She was Frank Capra’s favorite actress. George Stevens said she was one of the greatest comediennes ever to grace the silver screen. It’s hard to believe that Jean Arthur ever languished in forgettable films, receiving terrible reviews for her abilities, if any mention at all, for nearly a decade before coming in to her own, through performing on stage. It was in her work on the stage that she credited learning the ability to be herself while simultaneously losing herself in a character. And boy, what characters she gave us, on her return to Hollywood.
Notoriously shy and said to be somewhat difficult to work with, at times, Jean Arthur still gave some of the most enduring performances of any actress of her generation. Her greatest characters were the tough as nails working girls, like Clarissa Saunders, in Mr. Smith Goes To Washington. She brought a seemingly effortless humor and charm to her roles, women with walls built around them that slowly fall as she finds her cause or her passion. I think, however, the thing that makes her most timeless, to audiences, is the quirkiness which she infuses into every character she plays. With a look, a nod, or a lilt of her unique voice, she can deliver some of the most completely off the wall lines, and you sit and wonder if she’s serious or not. She was “Quirky Girl” before that was even a thing.
It’s hard to pick out an absolute favorite Jean Arthur movie, as most of them are simply too great to pass up. The one I watch most often is Easy Living, where she plays a girl who literally has riches fall upon her. After that, I’d say The More The Merrier, where she opens her apartment to Charles Coburn and Joel McCrea, during the housing shortage. Then there’s Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, Mr. Deeds Goes To Town, Talk Of The Town…
Oh, who am I kidding? Go to Movies Unlimited, buy as many as you can all at once, and regret nothing!
This Thursday, The Cinema Dilettante will take a long, adoring look at Joel McCrea… I mean, review The More The Merrier, with Jean Arthur and Joel McCrea. See you then!