Moviecrazed
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THE DAY JEAN ARTHUR SAT DOWN TO DISH

It was 11:00 A.M. on a Sunday in May, 1972. "Do you drink in the morning, Mr. Flatley?" Jean Arthur asked me as she reached into a kitchen cabinet for a fifth of vodka. The notoriously shy actress needed that drink because for the first time in years, she had agreed to go up close and personal with the press. This interview appeared later that month in The New York Times. --Guy Flatley


"I loved sinking my head into Cary Grant’s chest," Jean Arthur sighs, dreamily reminiscing about her dashing leading man in the 1939 movie, "Only Angels Have Wings."

And audiences loved to watch Jean as she sank her pretty blonde head into Cary’s chest, and cuddled up to Gary Cooper in "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town," and spooned with Jimmy Stewart In "You Can’t Take It With You," and mooned over Joel McCrea in "The More the Merrier."

They loved her years later, too, when she was an uptight Congresswoman meddling in the morals of our military men in "A Foreign Affair," and they loved her as a homesteader’s weary wife in "Shane."

But for the past 20 years, audiences have had little opportunity to love Jean, thanks to a harrowing succession of private and public calamities that included a "Saint Joan" that got martyred during a fiery try-out in Chicago, a TV series that should have been burned at the drawing board, and "The Freaking Out of Stephanie Blake," a comedy that gasped its last unfunny breath after three paralyzing previews on Broadway. Feeble as "Freaking Out" was, it proved strong enough to drive its chronically insecure star into mortified seclusion and finally to Vassar, where – for the past four years – she has been regaining her lost confidence by teaching acting to freshmen students too young to know the difference between Jean Arthur and Gene Autry.

Even in her Hollywood heyday, Jean ran a close second to Garbo in the I- want–to–be-alone sweepstakes. So it was only natural for observers at the recent U.S.A Film Festival in Dallas to do a double-take when they saw a little white-haired lady spring up on stage and share a standing ovation with director Frank Capra for "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," the classic comedy which they made together in 1939 and which the festival was presenting as part of its tribute to Capra.

"It was just the most fun I’ve ever had," Jean says, tucking her legs beneath her as she sits in the living room of her snug apartment at Vassar. "It was so wonderful being with Frank again; I wish we could go on a road show together, showing his movies and talking to the people. They gave us such wonderful parties in Texas! One night I sat next to Andy Warhol. ‘You should work in the movies,’ he said to me. ‘I can’t,’ I told him, ‘there are no roles for women my age.’ ‘But the camera is magic...’ he said. He’s so darling, so naïve. Oh, and that little boy from 'Love Story' was there, too. You know the one I mean. He seems very charming, very modest."

At first, it seems impossible to connect this 64-year-old woman in a dark sweater and slacks, nursing a vodka and water and puffing nervously on a cigarette, with the spunky, cute-as-the-dickens blonde of the thirties. Her white hair is close-cropped and her face – with its marvelously alert blue eyes and warm, slightly worried smile – is no longer baby-smooth. Yet, as she dips back into her memories of the mad, mad world that was Hollywood, she begins to look more and more like that one-in-a-million Miss who inspired Mr. Deeds to go to town.

The voice has something to do with it. It is still fragile and still tough. Still wavering unpredictably between the helpless and the hardboiled. Still that uniquely off-key, sweetly pitched instrument known as the Jean Arthur Voice.

"I guess I became an actress because I didn’t want to be myself," she says, reflecting on her not altogether ecstatic childhood as Gladys Georgianne Greene of Washington Heights, New York. "When I was a junior in high school, a man from a movie company noticed me because of some commercial posing I had done and he gave me a contract. I always intended to go back to school, but I stayed in Hollywood because of the challenge. Just recently, I’ve begun to realize what a fantastic life I’ve had, compared with most women. The fact that I did not marry George Bernard Shaw is the only real disappointment I’ve had. I just love Shaw."

But Jean did manage to get married – twice. The first marriage, while she was still a teenage starlet in silent films, was to Julian Anker, a nice Jewish boy in a day when most Wasps – Jean’s folks, for example – never imagined there was such a thing. "Julian looked a lot like Abraham Lincoln, and that’s probably why I fell in love with him. One day, we were out driving and he suddenly said, ‘Hey, why don’t we get married?’ So we lied about our ages and got married in a sheriff’s office. You should have heard our families’ reactions – all sorts of screaming and shouting and carrying on about suicide. Well, neither Julian nor I had enough income to make it possible for us to live together, so our marriage lasted one day.

"Julian dreamed of becoming a millionaire. He had a lot of good ideas, and I have a feeling he would have become a millionaire one day. But shortly after our marriage was annulled, Julian died. He was out fishing, and he had a sunstroke."

In 1932, Jean left Hollywood to try her luck on Broadway and to marry budding producer Frank Ross. Although the marriage ran longer than any of the plays Jean muddled through during her two years away from the cameras, it was a distinct flop, finally ending in divorce in 1949.

"I was working most of the time, but my husband was very social. He went to everything. Once, we did go together to a party at Cary Grant’s house, when he was married to Barbara Hutton. The place was full of princes and things. It was a fabulous house, and Cary was fabulous. I guess Barbara was kind of fabulous, too. I tried to talk to her about her garden, because I had seen some beautiful things out there. But, you know, Barbara didn’t know a thing about her garden."

Jean’s second husband is still alive, isn’t he? "Frank? Oh, sure. I mean–- I guess so. We certainly don’t see one another. It’s not that there’s any special bitterness; it’s just that each of us thinks the other is a bore. Just because you like to kiss and hug someone for ten years doesn’t mean it’s going to last forever."

While it did last, there were a few good times, and a few good friends. "We were quite close to George Murphy and his wife. They were great dancers, and they made a charming couple. It wasn’t until later that George became political."

John Wayne, Jean’s leading man in a 1943 lark called "A Lady Takes a Chance," was also late to show his political potential. "If I had known then what I know now, I think I would have shot him dead on the spot. But he was quite pleasant at the time, and he had a wonderful wife and family. My husband was producing 'A Lady Takes a Chance,' and the studio had gotten Henry Hathaway to direct. When I heard that, I said, ‘Henry Hathaway? He’ll just turn it into another fat western. Get Ginger Rogers for the part; I’m going to get sick and go to bed.’ My husband said, ‘I’m just getting started as a producer--I can’t ask them to remove the director!’ But he did, and William Seiter, who was so wonderful for comedy, directed the movie."

"A Lady Takes a Chance" was wonderful froth, but it did not give Jean a chance to measure up to the sparkling standard she had set in "History Is Made at Night", "Easy Living", "The Devil and Miss Jones" and "The Talk of the Town." And when her next effort, "The Impatient Years," provoked impatient yawns from moviegoers, Jean decided to return to Broadway in a play which Garson Kanin was writing for her.

"I waited two years for ‘Born Yesterday.’ Kanin went to war and I had to turn down ‘Anna and the King of Siam’ with Rex Harrison to keep myself free to do it. I must say, when I finally read it, I was disappointed. I don’t know why Kanin ever thought I was right for it. He said something about the junkman being Harry Cohn, my boss at Columbia who put me on suspension for two and a half years and whom I almost found the perfect way of killing without getting caught. Or maybe the junkman was supposed to be my husband, who was always so interested in being successful. I suppose I’m a snob, but I wanted to do something more ladylike.

"I could’ve played the part, but I could not have given the performance that Judy Holliday gave. There was such confusion, with changes being made continuously. And there was no third act! I know they do things that way in the theater sometimes, but I’ve got to have that play written down for me. Also, we had a boy who was 25 playing the newspaperman, and I got no reaction from him at all. I only played one performance with Gary Merrill. If I had had Merrill from the beginning, I would have had some support. I was beaten by circumstance.

"I had $10,000 invested in ‘Born Yesterday,’ and the whole investment was only about $40,000. When I became ill, and it was clear the show was going to be a hit with Judy Holliday, Garson Kanin and Max Gordon came to me and demanded I give back my share. I gave back my share. It was a very hard time for me. My association with my husband was breaking up, and there was nobody I could turn to for help. I was so alone."

Jean was so alone that eventually she turned to Erich Fromm for help. "I think that if you become so frightened, so emotionally blinded that you don’t even know that you should get a divorce, then you have to have someone help you take the walls out of your mind. I was in analysis with Fromm for about a year and a half, and the greatest thing he did for me was teach me to laugh at myself."

Jean learned to laugh, and then she learned to fly high on Broadway in 1950 in her triumphant "Peter Pan." But there was little laughter and even less triumph connected with her futile struggle to bring "Saint Joan" to Broadway in 1954. "I should have gotten out of 'Saint Joan' or gotten another director. I could have had Harold Clurman fired; I had director approval in my contract. But I couldn’t stand up to him. Before we began rehearsals, we had agreed on an interpretation of Joan, but afterward he forgot all about our agreement. He ordered me to stand on the stage and not to move, and then he directed the other actors to ignore me. ‘Just recite the language,’ he’d say to me, ‘and that will be enough.’

"After we opened in Delaware, Clurman came backstage and his criticism was, ‘Miss Arthur, you didn’t tear up the confession right.’ Then I did something I had never done before. I got up, walked over to where Clurman was standing, and grabbed him by the lapels. Then I shook him and shook him and shook him –- like a thing. "You know what you’ve done to me,’ I said. ‘You know you’ve ruined me, and you dare to stand here and talk about how I didn’t tear up a piece of paper the right way!’

"The producer, Robert Whitehead, wanted me to think he was on my side, and when he came backstage he gave me a big kiss on the cheek. But in the process he stepped on my foot and put his cigarette out in the arm of my costume, which tells you where he was, psychologically speaking. When we got to Chicago, I was exhausted –- so sick that my lymph system had stopped working. The poison had settled in my body and there were huge swellings, like enormous eggs, all around my middle. We were to open that night and Whitehead came to me and said I would have to go to an afternoon rehearsal. I told him that I couldn’t rehearse, that I needed to rest before the opening. ‘You get on that stage,’ he said, ‘or we sue you.’ I went on stage, but in the middle of rehearsal, I began to sob hysterically and I couldn’t stop. I was truly in great pain. And that was the end of ‘Saint Joan,’ the play I had wanted to do all my life."

It was nearly the end of Jean’s career, as well. It was not until 1966, after getting up the nerve to do a guest shot on "Gunsmoke" that she was coaxed into starring in her own series on CBS. She played a lawyer, and the show was a crime. "There are no writers on TV; and the directors are nothing at all. ‘Walk in the door,’ my director kept saying to me, ‘turn right, face the camera and start talking.’ Finally, I said, ‘Look, if you say that to me one more time, I’ll knock your teeth out.’"

To nobody’s surprise, the series sank faster than you could say Nielsen, and Jean bundled up her bruised ego and fled to her seaside retreat in Carmel. Then one day a phone call from producer Cheryl Crawford shattered her solitary brooding. "She said, ‘If you fell in love with a play, would you do it on Broadway?’ ‘Send me a script,’ I said. She sent me the first scene from ‘The Freaking Out of Stephanie Blake’, and I loved it."

A merciful fate decreed that Stephanie would never freak out for the benefit of the critics. Instead, Jean’s voice vanished, and the show along with it. "During rehearsal, we kept getting new scenes every day, and you wouldn’t believe how stupid they were. They couldn’t have been written by the same person who wrote that first scene. I’d like to find out some day who did write that scene. The author of all those other scenes was a boy who had worked in Cheryl Crawford’s office for eight years. She has since had him arrested for forging her name on checks.

"I would go out on the stage during previews and I could actually see the audience cringing. Then my voice began going; I’d start to speak and nothing but a squeak would come out. I was so terrified of making a fool of myself. At one preview, I stopped the play after the first scene and spoke to the audience. 'I’m probably not going to get through this performance,’ I said, ‘but this play really only has one scene anyway. If you should see me putting my hand to my mouth and dropping something in, don’t worry –- it’s only a cough drop.’ Then I went on with the play and every time I put my hand to my mouth, the audience clapped wildly."

Jean laughs. "Hey, I don’t want you to think I go around feeling sorry for myself. That’s not the way I am at all. The truth is, I’ve had fun today talking about Clurman and all that other stuff. I certainly don’t think Clurman is an evil man; I’m sure he couldn’t help what he did. Years after ‘Saint Joan,' I saw him at a party and he looked so nervous. I’ll bet he thought I was going to throw my plate of food in his face. Maybe I should have! But, seriously, that’s all in the past; I prefer thinking about the future."

Does Jean see a Hollywood comeback in her future? "If this were in England, and there were Margaret Rutherford roles to be had, that would be great. Oh, if I really wanted to go back, I could. I was asked to play Steve McQueen’s mother –- some beaten-down old woman –- in a western. And I’ve been approached by Ross Hunter to take the part of a lady missionary in ‘Lost Horizon,’ but it’s a deadly part. I don’t want to do anything unless it’s a lot of fun."

Being at Vassar has been a lot of fun, but Jean now feels it is time to move on. "I’m very grateful to Vassar for giving me the chance to prove that I have something to contribute to young people. I’ve found that I can open them up and help them to release what’s inside them. Once they catch on to how much fun it is being somebody else, there is no problem.

"But I’m lonely here. The faculty is quite conservative, and I can count the teachers with whom I have some communication on my hands and still have some fingers left over. I’m ready for something different now, I’m ready for some excitement. I want to teach and direct all over the world. I hunger for that. And one of these days I will direct. I’ll find the right actress, and I’ll direct her in ‘Saint Joan.’"

In the meantime, Jean seems to be doing a pretty good job of just-plain-communicating with young people. This afternoon, in the crowded Vassar cafeteria, she looks in vain for an empty table but has to settle for one already occupied by two students. One is a white boy, with long hair and sideburns; the other is a black boy with an impressive Afro. "May I join you?" she asks, and within minutes her cheerful cross-examination has uncovered the facts that the white boy can’t make up his mind about which subject to major in, and the black boy –- a visitor from Oberlin College –- has made up his mind that there is racial discrimination at Vassar.

"Why, I think white people are ugly," Jean says, pinching her pale cheeks for emphasis. "I feel like drinking iodine to change my color."

"But you don’t deny that prejudice exists?" the black student asks.

"It doesn’t exist with me."

"Just look at the past…"

"I don’t want to look at the past. I live for the present."

"But in order to change something, you must first acknowledge its existence. In this country, the name of the game has always been power –- and that includes whites preventing blacks from gaining power."

"Sure, there’s been prejudice, and sure the wrong people are running the country. You only have to look at their brutal faces to know that. But there are people who have the right answers –- Ralph Nader, Buckminster Fuller, Dick Gregory, Loren Eisely –- and one day people are going to listen to them. The best thing that can happen is for kids to get together and talk and plan. It’s like that great song from that terrible show –- ‘To Dream the Impossible Dream.’ I mean, how did our scientists ever get us to the moon, after all?"

"I don’t mean to sound cynical," the white student says, "but don’t you think there are things, things inside us –- philosophical ideas –- that should be explored before we start exploring the moon?"

"Well, for heaven’s sake, just because the scientists happen to be supporting that guy in Washington at the moment doesn’t mean they won’t put their technology to better use one day. Maybe they’ll help us all learn to love one another."

"I dig what you’re saying," the black student says.

"You must cut out feeling abused. If you hang on to all that foolish stuff, it will prevent you from going ahead, from creating. I know, because that’s what happened to me once. But it will never happen again, no matter what."

The lunch –- and the rapping –- are over, and Jean gets up from the table. "It’s been nice talking with you," she says, extending her hand. "My name’s Jean Arthur."

"Jean Arthur. Jean Arthur...I’ll remember that name. You just keep doing your own thing, lady, and one day you’ll be famous."

Jean Arthur doesn’t say a word, but she beams like someone who’s just been told she’s going to graduate summa cum laude.

TO READ MANY MORE OF GUY FLATLEY'S ONE-ON-ONE INTERVIEWS--FROM JACK NICHOLSON TO AMANDA PEET TO AL PACINO TO BARBRA STREISAND TO VINCE VAUGHN TO DIANE KEATON TO WOODY ALLEN--CLICK HERE.