17 October 2009

It's 'Easy Living' with Jean Arthur Characters

It's hard to know what to make of Jean Arthur.

One assertion I feel comfortable in making is that she tended to wind up in a lot of really good movies and indeed was part of what made them enjoyable.

I wouldn't use the word "beautiful" to describe her and certainly would abstain from referring to her as at all sexy. Then again she was quite attractive. And I know this sounds strange, but she was more the marrying type then the kind you fooled around with. You either fell all the way or hoped she met someone nice and if it was a friend or relative that was just jake.

In other words, Jean Arthur was just flat out adorable. More so than just about anyone at anytime in anyplace.

Unlike say Lombard, Loy or Shearer she could not play the wealthy heiress or society dame. But she did the just-getting-by roles or working girls with the best of em. Hell, maybe she was the best of them.

First of all there was that voice. The glamor set does not have squeaky, rapid fire voices with working class accents. But that hard working dame you see on the way to way every morning? The one with the nice enough gams and the sweet disposition? That screwy voice works on her just fine, thank you very much. That talking mouse voice coming out of her puss was initially tolerable. As you got to know her, it was downright endearing.

Ms. Arthur was all silly smirks, scowls, funny frowns and wide eyed wonder. She was great at being put upon, annoyed and positively delighted. Jean had her own range of emotions that fit nicely with any character she took on.

Maybe it wasn't her best work but in many ways the ultimate Jean Arthur character was Mary Smith (dig that craaa-zee name!) in Easy Living (1937). (And then again maybe it was her best work.) Mary was a working girl just getting by, though the loss of that work would put her on the streets. Fate intercedes (as it so often does in films) and a mink coat falls on her from the heavens during the morning commute. Long story short, she loses the job but quickly gains a fortune and a new beau. Along the way much slapstick hilarity ensues. It sounds remarkably like a Preston Sturges which is funny cause he didn't direct it but he did write the screenplay, if you must know.

But this is about Jean....

Let's try this one on her for size: plucky. She's that in spades. In Easy Living, Mary Smith rides out the earthquakes of life and forges ahead through all the temblors. It's not what happens to you that's important, but how you react to what happens to you that is important. Mary Smith, like other Jean Arthur characters, is nonplussed by most anything. Oh sure she may bash an ex boss over the head with a painting (he was framed!) but she don't cry over the spilt milk. And when fortune shines and through no machinations of her own that fallen fur can be parlayed into other riches, who is she to say no?

How could the young Ray Milland of Easy Living not fall for? Him and the mink both dropped in her lap from the sky and she wore them both with equal joy. Milland's John Ball Jr. would be a sap of the first order not to accept fate's mandate that he and Smith, as they say in modern parlance, hook up.

In other films it was Joel McCrea, James Stewart, Robert Cummings, Gary Cooper or Cary Grant who went daffy for this sometimes dizzy dame. Those of us in the audience always bought it. The chemistry was there because Ms. Arthur was an alchemist cooking up her own love potion. Men fall for her because she was pretty enough, smart enough, funny enough and she's way way more good-hearted and sweet than any of the male gender deserve. This is not to be resisted. It can't be.

So if you've read this far and yet are unfamiliar with Jean Arthur the best way to get acquainted would be to start with Easy Living. You've got more treats ahead such as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), The More the Merrier (1943), Talk of the Town (1942), The Devil and Miss Jones (1941), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) and The Ex-Mrs. Bradford (1936). You're gonna love getting to know her.

Easy Living also features a perfectly wonderful performance by Edward Arnold. Often the prosperous villain conniving against regular folk, here is a far more nuanced financier who manages to blend a soft heart into that whole rich and powerful mix.

You may come for Milland, Arnold or Sturges but you'll stay for Ms. Arthur. This is her picture more so than perhaps any other. And that's a good thing.


Millie said...

Oh, I just adore Jean Arthur. She's one of my most favorite actresses ever.

I agree with you and everything you said, she really was just amazing. I really adore Easy Living (I own it), but my personal favorite Jean Arthur film would have to be The More The Merrier. I think that she and Joel were just so great together.

Excellent post!

Kate Gabrielle said...

Great post! And ditto to everything Millie said- The More the Merrier is also my favorite! :)