Happy Birthday, Jean Arthur

She is “my kind of actress”, which may deserve some explanation. She was private, hard-working, talented, and consistent. She could be difficult, but her persona onscreen was alive, easy, lovable and adorable. She was not self-important. Acting was not easy for her (at least the act of acting: she had tremendous stage fright and insecurities) – a fact that is amazing when you see the easy and entertaining results onscreen. Once she finally came out of her dressing room, she left her demons behind. I admire that. When she walked onto the set, she owned what she was doing. There wasn’t a lot of drama with her. 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, a stalwart proper judge, 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 mini-masterpiece of comedic behavior. Her eyes go completely devastated and panicked, but a manic smile hovers on her face as she tries to regain her footing. She just LOOKS so damn guilty, it’s 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. (See her poignant performance in the hilarious and sexy The More the Merrier.) She was good when she played a woman with lots of defense mechanisms in place, defense mechanisms that served her well out in the world but held her back in her personal life. 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 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 that I mentioned before 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 of Barranca 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, but despite all of that: I think Jean Arthur is spot-on perfect in that part. Yes, not as sulkily insolent as Hawks’ ideal leading lady Lauren Bacall, and not a fast-talking smart-headed dame like Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday, but a woman who has been around, seen a lot, still has a sense of humor, and finds herself completely out-of-control in a crush on Cary Grant. She is a showgirl with a novelty act (she plays the piano), 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’s Geoff 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 Grant barks at 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 (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, “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.”

It’s so damn vulnerable.

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, hell, in any film. 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, to put it another way: He was Cary Grant, he did well with pretty much everyone, but the pairing was most satisfying when the woman was a witty smart gal who gave as good as she got. 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 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. 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, potentially cruel. 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. It’s a condescending line, but the way Cary Grant says it makes it sound like something else. He makes it sound like, “You ready to come out and play now?” Jean Arthur grins and says, “I think so.” Grant nods, pleased, says shortly, “Good,” and goes back to playing the piano.

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, and it is a total concession: “Hello, Professional.” She takes the compliment, but also knows not to bask in it too much.

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. 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.

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 not only do I fall in love with her over and over again, but I remember myself what it felt like to fall in love. I watch her and I think, “Yes. That rings true. I know that. I’ve been there. I’ve done that.”

Her work always rings true.

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

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7 Responses to Happy Birthday, Jean Arthur

  1. jennchez says:

    Love love love her!! So underrated these days like Barbara Stanwyck and Irenne Dunne. I remember the first time my husband and I watched Talk of the Town, at the end we were both going “Grant, no Coleman, Grant, no Coleman”. Such an amazing actress, and that voice, there is no topping the purr of that voice.

    IMO very humble that it is, no one else could have played her role in Only Angels Have Wings, once again Grant right beside her. She just owned it!! Knowing of her stage fright makes it all the more remarkable. She always seemed so relaxed and self assured, its sad she had to fight the demons she had, and from what I have read she fought them pretty much alone. Truely one of the Great’s!!

  2. jennchez says:

    I was so excited when I saw her name at the top of your essay I skipped down a bit. Bad habit of mine :( I basically said what you said but you said it first, sorry I get a bit excitable when I see essays on my favorite actresses :) Just love her films, sorry Sheila :)

  3. sheila says:

    Jennchez – I feel the same way you do about her stage fright. The stories of her trembling and weeping before she went on set are heart-wrenching and also, frankly, incredible – when you look at her work on screen. I LOVE that dichotomy – although obviously I feel for Arthur. She doesn’t seem to have enjoyed the process of acting all that much. But the results onscreen! How adorable is she, how lovable … she’s just one of my favorite leading ladies. Hard to think of an equivalent today. She seems like such a 30s and 40s gal. I just love her!!

  4. Susan Reynolds says:

    This is a terrific birthday shout out to the magical Jean Arthur! Thank you so much for your detailed and thoughtful response to her work. I just finished reading John Oller’s bio of Arthur, and while I learned some things about her offscreen life, there was little about her onscreen work. Now I must read more of your wonderful posts!

    • sheila says:

      I haven’t read that bio! I don’t know much about her personal life at all – and any anecdotes I get about her is from Howard Hawks (whom I love, but whom I don’t consider completely reliable). Or Capra talks about her a lot.

      She’s just so FUNNY but then she can be so so touching too. That VOICE.

      My current favorite is The More the Merrier. Cannot get enough of that movie. Her with her little charts about their morning routine.

      Thanks for your comment!

      • Susan Reynolds says:

        The Oller bio is so difficult to read as it charts Arthur’s uneasiness/awkwardness in her dealings with people. It made me sad to read account after account of what seems to be her self-sabotage, abandoning projects for fear of failure. This was Oller’s read on her (late) career…..I much prefer your joyful examination of her work, which she made look so easy.

        • sheila says:

          I had heard about her awkwardness and stage fright.

          In general, I always care more about the work than the biography. Sometimes biographies diminish their subjects. Other biographies don’t (the recent Scott Eyman biography of John Wayne is excellent: he is shown as flawed and human, but his WORK is respected.

          What is amazing to me about Arthur is that everyone talks about her stage fright and awkwardness and insecurity. But lOOK at what she was able to do in SPITE of that. Extraordinary!!

          I’m with you – let’s be joyful about this woman’s talent.

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