Jean Arthur, the Nonconformist

“You’ve never seen prairie grass with the wind leaning on it, have you, Diz?”

Jean Arthur asks this poetic, expressively peculiar question of Thomas Mitchell in Frank Capra’s 1939 Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and we understand her yearning for truth and beauty and the simpler life—one less corrupt, less hardened. Arthur is Clarissa Saunders, secretary to Senator Joseph Paine (Claude Rains). Mitchell is reporter (and “good egg”) Diz, Saunders’s best friend. Both of them are drunk. Clarissa’s drunkenness is revealing things about her—things even more charming and moving than she has already shown us. And complex. She is conflicted. She is worried about Jefferson Smith—the naive senator, played by James Stewart, who is about to be put through the grinder on the floor of the U.S. Senate by corrupt forces, and who is the inspiration for her rhapsodizing about life in the county. And yet she’s trying to wave away her feelings and escape. But her sloshed dreams of escape are embracing Smith’s bucolic reveries. That hayseed has gotten to her. She thinks about her life and, perhaps, where she wants to end up, and then she scoffs at herself for being so sappy. We understand why she feels all this. We’ve been there too. And we get the feeling that Jean Arthur’s character—with all of her savvy, empathy, and skepticism—knows we’ve been there.

But it’s not so sappy. It’s sincere because she knows she’s making herself vulnerable—which is scary. And it appears that she is in love—though not with Diz (who adores her). She’s in love with wide-eyed Mr. Smith—even if she will propose marriage to Diz in this intoxicated meetup. She has been paraphrasing Smith’s reflections, asking Diz about wind leaning on prairie grass and the “angry little mountain streams—or the sun moving against the cattle.” Diz, who is not really following all of this pastoral mumbo jumbo, answers her question with a question: “Does the wind get tired out there?”

He is funny. She is very funny. There’s even something darkly humorous about how she requires intoxication to both shove away Mr. Smith and his sweetness and ideals and embrace them. As in other Capra pictures (It’s a Wonderful Life [1946], Meet John Doe [1941], Mr. Deeds Goes to Town [1936], the last in which Arthur costars with Gary Cooper), a person has to go nearly insane to reach such peak goodness. It’s not always a lighthearted place to be, and sometimes a very dark one, full of insecurity and suicidal ideation and mental asylums (remember Thomas Mitchell’s poor Uncle Billy in It’s a Wonderful Life? Or Cooper’s Deeds being declared insane for being so generous?). It’s no wonder she’s getting drunk.

And Arthur plays drunk to perfection here. The entire scene is brilliantly executed, performed with flawless comic timing, by both actors. She’s got to be comical while not being so ridiculous that the moment is simply about her being drunk. She’s got to reveal her vulnerabilities while remaining tough (trying to, anyway), spilling her guts while keeping a rein on her feelings (but also not). It would be a hard scene for any actor to pull off, and Jean Arthur, she of sublime contradictions, does it so beautifully, and with such simultaneous naturalness and precision, that you cannot imagine anyone else delivering these lines. So much that is captivating about Arthur as a performer is present in this scene—her mind is working, and you see her thinking, you see her wondering, doubting, hoping. You see her intelligence, you feel her longing, you feel her sorrow. And, again, you see how funny she is—her verbal wit and her physical humor.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

One of the most compelling things about Arthur is the way she negotiates these contradictions. For one, we hear it in her voice. That voice—so often brought up when discussing her, and for good reason—is so distinct and charming. Low and measured, fluctuating to high and halting—it’s almost impossible to describe, though Capra expressed it nicely: “Low, husky—at times it broke pleasingly into the higher octaves like a thousand tinkling bells.” That voice, considered a possible impediment at the beginning of her career, can come off all urban tough, and then sound swooningly sweet, crackling, blithe and young, and then throaty and adult. In many ways, she incarnates the very dichotomy that Capra expresses in many of his movies—that there’s a lot more to this archetypal man or woman than meets the eye. The girl next door could live in a one-bedroom study (like in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) or in an apartment with two men (like in The More the Merrier [1943]), and she’s likely much more world-weary than you thought, a lot more intelligent, and much less virginal.

Take a delightful little moment in George Stevens’s The Talk of the Town (1942), in which Cary Grant’s character, Leopold Dilg, who has escaped from jail (he has been accused of burning down a mill and killing the foreman in the process), and Michael Lightcap, a law professor played by Ronald Colman, are both staying in the house of Arthur’s character, Nora Shelley. Dilg isn’t really staying there properly—he’s hiding in her attic; while Lightcap is renting the house to write a book in peace and isolation. On the night Lightcap arrives, Shelley makes an excuse to stay the night—she wants to keep watch on Dilg so Lightcap doesn’t discover him—and borrows the professor’s pajamas. Waking up the next morning, knowing there are two men in her house, she stands in front of a full-length mirror in his oversized pajamas, goofing, playing with her hair, and saying (in a Katharine Hepburn impression) “lovely, lovely, really lovely . . .” It’s charming and sexy and funny all at once. And, according to John Oller’s impressive biography Jean Arthur: The Actress Nobody Knew (which was helpful to me in writing this piece, and provided the quotes herein), Arthur had improvised this bit between takes—making it all the more exceptional. You see how much this woman, in that moment, is actually enjoying the potentially scandalous situation. 

The Talk of the Town

They come from complete worlds, full of experience; they are realists who have gone through trials and, in some cases, are willing to believe again. As she does in Irving Cummings’s appealing, imperfect, but underappreciated The Impatient Years (1944), in which her sensible character falls back in love with her estranged husband (played by Lee Bowman) when they are mandated by the court to retrace the steps of their courtship and marriage, to allow for a divorce (ridiculous, but it works). By the end, she winningly yearns to keep her “heart in the sky,” and you believe it—but through Arthur’s interpretation, you believe that she’s doing this because she wants to, not just because she should be married.

This is another salient quality of Jean Arthur’s—her virtues do not depend on corny innocence or fragility. She’s an adult woman with experience. And she’s mature enough to understand how it’s sometimes important to tap into the child within yourself, or your innate kookiness—it’s not a surprise that she excelled at playing Peter Pan onstage and worked so beautifully with young Brandon De Wilde in Shane (1953). She said of her off-screen self: “I am not an adult, that’s my explanation of myself. Except when I am working on a set, I have all the inhibitions and shyness of the bashful, backward child.” But this “non-adult” aspect of her personality seems also a part of her independence—on-screen and likely off as well. When she’s being romantic and sexy and goofy, or when sliding around in braids, cold cream, and a housecoat (as she does with irresistible charm in The More the Merrier), she’s still a grown-up. Or when dancing with the kids in the park in You Can’t Take It With You (1938), she’s wonderfully free-spirited. In a 1936 issue of Screen and Radio Weekly (promoting Cecil B. DeMille’s The Plainsman [1936], in which she played Calamity Jane), Arthur authored an essay entitled, “Who Wants to Be a Lady?” She wrote:

Women would have been emancipated long ago if it hadn't been for the tyranny of the “ladylike,” a false ideal and standard of deportment . . . Isn’t it true that Mae West's heroines, Katharine Hepburn’s tomboy characters, Bette Davis’s waitresses, and other tough characterizations have helped millions to be more indulgent toward women who are not coy, kittenish, or too gentle? The movies have made the world more tolerant, proved that this is as much a woman’s world as a man’s.

“She could master the tone and rhythm of her delivery and emotional core to fit precisely in the genre she was tackling, be it screwball, western, or drama.”

Born Gladys Georgianna Greene in 1900, in Plattsburgh, New York, Arthur was often vague about her beginnings. She worked as a model in New York City, and from that she was offered a screen test with Fox Films in 1923. According to Oller, she and her mother made their way to Hollywood—which Arthur would claim happened when she was a teenager, though she was twenty-two. In her early years on-screen, when she was corralled into playing flappers and ingenues, she remained unchallenged, and, for the most part, she wasn’t happy with the work (director John Cromwell told her she wouldn’t make it in Hollywood—and we are glad he was so very wrong). Her contract with Paramount Pictures ran out in 1931, and she became a free agent—an uncertain place to be for an actress trying to establish herself back then. This and her disillusionment with Hollywood led her to quit the movies, for a time, and return to New York, where she took to the stage (impressively), honed her craft, and gained new strength and confidence. Arthur said of her early acting years:

I was a very poor actress in those days. You know—blah! I was awfully anxious to improve, but I was inexperienced so far as genuine training was concerned; I was horribly meek and not of sufficient consequence to be bothered with. Only if you’re a great hit do they give you the attention you need. If you’ve learned some acting technique on the stage, you have a background of references. I presumed there was only one way to enact every emotion, and so I plugged along pretty blindly.

Arthur was likely being characteristically hard on herself, but in addition to her stage work and study, perhaps she needed to figure out her twenties and settle into her thirties, to get more life and experience and self-development under her belt, before she really could break out and shine. She always appeared younger on-screen, and sometimes shaved eight years off her age, probably not out of vanity but so she wouldn’t be limited in parts offered in an ageist profession. People are often amazed that she was over fifty when she played the pioneer wife in George Stevens’s Shane—which underscores the point that actresses had (and still have) about not getting work past a certain age.

Arthur was averse to Hollywood publicity and the fuss that came along with being a star. She disliked having pictures taken of her, or talking too much about herself (she was nicknamed the American Garbo). She famously shunned the spotlight and preferred to stay at home and read or listen to music—and she remained that way for her entire career. In 1947 she took a break from acting to attend college (for a spell—she never completed it), and in later years went on to teach acting. She never had children; she never remarried after her second marriage, to Frank Ross Jr., ended in divorce (her first, from 1928, was annulled); and she rarely engaged in late-life career nostalgia. Even in her younger years, Arthur simply could not play the ingenue—she was always reaching for more, and more within herself.

When she returned to Hollywood in the early 1930s after her time in New York, she scored a success with her first film for Columbia—the studio she had just signed with, under Harry Cohn—Whirpool (1934), a melodrama in which she played a reporter who learns that her supposedly deceased father, a shady nightclub owner (Jack Holt), is very much alive. It’s a tough and tender picture, and a fascinating look at earlier Arthur—seeing her play a modern woman before she hit it big in better roles and pictures where she’d play a variation on this character. She has such a well-trained but naturalistic style here—it is fully developed—she’s real and present, and she steals the movie from everyone else. Viewers and critics noticed.

She appeared in six pictures released in 1935 alone, including If You Could Only Cook—an absolute delight, opposite Herbert Marshall—and The Whole Town’s Talking, which reunited her with John Ford, who had directed her in her very first feature, the silent Cameo Kirby (1923). During her time at Columbia, she became a big star and, true to her independent, artistic nature, would battle with Cohn over her contract, fighting for better parts, and was suspended for turning down roles. After her contract expired in 1944, she was reportedly relieved to be done with Columbia and Cohn (the oft-told story goes that she ran through the lot yelling, “I’m free! I’m free!”). She only appeared in two other movies after that: Billy Wilder’s great, darkly comedic A Foreign Affair (1948) and the now classic Shane. She was extraordinary in both.

Though the terrific comedy The Whole Town’s Talking is, nominally, a showcase for Edward G. Robinson (he plays a dual role—ruthless gangster and a meek clerk—utilizing many a wondrous split-screen shot), Arthur further proved her gifts for comedy and fast repartee, playing a tough, wisecracking independent career woman—smart but sensitive. Robinson was thoroughly impressed with her, appreciating her many contradictions. He wrote this in his memoir about the film:

They were handsome in comments about me, but their raves were really for Jean Arthur—that curious, neurotic actress with so touching and appealing a nature that she really brought a new dimension to the screen. No curlylocks was Jean Arthur; hardly pretty by ancient Hollywood standards, with a voice that grated like fresh peppermint, she seemed to me to be living—off- and on-screen—in a dream world of her own devising. She was whimsical without being silly, unique without being nutty, a theatrical personality who was an untheatrical person.

The Whole Town’s Talking

The experience she gained in that busy first year at Columbia served her well for one of her most famous roles—in Capra’s Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. Of all the characters in Mr. Deeds, Arthur’s Babe Bennett is the one with perhaps the most difficult duality: she must simultaneously pull off her ruse, posing as a damsel in distress to engage the guileless Deeds—she’s really a newspaper reporter writing about him—and, as she gets to know the man, be swept up by his idealism. Babe is a damn good reporter and an independent, modern woman—she shares a studio apartment with an artist friend—and she also finds herself empathetic toward Deeds. Arthur shows these sides in small glances and expressions that build and build—you see it externally, and you feel it internally. Her sincerity at the top of her apartment steps, when Babe urges Deeds not to allow anyone else to hurt him again, asking him to “go back to Mandrake Falls,” only to be moved by his heartfelt poem, is a magnificent moment, delivered with the knowledge that this is not just a scene, it’s a turning point for the entire film.

Arthur is pivotal to the film’s final turn, delivering a rousing, soul-shaking speech that breaks Deeds’s silent stupor at the very last moment—and it triggers the audience into a kind of release. Throughout the picture, Arthur balances comedy and melodrama; she has the range to deliver both, seemingly with little effort. But, of course, it did take effort. According to Capra, Arthur, always nervous about her performances, would throw up between scenes. He said, “Those weren’t butterflies in her stomach. They were wasps.”

Arthur reunited with William Powell in The Ex-Mrs. Bradford (1936), a movie that’s much lighter than Deeds, having worked with him earlier in her career, including in The Canary Murder Case (1929)—her first all-talking picture. She played a divorced cosmopolitan couple in a Thin Man–esque caper, and the movie required beautifully timed delivery, crackling chemistry between the two leads, and nimble physical comedy. Arthur met those requirements gracefully—once again making everything look so easy.

It was a glamorous pairing, and she would have another, with Charles Boyer, in Frank Borzage’s 1937 History Is Made at Night. In this at times baroque and gorgeously feverish picture, Arthur plays a woman attempting to divorce but trapped by a brutal, jealous husband (Colin Clive). In a terrifically complicated setup, she falls in love with a romantic French head waiter (Boyer), who will not give up trying to find her, no matter how far it takes him. In lesser hands than the great Borzage’s, the intensity of ardor might have felt absurdly overblown, but Arthur and Boyer manage to be both celestial and earthbound. They’re living in a dream more than anything else, but they know it, and Borzage knows it, and so, for the entire picture, it feels like they’re on the precipice of some kind of disaster—which becomes literal and tremendously moving, and worrisome, by the finale. This is a shimmering, stylish film, and one in which she is absolutely believable, no matter how wonderfully convoluted the melodrama gets—feigned jewelry theft, wrong-man murder case, iceberg, and all. The picture showed one of Arthur’s great gifts: she could master the tone and rhythm of her delivery and emotional core to fit precisely in the genre she was tackling, be it screwball, western, or drama.

This versatility is evident in her next collaboration with Capra, the 1938 comedy You Can’t Take It with You, in which Arthur costars with James Stewart as Tony Kirby. Her partnerships with Stewart were seamless and generous, and Arthur’s performance here provides the anchor, not only for Stewart but for the entire film. The way her character, Alice Sycamore, can transition between her Charles Addams–esque family home and a regular job in the real world is important—she is the balance between the lovably kooky and the hopelessly uptight. You understand why Stewart’s character is gaga over her. She’s human and witty, smart and rebellious, but not without her insecurities—insecurities mixed with pride, we will learn. She loves her family, snobs be damned, but at first she’s also worried about Tony’s wealthy parents for disapproving of them. By the end, she welcomes love back, and with this, she must be present in one of the film’s most touching moments: the liberating, disarming smile of Edward Arnold’s Anthony P. Kirby, as he plays dueling harmonica with Grandpa Vanderhof (played by a great Lionel Barrymore). We’re supposed to love freethinking Grandpa, but it’s the journey of Alice and the senior Kirby, who previously looked down on her and her family, that gives the picture its true arc and power and saves the whole thing from becoming a little too precious—Arthur and Arnold are the beating heart of the picture. 

You Can’t Take It With You

Arthur excelled at that—not being too precious—no matter how lovable she could be. You see that quality when she reteamed with Stewart, Edward Arnold, and Capra to create one of her greatest roles, the aforementioned Clarissa Saunders in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Arthur had to juggle a duality in Mr. Deeds. Here, she has to keep many more balls in the air: Clarissa has to regain her faith, fall in love, and then actively rescue and train Smith. Arthur more than delivers her side of a beautiful two-hander scene from the balcony of the Senate—interacting with Stewart, whose Smith has taken the floor in the legendary filibuster that ends the film—acting while sitting, squirming, smiling, worrying, crying, and cheering for him. Stewart is the lead, he’s got the showier role, but Arthur’s Saunders, teaching him, rallying him on like a boxing coach, all while expressing a multitude of emotions, is crucial. It is she who is the keeper and provider of knowledge, the instrument of salvation.

In Howard Hawks’s magnificent Only Angels Have Wings (also 1939), Arthur plays opposite Cary Grant, as the lovely, sensitive, funny, and game Bonnie Lee, a showgirl making a pit stop in Barranca among cynical, tough-guy pilots, full of hardened humor but really with big hearts, including Grant’s Geoff Carter. It’s beautiful to watch Arthur’s varied interactions with all the men, and in particular her relationship with Grant, especially their sparring. In one such scene, Bonnie sizes up Geoff’s personality and asks, “What was she like, anyway?” Geoff asks, “Who?” And she says: “That girl that made you act the way you do.” And then Geoff answers with something that describes Jean Arthur’s appeal: “A whole lot like you. Just as nice, almost as smart.”

Only Angels Have Wings

“Arthur had an energy and a drive for perfection that made her demand much of herself, sometimes too much.”

In 1940 came one of Arthur’s less scrutinized roles, in Wesley Ruggles’s impressive, unique Arizona. This picture, unlike the superb Easy Living (1937), has not grown in reputation over the years and was considered by some a standard, even substandard, western, which is a shame. In moments it feels ahead of its time—with its dirtier depiction of early Tucson, rough and unscrubbed (the picture’s production design is fantastic). William Holden’s youthful leading man, Peter Muncie, was considered too young by some critics (his youth works for him here, however), compared to Arthur, and the unctuous villain, Jefferson Carteret, played by the inimitable Warren William, could be considered too one-note. But Arizona provides Arthur with another great opportunity to showcase a formidable western leading role (as she did with Calamity Jane). Here she’s the entrepreneurial, tough as nails, no-nonsense Phoebe—the “only American Woman in Tucson.”

It would be perhaps a stretch to call this a consciously feminist film, but Arthur’s Phoebe is absolutely the most respected person in town (even, in some ways, by those cheating her). And though she’s strong-willed, she’s not without vulnerabilities—she can get lonely. And she opens herself up to love. She really wants to settle down with Muncie, but not as merely a good little wife—she wants to start a cattle ranch with him. And she is the one to put the wheels and money into motion. It’s her idea, her money, and her will—and Muncie is not threatened by this. He only worries for her fearless temperament. In many ways she’s playing the traditional male role in this picture, even if he is the one facing off in the final showdown. But, in a bold move, this final confrontation happens off-screen, and the weight of the climax is shifted to Phoebe. We watch her. Clad in her wedding dress, standing in the town’s haberdashery, she awaits the outcome of a duel between Muncie and Carteret. Her crucial lines do not allude to what is happening outside the store, and the camera is fixed on her. Her heart is in her throat, ready to break. This is such a powerful moment, and a remarkable performance, one that should be appreciated more within Arthur’s body of work.

Arthur’s chemistry with Holden in Arizona is very appealing—sweet, spirited, and disarming—and she found this kind of rapport with so many of her leading men, as different and as singular as Cary Grant and Ronald Colman—even in the same picture! The Talk of the Town was her first collaboration with George Stevens, her other most significant directing partner alongside Capra (she worked with each three times). But Stevens really captured her carnal energy, how alluring she could be. She is, of course, smart and funny under Stevens, doing some of her greatest comedy work, but these pictures feel very adult when it comes to sexuality—grounded and healthy and fun.

Triangles were sometimes at the core of Arthur’s films, and the one in The Talk of the Town is perhaps the most thrilling to resolve— after all, this is a choice between Cary Grant and Ronald Colman. Who will Arthur end up with? And when or if that happens, who will we, as audiences, prefer? Here, once again, Arthur plays the engine of the drama, one that, in the middle of comedic moments, poses a serious question about the difference between law and justice (the screenplay was penned by Sidney Buchman, who would be blacklisted many years later, and Irving Shaw), a question much debated by the two male protagonists while Arthur’s character acts out of principle—regardless of public opinion or letter of the law. She takes it in her own hands to be the agent of justice, unwaveringly confronting both men—in the end to bring them together. In fact, the movie works as a love story between them as well.

Reportedly, Stevens was Arthur’s favorite director, one who was famous for his perfectionism—a trait that Arthur clearly shared—and they went on to make the superb The More the Merrier. This found Arthur, again, under the roof with two men (Joel McCrea as Joe Carter and Charles Coburn as Benjamin Dingle)—though the sparks are flying between McCrea and Arthur (as Connie Milligan), and Coburn works as a sort of gruff cupid. It’s wartime, and overcrowded Washington, D.C., has a housing shortage. Connie takes in a boarder, and then she takes in two, at first unbeknownst to her (Dingle sublets his room to Joe). Everyone is in top form here, and every scene’s a standout. Arthur’s timing, line delivery, expression, gesture, and movement are impeccable. Even little moments are big ones—like Connie dancing to a record in her room while Joe is outside her door, practicing his dance moves in his bathrobe—they are already courting each other without touching. Watching Connie and Dingle readying for the morning, after she previously discussed, quite exhaustively and humorously, the morning schedule (Dingle asks, “Do we do all this railroad time or Eastern War Time?”), leads to a perfect screwball sequence, a work of gracefully choreographed clumsiness. And Arthur’s chemistry with McCrea is palpable. If you aren’t feeling it, you probably aren’t alive.

Jean Arthur with George Stevens

The much-discussed front-steps seduction between Connie and Joe is truly one of the hottest, most romantic scenes in all of cinema—it feels daring for its time and remains enchanting, even breathtaking, today. And it’s so moving. The whole picture is moving—the memorable visual gag at the end, the looming specter of the war, make it all the more sophisticated and touching. Coburn would earn an Oscar and Arthur her only Academy Award nomination. It seems crazy she was only nominated once—film history is full of baffling omissions—but this movie, and her brilliant performance, would be hard to ignore.

Her collaborations with Stevens ended with a picture that turned out to be her final feature film, Shane—a beautiful way to top off her screen career. The picture is mythic, exciting, sobering, violent, and then gentle, and Arthur’s character, Marian Starrett, who loves her husband (played by a steady and sweet Van Heflin) but is both attracted to Alan Ladd’s quiet gunslinger, Shane, and repelled by violence, articulates the complexity and tension seamlessly.

Duality and independence were, it seems, essential to her character construction and persona. And indeed to her real self as well. This is even expressed in her chosen artistic name, the blending of Joan of Arc and King Arthur. Arthur revered Joan of Arc (she would play her onstage), saying this of the heroine: “She was a nonconformist too . . . a believer in her own intuition. Intuition, that’s what Joan’s voices were. She never killed anybody. She just wanted everybody to go home and mind their own business.”

Arthur had an energy and a drive for perfection that made her demand much of herself, sometimes too much—her worries about performance (or about the productions themselves) found her leaving some celebrated stage roles earlier than many would have liked, including her acclaimed Peter Pan. She often teetered on the verge of panic and sometimes quit or attempted to quit her projects—some for likely good reason. Arthur wanted interesting roles, and she wanted to be great. She said: “If people don’t like your work, all the still pictures in the world can’t help you and nothing written about you, even oceans of it, will make you popular.”

Always her own person, the ever delightful and intelligent Arthur had her very own kind of on-screen beauty, humor, smarts, and mystery. She was a down-to-earth goddess of the screwball comedy, a “relatable” kind of dream girl, but also an iconoclast. Like Grandpa Vanderhof—living her life to the tune of her own harmonica.


A series of Jean Arthur’s films is playing on the Criterion Channel now through June 30, 2020. Watch the teaser below: