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Jean Arthur (October 17, 1900 – June 19, 1991) was an American actress and a major film star of the 1930s and 1940s. She remains arguably the epitome of the female screwball comedy actress. "No one was more closely identified with the screwball comedy than Jean Arthur. So much was she part of it, so much was her star personality defined by it, that the screwball style itself seems almost unimaginable without her." Arthur has been called "the quintessential comedic leading lady."

Arthur is best known for her feature roles in three Frank Capra films: Mr. Deeds Goes to Town ( ), You Can't Take It With You ( ), and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington ( ), films that championed the everyday heroine. A memorable later performance was in George Stevens' Shane ( ), her last screen appearance.

Arthur was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress in for her performance in The More the Merrier ( ).

Early life

Arthur was born Gladys Georgianna Greene in Plattsburghmarker, New Yorkmarker to Johanna Augusta Nelson and Hubert Sidney Greene. She lived off and on in Westbrook, Mainemarker from 1908 to 1915 while her father worked at Lamson Studios in Portland, Mainemarker as a photographer. The product of a nomadic childhood, Arthur also lived at times in Jacksonville, Floridamarker; Schenectady, New Yorkmarker; and, during a portion of her high school years, in the Washington Heightsmarker neighborhood of upper Manhattanmarker. She came from a family of three older brothers: Daniel Hubert (1891), Robert B. (1892) and Albert Sidney (1894). Her maternal grandparents were immigrants from Norwaymarker who settled in the American West. She reputedly took her stage name from two of her greatest heroes, Joan of Arc (Jeanne d'Arc) and King Arthur.

Presaging many of her later film roles, she worked as a stenographer on Bond Street in lower Manhattanmarker during World War I.

Film career

Discovered by Fox Film Studios while she was doing commercial modeling in New York City in the early 1920s, Arthur debuted in the silent film Cameo Kirby (1923), directed by John Ford, and made a few low-budget silent westerns and short comedies. She was selected as one of the WAMPAS Baby Stars in 1929, but she became stuck in ingénue roles. It was her distinctive, throaty voice – in addition to some stage training on Broadwaymarker in the early 1930s – that helped make her a star in the talkies.

In 1935, at age 34, she starred opposite Edward G. Robinson in the gangster farce The Whole Town's Talking, also directed by Ford, and her popularity began to rise. By then, her hair, naturally brunette throughout the silent film portion of her career, was bleached blonde and would stay that way. She was famous for maneuvering to be photographed and filmed almost exclusively from the left; Arthur felt that her left was her best side, and worked hard to keep it in the fore. Frank Capra recounted that producer Harry Cohn described Jean Arthur's imbalanced profile as "half of it's angel, and the other half horse."

The turning point in Jean Arthur's career came when she was chosen by director Frank Capra to star in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. Capra had spotted her in a daily rush from the film Whirlpool in 1934 and convinced Columbia Studios head Harry Cohn to sign her for his next film as a tough newspaperwoman who falls in love with a country bumpkin millionaire. Arthur costarred in three celebrated 1930s Capra films: her role opposite Gary Cooper in 1936 in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town made her a star, while her fame was cemented with You Can't Take It With You (1938) and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington in 1939, both with James Stewart. She was re-teamed with Cooper, playing Calamity Jane in Cecil B. DeMille's The Plainsman (1936), and appeared as a working girl, her typical role, in Mitchell Leisen's 1937 screwball comedy Easy Living opposite Ray Milland. So strong was her box office appeal by 1939 that she was one of four finalists that year for the role of Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind; the film's producer, David O. Selznick, had briefly romanced Arthur in the late 1920s when they both were with Paramount Pictures.

She continued to star in films such as Howard Hawks' Only Angels Have Wings in 1939, with love interest Cary Grant, 1942's The Talk of the Town, directed by George Stevens (also with Grant), and again for Stevens as a government clerk in 1943's The More the Merrier, for which Jean Arthur was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress (losing to Jennifer Jones in The Song of Bernadette). As a result of being in the doghouse with studio boss Harry Cohn, her fee for The Talk of the Town (1942) was only $50,000 while her male co-stars Grant and Ronald Colman received upwards of $100,000 each. Arthur remained Columbia's top star until the mid-1940s, when she left the studio and Rita Hayworth took over as the studio's reigning queen. Stevens famously called her "one of the greatest comediennes the screen has ever seen", while Capra credited her as "my favorite actress".

Arthur "retired" when her contract with Columbia Pictures expired in 1944. She reportedly ran through the studio's streets, shouting "I'm free, I'm free!" For the next several years, she turned down virtually all film offers, the two exceptions being Billy Wilder's A Foreign Affair (1948), in which she played a congresswoman and rival of Marlene Dietrich, and as a homesteader's wife in the classic Western Shane (1953), which turned out to be the biggest box-office hit of her career. The latter was her final film, and the only color film she appeared in.

Arthur's post-retirement work in theater was intermittent, somewhat curtailed by her longstanding shyness and discomfort about her chosen profession. Capra claimed she vomited in her dressing room between scenes, yet emerged each time to perform a flawless take. According to John Oller's biography Jean Arthur: The Actress Nobody Knew (1997), Arthur developed a kind of stage fright punctuated with bouts of psychosomatic illnesses. A prime example was in 1945, when she was cast in the lead of the Garson Kanin play Born Yesterday. Her nerves and insecurity got the better of her and she left the production before it reached Broadway, opening the door for Judy Holliday to take the part.

Arthur did score a major triumph on Broadway in 1950, starring in an adaptation of Peter Pan playing the Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up when she was almost 50. She tackled the role of her namesake, Joan of Arc, in a 1954 stage production of George Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan, but she left the play after a nervous breakdown and battles with director Harold Clurman.


In 1966, the extremely reclusive Arthur tentatively returned to show business, playing Patricia Marshall, an attorney, on her own television sitcom, The Jean Arthur Show, which was cancelled mid-season by CBS after only twelve episodes. Ron Harper played her son, attorney Paul Marshall.

In 1967, she was coaxed back to Broadway to appear as a midwestern spinster who falls in with a group of hippies in the play The Freaking Out of Stephanie Blake. William Goldman, in his book The Season reconstructed the disastrous production, which eventually closed during previews when Arthur refused to go on.

Arthur next decided to teach drama, first at Vassar Collegemarker and then the North Carolina School of the Artsmarker. While teaching at Vassar, she stopped a rather stridently overacted scene performance and directed the students' attention to a large tree growing outside the window of the performance space, advising the students on the art of naturalistic acting: "I wish people knew how to be people as well as that tree knows how to be a tree."

Her students at Vassar included the young Meryl Streep. Arthur recognized Streep's talent and potential very early on and after watching her performance in a Vassar play, Arthur said it was "like watching a movie star."

While living in North Carolina she made front page news by being arrested and jailed for trespassing on a neighbor's property to console a dog she felt was being mistreated. An animal lover her entire life, Arthur said she trusted them more than people.

She turned down the role of the lady missionary in Lost Horizon ( ), the unsuccessful musical remake of the 1937 Frank Capra film of the same name. Then, in 1975, the Broadway play First Monday in October, about the first female Supreme Court justice, was written especially with Arthur in mind, but once again she succumbed to extreme stage fright and quit the production shortly into its out-of-town run in Clevelandmarker. The play went on with Jane Alexander playing the role intended for Arthur.

After the First Monday in October incident, Arthur then retired for good, retreating to her oceanside home in Carmel, Californiamarker, steadfastly refusing interviews until her resistance was broken down by the author of a book on her one-time director Capra. Arthur once famously said that she’d rather have her throat slit than do an interview.


Arthur's first marriage, to photographer Julian Anker in 1928, was annulled after one day. She married producer Frank Ross, Jr. in 1932. They divorced in 1949. Arthur did not have any children.

Death and legacy

Jean Arthur died from heart failure at the age of 90. Her ashes were scattered at sea near Carmel-by-the-Sea, California.

Upon her death film reviewer Charles Champlin wrote the following in the Los Angeles Times:
To at least one teenager in a small town (though I’m sure we were a multitude), Jean Arthur suggested strongly that the ideal woman could be — ought to be — judged by her spirit as well as her beauty… The notion of the woman as a friend and confidante, as well as someone you courted and were nuts about, someone whose true beauty was internal rather than external, became a full-blown possibility as we watched Jean Arthur.

For her contribution to the motion picture industry, Jean Arthur has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Famemarker at 6331 Hollywood Blvd. The Jean Arthur Atrium was her gift to the Monterey Institute of International Studies in Monterey, Californiamarker.

Alternative country artist Robbie Fulks included a song titled "Jean Arthur" on his 1999 compilation The Very Best of Robbie Fulks. The track expounds on the actress's unique personality and style.

Selected filmography

Year Film Role Notes
1923 Cameo Kirby Ann Playdell
1924 Wine of Youth Automobile Reveler Uncredited
1925 Seven Chances Receptionist at country club Uncredited
1926 Under Fire Margaret Cranston
The Mad Racer Short subject
1927 Winners of the Wilderness Bit Role Uncredited
The Masked Menace Faith
1928 Warming Up Mary Post
1929 The Canary Murder Case Alice LaFosse
Stairs of Sand Ruth Hutt
The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu Lia Eltham
The Greene Murder Case Ada Greene
The Saturday Night Kid Janie Alternative title: Love 'Em and Leave 'Em
1930 Street of Chance Judith Marsden
Paramount on Parade Sweetheart (Dream Girl/In a Hospital)
The Return of Dr. Fu Manchu Lia Eltham
Danger Lights Mary Ryan
The Silver Horde Mildred Wayland
1931 The Lawyer's Secret Beatrice Stevens
1933 Get That Venus Margaret Rendleby
1934 Whirlpool Sandra Morrison
1935 The Whole Town's Talking Wilhelmina "Bill" Clark Alternative title: Passport to Fame
Party Wire Marge Oliver
Public Hero No. 1 Maria Theresa "Terry" O'Reilly
Diamond Jim Jane Matthews/Emma
If You Could Only Cook Joan Hawthorne
1936 Mr. Deeds Goes to Town Babe Bennett
The Ex-Mrs. Bradford Paula Bradford
Adventure in Manhattan Claire Peyton Alternative title: Manhattan Madness
The Plainsman Calamity Jane
More Than a Secretary Carol Baldwin
1937 History Is Made at Night Irene Vail
Easy Living Mary Smith
1938 You Can't Take It with You Alice Sycamore
1939 Only Angels Have Wings Bonnie Lee
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington Clarissa Saunders
1940 Too Many Husbands Vicky Lowndes Alternative title: My Two Husbands
Arizona Phoebe Titus
1941 The Devil and Miss Jones Mary Jones
1942 The Talk of the Town Miss Nora Shelley
1943 The More the Merrier Constance "Connie" Milligan Nominated: Academy Award for Best Actress
A Lady Takes a Chance Molly J. Truesdale Alternative title: The Cowboy and the Girl
1944 The Impatient Years Janie Anderson
1948 A Foreign Affair Congresswoman Phoebe Frost
1953 Shane Marian Starrett
Year Title Role Notes
1965 Gunsmoke Julie Blane 1 episode
1966 The Jean Arthur Show Patricia Marshall 11 episodes


  1. Harvey 1987, p. 351.
  2. Osborne, Robert, during the January 2007 Turner Classic Movies 17-film salute to Arthur.
  3. 1900 US Census Plattsburgh, NY & 1910 US Census Cumberland, ME
  4. genealogy
  5. Capra 1971, p. 184.
  6. Oller 1997, p. 84.
  7. Capra 1971, pp. 184–185.
  8. Jean Arthur at Screen Classics
  9. TCM Movie Database
  10. IBDB "First Monday in October." Retrieved: September 3, 2009.
  11. Parish 2002, p. 92.
  12. Oliver, Myrna. "Jean Arthur Dies; Comedy Film Star of the '30s and '40s.", June 20, 1991. Retrieved: September 3, 2009.
  13. Sarvady et al. 2006, p. 17.
  14. Duncan, Paul. "Jean Arthur"., January 1, 2001. Retrieved: February 26, 2009.
  15. Champlin, Charles. "An Appreciation - Jean Arthur's Legacy of Indelible Performances - Movies: The actress, who died Wednesday at 90, brought a striking beauty, a unique voice and spirit to the roles that established her fame." June 20, 1991. Retrieved: September 3, 2009.


  • Capra, Frank. Frank Capra, The Name Above the Title: An Autobiography. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1971. ISBN 0-30680-771-8.
  • Harvey, James. Romantic Comedy in Hollywood: From Lubitsch to Sturges. New York: Knopf, 1987. ISBN 0-39450-339-2.
  • Oller, John. Jean Arthur: The Actress Nobody Knew. New York: Limelight Editions, 1997. ISBN 0-87910-278-0.
  • Parish, James Robert. The Hollywood Book of Death: The Bizarre, Often Sordid, Passings of More Than 125 American Movie and TV Idols. New York: Contemporary Books, 2002. ISBN 0-809-22227-2.
  • Parish, James Robert. The Hollywood Book of Extravagance: The Totally Infamous... Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley and Sons, 2007. ISBN 978-0470052051.
  • Sarvady, Andrea, Molly Haskell and Frank Miller. Leading Ladies: The 50 Most Unforgettable Actresses of the Studio Era. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2006. ISBN 0-811-85248-2.

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