The Girl with the Croak: Jean Arthur

by Mrs. Parker

Copyright 2004 by Michele Gouveia.  All Rights Reserved.  

Jean 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.”[1] Edward G. Robinson said it “grated like fresh peppermint.”[2] And Roddy McDowall claimed that it “validated her darling eccentricities and her childlike approach to each and every moment.”[3] 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,[4] 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 this?”

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 as Arthur.

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.”[5] 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.

    

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[1] Capra, Frank. The Name Above the Title. New York: Macmillan, 1971, page 184.

[2] Robinson, Edward G. (with Leonard Spigelgass). All My Yesterdays. New York: Hawthorn Books, 1973, page 156.

[3] McDowall, Roddy. “Commentary.” The Devil and Miss Jones, VHS, directed by Sam Wood (1941; Studio City, CA: Republic Studios, 1998).

[4] Capra, page 184.

[5] Oller, John. Jean Arthur: The Actress Nobody Knew. New York: Limelight Editions, 1997, page 141.