Saturday, October 17, 2009

Spirit as well as Beauty

"To at least one teenager in a small town (though I'm sure we were a multitude), Jean Arthur suggested strongly that the ideal woman could be — ought to be — judged by her spirit as well as her beauty."

Charles Champlin
Los Angeles Times, June 21, 1991

On this day in 1900, a girl named Gladys Greene was born in Plattsburgh, N.Y.

The name means nothing to you? Does it mean more to know that was the birth name of Jean Arthur?

Actually, these days, that name probably doesn't mean much to many movie watchers, either. And that's too bad because, if you enjoy films that could be classified as "screwball comedies," you owe a lot to Jean Arthur. They broke the mold when they made her. She was the very definition of the screwball comedy actress.

And yet so much of her style was an extension of who she was. Instructing a young actress to mimic Arthur was probably as unrealistic as asking a young ballplayer to watch Stan Musial at the plate and then duplicate his unique batting style.

Even so, the actresses who came along after her — Marilyn Monroe, Barbra Streisand, Goldie Hawn, Sally Field, Jamie Lee Curtis, Meg Ryan and so many more — surely were influenced, to some extent, by her work.

Her career began before the arrival of the "talkies," and she retired for good in 1972, nearly 20 years before her death in 1991 and nearly 20 years after her last movie (the classic "Shane" in 1953). She didn't always make screwball comedies, but the ones she made are like nuggets of pure gold for aspiring actresses.

It isn't necessary for any of them to be the next Jean Arthur. That wouldn't be possible, anyway. There was only one Jean Arthur.

But there are lessons to be learned from watching her performances.