Bright Lights Film Journal

Book review: Jean Arthur, by John Oller

Jean Arthur: The Actress Nobody Knew, by John Oller (New York: Limelight Editions, 1999), Trade paper, $18.95, 358pp, ISBN 0-87910-278-0.

Jean Arthur would seem to be an impossible subject for a biography. The actress, who died in 1991 at the age of 90, was so reclusive she made Garbo look like a party doll. Interviews exist, but not many; fan magazine profiles inevitably puzzled over her, disgusted by an actress who refused to promote her own career. Her autograph is probably rarer than Garbo’s, and she left little in the way of writings, no diaries and not much correspondence. Her stage career was based more on quality than quantity, consisting of a mere 17 appearances, some of which were in plays that closed after a single performance.

Fortunately for author John Oller, Arthur made a substantial number of films (89) and, more importantly in trying to unravel this tricky subject, she made a strong impression — negative, positive, sometimes both — on practically everybody she encountered, from fellow actors to her stage and film directors to students in her teaching classes to secretaries and stage hands. They’ve provided Oller with a wealth of history and anecdotal detail. What emerges is a surprisingly detailed, highly readable account of a complex woman whose integrity and perfectionism — and sometimes pettiness and even arrogance — both fueled her work and undermined it at almost every turn.

Arthur’s high reputation persists on the basis of stage triumphs in Peter Pan and other plays, and supremely of unforgettable performances in screwball comedies like George Stevens’s The More the Merrier, Capra films like Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and You Can’t Take It with You, and Borzage’s dreamy History Is Made at Night. Behind her luminous face and trademark husky voice, according to Oller, was a woman tormented by self-doubt and neurosis who could be charming one minute and a harridan the next. These qualities surfaced quite early in her career before she developed her loathing of the fan magazines. In 1928 she told an interviewer, “I’m hard-boiled now. I don’t expect anything” — harsh words indeed for “a girl of 20,” as she said she was. (She was actually 28; like most stars, Arthur wasn’t above lying about her age.) Each rejection — and there were many early on — was accompanied by crying jags and nervous fits that would only get worse as time went on. Arthur’s early films must have been difficult for the highly intelligent, well-read, sophisticated woman Oller portrays; they were mostly horse operas and slapstick comedies, along with walk-ons in bigger pictures. Hollywood didn’t know how to use her at first: in Paramount on Parade (1930), the musically ungifted actress performed two numbers.

But Arthur’s striking personality shone through by the early 1930s, and she gave memorable performances in a series of films that are remembered today as much for her presence as anything else. In spite of consistent success and critical raves, though, she continued to struggle with anxiety. Capra says she threw up before and after every scene in one of his films (in an inspired phrase he says “those weren’t butterflies in her stomach, they were wasps!”). She was as intransigent as some of the Warners women like Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland in fighting the studios’ manipulations. Being contracted to Columbia, she had it worse, having to fend off mogul Harry Cohn’s capricious career choices and his crude sexual advances. Here her stubbornness paid off in 1938 with a new contract that was one of the body blows to the studios’ control over actors.

Arthur’s disgust with the machinery of stardom led her inexorably to the stage; more respectable, perhaps, but equally or even more problematic for an actress of her skittish sensibilities. Much of the book is taken up with the wildly dramatic struggle of producers, directors, and friends to get Arthur to go on stage and stay there through the run of a play. This was mostly a vain effort. Arthur gravitated to the counterculture and agreed in 1967 to do a play called The Freaking Out of Stephanie Blake. Riddled with pot-smoking stage hands, props that wouldn’t work (one nearly fell on Arthur’s head), and actors who didn’t show up, the play closed after the first night. Oller’s account of these events is hilarious, particularly his description of a crazed Arthur kneeling before an audience begging them to let her leave the stage. She alienated so many of her coworkers that the author probably couldn’t list them all without doubling the book’s page count. Still, she had her defenders who forgave her endless disappearing act from life, and this was equally due to her winning personality (when she wanted it to be) and her fierce talent.

Her Peter Pan, the best ever according to some observers of the time, made her more enemies than friends but was a huge success while it lasted. It was not a smooth production, however; Arthur nearly crippled it when she came down with one of her many “viral infections” that she seemed able to will into existence in times of stress. Besides the obvious mental relief she got from running away from innumerable commitments, she could spend time indulging her favorite activities: interior decorating, reading, philosophy, and playing with her animals. She found little solace in religion but pursued self-realization through mentors like Erich Fromm. She was also an eloquent observer of politics from the left. “The wrong people are running the country,” she said, speaking of Nixon and his cronies. “You only have to look at their brutal faces to know that.”

The author doesn’t delve too far into Arthur’s alleged lesbianism (which writers like Boze Hadleigh have taken for granted). Several things point in that direction: her slightly masculine manner and voice, her lack of interest in motherhood, her almost pathological refusal to wear a dress even when a role demanded it, and most of all the fact that she spent the last decades of her life with devoted “unmarried army nurse” Ellen Mastroianni. But Arthur was so secretive about everything, even with Mastroianni in some areas, that this will probably never be verifiable.

The book attempts some psychoanalysis on his elusive subject — perhaps appropriate given Arthur’s fascination with therapy and her friendship with Fromm. But these sections are the only labored note here, adding an unnecessarily speculative touch to a book that’s well grounded in the topsy-turvy reality of Arthur’s life and art.