Jean Arthur: The Actress Nobody Knew

Publié le par John Oller

Jean Arthur - The Actress Nobody KnewShe is probably best remembered for her wistful-husky voice which, as Pauline Kael wrote, "was one of the best sounds in the romantic comedies of the 30s and 40s." But Jean Arthur's screen career began in silent films and spanned more than a quarter of a century. She worked with great directors of Hollywood's Golden Age: John Ford, Frank Capra, Cecil B. DeMille, Howard Hawks, George Stevens and Billy Wilder; and she shared star billing with the likes of Gary Cooper, James Stewart, Cary Grant, Alan Ladd, Charles Boyer and John Wayne. Her most enduring films include Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, You Can't Take It With You, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The More the Merrier, The Whole Town's Talking, A Foreign Affair and, in her last screen appearance, Shane.

She was, in fact, one of the most popular and beloved movie stars of her time. Jean Arthur's popularity sprang from her talent, her charm and her quiet beauty, not from her offscreen exploits. Independent, indifferent to most of Hollywood's rules if not defiant of them, treasuring her privacy above all else, she chose to become an enigma - and so she has remained until now.

In this, the first biography of Jean Arthur, John Oller, after years of research among the actress's closest friends, relatives and co-workers, has uncovered the life she tried so hard to shroud: a bruising, rootless childhood that left her with a crushing sense of insecurity, but also a steely determination to stand up for herself and what she believed in; a romance with David O. Selznick that ended unhappily, a childless marriage to film executive Frank Ross that descended into bitterness and recrimination, and rumors of lesbianism that continue to this day; legal battles fought over the roles she was offered as well as in defense of animals and the environment; repeated, aborted attempts to conquer Broadway that yielded but one theatrical triumph - as Peter Pan, a character she loved because, like herself, he refused to deal with the world on.

ISBN-13 : 9780879102784
Publisher : Hal Leonard Corporation
Publication date : 28/04/1999
Author : John Oller

What People Are Saying

Leonard Maltin

I can't say enough about this book. Oller has taken on a challenge that would have humbled many an experienced biographer. [He] met with success at every turn and various friends and relatives confided in him. His sympathetic bent and attention to detail make this an exceptional piece of work in every way. An oustanding biography...among the best I've read in years.

First Chapter

ANIMAL INSTINCTS

It was 6 a.m. on Sunday, April 1, 1973, when the phone rang in Pete Ballard's apartment in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, waking him from a sleep that had begun only three hours earlier. Ballard, a teacher at the North Carolina School of the Arts, had been out late celebrating his forty-second birthday and he was in no mood for any April Fool's jokes. He soon learned that this was no joking matter.

Ballard immediately recognized the cracked, child-woman voice at the other end of the line. But he could not fathom why his friend Jean Arthur would be calling at such an hour.

"Well, how was your party?" she asked, softly. "Fine," he responded, half-asleep.

"What did you have to eat," she inquired further, sounding distracted.

"Jean, not at six o'clock in the morning," he snapped, and paused before adding, "and where the hell were you?"

Despite the irritation in his voice, Ballard was neither surprised nor offended by Arthur's failure to show at his birthday party after promising to attend; he was aware of her track record in such matters. What did take him aback was her response.

"I was in jail," she said, so matter-of-factly that it did not register at first. Then she said, in a suddenly plaintive voice, "I really was in jail and I need to talk to you right now!" Whereupon Ballard shot out of bed, threw a coat over his pajamas and raced over to Arthur's apartment to hear her story.

It had started a few weeks earlier and it had to do with a certain German shepherd dog named Major, whose owners were a young working couple living in Winston-Salem. They generally kept the year-old puppy chained up in the backyard, from where it could frequency be heard barking and crying, much to the chagrin of a certain elderly woman who lived next door. The couple did not know that she was a once-famous movie star now teaching drama as an artist-in-residence at the School of the Arts.

They also did not know that Jean Arthur had a legendary reputation for refusing to tolerate inhumane treatment of any creature, however lowly, that fell within her reach. At one point in the filming of Shane, for example, she refused to do another scene until dummy chickens were substituted for the real ones whose eyes had begun to bleed during rehearsals from being carried upside down the way farmers do. While on location for the picture Arizona, she hired a veterinarian, at her expense, to cure the pigs of a skin disease which she noticed was afflicting them. Another time, she spent nearly four hours on a Long Island beach picking up horseshoe crabs that lay helplessly overturned on their backs, and throwing them back into the water; she proudly counted more than six hundred whose lives she had saved.

Thus, when Jean Arthur saw a young pup whimpering sadly next door to her, she naturally took action. Her overtures began innocently enough, with her taking the dog food each day, as she did with other animals in the neighborhood. The dog's owners, however, were not amused by these acts of charity. She next offered to build a fenced run for the dog so that it could roam the backyard without having to be tied up all day while the couple was at work. But they did not appreciate their lives being intruded upon, and they told her to stop coming over. She accused them of mistreating the dog, and threatened to call the Humane Society. They in turn threatened to call the police if she set foot on their property again.

On the afternoon of March 31, 1973, she was in the couple's yard again, making the rounds, when they pulled in the driveway and saw her, barefoot, consoling the dog. Twenty-five-year-old Ronald Ray Douglas got out of the car and twice told the nameless old woman to get off his land. After she finally left, he called the police and said he wanted to prosecute.

Arthur always left the front and back doors to her apartment open so her cats could come and go as they pleased. Thus, when two officers showed up at her doorstep to serve a trespass warrant upon her, they went right in and found her in the kitchen, fixing dinner for her three cats and two canaries.

Arthur tried to explain her side of the story, but Officer H.N. Thomas cut her off, saying he was not there to judge the merits of the case. She called him "goddamned stupid," whereupon he told her she was under arrest for cursing and abusing an officer. When she asked if she could put on some shoes and check on the meal she had cooking on the stove, her requests were denied.

The ensuing scene might have been right out of one of Arthur's screwball comedies were it not so serious. The two burly police officers, having no clue as to the identity of their prisoner, placed her hands behind her back, handcuffed her and tossed her in the back seat of the patrol car parked outside. Once at the county jail, they threw her in a cell with a group of prostitutes, just as the police had done with Arthur and her eccentric family, some thirty-five years earlier, in the film You Can't Take It With You.

In that movie, Arthur's character was released from jail when the lawyer of fiance Jimmy Stewart's wealthy father arrived on the scene with bail in hand. In real life, it was not so easy. Arthur knew virtually no one in town except Pete Ballard, and she had no way of getting in touch with him, as he had gone to his birthday party. No one knew who she was, nor had she told them (she gave the police an assumed name). So she sat in jail, barefoot and in baggy clothes, bumming cigarettes from the prostitutes.

The jailkeepers called a bail bondsman for her but he declined to put up the $100 necessary for her release. After a second bondsman came through with bail approximately forty minutes later, she was allowed to leave. For a while she sat nervously in the station waiting for her taxicab to arrive, but when she rose and started pacing back and forth, one of the officers pushed her back down, saving, "You sit there." When the taxi arrived, she ran to the door, turned around and said, "You wouldn't do this to me if I were Katharine Hepburn!" Once back in her apartment, she sat by herself all night until she woke her friend Ballard.

By the time she finished telling Ballard this story, it was almost 8 a.m. They agreed that the entire incident had to be kept away from the press. Ballard called Weston Hatfield, the legal advisor to the School of the Arts, who came over and agreed to represent her. A trial was booked for ten days later in a North Carolina district court, the lowest level state court for the trial of misdemeanors.

The low-profile stratagem worked for a while, but a few days before the trial word of Arthur's arrest leaked to the press and the story was all over the country. Hatfield began receiving calls of support from well-known animal rights activists like Cleveland Amory and Amanda Blake. Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor cabled to offer their assistance. Several Fondas sent the same message from Europe. Then mail began arriving by the bagful, all of which Arthur proceeded to throw out, as was her habit. Ballard retrieved it, however, and found a thousand-dollar check from a judge in California, along with several marriage proposals.

On the morning of the trial, April 11, 1973, a surprisingly relaxed Arthur met for breakfast with Helen Hayes, who happened to be in Winston-Salem visiting friends. Ballard, a costume designer by background, had exhorted Arthur to wear a dress that day, something she had not done in years. But she declined his advice, put on a pantsuit instead and headed over to the courthouse with him at the appointed hour.

After ramming through a throng that was waiting at the courthouse entrance, Arthur and Ballard were met inside by Hatfield, a tall, dapper man in his early fifties. Ballard took a seat in the audience, which he had managed to pack with friends. "I had called everyone I knew in town who had a respectable look to them to come and fill up this little courtroom," he recalled.

The presiding judge was one Abraham Lincoln Sherk. According to Hatfield, Sherk had a reputation for being a tough judge--a man who was not going to be interested in any technical defenses. Not that Arthur's defenses were that strong, technically speaking: In response to her neighbor's charge, the defense plea was justifiable trespass; to the charge of abusing an officer, Hatfield invoked the First Amendment.

Douglas, the prosecution's first witness, recounted how he had warned the elderly defendant to stay off his property and finally called the police when she appeared again on March 31. Douglas claimed the woman had been drinking both that day and on the prior occasions when she showed up in his yard. Each time he mentioned her drinking, Arthur let out an "Ahhh," her way of disputing the allegation. After the second "Ahhh," Sherk turned in his chair toward Hatfield, eyes half-closed, and drawled, "One more time, counselor. That's all it's going to take." She did do it softly, one more time, but the judge let it pass. Otherwise Arthur sat quietly through the testimony with a pleasant look on her face.

Following Douglas, Officer H.N. Thomas took the stand and told the story of the arrest. He claimed he had never entered Arthur's apartment, but, lacking an arrest warrant, had stayed outside on the porch instead. He further testified that he handcuffed the woman because the patrol car did not have a glass partition between the driver's seat and the prisoner's seat in the rear.

Now it was Arthur's turn to testify. Before parting from Ballard earlier in the courtroom, she had asked if he had any advice and he had told her to play it like a scene out of a Frank Capra movie. With that in mind, she walked politely up the aisle, said good morning to the policemen and to the judge and took the stand. She then testified that she had become concerned about the dog because "he barked all day and most of the night and he cried--like a child. It kind of broke my heart." She said she went out to pet the dog in the yard about six times and had taken him calves' liver and chicken on a couple of occasions, but that she returned only once after Douglas told her to stay away. Asked by the prosecuting attorney why she hadn't left immediately on March 31 when told to, she responded, "But I love the dog and the dog loves me." It was, at least, faintly Capra-esque.

Although his client admitted to having called Thomas "damn stupid" (which was slightly milder than the phrase the officer recalled) Hatfield argued that such a remark was constitutionally protected by freedom of speech unless it could be shown to have actually obstructed justice. To demonstrate how ridiculous the abuse charge was under these circumstances, he had the diminutive Arthur stand up beside the two large arresting officers. He also said the use of handcuffs on the elderly woman was "shocking," and asked the judge to imagine his own mother being similarly treated.

Whether good Capra or bad theater, Abraham Lincoln Sherk was having none of it. He found Arthur guilty on two misdemeanor counts, fined her fifty dollars and court costs for cursing and abusing an officer, and tacked on an additional twenty-five dollars and a three-year suspended sentence with probation on the charge of trespassing.

"None of the people involved fully realized who she was," recalled Hatfield two decades later. He said everyone in Winston-Salem was surprised at the negative press the city received when news of the arrest of Jean Arthur broke, and that, he speculated, may have affected the prosecution of the case.

Arthur, on the other hand, was relieved not to have received a stiffer sentence. "But for the fact that it was discovered it was `me,' instead of just a little old lady, I would have been put in jail," she reflected later.

Not only was she not jailed, but Arthur ultimately was vindicated. Six months into her appeal, after she had moved back to California, the state elected to dismiss the case. By that time, Ronald Ray Douglas and wife Joan had also left town, victims of a series of threatening anonymous phone calls and letters.

Avenged or not, the dog incident reaffirmed for Jean Arthur her belief that animals, not people, are the world's most trustworthy inhabitants. "Animals have no chips on their shoulders--they're never mad at you, and they never misunderstand you," she once explained. "When I'm walking down the street I don't pay much attention to the people," she said another time. "I only see the animals and I go up to them like old friends."

Indeed, even more than the compassion she felt for animals, Jean Arthur felt a certain kinship with them. Speaking of her adopted mongrel dog Pat in 1938, in terms that might have been reserved for herself, she said, "I wouldn't have a trained show dog or trick dog for the world. I believe that dogs should be allowed to be natural--then if they do have any personality it will show itself in its own individual way."

Arthur herself felt most natural in front of the camera; it was acting, rather than "real life," that brought out her individuality. "I've never been self-conscious acting," she once explained. "The only times I'm self-conscious are--when I'm Jean Arthur. In front of a camera I lose my identity completely, and with it I lose my timidity. As a character in a play I feel as if I can be what people expect. As Jean Arthur, I never feel as if I know what people expect." In 1972, in one of her last published interviews, she explained it even more succinctly: "I guess I became an actress because I didn't want to be myself."

The person Jean Arthur did not want to be, and from whom she sought to escape through acting, was a person nobody knew. The scarcity of knowledge about Jean Arthur begins with the most basic information about her life: when she was born, and where. Both are facts she managed to keep from people, even those closest to her, for almost her entire life.

Publié dans Bibliothèque

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