Happy Birthday, Jean Arthur

I’m one day late.

She, the wonderful actress, who has a permanent spot in my banner is “my kind of actress”, which may deserve some explanation. “My kind of actress” is an actress who seems to be alive, on a moment to moment basis, with very little trickery or self-importance. Arthur was a very shy woman, and apparently had tremendous stage fright, trembling in her dressing room before scenes. But then, when she walked onto the set, she owned what she was doing. There wasn’t a lot of drama with her. To my eyes, whatever demons she had that made her afraid to emerge from her dressing room are completely invisible in her performances, which are charming, funny, moving, poignant – sometimes all in the same moment. She was a gifted comedienne.

Frank Capra, who directed her three times, said of her:

Jean Arthur was an enigmatic figure because she doesn’t do very well in crowds, and she doesn’t do very well with people, and she doesn’t do very well with life, but she does very well as an actress. She’s afraid. She’d stand in her dressing room and practically vomit every time she had to do a scene. And she’d drum up all kinds of excuses for not being ready. Well, I finally got to know her. All I had to do was push her out into the lights, turn the camera on, and she’d blossom out into just something wonderful, very positive, certain. An assured, poised, lovely woman. And she could do anything, could express love or hate or anything else. And when the scene was over, she’d go back into that dressing room and cry. She certainly had two sides to her: the actress, this wonderful actress, and this person, this shy personality that she was in reality. She’s quite a study.

She has a moment in George Stevens’ Talk Of the Town with Cary Grant, where Ronald Colman (hilarious in that movie, I love his performance) busts her sneaking around in her own house at night. She clearly has a right to be there, it’s her house, but she is also obviously up to no good. Her reaction to being “found out”, is a masterpiece of comedic behavior. Her eyes are completely devastated and panicked, but a manic smile hovers on her face as she tries to regain her footing. But she LOOKS so damn guilty, and the first time I saw that moment I had to rewind it five times, just so I could keep laughing. It’s small. It’s just her total investment in the reality of the moment. She is so busy throughout the film, trying to placate the dignified Ronald Colman, all while harboring the fugitive Cary Grant in her attic. She lies to everyone repeatedly, and seems to RUN her way throughout the film, dashing down the stairs, around corners, back up the stairs, lying, lying, lying. It’s a tour de force, perhaps not one of her best-known performances but one of my favorites. Is there room in today’s Hollywood for such an actress today? I think there is, it’s just that the material isn’t as good. She’s a leading lady, full-stop, but with a hard humorous edge. She’s nobody’s fool. She’s not a girl, she’s always a woman. I think she’s best when she is “found out”. She often played women who had “been around”. Not “trampy”, not really, but women who made their own money, and had seen a bit of the world, and maybe had one or two cherished illusions about things already shattered. She was good when she played a woman with lots of defense mechanisms. So when she is “found out”, and revealed, there are all kinds of possibilities for humor and pathos.

Here’s a clip from Talk of the Town, with Jean Arthur losing her mind because Ronald Colman showed up as a boarder 24 hours earlier, while she happens to be harboring a runaway fugitive (Cary Grant) in her attic. She is all befuddled. She is supposed to leave Colman in the house and go stay with her parents, if I recall correctly, but she can’t do that, due to Grant’s hiding presence. The moment I find so uproarious comes at around the 6:44 mark. It’s almost a pantomime. She stands frozen, her mouth wide open, as her brain twirls manically thinking of an excuse for why she is sneaking around holding a candle peeking into his bedroom.

This “being found out” dynamic is used to huge comedic effect in Only Angels Have Wings, one of my favorite movies of all time. She plays Bonnie Lee, a showgirl stranded in the fictional banana republic where the fledgling airline runs the mail over a treacherous mountain pass. It’s an all-male environment of adventure and risk-taking (typical Howard Hawks milieu), and Bonnie Lee’s arrival throws everyone into a tizzy. Everyone, that is, except the boss, Geoff, played by Cary Grant at his cranky sexy best. I’ve written extensively about Only Angels Have Wings, you can look through my archives for all of the posts about it. I know that Howard Hawks had some issues with Jean Arthur’s performance. He found her a bit difficult, she wasn’t giving him exactly what he wanted. He tells the story that years later, years and years, Jean Arthur called him up. She had seen Only Angels Have Wings on television and wanted him to know that now she could see what he was talking about, that he was right all along. You always have to take these Hawks stories with a grain of salt, he was a notorious raconteur and most of his anecdotes involve him being “right” about things (I love the guy, don’t get me wrong), but despite all of that: I watch Jean Arthur as Bonnie Lee and I think she is spot-on perfect in that part. She is a showgirl, so she’s no dummy about men, but in Cary Grant she has met her match, and the entire film involves her falling to emotional pieces just trying to get close to the guy. She can’t bear it. I love the honesty in her portrayal. Any woman who has ever been SLAYED by some guy in that manner will totally understand her neuroses.

Cary Grant sizes her up immediately. He has no use for women, at least not a woman like her. She realizes this, but she just can’t help falling for the big lug. She becomes totally undone over the course of the film. Watch the morning scene where she sits in the bar having breakfast, when she was supposed to have gotten on the boat the night before. Watch how cranky Grant is with her: “Why aren’t you on that boat?” She can’t even lie, that’s how bad is it for her. She looks up at him, panicked, unhappy (but when Jean Arthur is panicked and unhappy, more often than not we in the audience laugh – it’s a wonderful and rare gift). She picks at her eggs half-heartedly, and stumbles out some awkward words, where she clearly says, “Don’t worry, Mister, I’ll be on the next boat. I know now to get bitten twice in the same spot. I’m cured.”

The two of them have what I call a perfect scene, late at night on her first evening in the bar. It’s one of the sexiest scenes in all of Howard Hawks’ films. She says at one point, joking, “Aren’t you ever going to get some sleep?” and he looks at her and says, “After your boat sails.” It is a purely carnal moment. No nude love scene with writhing fully naked bodies was ever as blatantly sexy as Cary Grant saying, “After your boat sails.”

You couldn’t pair just anyone with Cary Grant. He did well with funny wisecracking dames. He didn’t do well with floozies. Or, he’d do well with anyone, but the pairing wasn’t as satisfying. Early on in the film, Bonnie Lee has a breakdown because one of the pilots died during his flight (a common thing in the early days of aviation). Geoff shakes her and tells her to take a walk – “Pull yourself together.” It is a tough moment for her, a moment of confrontation with the world she eventually wants to join so badly she falls apart. If she wants to make a play for this Geoff Carter fellow, then she needs to be strong. She needs to show him she is trustworthy, that she won’t fall apart. Jean Arthur finally gets herself together, and goes back into the bar where Cary Grant is fiddling around on the piano. He is annoyed by her presence, especially when she starts correcting his playing. Girls are not welcome here. She is a nuisance. He looks up at her and asks, “Grown up yet?” It’s a tough line. Shedding tears for a fallen pilot seems like a human and normal response, but here, in the world of Only Angels Have Wings, it is “immature”, and nothing anyone can afford to indulge. Their lives are at stake. They cannot lose their nerve. It’s a condescending line, but the way Cary Grant says it makes it sound like something else. Jean Arthur grins and says, “I think so.” Grant nods, pleased, says shortly, “Good,” and goes back to playing the piano.

Boy is tough.

But in the following sequence, Bonnie Lee gets to show him what she is made of, and it is a moment that shows, above all else, why I love Jean Arthur so much, and why she is “my kind of actress”.

His piano playing is dreadful, and she motions impatiently for him to move aside so she can show him how it’s done. He, immersed in a male world of accomplishment where women are seen as rather silly, is impatient and contemptuous. What on earth could SHE add to their little sing-along? She, however, has tricks up her sleeve. She turns to all of the makeshift musicians standing around on the piano, and gives them all orders, and then begins to play like a maniac, with the band rocking out around her. Cary Grant, stunned and certainly ‘shown up’, takes in her performance for a second, and then starts laughing. He reaches out for two glasses of whiskey nearby, and hands one to her, which she drinks as she plays. After the song finishes, everyone erupts into applause, and Jean Arthur, pleased with herself, but knowing that she can’t look too pleased, glances at Cary Grant. She is pert (the perfect word), but there’s a softness there too. She realizes that for the first time he is looking at her with admiration. She knows, because she’s smart, that she can’t make too big a deal out of it. That would be a turnoff for a guy like this. So there she sits, smiling at him, with the most adorable mix of pride (almost arrogance) and a soft womanly acceptance, as in: “Yes. I know you think I’m awesome. Thank you.” Cary Grant says, “Hello, Professional.” a very funny moment, because he is now embarrassed that he actually thought he could play the piano in front of this talented woman. She takes the compliment, but also knows enough not to bask in it too much. A woman should be proud of herself, but not arrogant. We’re talking about 5 seconds of screen-time here, the moment is TINY, but it’s eloquent and romantic and makes me think of so many times in my life when I was looked at like that, by this or that guy, and how special I felt, and excited, because I knew the odds were that the guy was going to make a move if he was looking at me like that, but also knowing, in my bones, that I had to keep a lid on my excitement. I had to be patient.

This is the Game of Romance. Jean Arthur, cocking her head at him, smiling, saying with that smile, “Yup. I can play the piano, Yup, I can see how you are looking at me”, basking in the glow of his hard-won approval, while also keeping herself under control, because that is what is required between Adults who are in the midst of a Mating Dance … is, to my mind, a perfect evocation of the “Howard Hawks Woman”, and his view of romance. Jean Arthur embodies it.

Here is the scene (which then leads into the “perfect scene” I wrote about before).

Watch how she looks at him when the song finishes. Watch how much she is doing in that moment, without over-complicating or indicating too much. It’s complex grounded acting, a beautiful moment easily played by Jean Arthur.

Then, of course, there is the moment where Cary Grant busts her eavesdropping at the door of his office. He opens the door, and Arthur literally falls INTO the room. She descends into a spectacle of embarrassment, trying to hide it underneath a pose of indignation (which totally fails), and then she has a beautiful clumsy exit, knocking her head against a nearby tree trunk. Jean Arthur IS a dignified woman, and she played women who knew how to circulate out in the real bustling world of commerce and politics and business, but when she falls in love, she FALLS APART. Nobody could fall apart like Jean Arthur. It’s what makes her such a satisfying actress to watch. She is recognizably human. She speaks to that part of us that wants to let go, not have to be so “on” all the time, be taken care of a little bit maybe. She’s not hard-boiled, although she can turn that on when she needs it, just a woman who knows a little bit about life, and knows she has to take care of herself.

There are so many other films I haven’t even touched on. She was a sought-after actress who is great in picture after picture. I have only touched on a couple of my favorite moments, moments I never tire of. Her funniness continues to surprise me (I still watch Talk of the Town and ROAR when Colman busts her sneaking around her own house), and her touching vulnerability still, after so many viewings, comes as a welcome shock. I watch her defenses break down, I watch her fight gently to maintain her dignity, I watch her crack jokes at her own expense, and I fall in love with her over and over and over again.

Happy birthday, Miss Arthur. You are one of my favorite actresses.

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12 Responses to Happy Birthday, Jean Arthur

  1. I, too, LOVE Ms. Arthur. Her voice, her size, her stature and determination. There’s a book called Hawks on Hawks (I believe) where he pretty much damns her and her talents. It’s pretty clear when you read it that, yes, she is anything but a “Hawks” heroine (Rita Hayworth was more his speed). True, Stanwyck could get away with being smart and sassy in Ball of Fire, but not in the way Arthur is. The way he describes it, it sounds like she was as smart in real life as her characters could sometimes be and questioned Hawks in a way that just wasn’t his style. Still, Angels is one of my favorites and I agree with everything you say here!

    I’ve always been more a of The More the Merrier kinda guy, than a Talk of the Town kinda guy, when it comes to Jean Arthur-in-George Stevens’ Films, and I’d say that scale-tipping happens because of Charles Coburn in the former. (“Damn the torpedoes!”)

    Great post, Sheila!

  2. sheila says:

    Stephen – I have Hawks on Hawks and I’m pretty sure that’s where I got the idea that he wasn’t wacky about her or her performance. You’re right – Rita Hayworth in that movie was his ideal. Arthur as Bonnie Lee is basically a MUSH BALL, and the whole movie is just her process of disintegration – which is so endearing to me. A harder-edged woman wouldn’t have worked in that particular story. I love the scene where Cary Grant comes back to his room to find her boiling coffee and taking a bath – like, she’s basically decided “this is the man for me”, even though he treats her like crap. It’s hilarious!

    The More the Merrier is wonderful. I don’t think Talk of the Town works, ultimately – although it is charming and the three leads are just wonderful. I love Ronald Colman, and his scenes with Grant, etc. – but it leaves me a bit flat. I guess the whole social-consciousness part of the story is a bit too earnest for me, if you know what I’m saying. But I love how WACKY she is in it, racing around her house, lying to everyone – and BADLY.

    Thanks for the comment! LOVED your piece on The Thin Man book. Wow!

  3. “I don’t think Talk of the Town works, ultimately”
    Agreed. It’s a little too dark and unusual. Or more appropriately, I think Stevens has problems shifting the tone when necessary. Also, beginning with Cary Grant breaking out of jail immediately feels off. I wanted to like it and I agree with your assessment of the leads–but, hey, they can’t all be classics.

    I love, love, love Only Angels Have Wings. Although I’m opposed to remakes, I’ve always imagined that it would make a killer HBO miniseries. Hawks’s film has about 5 films’ worth of material in it. So jam-packed with genres. Just awesome entertainment.

    Glad you liked the Thin Man post. I’m considering one on Hammett’s Red Harvest since it’s all I’ve been able to think about the last few days!

  4. phil says:

    Absolutely adore Ms. Arthur.
    I wonder…as shy as she was, did she have ‘who am I this time?’ thoughts gearing up for a role. As the resident shy person of my family, I would say so. :)

    And that voice, especially that little brief choke, never faked, in her manner.
    Adore. Her.

  5. sheila says:

    Phil – yes, it seemed like she could be more herself, more alive and free, when playing a character. she totally knew what she was doing THERE.

    And I agree about her voice. A really unique voice.

  6. jennchez says:

    I love everything about Jean Arthur. There is a part in Talk of the Town when her mother walks in, I believe Coleman is already in the room, and a couple of other people whom I cant recall. But the look on her face is priceless!! Her eyes are shooting “oh sh*t” sparks everywhere, her movements are panicked and her body arms and legs all seem to be going different directions. But what always impresses me in that scene is that she may be flailing but damn it she is still in control, and she does get it together. Truly an amazing actress.

  7. I love this tribute to Jean Arthur. You write so well, and so lovingly, and with such insight on this wonderful actress. Thanks for this great post.

  8. sheila says:

    Jacqueline – Thank you so much!

  9. sheila says:

    Jennchez – I totally know the moment you’re talking about in Talk of the Town. Hilarious! She is so busy lying the whole time, but I love how she is clearly lying so BADLY – but you’re right: An actress who can appear that out of control and yet be so in control of what she is doing is something special indeed.

  10. milt says:

    Thanks for your post about Only Angels Have Wings. My wife and I saw it recently and it’s a terrific movie, combining adventure, romance and pathos. Jean Arthur is her wonderful self, and Cary Grant proves how versatile an actor he was.

    Last night we watched The More the Merrier for a second time, and it was even better than on first viewing. This is one of the great screwball comedies. Its a constant laughfest, and the rapport between Jean Arthur, Joel Mccrea and Charles Coburn, in both verbal and physical comedy, is extraordinary. They all seem to be having a ball. This overlooked film needs to be reclaimed as a classic.

  11. nyleg says:

    Thanks for the lovely tribute!!!! I love Jean Arthur to death. She’s my new obsession now LOL 。◕‿◕。 I just finished reading “The Actress Nobody Knew” by John Oller. I saw “Only Angels Have Wings” and her piano scene is hilarious. But I guess her best role is playing Calamity Jane in “The Plainsman” with Gary Cooper and Constance Milligan in “The More the Merrier”. She should have won for this one. Too bad she didn’t make any more movies. I think she’s in the league of Stanwyck in terms of versatility. Also I read somewhere that Cameron Crowe, director of “Jerry Maguire” asked Renee Zellweger to see the kissing scene on the steps in preparation for her role, and said she has that same sort of sly humor that Jean Arthur had in some of those roles.

    I think, Jean Arthur’s edge from any other actresses was her husky but high-pitched voice. She can play with it and it’s like ringing to ears IMHO. She is indeed “lovely, very, very lovely”.

    Thanks Sheila…

  12. sheila says:

    Nyleg – thank you for your great comment. I totally agree that her voice is so uniquely HERS and makes her so interesting to watch and listen to.

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