Sunday, April 28, 2013

Jean Arthur vs James Dean

Allow me a film geek moment. If you saw Giant yesterday, either on the big screen at the TCM Classic Film Festival or on TCM, this is for you.  Giant, an Oscar nominee for Best Picture of 1956, brought George Stevens the Oscar for that year's Best Director.  Rock Hudson and the late James Dean were in the Oscar race for Best Actor. Elizabeth Taylor should have been in the race for Best Actress.  I have a great love for that film.  It's such a potent look at social class, social mobility and the barriers of race in America coupled with a wonderful love story.  Taylor is terrific as the wealthy wife in Texas who's a feminist and civil rights advocate way ahead of her time.  I've got a few words of praise for another actress who did some of finest work under the direction of George Stevens -- top screen comedienne Jean Arthur.  He directed Arthur to her one and only Oscar nomination.  Hard to believe she only got one.  Jean Arthur was peerless.  I still believe that a silent film she appeared in inspired ABC's The Bachelor.  My parents loved Jean Arthur and I picked up the love from them when her old movies played on local TV during my childhood. James Dean was hailed for a bit of movie acting busienss he did in the 1950s.  I think Jean beat him by a couple of decades doing similar business.
When it came to screwball comedy and comedy with social issues, there was just no one like her.  Look at her as the street smart and crafty ace newspaper reporter whose conscience begins to bother her in Frank Capra's Mr. Deeds Goes To Town.


Look at her as the smart, cynical Washington insider who does the right thing by helping an idealistic young senator fight corruption in Capra's Mr. Smith Goes To Washington.


In those two classics, Jean Arthur is exactly what Jennifer Jason Leigh as an ace newspaper reporter should have been in The Hudsucker Proxy instead of doing that imitation of Katharine Hepburn from Woman of the Year.

Ever since I was a teen and started seriously reading Hollywood history, I've read about how brilliant James Dean was when he did a spontaneous rope trick in one scene in Giant.  People raved about that inspired piece of Method acting.  Unfortunately, he didn't hear the raves because he was killed in a car collision before the movie opened.  When actor/director Rob Reiner hosted "The Essentials" on TCM back in 2001, he also brought up the brilliance of the rope trick before he presented Giant.
If you recall that James Dean scene in Giant, rent a DVD of Capra's Mr. Deeds Goes To Town (1936).  Watch Jean Arthur as Babe the reporter negotiate a big new assignment with her boss.  The dialogue goes back and forth like a verbal tennis match in that New York City newspaper office.  Jean Arthur tosses off her dialogue while doing...a rope trick.
Not only a rope trick.  In another section of dialogue, Babe is doing a coin trick.  While doing the coin trick, she drops it and doesn't miss a beat with the dialogue.  She looks in the chair for the 50 cent piece and keeps the scene going.  She's so in-the-moment during that scene.  The rope bit and the coin trick are perfect for the character of the manipulative but lovable reporter, Babe Bennett.  Yes, James Dean was fabulous.  But, for my money, Jean Arthur went there first.

Giant director George Stevens directed Jean Arthur in 1943's The More the Merrier.  Arthur starred in that bright World War 2 romantic comedy opposite Joel McCrea and Charles Coburn. She got a Best Actress Oscar nomination for this comedy hit.



She was in her early 40s.  For an actress, that achievement is impressive even by today's standards.  In her early 50s, she starred as the peaceful frontier wife and mother who argues about gun ownership in another George Stevens classic, Shane.  Alan Ladd starred as the weary gunslinger.  Paramount wanted her to do more pictures but she made Shane the end of her film career.  She'd been making movies since the silent era.

She played a receptionist in the 1925 Buster Keaton silent film comedy,  Seven Chances.


Buster was a guy being chased by all kinds of women who want to marry him for money.


It was remade as 1999's The Bachelor with Chris O'Donnell in the Buster Keaton role.


After its theatrical run, the movie aired in prime time on ABC.  Soon, the network launched a reality show about several young, single women competing for a proposal from a guy called...The Bachelor.

Shane was Jean Arthur's last feature film.  She continued to get script offers but she turned them down.  Reportedly, Ida Lupino took the 1972 role in Junior Bonner starring Steve McQueen after Jean passed on it. However, she did try her hand at the small screen.  Did you know she had a sitcom?  The Jean Arthur Show only lasted for one season on CBS in 1966.  I remember my parents making a point to watch it so they could see what she looked like.  They both smiled and said, "She's still got that voice."  The sitcom centered on a mother and son lawyer team.  Arthur also did Jell-O commercials.

People have long held a certain affection for this shy star.  After she retired from films, she taught drama for a few years at Vassar when Meryl Streep was a student.  She's referenced warmly in the novels The Exorcist by William Peter Blatty and Carrie Fisher's Postcards from the Edge.  Her screen persona was a muse to James L. Brooks when he wrote screenplays with characters that got Best Actress Oscar nominations for two talented women -- Holly Hunter in Broadcast News and Helen Hunt in As Good As It Gets.  Jean Arthur helped me realize that classic films could be entertaining and also continue to be relevant.  I was home from college one summer in the early 1970s and I was lucky enough to see her do a guest appearance on The Merv Griffin Show.  Merv showed a strong clip from Mr. Smith Goes To Washington and she pointed out how relevant Capra's film still was at the time, the time of the Watergate scandal and the Nixon Administration.  She was right.  President Nixon resigned one year after that broadcast.

A few nights ago, I watched Jean Arthur in the 1930s screwball comedy Easy Living.  Oh, man, was she good!  She's a poor office girl in Manhattan riding to work on the top of a double-decker bus.  A Wall Street millionaire arguing with his shop-aholic wife throws her new sable coat off the roof of their penthouse.  The coat lands on the poor office girl's head.  A modern day fairytale with mix-ups ensues.

Check out Jean's rope trick in  Mr. Deeds Goes To Town and let me know if it deserves the same attention that the James Dean rope bit in Giant for gotten for decades.  

4 comments:

  1. Would you believe -- and I am loathe to confess -- that I have never watched "Giant" all the way through but DVRed it last night and will watch. I programmed movies and TV for a living for over 25 years but there are still some important titles that simply evaded my actual watching of them. And the tips on Jean Arthur are great - have seen some of her but clearly not enough.

    Your blog is great and I am glad I found it! Thanks for all your knowledge and enthusiasm!

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  2. That is one of the best compliments I've received since I starting writing this blog. Lisa, thanks so much for your response. Enjoy the Jean Arthur movies. THE MORE THE MERRIER should play on a double bill with PILLOW TALK starring Doris Day and Rock Hudson.

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