Jean Arthur

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Oscar-winning film and Broadway muscial theater actress who in later life turned to teaching.
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Artist Biography by

b. Gladys Georgianna Greene, 17 October 1900, New York City, New York, USA, d. 19 June 1991, Carmel, California, USA (her year of birth is sometimes stated to be five or even eight years later). Starting out as a model at the age of 15, Arthur turned to acting, playing on stage and in numerous silent films all with only limited success. With the advent of talkies, she was cast in better roles where her interesting speaking voice was an asset. In the early 30s she made films such as Paramount On Parade (1930) and appeared in the theatre but made her breakthrough into superior film roles with The Whole Town’s Talking and Diamond Jim (both 1935), playing a dual role in the latter while Binnie Barnes portrayed Lillian Russell. These were quickly followed by leading roles in Frank Capra’s Mr. Deeds Goes To Town (1936), The Plainsman (1936), You Can’t Take It With You (1938), Only Angels Have Wings (1939) and another Capra classic, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (1939). Her 40s films included George Stevens’ The More The Merrier (1943), for which she was nominated for an Oscar as Best Actress.

Despite the expressed admiration of both Capra and Stevens, who held her work in very high regard, the rest of the 40s were unhappy years for Arthur. Under contract to Columbia Pictures, she entered into a long-lasting dispute with Harry Cohn, the company’s tyrannical boss. She returned briefly to the stage but bowed out of Born Yesterday (1946) during the Philadelphia run, thus opening the way for Judy Holliday to make a huge success on Broadway. When Arthur was finally released from her contract with Columbia she had clearly had enough of Hollywood and thereafter made only two more appearances in films. These were A Foreign Affair (1948) and the classic western Shane (1953). In between these two films she had returned to the stage and was a resounding success in the 1950 Broadway production of Leonard Bernstein’s version of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, in which she co-starred with Boris Karloff who played Captain Hook. She also tried television with a courtroom drama series, The Jean Arthur Show, which lasted only one season. Thereafter, she made few stage appearances, usually in out-of-town productions, and also taught drama at a number of schools and colleges, including Vassar.