Happy 116th Birthday, Jean Arthur!

The wonderful Jean Arthur was born Gladys Georgianna Greene 116 years ago today in Plattsburgh, New York. She was a reluctant and, some say, unlikely star, but she was one of the true greats in the genre of screwball and romantic comedies. Here are 10 JA Did-You-Knows:

  • Arthur was of Norwegian and English descent. Her father was a photographer, and her family relocated frequently as she was growing up; she would spend time in Jacksonville, Florida; Schenectady, New York; Saranac Lake, New York; and Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood (the building she lived is still there, at 573 West 159th Street).
  • In the early 1920s, Arthur worked as stenographer. She also did some commercial modeling, and it was via her modeling work that she was discovered by Fox Film Studios, who thought she could be remade into a “flapper” type. She made her debut in Cameo Kirby (1923), directed by John Ford.
  • It’s said that she took her stage name from two of her heroes: Joan of Arc and King Arthur (we are skeptical of this, to be honest, but we are merely reporting what’s long been claimed).
  • Arthur’s trademarks as an actress were her comic timing and her distinctive voice, which Frank Capra described in his autobiography as “low, husky—at times it broke pleasingly into the high octaves like a thousand tinkling bells.”
  • Arthur was named one of the WAMPAS Baby Stars of 1929, along with Anita Page, Helen Twelvetrees and Loretta Young, among others.
  • Her film career floundering in the early 1930s, Arthur returned to New York City to hone her acting chops in a series of Broadway productions. Having gained confidence in her abilities, she returned to Hollywood in 1934, signing a five-year contract with Columbia Pictures that brought her financial stability. She also went blonde and would remain so throughout her career.
  • Arthur was convinced her left side was her best side, and she insisted on being filmed from that side whenever possible.
  • Arthur made three pictures with director Frank Capra, all of them very successful: Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), You Can’t Take It with You (1938) and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). Capra once named her as his favorite actress.
  • The borderline reclusive Arthur was reluctant to participate in publicity efforts for her pictures. she was not active in the Hollywood social whirl and was hesitant to give interviews.
  • Arthur received one Academy Award nomination, in the Best Actress in a Leading Role category for The More the Merrier (1943). A year earlier, she won the Sour Apple Award from the Hollywood Women’s Press Club, which was given to the year’s “Least Cooperative Actor/Actress.”

Happy birthday, Jean Arthur, wherever you may be!

Jean Arthur

Happy Birthday, Jean Arthur!

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.

Jean Arthur quote

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 [1937], 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 StevensThe 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!