Jean Arthur

Leading Lady

The More The Merrier (RCA/Columbia Pictures Home Video)
Only Angels Have Wings (RCA/Columbia Pictures Home Video)
Talk of the Town (RCA/Columbia Home Pictures Video)

(Originally published in The Boston Phoenix circa 1990)

Jean Arthur, who died last month at the age of 86, was made for the movies; no still picture could ever capture the changeability which was the essence of her charm. She was one of Hollywood’s most delightful leading ladies; in the great romantic comedies she made in the 30’s and 40s with directors Frank Capra, George Stevens, and Howard Hawks, she projected an active mind, a sense of humor, and a sense of grace.

Arthur was almost always cast as a working girl ‑‑ her lively intelligence and restless energy clearly demanded some grounding in the real world. In each of her roles, she seems to look different each time you see her; emotions flow through her like changes in the weather. As a secretary in Talk of the Town, she looks perky and adorable in little fitted suits and silly hats, deliciously nimble on clunky high heels. Then, at moments of high emotion, everything melts ‑‑ her face grows soft, her eyes glisten, and even her dress becomes diaphonous, suffused with light.

All of Jean Arthur’s great movies are metaphors of transformation: she who is so changeable changes the men she loves. In Only Angels Have Wings, she plays a musician who falls in love with Cary Grant, a flier in a small South American mail stop. Grant ‑‑ cynical, heartless, and absolutely gorgeous dressed all in white, with a big white hat and two leather belts slung around his hips ‑‑ loves to fly, and has promised himself that he will never ask any woman to wait for him. “The minute you get up in the air, they call the airport, and when you come down, they’re so scared they hate you inside.” Arthur swallows her fear and her pride and is willing to wait ‑‑ but insists that he must ask her. He struggles against his feelings, but in the end, of course, her love transforms him, and he gives her a sign that he wants her to stay.

On film, Jean Arthur is impulsive, but truthful ‑‑ true to the moment, while the moment lasts. She is chaste, but not prudish; she truly inhabits her small, athletic body, and she moves like a dancer with an easy natural voluptuousness. Her soft, gravelly voice is astonishly expressive.  There’s a delicious hint of irony in her voice ‑‑ an ever so slight dissonance between the words she’s saying and the way she says them. When her distraught fiancee in The More the Merrier begs, “Speak to me!” she answers him with an “Hello” that speaks volumes. And some of her greatest lines aren’t words at all. The ending of The More The Merrier is one of the funniest and sexiest scenes in movie history. There’s no nudity, almost no touching, no explicit language ‑‑ indeed, there’s almost no language at all. But she communicates her feelings to the man she loves ‑‑ lucky Joel McCrea ‑‑ with an astonishing repertoire of whimpers, sighs, sobs, giggles, and moans.

Perhaps the movie that most beautifully captures Jean Arthur’s charm, wit, and vitality is The Talk of the Town. Here, two men are in love with her, and she loves them both. One is the “profound, austere” legal genius and Supreme Court candidate Lightcap, played by Ronald Coleman. The other is small town “holy terror” ‑‑ firebrand/poet/dreamer Dilg, played by Cary Grant. Grant never looked more beautiful than in this movie; he always wears black; his hair is dark and luxuriant; his eyes and passionate and bright. Playing a game of chess beside a blazing fire, the man of law declares that “Law is the sign that man has emerged from the jungle.” The man of passion dismisses the law as “a Greek statue, beautiful but dead,” affirms “the garden variety of human experience,” and declares “I’ll take feelings, every time.”

Arthur’s quicksilver charm changes both men. Dilg learns to respect the limits of the law, and Lightcap realizes that “the law must be engraved on our hearts and practiced every minute, to the letter and the spirit.” Throughout the whole movie, Arthur vacillates, constantly changing her mind as she weighs the merits of the real and the ideal. In the end, she appears for a moment like a vision of Athena, radiant in a pale grey suit in the vast marble halls of the Supreme Court. Then Grant appears, and they run together hand in hand through the columns and out into the warm sunlight ‑‑ into the real world. Finally and always, she chooses Life.

by Rebecca Nemser for

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