Yesterday, giving Judy Holliday, her career-making break.

Despite Arthur’s strong, eponymous identification with Joan of Arc, a 1954 production of Shaw’s St. Joan that was tailored for her fell apart in Chicago, mostly, she alleged, because director Harold Clurman tyrannized her. In 1965 she had such a good time guest-starring in an episode of TV’s “Gun-smoke?” that she agreed to do a series of her own the following year. “The Jean Arthur Show” featured her in a blonde wig (to hide her now-white hair) as defense attorney Patricia Marshall. By all accounts the scripts were fatuous–in one, Arthur defended a Beverly Hills rooster charged with disturbing the peace–and the show died after 13 episodes. In 1968 her voice finally betrayed her, giving out during the short Broadway run of The Freaking Out of Stephanie Blake. She regained her confidence by teaching acting at Vassar, where she seemed to enjoy mingling with students almost 50 years her junior, but spoke of being “lonely” and called the faculty “quite conservative” (A foe of the Vietnam War, she joked that she should have done away with the hawkish John Wayne when she had her hands on him in A Lady Takes a Chance.

For all the false starts, she wasn’t desperate for work. She turned down movie offers–apple Annie in Capra’s Pocketful of Miracles, Steve McQueen’s mother in Junior Bonner (Sam Peckinpah), and a lady missionary in Ross Hunter’s remake of Lost Horizon–and held out for ones that promised more “fun.” They never materialized. Her consolations in later years included Driftwood, her house at Carmel, where, she said, “I have a very good life” with close friends “and the sea on three sides of me.” She died of a heart ailment in 1991, at the Carmel Convalescent Hospital.

In You Can’t Take It With You, Stewart and Arthur are falling in love on a park bench. Stewart asks, “Mind if I talk about myself?” Arthur replies, “If you don’t, I will” He should have let her. Listening to that beguiling voice talk about oneself strikes me as a better idea of heaven than any paradise Hollywood has consciously brought to the screen.

Dennis Drabelle, editor of the Washington Post’s “Bookworld,” wrote about Mitchell Leisen in our July-August ’94 issue.

COPYRIGHT 1996 Film Society of Lincoln Center

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