Monday, August 12, 2019

About Jean Arthur

In the Golden Age of Hollywood, there was absolutely nobody like Jean Arthur. Such an original. Such a good actress. In my late high school and early college years, I began to realize the love and reverence people had for her. Merv Griffin had her on his talk show around the time Nixon's Watergate scandal was in the news. She said, considering news headlines, MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON had a message that was still relevant. I read William Peter Blatty's best-seller, THE EXORCIST. Her performance in that film is referenced in the novel. I know you may think it's weird Jean Arthur was mentioned in a book about a little girl possessed by the devil but, remember, the girl's mother was a movie actress. As for the book's author, Blatty had comedy screenplays to his credit before he wrote that best seller. His film credits included A SHOT IN THE DARK starring Peter Sellers, PROMISE HER ANYTHING with Leslie Caron and Warren Beatty and DARLING LILI starring Julie Andrews. In the Carrie Fisher novel, POSTCARDS FROM THE EDGE, 1980s actress Suzanne Vale is in awe of Jean Arthur.
When he was promoting BROADCAST NEWS, director/screenwriter James L. Brooks was on my VH1 talk show. He was a marvelous guest and told me that Jean Arthur was an inspiration when he wrote the character Holly Hunter plays in BROADCAST NEWS and when he was shaping the Mary Richards character for THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW.
Jean Arthur got her Best Actress Oscar nomination for the 1943 movie, THE MORE THE MERRIER, directed by George Stevens. She was in her early 40s and snagged a well-deserved Oscar nomination for the lead role in a romantic comedy. Think about it. Today, how many romantic comedy lead roles does Hollywood offer to actresses 35 or older? Arthur retired from film after her work in the George Stevens classic western SHANE. The 1953 film was so good and such a hit that Paramount Pictures offered her a 3-picture deal. But, Jean declined and retired.
If you're a serious Jean Arthur fan, you've seen her in the 1939 film from director Howard Hawks, ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS. She played the American entertainer at a South American port who meets the pilots in an air freight company. During her stopover, she falls for the gruff but caring head pilot (played Cary Grant). She's fascinated with the planes and the pilots.  Bonnie Lee (Arthur) wants to know why the guys love flying. It's thrilling to see, yet it's risky there in jungle terrain. Kid Dabb (played by Thomas Mitchell) and Sparks respond:

Kid Dabb:  I've been in it 22 years, Miss Lee. I couldn't give you an answer that would make any sense.  What's so funny about that?

Bonnie Lee: That's what my dad used to say.

Kid Dabb:  Flier?

Bonnie Lee:  No, trapeze. High stuff. He wouldn't use a net.

Sparks:  Not much future in that, either.

Bonnie Lee:  Yeah. We found that out.

Bonnie Lee's father was the daring young man on the flying trapeze.

Did you know that Jean Arthur had a film role as a trapeze artist?  I'm always interested to see her in her pre-1930s work. I saw two of those works a few days ago. Jean Arthur goes up in the air as a trapeze artist in a 1929 talkie called HALFWAY TO HEAVEN. She's an independent woman, serious about her career. She'll go out with a guy on a date if they can go Dutch. She doesn't like a man to treat her like a possession. You recognize Jean Arthur as soon as appears onscreen. You don't recognize co-star and future WATCH ON THE RHINE Oscar winner, Paul Lukas. In this film, he's without a mustache and he's got dark hair. You don't know it's Paul Lukas until he speaks and you hear that WATCH ON THE RHINE accent.  Lukas plays the jealous, possessive bully who's part of the act. He wants Greta (Arthur) but she doesn't want him. Charles "Buddy" Rogers (of WINGS) stars as the sweet new fellow in the act who gives Lukas' character a reason to be jealous. Buddy Rogers and Jean Arthur have nice chemistry together. We wait to see if the bully will get his comeuppance. It was cool to see Jean Arthur on a trapeze.

Before 1939's ONLY ANGELS HAVE WINGS, Jean Arthur played a young lady who fell for a pilot in the 1927 comedy, FLYING LUCK. It's a silent film co-starring Monty Banks. Banks as The Boy is the sweet but clueless guy who's so dazzled by Charles Lindbergh that he enlists in the Army in San Diego to take aviation classes. He meets The Girl (Jean Arthur) on a bus to San Diego and he's romantically smitten. Of course, there are mishaps on the bus and misunderstandings when they meet. He'll have no idea that she's the daughter of the Army colonel. The Boy winds up a pilot in the Army vs. Navy aviation competition.

Jean has dark hair in this one. She doesn't have as much to do as she did in HALFWAY TO HEAVEN but she is charming with Monty Banks. Facially, he had a Charlie Chaplin resemblance. Like they could've been cousins. He's warm, likable, funny and good at physical comedy. In the sound era, he didn't get Hollywood gigs like Jean did. Come the 1930s, he was working in England. I think he could've worked in Hollywood, maybe not in leading man roles like he had in this silent film. But he would've been perfect to be a supporting actor in comedies from Ernst Lubitsch, Preston Sturges, Michell Leisen and Howard Hawks.

There you have it -- a couple of pre-1930 movies starring the wonderful Jean Arthur.

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