Appreciating Jean Arthur

This is a special guest post by Joel Williams @joelrwilliams1

My passion for Jean Arthur is well documented on Twitter.  I won’t deny it.  I think she’s one of our best classic film stars.  When I commissioned a friend to do a portrait of a classic film star for my wife and I….I narrowed it down to two or three, but eventually settled on the lovely Ms. Arthur.  Who better to grace the walls of our home?

Let me give you a little insight about how my mind works when it comes to Gladys Georgianna Greene (her birth name…certainly she could have kept it, it’s much better than Esther Blodgett!)  The faint-of-heart may wish to stop reading now.

How do I love Jean Arthur?  Oh, let me count the ways…

Her Voice

You almost have to start here.  Her voice is so unique…at first it may should a tad shrill, but listen closely.  You’ll find that her voice goes up and down…it has a wide range.  And she could control it:  adding lilts, catches, and small laughs at will.  This added such a human touch to her characters…it was a minor flaw, like we all have.  And I think that helps us identify with her characters more closely than a perfectly polished look, sound, or performance.  (Imagine, she spent seven years making silent films at the beginning of her career.  Those theater goers missed out on so much!)

Her Hair

Weather it was short (like in her early, silent career), shoulder length (like in Only Angels Have Wings), longer (like in The Talk Of The Town 1942) or in an updo (like in The More The Merrier 1943), her hair was always well coiffed.  Often (and I think this was a result of the studio system) Arthur would have two or more hairstyles in a film.  And don’t even get me started on her pigtails and pajamas in The More The Merrier.

In THE MORE THE MERRIER
In THE MORE THE MERRIER

Her Face

She had a gorgeous face, it was–like her voice–very expressive.  Her lips were a nice shape and full, but not too full.  Her smile was illuminating.  When she smiles big, she lights up the screen.  And I smile.  And it warms my heart.  It’s such an engaging smile.

Jean

Her Figure

Most everyone is familiar with the rooftop sunbathing scene from The More The Merrier (or the rumba dancing.)  She’s showing off her legs and she certainly has all the right curves.  But let’s go further out in time to her final film, Shane.  She was going on fifty-one when making this film (it was shot in July to October of 1951, but not released until 1953 due to George Stevens‘ extensive post-production work.) She simply looks terrific in the film.  Maybe it’s the Technicolor talking, but even Edith Head’s attempt to cover her in dungarees and ‘prairie dresseses’ can’t disguise the fact that she still had a great figure.  Keep going further out in time…publicity stills from her television show “The Jean Arthur Show” (which aired in 1966 for twelve episodes, getting cancelled mid-season.)  The pictures I saw showed that she maintained a good frame up until the end of her screen career.

Alan Ladd, Jean and Van Heflin in SHANE
Alan Ladd, Jean and Van Heflin in SHANE

Her Sex Appeal

Let me just point you to the ‘stoop scene’ in The More The Merrier.  It is, for me, the most sensuous thing placed on film.  As Joel McCrea’s hands get busier, George Stevens’ camera keeps cutting into a tighter shot.  When McCrea starts kissing her on her neck, she about loses it…complete with heavier breathing and closing eyes.  She eventually gives in to desire and grabs McCrea and plants ‘one to remember’ on him before coming to her senses (and coming back down to Earth).

On the stoop with Joel McCrea in THE MORE THE MERRIER
On the stoop with Joel McCrea in THE MORE THE MERRIER

Her Acting Ability

Weather the film was a drama or (more likely) a screwball comedy she was up to the task.  Look at the scene between she and Lionel Barrymore in the screwball comedy You Can’t Take It With You when they’re talking about Barrymore’s deceased wife (Arthur’s grandmother.)  Jean absolutely shines in this scene and it brings me to tears each time.  She was especially adept at playing comedy…some of her reaction shots are a sight to behold.  She was funny when playing either end of the spectrum: an uptight fiance to Mr. Pendergast or a seasoned Senate office worker who knew the politics and policies of that body’s floor.  Sadly, at the very end of her career, there were nervous breakdowns, panic attacks and refusals to go on stage.

Barrymore and Arthur
With Lionel Barrymore in YOU CAN’T TAKE IT WITH YOU

Her Privacy

There was a mystery about her, she shied away from the public, photographers, and interviews.  Jean had no children and when she died there was no funeral.  So there were few that knew her personal story after she passed away.  You could say she wanted her privacy, but the fact that there isn’t a lot of information about her in her later years makes her all the more mysterious and ‘to be sought out’ to me. 

This is just scratching the surface of how I feel about the delightful Ms. Arthur.  I hope you can catch one of her films soon.  I never tire of them.

Thanks to Joel for this tribute.  I couldn’t imagine anyone but Joel dedicating a post to Jean Arthur on this blog.  For more of Joel’s passion for the movies follow him on Twitter @joelrwilliams1 and on @TCM_Party for which he live tweets movies as seen on TCM.

This special post is part of the ‘Summer Under the Stars’ blogathon hosted by Kristen at Journeys in Classic Film.  Be sure to visit her site throughout August to access submissions on the stars and movies featured on TCM.

Jean banner

5 thoughts

  1. She was fabulous! I think Jean Arthur and Irene Dunne were greatly overlooked as actresses. Both are outstanding! And I, like you never tire of seeing Jean’s films.

  2. I agree, Joel. She was a talented, sexy dame — but not in an overdone way … wholesome sexiness is how I think of it. She was also quite funny. I loved that scene on the stoop (that’s what we call it in NYC) in “The More The Merrier.” Hot.

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