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Jean Arthur

February 17, 2013

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A slightly different post this time out as I watched two very enjoyable movies starring Jean Arthur and thought I would write a little more generally about her as well as tackle them both. I’m not sure how well remembered she is these days. A few of her films, ‘Mr Deeds Goes to Town’ and ‘Mr Smith goes to Washington’ are quoted as greats of the 30s but wouldn’t really rank amongst my favourites of hers and I’d guess even a lot of people who consider themselves film buffs wouldn’t know her or how huge she was.

She is to me a very strange type of movie star, extremely closely identified with screwball comedy but never quite feeling like she fits in it. She doesn’t often play the kooky heiress or ever really get too animated or swept off her feet. She might sometimes venture into a screwball park avenue setting, ‘Easy Living’ comes to mind, maybe ‘You Can’t Take it With You’, but she is generally the voice of down to earth common sense showing the wayward scion of wealth real life and real love. Essentially she’s playing the role Clark Gable plays in ‘It Happened One Night’ or Cary Grant did opposite Hepburn or Dunne and William Powell kind of did for Myrna Loy, mixing in a little worldliness. Even in the Capra movies where Jimmy Stewart or Gary Cooper win her over she is a working city girl with bills to pay and he own skills. She might see something she misses in their small town sincerity but she’s no screwball heroine. At least not in the way the phrase was coined and the genre was seen at the time.
Even in an era when female leads were regularly in their mid 30s or early 40s she isn’t ‘sexy’ in a traditional way. I think this is largely down to her own discomfort, as soon as she is taken out of her element she kind of freezes and she was quite damning about her own attractiveness at times but by the late 30s the studios had found out what worked. It probably wasn’t promotional pics like this one…

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She’s quick witted and pretty and she has a knowing voice but it’s always a very quiet, intellectually led attractiveness. She was apparently more of a traditional, sexy flapper lead in the twenties but she herself always put down her performances from that era and both the audiences and ultimately the studios came to agree. It was only with wordy, middle class, shop girls and journalists that she came into her own. Girls the hero would marry at the end after jousting with throughout not someone they’d fall for immediately. A female lead who needed the buttoned down world of post-Hays Code Hollywood to save her from being outshone by the exotic glamour girls. Someone who every time she spoke to the male lead gave the impression there was so much going on underneath that they, and I guess me, get all worked up wanting to catch up.

The earlier of the two movies I just watched was 1936’s ’Adventure in Manhattan’ where she co-stars with Joel McCrea.

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I’d previously seen them paired together in 1943’s ‘The More The Merrier’ where Arthur, in her mid 40s but playing unmarried and chaste got a rare oscar nod. There she and McCrea share a really warm chemistry. Sexy in a slightly low key, last chance of happiness rather than young lust way. Here in her mid 30s she plays a showgirl, a star actress to his standard Hollywood newspaper hotshot. Ok she’s playing a nurse in a serious play about World War 1 rather than on the end of a chorus line but it’s a touch of Broadway glamour all the same and there isn’t any tinge of sadness or self mocking to her flirting. Here she knows what she has and it is McCrea who needs to measure up to her.

It’s billed as a comedy but I’m not sure that’s right. It’s a mystery and another of the early talkies era’s many love letters to the hard boiled New York newspaper world so many writers had left behind. Oh it’s definitely funny but only in that it has a sharp script and a nice, nasty way with a put down. Nothing happens for comic effect, it’s a straight, if also straightforward, mystery with Arthur on hand to fall far McCrea while also trying to bring down him down a peg or two. The humour almost all comes from their sparring not the situations or gags.

McCrea’s reporter stakes his reputation on solving a series of art and jewel robberies only to give away most of his methods while trying to impress Arthur and fall on his face. She plays an actress who came into his life when she was hired by McCrea’s tired colleagues to trick him and teach him a lesson about arrogance.

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This recognition that McCrea’s character, while charming and talented, must also be a little insufferable and the way his workmates just want to quietly get on with their jobs was a lot of fun. It’s an antidote to the free spirited kookiness that infects so many of these movies where you do sometimes think the young lovers would get punched for acting the way they do. Yes McCrea and Arthur make a cute couple and their flirting is the highlight of the movie but this is a movie that also wants to take itself seriously as a newspaper film and it gets across that however big he is in his head the paper is bigger.

The mystery isn’t all that hard to work out, it’s there in plain sight (and spoilered on the DVD cover) with no unfair twists so you are largely left caring about Arthur and McCrea and both leads earn that emotional involvement well. For all his arrogance McCrea does have charm and a touch of vulnerability that means that when he fails it feels like what he needs to knock him into shape and earn Arthur’s love. She on the other hand is a fairly reactive presence, always ready with the short quip at the end of McCrea’s monologue that has you forgetting him and treasuring her. It’s an excellent part for her.

I also saw 1940’s ‘Too Many Husbands’, released at the same time as the Cary Grant/Irene Dunne ‘My Favourite Wife’ it has an almost identical, if gender reversed, plot. After Arthur’s adventurous first husband, Fred McMurray, is lost at sea she remarries solid lawyer Melvyn Douglas. A year later McMurray is found alive and she is in danger of being arrested for bigamy.

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Having seen the Grant vehicle a bunch of times it took me a while to get over the similarities here. However they end up being very different movies. There is absolutely no reason for Grant to choose his current wife over the returning Irene Dunne but here Arthur seems genuinely confused over which way to go before taking charge of the situation and coming up with a solution of her own.
This is the closest Arthur gets to playing the Park Avenue heiress, she obviously comes from money and doesn’t need either husband to get by but she is also very much a grown up woman who it is shown wants as much male attention as she can get and is if anything dissatisfied with what is on offer from both of her husbands prior to the decision. It is nowehere near as funny as ‘My Favourite Wife’ but it is a lot more real.

McMurray is charming and attractive and his usual slightly forceful slightly macho self, you can see what she sees in him and Douglas automatically assumes that Arthur will return to him. Douglas plays the unshowy dedicated husband role well, I’ve noted in other reviews that he is very good at allowing actresses space to shine and he does that here as well. Both actors get a series of romantic scenes with Arthur and you, like her, are won around to each ones corner in turn.

I liked the fact that Arthur clearly likes and wants both husbands and is able to say that neither really gave her the attention she needed when they weren’t competing for her. While it would be interesting to see what Arthur could have done in an era where women weren’t so defined by marriage and their choice of men it is at least her saying that she wants more than either of them bring to the table. Her solution to the problem definitely leaves her options open.

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I liked Arthur’s chemistry with both of the leads, an area where it definitely differs from ‘My favourite Wife’ where as the title suggests only one of the female leads has much to offer. I liked it least when the two guys gang up on Arthur and their egos are bruised, it is at that point that the sexism and the dated nature of the relationships is most evident. I also really liked an early scene where Arthur talks to her husband’s secretary and finds out that she has loved and fantasised about marrying both men. I kind of wondered whether that would be used as a solution to the problem but in fact the secretary never appears again. Both McMurray and Douglas seem to be actors who were happy with their films really being about the female lead and both built good careers as handsome, funny and desirable leads who would in the end never steal the limelight from the women.

Neither film is outstanding, IMDB has them both between 6 and 7 out of 10 and that feels about right but they are both very good vehicles for Arthur and allow her to display her wit, humour and warmth well. As always she feels like the most modern thing in each film and you are left wondering whether she was actually constrained by the gender roles of the time. On the other hand if society has definitely moved on I’m not sure Hollywood has as much, I can’t think of many 40 something comic actresses playing the intelligent romantic lead in as many films that were clearly built around them.
And she does only seem to work in movies built around her or where she brings the weight of real life to proceedings, I feel she gets lost in both ‘Only Angels have Wings’ for Howard Hawks opposite Cary grant, just out of her element in the exotic setting, less flashy than Rita Hayworth and unable to force her way into Hawks and Grant’s male bonding. Give her some a movie where she has a lot more about her than the male lead and a few knowing older foils to play off and she is an absolute delight.

‘Too Many Husbands’ is available on (Region 1) DVD in the ‘Icons of Screwball Comedy box set. Adventures in Manhattan is available in a Jean Arthur comedy box set available only from TCM.com’s website but I got it on it’s own from Lovingtheclassics.com

I don’t know a lot about loving the classic’s methods but I got a really nice transfer DVD shipped from the states both quickly and affordably and they offer a huge range of obscure 30s movies.

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6 Comments
  1. A very nice appreciation of an under-rated actress! It always seems to me that Jean Arthur portrays vulnerability better than most.

    • Thanks, yes she does have a really rare vulnerability, she has a really reactive face, I guess most great actors do but I love the way she can show so many different things during a single close up.

      Do you have a favourite movie of hers?

      • Well, I absolutely love Only Angels have Wings for so many reasons, including her performance.

      • I need to rewatch that. I’ve quite fancied reviewing some Howard Hawks movies for a while.

  2. The Devil and Miss Jones is one of my real favourites, and one I didn’t mention in the piece. It seems like one where she is in total control of what she is good at. Its a very accomplished performance and the script really suits her delivery.

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