“Funny, tender, a little neurotic, a little erotic, and always spontaneous …”
A Foreign Affair (1948) is a blunt Billy Wilder comedy set amid the ruins of Berlin, and it’s loaded with his cynical, hammering joke lines. Its leading lady, Jean Arthur, is close to 50 years old. So is her rival, an ageless, worldly Marlene Dietrich, who makes Arthur look as American and unexciting as corn flakes. Everything is against Arthur in this film, especially in the first half, where her Iowan Congresswoman character is written as a cartoon old maid fit for a low-level sixties sitcom (Andrew Sarris chastised Wilder for “brutalizing” the actress). Arthur had played incipient old maid types several times with some success in her mid-thirties heyday, but this is different: there’s no tenderness for her in this picture, and she is clearly old enough to be a real, confirmed old maid. Her famous foghorn voice, which comes directly from her nose, has lowered and hardened, so that she often sounds like a hung-over Julie Harris. To signal her disapproval at couples necking in the street, she raises her upper lip into an Elvis-lip snarl, a mannerism that had served her well in her great roles, but which seems caricaturish here. In the first half of A Foreign Affair, let’s just say that Arthur gives the material exactly what it needs, or deserves.
Yet when her Phoebe Frost (that name!) is supposed to be melted by love (for John Lund!), Arthur manages to transform herself, and the movie, into something almost otherworldly. She does it all herself, withdrawing from Wilder, and Dietrich, and even Lund (you would too) so that she can share her hopes with us directly. When Phoebe talks about a man she once loved, a senator from the South, Arthur stops the slick, commercial mentality of the film dead in its tracks, speaking softly, slowly, then slower still, even dropping into a slight Southern drawl in honor of this man from her past. (it’s like a continuation of one of Arthur’s best scenes, her aria about love on a Coney Island beach in the ingenious pro-union comedy The Devil and Miss Jones, 1941). Arthur’s inspiring rumination about love here ends with a joke line, but the actress has altered the mood of the movie so powerfully that Phoebe begins to seem almost touching, even when she hysterically recites “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere,” while dodging behind file cabinets to avoid Lund’s craven advances.
After this scene, Arthur even begins to undercut the jokes with real emotion, as when she turns a bitchy line about a big black dress she’s wearing (she says it looks like “a circus tent in mourning for an elephant that died”) into a heartfelt, innocent lament. Asked to compete with the monstrous, glittering Dietrich, Arthur looks scared for quite a while, but she more than holds her own once her character has blossomed, especially when she’s called upon to sing the “The Iowa Corn Song” in a decadent Berlin nightclub. She begins it tentatively, but soon builds it into a delightfully incongruous “rah-rah” anthem. The triumph of her song, and her performance in A Foreign Affair, can be seen as a metaphor for the courage it took for the perennially uncertain, anti-social Arthur to have a film career at all. The last scene, where she aggressively yanks chairs away in her pursuit of Lund, shows the toughness that the softy Arthur had to develop to get what she wanted in Hollywood.
A loner from the beginning, Arthur began her film career in the twenties, where she did leading-lady duty in many no-budget Westerns. She often lived with her parents, but was close to no one; she retreated from the world around her with books and classical music records, and probably had a screw or two loose somewhere. Movie chances came and went, and Arthur took what she could get for years and years without getting anywhere. A prickly bit part in Buster Keaton’s Seven Chances (1925) shows that she could have handled character comedy if anybody had thought to let her: Arthur at her best turns any material into romantic comedy, but she had to wait patiently for the mid-thirties screwball vogue to pick her up. “I want my break,” she said in a late twenties interview. “I’ve got to get it before I quit. If I do get it, perhaps I won’t be able to quit.” Such whimsical desperation appealed to few.
When talkies came in, an affair with David O. Selznick got her slightly better parts, but she was usually stuck in colorless dramas, and got typecast as wimpy women. Her left profile was so much more attractive than her right side that she often looked like a different person from different angles, and this problem hampered her as well. Arthur brings a distinctive flighty quality to her role in The Silver Horde (1930), but this flightiness is revealed as snobbism as the film goes on, and the snobbiness suits her, disastrously. Arthur puts all of herself on screen, even her unattractive aspects: her nervous sarcasm, her blithe irresponsibility, her prudishness. She’s vulnerable, and has difficulty standing up for herself at the best of times. Like the working-girl Depression heroines she came to typify, Arthur had to go through a lot of tedious work before she succeeded. In Danger Lights (1930), she’s so unconfident and pallid that she seems hopeless, like a thoroughly demoralized starlet.
Completely fed up by the early thirties, Arthur wisely went to New York and gained some stage experience. She didn’t set the world on fire yet, but she did learn ways of turning her fears to her advantage. When Arthur went back to Hollywood and signed at a low-budget studio, Columbia, it’s worth stressing that she was already thirty-four years old and had been trying to get a break for more than ten years. Stories are legion about Arthur’s stage fright and terror of failure, but it seems clear that she had a core of stubbornness. She survived a very bad motherlove weepie called The Most Precious Thing in Life (1934), and then, as if by magic, all her bad luck changed when she appeared, spruced-up and nearly platinum blond, in John Ford’s The Whole Town’s Talking (1935). After that, Arthur seemed to make nothing but hits: she just had to wait on top of that double-decker Hollywood bus long enough for a fur coat to fall on her head, as it does in one of her best films, Easy Living (1937). When Arthur looks perplexed at the sudden good fortune the fur coat implies, an inscrutable, be-turbaned man says, “Kismet.” No wonder Arthur was so jumpy; she found you had to work at luck, or, as one of her characters might say, you don’t fall into a tub of butter, you jump. Even if you’re afraid of heights.
In The Whole Town’s Talking, Arthur seems to know that this is her big chance, so she works a little too hard for her effects, but this is the kind of performance that gets you noticed, a red flag. She lingers over her vowels and savors every moment she has on screen, really stressing her unusual voice, which sounds both husky and coy, and employing a kind of physical swagger that she never used again. Arthur bares her teeth here a lot to show she’s in on any joke, and she does a perfect double take, a dewy eye blink, after Edward G. Robinson kisses her (Arthur is a master of the delayed comic reaction, usually accompanied by a “Hey!” a “Say!” or a “Golly!”). The performance is impressive mainly because Arthur is playing a woman so far away from herself. She moved closer to her own fuzzy, idealistic personality in the films that followed, with results that were both troubling and sublime.
First, the troubling side. Arthur consolidated her stardom in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), the first of three films she made for Frank Capra. She became the emblem for Capra’s increasingly confused championing of “love thy neighbor” as a solvent for all the world’s ills. And if you didn’t feel like loving your neighbor, well, Capra did not shrink from the idea that demagoguery or the cult of a dictatorial personality might be a good way to keep people in line. Don’t be smart, Capra cries, be natural! He naively thinks that if everyone is just “natural” that everyone will be kind. Capra’s mid-period films with Arthur are so rigged, self-pitying and unresolved, yet so well-made on a technical level, that they can be taken to mean any number of things. They are the filmic equivalent of good-looking bullies who don’t know a damn thing, and Arthur increasingly let herself become their spokeswoman.
But if you love Arthur, there are things to cherish in these condescending Capra films, especially the whole intense mid-section of Mr. Deeds, where her hardboiled reporter softens for Gary Cooper. That Arthur never seems truly tough to begin with in either this film or You Can’t Take It with You (1938) or Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) is something of a confidence trick for the director. But nothing can take away from Arthur’s poetic need to believe in something, or her detailed drunk scene in Mr. Smith, where she forlornly wonders if she should marry Thomas Mitchell. And in the big climaxes of these three movies, Arthur has a purity of intention, and an instinctive need to fight injustice, that feels personal and complete and does not need to be grouped with Capra’s intentions, whatever they might have been.
On to the sublime. Arthur carried her moving rapport with Gary Cooper further as a lip-sticked Calamity Jane in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Plainsman (1936), claptrap redeemed by shy feelings between the actors, who go even deeper into their own world together than they did in Mr. Deeds (in later years, Arthur said of Cooper, “If I had married him, he wouldn’t have gotten cancer and died,” a remark that exactly catches her out-of-touch, eccentric romanticism). In a small, well-made film like Party Wire (1935), she dominates the whole enterprise with her hurt feelings, which she always manages to make exciting (perhaps Arthur felt that if she had to be so touchy, she might as well enjoy her touchiness as much as possible, so she began to stylize it).
More Than a Secretary (1935) underlines her bluestocking quality and sell-by date; her leading man, George Brent, rather meanly tells her, “I can see at a glance that you’re over 25.” Hurt maybe, but unbowed, she gives one of her most vivid comic performances, taking off her secretarial glasses, fighting for clueless but cute Brent, and ending on a typically exultant note: “I can’t believe it!” she cries, her voice breaking charmingly, as she throws her arms up for the final clinch. It’s the happiness of an actress who must have wondered many times if she was always going to be a flop, and whose surprise melds with her character’s joy seamlessly.
In movies with murder plots like Public Hero #1 (1935) and The Ex-Mrs. Bradford (1936), Arthur steadfastly eludes any unpleasantness and turns even grim situations into sparkling opportunities for wit and repartee, raising her upper lip to make a joke, or kid a debutante. She’s not dumb, and she’s learned resilience, but Arthur is also never as smart or as wised-up as she wants to be, and this gap made her feel closer to most of her audience, and more likable. In 1937, she made two of her best films, Easy Living, a classic Depression fantasia where Arthur is almost as dim but shrewd as prime-fifties Judy Holliday, and History Is Made at Night, Frank Borzage’s masterpiece, and Arthur’s riskiest, most characteristic work. History begins as a melodrama which plays precisely on Arthur’s insecurities, her anxiety. When she is rescued by Charles Boyer, the two actors create an emotional romantic comedy in the middle of the melodrama.
Continental Boyer wasn’t really Arthur’s type: she preferred tall, taciturn American beauties like Cooper and her best partner, Joel McCrea. But her heartfelt, teasing performance opposite Boyer in History Is Made at Night is one of the miracles of thirties movie romance. Director John Cromwell observed them on the set, and said that they were all business, but he was startled by their rapport on screen: “You’d suspect he had something going on the side with her, but then you’d have to say, no, not Charles Boyer, and definitely not with Jean Arthur.” The film is a dream, with the tonal shifts of a dream, and it suited Arthur’s dreaminess. She never had a better match for a director than Frank Borzage, who brings out all her best qualities, making her the ideal woman: funny, tender, a little neurotic, a little erotic, and always spontaneous. Arthur could be very sexy on screen if she was stimulated to throw her primness aside, and she was never sexier than when she impulsively kicks off her shoes as she dances with Boyer for the first time in her Borzage paradise. The one-time twenties Western starlet had reached nirvana.
Arthur was less at home in Howard Hawks’ somewhat overrated Only Angels Have Wings (1939). Cast as a stranded chorine, she seems more like a reporter, or even a schoolteacher, and her pining for a butched-up Cary Grant brings out the less likable, more abrasive side of Arthur’s insecurities. Grant is much too edgy a partner for her; he makes her nervous. These nerves were turned to her advantage in The Talk of the Town (1942), a try at a comedy of ideas that Arthur saves with her inspired comic business and bizarre improvisations (she’s almost masturbatory in her privateness here when she gets caught doing impressions in a mirror). The director, George Stevens, really seemed to put Arthur at ease: he let her do things slowly and never pressured her out of her fantasy world.
When she felt uncertain, Arthur could turn cutesy and artificial, as she is in Too Many Husbands (1940) and The Lady Takes a Chance (1943). But no one made a stronger feminist impression. An Arthur heroine is a working heroine, and she’s not going to give up her job after getting a man. In Arizona (1940), an overlong western, she bristles when William Holden makes a chauvinist remark, and this angry determination to be independent was definitely Arthur’s own; it was her strongest urge. Arthur lived her life with her head in the clouds, which is why she responded so forcefully to movie romance. She always seems to be enjoying love scenes with her leading men in a way an audience member would have, and this was a big part of Arthur’s appeal. (Diane Keaton had many of the same qualities in the seventies and early eighties, and Something’s Gotta Give might just be her Foreign Affair.)
George Stevens took what was left of Arthur’s run of luck on screen and gave her two more chances to shine, ten years apart. The More the Merrier (1943), where she reacts with dithering, heartfelt lust to Joel McCrea’s advances on a front stoop late at night, was her high-water mark as a comedienne, the ultimate refinement of her screen persona, and it resulted in her only Academy Award nomination. In Stevens’ Shane (1953), an understated, mysterious western that served as her swan song, Arthur plays a frontier wife and mother, and she seems to be retreating away from the camera. Stevens lets her sort of hide out in the film, catching her now and then in lonely glimpses as she looks nostalgically at her wedding dress, and longs for Alan Ladd’s gunslinger. It must have satisfied Arthur to go out in a prestige western like this, after her early years of unrewarding oaters.
Arthur’s peculiarities in life could often shade into selfishness, and her personal affairs remain a question mark, by and large. During her fling with Selznick, which must have been partially work related, she made an early marriage to a photographer, Julian Ancker; it was instantly annulled. She seemed to find some happiness in a long marriage to producer Frank Ross, and this partnership coincided with her big years on screen, so surely he deserves some credit for her success — they divorced in the mid-forties, when her screen career petered out. There were rumors of an affair with Mary Martin, but I would guess that any feelings were more on Martin’s side than Arthur’s.
Arthur lived out her long retirement in fairly hermit-like fashion, going on her quixotic way, doing things to please herself, like taking college courses when she was in her forties (what other movie star of her era would have wanted to do that?) On stage, she played her two favorite roles, Peter Pan and Joan of Arc, and had some success in them, though she habitually ran away from long runs. (Arthur also bowed out of a sure-fire hit, Born Yesterday, which launched Judy Holliday’s career.) There was a brief, disastrous foray into television and theater in the mid-sixties, and some unsuccessful acting teacher stints. And there were later efforts to have her come out for tributes, but she resisted most of them.
Her (girl?) friend of thirty years and eventual caretaker, Ellen Mastroianni, said that Arthur was difficult to get to know, but basically a happy person.1 Her unmistakable voice still rings out on television (Turner Classic Movies recently showed a slew of her rarely-seen Columbia films), and her achievement is more heartening the more you find out about the problems she was up against, in her industry and in herself. Late in life, Frank Capra was uncharacteristically precise, even harsh, about his one-time muse, but his opinion sums up the tenacious effort that underlay Jean Arthur’s against-long-odds success: “She doesn’t do very well in crowds, and she doesn’t do very well with people, and she doesn’t do very well with life,” he admitted, laying it all out. “But she does very well as an actress.”
- As much as can be known about Arthur’s personal life is contained in John Oller’s well-researched biography of the actress, still the main resource on her. [↩]