We recently read John Oller’s biography of Jean Arthur, who was born 115 years ago today, and it was a little disheartening. For all her success and acclaim, Arthur, born Gladys Georgianna Greene in Plattsburgh, New York, seemed rarely, if ever, to find contentment. She was prickly in dealing with others and seemed generally dissatisfied with her lot, even if, to those of us assessing her life and career from the outside looking in, she had it pretty darned good (but of course, we’re in no position to truly know).
Eccentric and difficult as Arthur may have been, her voice was a comedic gift from the gods. Director Frank Capra once described it as “a thousand tinkling bells.” Susan King in the Los Angeles Times termed it “an almost undescribeable blend of a squeak and froggy croak.” And strange as it may seem, they’re both right—sort of.
Arthur developed a sense of comic timing that was nearly unparalleled, and we wish she’d been paired at some point with the great Preston Sturges (she did star in Easy Living , a movie Sturges wrote, but Mitchell Leisen ably handled the direction of that delightful picture).
But seriously, consider the roster of comedy classics that Arthur starred in; few actors could top it: The Whole Town’s Talking (1935), If You Could Only Cook (1935), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), The Devil and Miss Jones, The Talk of the Town (1942), The More the Merrier (1943)…the list goes on.
Jean Arthur is one of the few actors whose name in a cast list is enough to convince us to watch a movie we know nothing else about. If you’re not familiar with her work, a fine place to start is George Stevens‘ The More the Merrier, which has the added bonus of Joel McCrea and Charles Coburn starring opposite Arthur, and features the sexiest scene you will ever see in a 1940s romantic comedy. We won’t spoil the surprise, just watch it. You’ll know it when you see it.
Happy birthday, Jean Arthur, and thanks for the laughter!