This week marks the last few days of TCM’s annual Summer Under the Stars Festival. It’s been fun as always. Each week I’ve been writing about one actor featured during this year’s festival. For my last blog entry on the subject, I’d like to shine a light on an actress who has quickly become one of my favorites: Jean Arthur. Many when discussing her will surely talk about her striking looks. But Arthur isn’t just a pretty face. She has a natural screen presence and a charm that lights up the screen whether you’re seen a movie of hers for the first or tenth time.
One of my favorite of all her films is the underrated comic gem The Whole Town’s Talking. Arthur works in the same office as a clerk played by Edward G. Robinson. One day Robinson’s character is arrested because of his uncanny resemblance to a wanted gangster. The authorities let Robinson go when they learn of their mistake. But they use him to smoke out the real bad guy. The film was a rare comedy directing effort by John Ford, known mostly for westerns. Robinson got type cast after bursting onto the screen as Little Caesar, where he played a ruthless gangster. Here it’s great to see him show off his comic chops and play this shy everyman. Jean Arthur has wonderful chemistry in the film with Robinson. She’s believable as a friendly co-worker and then Robinson’s love interest. I love the sass she shows in the office too. Her comic timing is superb. The film doesn’t get a lot of love, but it’s a hidden treasure.
But most of my favorite Jean Arthur films share a common director: Frank Capra. The two collaborated on many occasions. My favorite of the bunch is Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. In it, Arthur plays Clarissa Saunders, the secretary of newly appointed senator Jefferson Smith (Jimmy Stewart). Smith comes to the position after the previous Senator passes away. But the reason smith was chosen was because of his naivety about the political process. The governor of the state that he represents in the Senate thinks that by appointing someone with a lack of understanding won’t cause any trouble. Well…that doesn’t turn out to be the case. Smith is an idealist, but he also has a spine. He sets off on a mission to get a national boy’s camp. Saunders explains how the process of passing a bill works to him, and then he sees the harsh realities of the legislative process up close. Stewart and Arthur make a great team. Saunders initially dismisses him as much more than figure-head. But then she comes around and spurs him on in his quest to fight the corrupt system he works in. Arthur becomes not only a colleague but a fierce friend. While we rightly remember the famous filibuster scene with Stewart, he comes to that point by being spurred on by Arthur. Watching them onscreen together is something to behold. Another on-screen collaboration of Stewart and Arthur that I love is You Can’t Take It With You.
Another favorite Jean Arthur film is The More the Merrier. I only discovered this film recently thanks to TCM. It’s a comedy with a lot of heart. Arthur plays Connie Mulligan. Mulligan puts an ad in the paper that she’s looking for a roommate. The ad is answered by billionaire Benjamin Dingle (Charles Coburn). He’s just arrived in D.C. as an advisor on the housing shortage and finds his hotel suite won’t be available for a few days. Mulligan is reluctant at first, but eventually agrees to let Dingle sublet half her apartment. Hilarity ensues as they get in each other’s way. But wait…there’s more! Sargent Joe Carter (Joel McCrea), has no place to stay while he waits to be shipped overseas. Dingle sublets half of his half of the apartment to Carter. Mulligan can’t throw them out because she’s already spent the rent money. So Carter stays, and falls in love with Mulligan, despite the fact that she’s engaged. Through a misunderstanding, a nosy neighbor makes the police think Carter has been spying for the Japanese. Carter and Mulligan are both brought in for questioning, and then it’s discovered my Mulligan’s fiancée that she and Carter are living in the same apartment. The story hits the papers leading to scandal. Dingle suggests the two get married to avoid further scandal. I won’t reveal the ending, but just let me say this. Arthur and McCrea have one of the greatest screen kisses I’ve ever seen. The comic timing of Arthur, McCrea, and Coburn is spectacular. It’s one of the best screwball comedies ever made.
I could sit here all-day about Arthur’s great films. There’s Only Angels Have Wings, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Shane… Arthur could do both comedy and drama effortlessly. Her laugh and smile are infectious. I do a happy dance anytime I see her come onscreen in a movie. Once you experience a few of her films you’ll understand why. Jean Arthur doesn’t pop up on may lists of great actors, but if you ask me she should. Arthur is a true cinematic treasure.