The Girl with the Croak: Jean Arthur
by Mrs. Parker
2004 by Michele Gouveia. All Rights Reserved.
Arthur with Charles "Buddy" Rogers in a scene from 1930's Young
Eagles. Michele Gouveia Collection.
Frank Capra described it as “low, husky—at times
it broke pleasingly into the higher octaves like a thousand tinkling bells.”
Edward G. Robinson said it “grated like fresh peppermint.”
And Roddy McDowall claimed that it “validated her darling eccentricities and
her childlike approach to each and every moment.”
However you described it, Jean Arthur’s voice was as unique as its owner and
helped to make her a star.
Born Gladys Georgianna Greene on October 17, 1900, in
Plattsburg, New York, she grew up a tomboy, the only girl in a houseful of
brothers. After dropping out of high school, she worked as a commercial model
before heading west for Hollywood.
Ironically, the girl with the distinctive voice
started out in silent movies. Her first role was a bit part in Cameo
Kirby in 1923. She went on to star in more than 40 silents, usually playing
the girl in Westerns. She was small and brunette, attractive but not beautiful.
In short, she was missing that certain something that would make her stand out.
Audiences were finally introduced to the “voice”
in Arthur’s first, full-length talkie, The
Canary Murder Case (1929), best remembered today for the film that launched
William Powell and ended Louise Brooks’ career in Hollywood. In the film,
Arthur’s croak is hidden, as if she were unsure of herself. Self doubt was to
be a trend in Arthur’s life. An immensely private woman (she once professed
that she’d rather slit her throat than sit through an interview), she was
racked with stage fright and insecurity about her acting ability. But when she
found her inner strength, there was no holding her back. By 1935’s The
Whole Town’s Talking, a blonde Arthur finally got to show off her comic
chops and the voice, in all its full glory, catapulted her to stardom.
Arthur would go on to become one of the reigning
queens of the screwball comedy. Her apparent intelligence and wit, along with
that frog-like voice, which could go from a low whisper to a war whoop in a
matter of seconds, found Arthur a legion of fans. One of the people responsible
for her rise to fame was director Frank Capra. Capra, who called Arthur his
favorite actress, seemed to understand
Arthur and let her play her roles as she saw fit. In the three films that they
made together, Arthur is the perfect Depression-era heroine. Her characters,
although made cynical by tough times and hardened by city living, are still able
to find optimism in the world and to uphold small-town values.
In the first of their films, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), she plays newspaper woman Babe
Bennett, who masquerades as a “woman in distress” to get close to newly made
millionaire Longfellow Deeds (Gary Cooper—Arthur’s favorite co-star), whom
she nicknames Cinderella Man. Her first scene is classic Jean Arthur. The city
editor is desperately trying to get a room full of male reporters to find the
dirt on Deeds. While all of the men give their excuses, Arthur sits quietly off
to the side, playing a game with a piece of rope. As the men rush from the room,
the editor prevails on Arthur’s character to get the story. When he promises
her a month of paid vacation, she bites. “Leave four columns open on the front
page tomorrow,” she shouts as she jumps up to leave. The happy editor asks
what she’s going to do. “Have lunch” is her reply.
This quirky enthusiasm extended into her other Capra
films—You Can’t Take it With You
(1938), in which she is one of a large ensemble cast, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), her most expanded Capra role.
In it she plays Clarissa Saunders, a senatorial aide who has been made cynical
by her time spent in Washington. Paired up with the idealistic and green
Jefferson Smith (James Stewart) who has been chosen to finish out the term of a
deceased senator, she soon becomes his secret ally. In one of the best scenes in
the film, she gets drunk with a reporter friend and confesses her true feelings
for Smith. Describing sending him off to the Senate as a mother sending her
child to school, she stops and completely sober asks, “Say, who started
Arthur made other non-Capra classics. In Easy
Living (1937), directed by Mitchell Leisen, Arthur plays Mary Smith, a
blue-collar girl who, on her way to work one day, has a fur coat drop out of the
sky and land on her head. With a script by the irrepressible Preston Sturges,
Arthur exhibits her skills as the queen of timing. Mistaken for the mistress of
J. B. Ball, the “Bull of Broad Street” (Edward Arnold), the clueless Smith
finds herself falling for Ball’s son, Johnny (Ray Milland). In one scene, the
two lie, head to head, on a sofa in her suite. After Johnny kisses her, she
sighs and turns over. Two beats later, she bolts up, “Say,” she exclaims. No
other actress could put as much meaning into the word say
In The More the
Merrier (1943), directed by George Stevens, Arthur is Connie Mulligan, a
government worker in over-crowded wartime Washington, DC, who rents out a room
in her apartment. Her tenant, a retiree played by Charles Colburn, rents half of
his room to an Air Force Sergeant Joe Carter (Joel McCrae) behind Mulligan’s
back. The two young people are soon attracted to each other. In what has to be
one of the sexiest scenes from any film, the two walk home together after an
evening out. Sitting on the stoop, Mulligan tries to explain her four-year
engagement to another man while Carter is busy “copping feels.”
Finally she succumbs, and grabbing Carter by the face, kisses him.
Jean Arthur in a publicity shot from the 1930s. Michele Gouveia Collection.
Arthur said, “I am not an adult, that’s my
explanation of myself. Except when I am working on a set, I have all the
inhibitions and shyness of the bashful, backward child.” She certainly had a
childlike quality about her. In fact, she often played characters who were a
decade or two younger than herself. In The
Talk of the Town (1942), she plays a school teacher torn between Cary Grant
and Ronald Coleman. She was 42. She would go on to play Peter Pan on stage at
the age of 50.
Her inner demons and need for privacy often earned
her the reputation of being difficult. She certainly got into trouble with the
studio heads. When she was finally finished with her Columbia contract in 1944,
she reportedly ran through the studio grounds shouting “I’m free, I’m
free.” But she was an incredible hard worker who demanded more from herself
than anyone else.
Arthur retired from films in 1953. She chose her swan
song to be, like the films she had started in, a western—George Stevens’ Shane.
She died on June 19, 1991, having lived her life in her own, individual way.
To get The Dope on Jean Arthur, click here.
 Capra, Frank. The Name Above the Title. New York: Macmillan, 1971, page 184.
 Robinson, Edward G. (with Leonard Spigelgass). All My Yesterdays. New York: Hawthorn Books, 1973, page 156.
 McDowall, Roddy. “Commentary.” The Devil and Miss Jones, VHS, directed by Sam Wood (1941; Studio City, CA: Republic Studios, 1998).
 Capra, page 184.
Oller, John. Jean Arthur: The Actress Nobody Knew. New York: Limelight Editions, 1997, page