Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Born Today October 17: Jean Arthur


Movie star actress known for her zany comedy Jean Arthur was born on this date as Gladys Georgianna Greene in Plattsburgh, New York.  Her father was known to have worked in the photography industry; he was employed in at least one studio in Maine.  The family moved around a lot, as a result she lived in a wide ranging number of places along the eastern seaboard. The family finally settled in a neighborhood in upper Manhattan where she attended high school, but she dropped out due to family issues before graduation.  The need for her to find work found her gaining employment as a stenographer, where she worked through the first World War and into the 1920's.  While also working in stenography, her good looks also lead her into modeling.  It was in this capacity that she was "discovered" by Fox Studio.  This landed her a standard one year contract with them and she debuted in Cameo Kirby in 1923. The film was directed by John Ford and starred John Gilbert.  Her film career was off and she worked on a large number of films in the 1920's, though her introduction to Hollywood in the late silent era was not a good experience as she later recalled.  She reportedly took her stage name from Jeanne d'Arc (Joan of Arc) and King Arthur; whether this is true or not has never been proven given that Arthur was one of the most private actresses in Hollywood.  When talking about her career in 1928, she considered it largely a failure, this despite that she had acted in more than 2 dozen films by that time, most them in named roles in feature length pictures.  It is true, that she was one of the "faces" taken in by the studio to "tool" into what they wanted her to be, rather than her being a stage actress getting into film acting by way of real performance experience.  Fox intended her to be a "flapper type" (see Wine Of Youth (1924)). This lack of experience soon came not only to the attention of directors, but to Arthur herself.    She wanted to leave Hollywood, but was still under contract, therefore she decided to stay and not attempt to break the deal.  She also decided to take the step trying to promote herself around this time, but she claimed it failed.  What did not fail was her going to the lot of Action Pictures, where owner Lester F. Scott decided to hire her for action western shorts for $25 a picture.  Working conditions could be brutal, since the vast majority of these were shot on location in desert conditions outside of Los Angeles.  She toiled in these films for two years, only occasionally making an independent film or two along the way (she also had an uncredited role in a 1925 Buster Keaton film Seven Chances) By 1927 she was starting to get noticed for her acting chops and not for "just another pretty face" status that she started out with.  The first time that she was cast specifically as a real actress was in The Poor Nut in 1927, against studio wishes.  The film was a critical failure, and one that singled her and fellow actress and singer Jane Winton.  This was a deep wound to heal, she had worked hard on her film career and improving her acting skills.  As it turned out, she had real acting talents--and she had it in spades--for comedic work.  She continued to appear in films, but was growing disillusioned with the line of work.  Arthur was rather fed up and incredulous by the time she was given a role in Paramount Famous Players Warming Up (1928).  It was billed as the studios first sound film and starred Richard Dix; in truth it is what we now recognize as a partial sound film; and her role was a small one.  But it earned her some very hard won recognition (she had already appeared in one other Dix film in 1928, the all silent Easy Come, Easy Go).  This earned a contract with the studio for 3 years, bringing her $150 a week.  The first film that she appeared in with talking sequences was Brotherly Love also in 1928.  Arthur, though was very reluctant to appear in speaking roles and was not at all sure that sound film that required on-camera speaking was going to last (not an uncommon belief at the time).  When it became obvious that talking films were going to go away with silent film acting altogether, Arthur met with an sound coach. The first all sound film that appeared in was The Canary Murder Case in 1929. She appeared in just one more silent film--Stairs Of Sand--also in 1929, but the full talky was here to stay.  It is ironic is that it is her voice that most people think of when thinking about Jean Arthur the actress.  She might be one of the rare, rare cases were the coming a full sound in film actually made her career.  She also made her Broadway debut in the early 1930, an experience that helped her diction and sound projection immensely.  Not that success came easy to her the late 1920's--she continued to struggle and so show a lot of personal perseverance.  She is now known for being one the most important comic geniuses of 20th century cinema.  She would credit her time on the stage as being the moment when she found herself and her own voice, learned the ropes and understood really for the first time, that there is an audience.  She, rightly, stated that the stage was a polar opposite of Hollywood in all these regards.  After spending several stints on Broadway, she returned to film acting with a new sense of how to approach it.  She wound up under the direction of John Ford again, 12 years after making her film debut in one of his films.  The film was The Whole Town's Talking with Edward G. Robinson.  If you look at her film roster they include very, very well known classics, among them Mr. Deed's Goes To Town, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, The Devil And Miss Jones and Two Many Husbands (just to name a few).  Her last big budget film was a decidedly non-comedic role in the classic Shane in 1953.  She then began to suffer from some type of anxiety disorder, which included stage fright, so she retired from acting.  She came out of retirement in 1965 to make her television debut on Gunsmoke.  She was then given her own show The Jean Arthur Show in 1966, which lasted for just one season.  This would be her last time acting in front of a camera.  She was persuaded in 1967 to return to Broadway, but this proved disastrous for the production because her nemesis stage fright reared it's head again.  She then took teaching drama at two different colleges.  She was again coaxed back into stage acting, but again, her anxiety issues won out--she then retired for good.  She was very reclusive in her private life and refused to give any interviews. She lived quietly until her death in Carmel CA from heart failure at the age of 90 on the 19th of June.  She was cremated and her ashes were scattered off the coast of Point Lobos.  



Find A Grave

No comments:

Post a Comment