Jean Arthur (October 17, 1900 – June 19, 1991) was an American actress and a major film star of the 1930s and 1940s. James Harvey wrote in his recounting of the era, "No one was more closely identified with the screwball comedy than Jean Arthur. So much was she part of it, so much was her star personality defined by it, that the screwball style itself seems almost unimaginable without her." She has been called "the quintessential comedic leading lady."
Arthur is best-remembered for her feature roles in three Frank Capra films: Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), You Can't Take It With You (1938), and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), films that championed the "everyday heroine". Her last performance was the memorable—and distinctly non–comedic—role as the rancher's wife in George Stevens' Shane (1953). Arthur was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress in 1944 for her performance in The More the Merrier (1943). To the public eye, Arthur was known as a reclusive woman. News magazineLife observed in a 1940 article: "Next to Garbo, Jean Arthur is Hollywood's reigning mystery woman." As well as recoiling from interviews, she avoided photographers and refused to become a part of any kind of publicity.
Arthur was born Gladys Georgianna Greene in Plattsburgh, New York to Protestant parents, Johanna Augusta Nelson and Hubert Sidney Greene. Her maternal grandparents were immigrants from Norway who settled in the American West; she also had distant ancestors from England. She had three older brothers: Donald Hubert (1891), Robert B. (1892) and Albert Sidney (1894). She lived off and on in Westbrook, Maine from 1908 to 1915 while her father worked at Lamson Studios in Portland, Maine as a photographer. The product of a nomadic childhood, Arthur also lived at times in Jacksonville, Florida; Schenectady, New York; and, during a portion of her high school years, in the Washington Heights neighborhood - at 573 West 159th Street - of upper Manhattan. The family's relocation to New York City occurred in 1915, where Arthur dropped out of high school in her junior year due to a "change in family circumstances". She reputedly took her stage name from two of her greatest heroes, Joan of Arc (Jeanne d'Arc) and King Arthur. Presaging many of her later film roles, she worked as a stenographer on Bond Street in lower Manhattan during World War I. Both her father and siblings went to war, where her brother Albert died as a result of injuries sustained in battle.
In 1966, the extremely reclusive Arthur tentatively returned to show business, playing Patricia Marshall, an attorney, on her own television sitcom, The Jean Arthur Show, which was canceled mid-season by CBS after only 12 episodes. Ron Harper played her son, attorney Paul Marshall.
In 1967, Arthur was coaxed back to Broadway to appear as a midwestern spinster who falls in with a group of hippies in the play The Freaking Out of Stephanie Blake. William Goldman, in his book The Season reconstructed the disastrous production, which eventually closed during previews when Arthur refused to go on.
Arthur next decided to teach drama, first at Vassar College and then the North Carolina School of the Arts. While teaching at Vassar, she stopped a rather stridently overacted scene performance and directed the students' attention to a large tree growing outside the window of the performance space, advising the students on the art of naturalistic acting: "I wish people knew how to be people as well as that tree knows how to be a tree."
Her students at Vassar included the young Meryl Streep. Arthur recognized Streep's talent and potential very early on and after watching her performance in a Vassar play, Arthur said it was "like watching a movie star."
While living in North Carolina, Arthur made front page news by being arrested and jailed for trespassing on a neighbor's property to console a dog she felt was being mistreated. An animal lover her entire life, Arthur said she trusted them more than people.
Arthur turned down the role of the lady missionary in Lost Horizon (1973), the unsuccessful musical remake of the 1937 Frank Capra film of the same name. Then, in 1975, the Broadway play First Monday in October, about the first female Supreme Court justice, was written especially with Arthur in mind, but once again she succumbed to extreme stage fright and quit the production shortly into its out-of-town run after leaving the Cleveland Play House. The play went on with Jane Alexander playing the role intended for Arthur.
After the First Monday in October incident, Arthur then retired for good, retreating to her oceanside home in Carmel, California, steadfastly refusing interviews until her resistance was broken down by the author of a book about Capra. Arthur once famously said that she’d rather have her throat slit than do an interview.