Remembering movie star Jean Arthur by "Celebrity" New York City tourguide-actor Jim Dykes

Jean Arthur today is mostly forgotten by modern movie audiences but in the 1930’s and 1940’s she was a BIG movie star…America’s “Girl Next Door” and she was from New York City...specifically Washington Heights in Upper Manhattan. She was known for her croaky-voiced, tough-talking, streetwise blue-eyed blonde with the marshmallow heart from movies of those days, especially Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. She had a sexy girl-next-door quality (before this became an over-used expression) which made men want to bring her home to meet Mother and made women want to be her best friend. She had an eternally youthful quality, playing ingenues well into her forties. But most of all, it was that wonderfully low, gravelly, distinctive Jean Arthur voice which we remember so well, so unlike the other ingenues of the day.
Although she played her share of helpless females early in her silent film career, she did as she was told while she learned the business of movie acting.  Her natural assertiveness and streetwise common sense were traits which Hollywood soon discovered and later incorporated into many of her most famous roles making her a unique commodity: a woman who thought for herself and usually stood on her own two feet (even though she still got her man at the end of every picture). A slightly dizzy, but never dumb blonde, she played reporters, landladies, executives as well as upwardly mobile shopgirls.  She was always the epitomy of honesty and common sense in classic Hollywood films like Mr. Deeds (with Gary Cooper), Mr. Smith (with Jimmy Stewart), The Talk of the Town (my personal favorite) with Cary Grant, George Stevens’ The More the Merrier, You Can’t Take It With You, The Devil and Miss Jones, Only Angels Have Wings, and many more.
Jean Arthur was born Gladys Georgiana Greene (pronounced George-Jean-uh) on Oct. 17, 1900 (the year changes depending on which version of her age you believe) in upstate Plattsburg to Norwegian immigrant & Irish-American parents. Her father was a professional photographer and moved the family around to a few places until they settled in Upper Manhattan at 573 West 159th Street in Washington Heights where she attended George Washington High School (like Paulette Goddard and others). Since her father was a photographer she grew up posing for him and knew she was photogenic. She got a job downtown on Bond Street as a stenographer and modelled parttime (mostly hats) in the Garment District. Her Mother Hannah saw a piece in the newspaper “Looking for photogenic girls for Movie Screen Tests” so she suggested Gladys submit herself, even though she had never studied acting. She was selected for a movie contract by Columbia Pictures and she and her Mom took the train to Hollywood where she spent years “learning the business”  in bit parts. When talking movies came in, the search for actresses with good voices began and she came to the attention of Columbia mogul Harry Cohn, who changed her name to Jean Arthur. At first she did low budget westerns, gangster films and slapstick comedies but eventually she was “discovered” by Frank Capra and other directors because she was talented, photogenic and easy to work with…all great skills.
Supposedly Jean Arthur was shy and suffered from stage fright which didn’t affect her screen performances but did make problems later in her career when she attempted to do some Broadway work. She played Peter Pan and later was set to star in the Broadway production BORN YESTERDAY. Her understudy was Judy Holliday who ended up getting the role and opening it on Broadway when Jean Arthur was forced to drop out in Philadelphia on the way to New York. Later Judy Holliday got rave reviews, made the film and won the Oscar. In later years, she became a bit of a recluse and her last film was 1953’s SHANE. She tried TV later with the Jean Arthur Show. In 1950, during an interview, Jean said: “I never had a chance to learn to act. Today, the movie companies hire coaches and young actors work in plays before an audience. But in those early days, you were simply tossed to the cameras, sink or swim.”
Later she taught acting at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York. The world lost Jean Arthur on June 19, 1991, when she died of heart failure in a nursing home in Carmel, California. According to her wishes, she was cremated and her ashes were scattered off Point Lobos, near her California home.

But in my mind, Jean Arthur will forever be that sexy, tough-talking Congressional assistant in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, who inspires Jimmy Stewart to stand up for himself in the senate and the tough-talking reporter in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and so many other roles.


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