Today is the birthday of Jean Arthur (Gladys Georgianna Greene, 1900-1991).
I first knew of Arthur from one of her least characteristic roles, her last one, in George Stevens’ 1953 Shane, my father’s favorite movie. Impressively she plays the love interest in that film at age 53, and is presented as a plain, lonely frontier wife, playing against audience associations with her as cosmopolitan and glamorous. She always had a girl-next-door quality, which ultimately makes for that intriguing and rare mix, at once appealingly familiar, and yet also sort of knowing and sophisticated. She radiated an inner intelligence that combined with her beauty to make that possible.
Originally from upstate New York, she initially broke into show business as a model. This was a common stepping stone to films in the silent days. Her first film was Cameo Kirby (1923). She appeared in over four dozen silent features throughout the 20s, but her greatest stardom was to come in the sound era. She was one of the 1929 WAMPAS Baby Stars and starred in the early talkie hits The Canary Murder Case (1929) and The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu (1929) among others before taking a couple of years off in the early 30s to star on Broadway, acquiring badly needed technique, seasoning and confidence.
She returned to become one of the biggest stars of the mid to late 30’s, starring in three Frank Capra classic, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), You Can’t Take It With You (1938), and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939); the hilarious Preston Sturges (screenplay) Easy Living (1937); Howard Hawks’ Only Angels Have Wings (1939); and George Stevens’ The Talk of the Town (1942). In 1944 she retired for the first of several times, returning for Billy Wilder’s A Foreign Affair (1948), Shane, and several stage productions and television roles, finally retiring for good in 1975. An extremely private person with crippling stage fright, performing had always been a challenge for her.
To learn more about early film history, please check out my book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc.