Jean Arthur

Active - 1923 - 1984  |   Born - Oct 17, 1900 in Plattsburgh, New York, United States  |   Died - Jun 19, 1991   |   Genres - Comedy, Western, Romance, Drama, Crime

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Biography by Hal Erickson

The daughter of a commercial artist, Jean Arthur became a model early in life, then went on to work in films. Whatever self-confidence she may have built up was dashed when she was removed from the starring role of Temple of Venus (1923) after a few days of shooting. It was the first of many disappointments for the young actress, but she persevered and, by 1928, was being given co-starring roles at Paramount Pictures. Arthur's curious voice, best described as possessing a lilting crack, ensured her work in talkies, but she was seldom used to full advantage in the early '30s. Dissatisfied with the vapid ingenue, society debutante, and damsel-in-distress parts she was getting (though she was chillingly effective as a murderess in 1930's The Greene Murder Case), Arthur left films for Broadway in 1932 to appear in Foreign Affairs. In 1934, she signed with Columbia Pictures, where, at long last, her gift for combining fast-paced verbal comedy with truly moving pathos was fully utilized. She was lucky enough to work with some of the most accomplished directors in Hollywood: Frank Capra (Mr. Deeds Goes to Town [1936], You Can't Take It With You [1938], Mr. Smith Goes to Washington [1939]); John Ford (The Whole Town's Talking [1935]); and Howard Hawks (Only Angels Have Wings [1937]). Mercurial in her attitudes, terribly nervous both before and after filming a scene -- she often threw up after her scene was finished -- and so painfully shy that it was sometimes difficult for her to show up, she was equally fortunate that her co-workers were patient and understanding with her .

Arthur could become hysterical when besieged by fans, and aloof and nonresponsive to reporters. In 1943, she received her only Oscar nomination for The More the Merrier (1943), the second of her two great '40s films directed by George Stevens (Talk of the Town [1942] was the first). After her contract with Columbia ended, she tried and failed to become her own producer. She signed to star in the 1946 Broadway play Born Yesterday -- only to succumb to a debilitating case of stage fright, forcing the producers to replace her at virtually the last moment with Judy Holliday. After the forgettable comedy The Impatient Years in 1944, Arthur made only two more films: Billy Wilder's A Foreign Affair (1948), and George Stevens' classic Shane (1952). She also played the lead in Leonard Bernstein's 1950 musical version of Peter Pan, which co-starred Boris Karloff as Captain Hook. In the early '60s, the extremely reclusive Arthur tentatively returned to show business with a few stage appearances and as an attorney on ill-advised 1966 TV sitcom, The Jean Arthur Show, which was mercifully canceled by mid-season. Surprisingly, the ultra-introverted Arthur later decided to tackle the extroverted profession of teaching drama, first at Vassar College and then the North Carolina School of the Arts; one of her students at North Carolina remembered Arthur as "odd" and her lectures as somewhat whimsical and rambling. Retiring for good in 1972, she retreated to her ocean home in Carmel, CA, steadfastly refusing interviews until her resistance was broken down by the author of a book on her one-time director Frank Capra. She died in 1991.

Movie Highlights

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  • Took her stage name from her two heroes: Joan of Arc (Jeanne d'Arc) and King Arthur.
  • Her 1928 marriage to photographer Julian Anker was annulled after one day because both families disapproved.
  • Frank Capra called her his favorite actress; they worked together in  Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, You Can't Take It With You and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
  • An animal lover, she was an advocate for animals used on-set and was arrested in 1973 for trespassing on a neighbor's property to come to the aid of a neglected dog.
  • Starred in the 1966 CBS sitcom The Jean Arthur Show, which lasted only 12 weeks.
  • Taught acting at Vassar after her retirement from films; Meryl Streep was one of her students.