Four Reasons Why You Should Know and Appreciate Jean Arthur

Jean ArthurCary Grant, James Stewart, Gary Cooper. Long departed Hollywood stars with their cinematic presence preserved with a wealth of adoring fans. They share the same connection, co-starring with Jean Arthur. Despite Arthur appearing with Grant, Stewart and Cooper amongst others she seems unappreciated within the wider spectrum of Hollywood’s Golden Age.

So who is Jean Arthur? Breaking into the film industry in 1923 after a teenage modelling career, Arthur had high hopes. However lengthy periods in small scale features barely made an impression, she gave up on Hollywood and returned to New York. Yet Hollywood once more came calling again via Columbia Pictures where Arthur received her breakthrough role in The Whole Town’s Talking (1935). Arthur then went from strength to strength starring in Oscar winning pictures such as Mr Deeds Goes To Town (1936) and You Can’t Take It With You (1938).

In spite of Arthur’s growing success, arguably it was small scale compared to her counterparts. Retiring from Hollywood after Shane (1953), beforehand she had refusing a number of film roles which landed her in regular trouble with Columbia Pictures. The filmography Arthur built up falls behind her former pears (46 out of her 95 features are silent films most of which are lost or destroyed) contributing to her unappreciated status.

Though this is undeserved. With her enchanting voice, vigorous performances and sustainable screen chemistry, Jean Arthur had and was capable of being recognized as a major player in Hollywood’s Golden Age. Here are four reasons why.

4. Her distinctive voice

Despite Arthur describing her voice as “a foghorn” out of insecurity, to many it became a distinctive trademark to her screen persona. It gave Arthur an edge depending on the characters she played. If audiences study The Whole Town’s Talking, Arthur’s enchanting vocals added attitude to her self-assured character. This is evident immediately from her opening scene.

Arthur’s comic precision in her opening lines draws audiences into her character. It is a testament to Arthur’s vocal advantages charming the audience. Every moment is one grasping for immediate attention which also worked for her more dramatic roles.

In the dramatic climax of Mr Deeds Goes to Town, Bennett sees her amoral ways to defend Deeds from ridicule. Gasping in sheer desperation by pouring her pleas, Arthur had the capability to direct dialogue into raw emotional power. From a personal perspective this film’s climax had atmosphere because Arthur, with her distinctive voice, reached emotional ranges exactly when it was needed.

3. The bad girl with a heart of gold

Though by no means a unique trait in cinematic roles, Arthur’s portrayal of tough women with ultimately sympathetic cores can be seen across a number of her films. Most prominently in Mr Smith Goes To Washington (1939) as hardened political security Clarissa Saunders. In this Capracorn classic (referring to the social and/or political optimism of Frank Capra’s films) young idealistic politician Jefferson Smith learns the immorality and corruption within the Senate. Long immersed to these qualities is Clarissa, who playfully mocks Smith’s idealism whilst secretly admiring him. This is best illustrated when Clarissa explains how to propose a Senate bill.

How to Propose a Bill according to Jean Arthur

Giving Smith a stern lesson, Arthur manages to convey a underlining element of protectiveness in Clarissa. An inkling of a nurturing instinct that later becomes evident as Smith heads towards triumph. Arthur’s conviction is so natural that on my part its remote from acting.

In a more light hearted feature, The Ex – Mrs Bradford (1936), Paula (Arthur) reunites with her Ex-Husband Brad in a loving scene before tricking him into receiving a subpoena. Clearly Paula has a mean streak yet her good natured side soon appears. Brad leads a murder-mystery case becoming embroiled with scheming men and women. Paula soon lends herself as an amateur stealth assisting Brad towards solving the case. Her qualities warms audiences to Paula’s personality as she becomes equally attractive and comical.

2. Vulnerability and strength

Frank Capra referred to Jean Arthur as an actress who “could do anything, could express love or hate or anything else”. This was proven time and time again as Arthur engaged emotional realms at ease. In the testosterone environment of Only Angels Have Wings (1939) Bonnie Lee (Arthur) had to quickly adapt following an unexpected death.

Cary Grant. Jean Arthur. Only Angels Have Wings. Peanut Vendor.

Having previously been in complete despair Bonnie assimilated into the harsh realities of cargo flying headed by Geoff Carter (Cary Grant). Just when you think Bonnie has truly assimilated herself Carter asks “who’s Charlie?” which to Bonnie’s clear sorrow but gritty determination denies the recently deceased’s existence. With Only Angels Have Wings audiences followed Bonnie’s experiences so Arthur had the task of emoting a traumatic, on the edge lifestyle, succeeding with gusto due to her performance’s variety of emotions.

This could be witnessed in an earlier feature, the melodrama Whirlpool (1934). Arthur played Sandra Morrison who reunites with her biological Father years after believing he died. Buck (Jack Holt) had only faked his death to give his Wife (Sandra’s Mother) a better chance at life. Their relationship blossoms on the underlying factor of Buck’s criminal dealings which builds to a melodramatic finale. Vainly attempting to save Buck’s life, Arthur conveyed suffering in Sandra’s plight. This escalated to Whirlpool‘s closing moments when Sandra listened to reports of Buck’s demise, her Mother’s dismissive attitude unbeknown to the irony involved. The final close-up of Sandra looking out and losing herself towards the skyline. It made for a emotionally provoking end to Whirlpool thanks to Arthur expressing a silent strength internalized by grief.

1. Screen Chemistry

As noted at the beginning of this article Arthur had co-starred with numerous leading men. By her own admission Arthur’s best screen chemistry was with Gary Cooper stating “He was so terrific-looking, and so easy to work with”. Reflecting on their work together it’s easy to see Arthur’s reminiscent carefree nature.

Mr Deeds Goes to Town

With their chemistry surging it’s hard not to be charmed by this candid moment with the endearing side Arthur unravels within Bennett’s attraction for Deeds. One can notice the carefree atmosphere this scene contains which adds to Arthur and Cooper’s chemistry. This did not diminish in their second and final film appearance together in The Plainsman (1937).

Their clash of personalities along with variations of feelings towards each other firmly established a past history which The Plainsman explored. This comes down to chemistry, a vivaciously that is a part of the dramatic and comical nature of both Mr Deeds Goes To Town and The Plainsman advanced in part by Jean Arthur’s extraordinary talent.

Arthur also showed this with her collaborations with Cary Grant. In Only Angels Have Wings, Bonnie and Geoff slowly bond amongst their clash of personalities as shown in this scene.


In terms of performance Arthur and Grant bounce off one another. The whimsical nature of Bonnie, concealing a schoolgirl crush for Geoff while he overbears his masculinity, trying to hide his true feelings. The continuation of their relationship as it continues to clash and develop made for quality drama. Their worthwhile chemistry had similar results in The Talk of the Town (1942).

Since their characters in The Talk of the Town have a past history, Arthur and Grant had to be convincing acquaintances. Clearly from this scene as a spectator one can take assumptions of the character’s previous relationship forming throughout The Talk of the Town. A testament to Arthur and Grant’s screen chemistry which were part Only Angels Have Wings and The Talk of the Town‘s contextual quality.

Those who are fond of Classic Hollywood cinema should defiantly take time to familiarize themselves with Jean Arthur. There is always something enjoyable in Arthur’s performances. Performances which blossom with vigor that audiences can truly appreciate.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. Amelia Roberts

    I’d not heard of Arthur before now, but this article both provides a good introduction and background to who she was and gives really interesting detail about her style. The clips are excellent. Thank you!

  2. Kristin

    She’s my favorite underrated actress of all time. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was the first Jean Arthur movie I saw – maybe that’s why it’s my favorite as I’ve loved everything I’ve seen, except Shane.

  3. Saul Koth

    More people should know about Arthur, excellent clip choices. A rarely shown Arthur movie is the terrific The Devil and Miss Jones. This is my favorite of her’s!

  4. Jean was a star who found her way up from a series of B westerns in which she played the pretty ingenues, but her later career proved her to be an A-list star. Her films (especially those directed by Capra) were a series of hits.

    Sadly, however, she retired “early” and was not one of the major stars of the 50s although she returned to work on SHANE. In any case, a definite A lister in her days.

    • Certainly is a shame that Arthur retired early. She was given opportunities to reprise her film career over the years but rejected them all.

  5. Jon Lisi
    Jon Lisi

    Great article and I like that you wrote about Hollywood’s classical period. We need more of that on this website (or any website)!

  6. I was going to respond with something very academic and addressing your points…but I’m just bowled over by the fact that you talked about Jean Arthur. I’ve always thought she was underrated; one of the best of the fast-talking women. Talk of the Town is a revelation. Awesome.

    • Thanks for your comment Lauren. The Talk of the Town was greatly dynamic between Arthur, Grant and Ronald Colman, fantastic entertainment.

  7. Robert Humphrey

    I’ve heard of Jean Arthur, but admittedly am not very familiar with her work. Thank you for the in depth introduction to her that I feel is much needed. I’d also like to thank you for spotlighting an era of cinema that seems to be so unfortunately thrown by the wayside in today’s society. With many people I know, if it isn’t a big-budget action film with explosions and CGI then it isn’t worth seeing. This makes me weep for humanity. I feel for my friends who think of film in this way because they are missing out on such great cinema from the era Miss Arthur worked in. Such a great time for film.

    • Thanks for the comment Bobby. I also don’t understand the mere requirements of CGI and special-effects somehow meant to result in great film. I much prefer films with deep characterisation and meaningful quality.

  8. Camille Brouard

    I had never heard of Jean Arthur before, I always appreciate learning about new things! Thanks for a great read.

  9. You’re welcome Camille 🙂

  10. Her voice is amazing! Great article!

  11. Great article! I think everyone interested in film and Tv should watch as many classics as possible to understand just how modern entertainment is influenced by everything that’s come before it. Classic actresses are some of the most intriguing celebrities who ever existed.

    • Thanks Thomas. I agree that modern audiences should understand classic films and TV and appreciate them. Instead they either are ignorant to them or choose to be uninteresting simply because its old.

  12. Bravo! We all LOVE Jean Arthur in our house! she never fails to uplift one’s spirit! I only wish I had been her friend or neighbor as she is my cup of tea . . . did you know she was arrested by her neighbors for feeding their puppy some food as they left it tied up outside for eons to bark and starve!
    She is Joan of Arc to me. . . and chose her name Jean from Joan of Arc and Arthur from King Arthur!! How righteous she was, as she lived up to both names perfectly.

  13. Jt Parker

    Great Actress!! You forget she is acting because she is so good you believe it is really happening.

  14. I’m watching “Talk Of TheTown ” right now. Jean has always been fun to watch. A memorable scene form another movie, “The More The Merrier” is where she and Joel McCray are on the steps of her apartment. So well done!

  15. Sara Clements

    Jean has always been one of my favorites since I saw her in A Foreign Affair. It’s sad that she is so underrated because she could easily be right up there with the “icons” of the 1930s and 1940s.

  16. Sharon Gallup

    I have many of Jean Arthur’s movies and I agree with you points. Jean Arthur was a most unique woman actress in her time or any time. Frank Capra himself said “she was his favorite actress”. She really could play any part. I love her effortless sense of humor. Jimmy Stewart said “she was the finest actress” he ever worked with. In my opinion, she is very underrated and known. Although Turner Classic Movies is a fan of her and on August 28th they are going to play many of her best films. She is definitely one of a kind – and deserves more accolades for the wonderful actress she truly was!

  17. Actually she isn’t as well known today as some of the past big stars of the 30’s and 40’s but at Columbia Pictures when she was queen of the lot
    (along with her loan outs to other studios) she never made a movie that didn’t turn a profit. The reason Jean Athur stopped making movies was because she felt there just weren’t quality roles for her. Throughout the 50’s and 60’s she turned down several movie roles feeling that they were inferior.

  18. Todd Norris

    Since Arthur was well into her thirties before she hit her comedic stride, the film world is fortunate she persevered through her many insecurities to even become such a one-of-a-kind leading lady. The warmth and likeability she oozed on the screen seemed to always translate into a natural chemistry with her co-stars, even crusty old Charles Coburn. I would also add Joel McCrea and Alan Ladd to your list of great Jean Arthur pairings. Each actor gave one of his finest film performances in her presence, which can probably be safely said for all of her leading men. Despite her stage fright and solitary ways, when the film was rolling, her extraordinary talent was on full display and brought out the best in everyone around her. She’s my all-time favorite, no contest. Thanks for your fine article.

  19. Good to know if her role in Mr. Smith goes to Washington and very much a role harkening back to an older time from the movie’s perspective.

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