Jean Arthur: The Actress Nobody Knew

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She knocked on Garbo's front door, was let into the residence by a servant and stood in the foyer until the great woman descended the stairway. Awestruck and tongue-tied, Arthur introduced herself, explained why she had come, then watched as Garbo opened the package. In it was a huge diamond pin that caused Arthur's eyes to bulge with astonishment at the realization of what she had been carrying around.

Garbo then turned to Arthur, said "Vy don't you mind your own business," and walked back upstairs. In my youthful naivete, seeing that nobody seemed interested in the project, I thought about taking on the job myself. Thank goodness I waited for John Oller to write his book instead!

There's no way that anyone could have done a better job with this most reclusive and challenging of subjects. Even during her heyday I had waited impatiently for almost 30 years for someone to tackle a biography of Jean Arthur, one of my favorite actresses and one of the brightest comediennes of the '30s and '40s. Even during her heyday, Ms. Arthur was an extremely private person--"America's Garbo," as she was called--and in the final decades of her life, snubbed all efforts from outsiders seeking autographs or interviews about her glorious past.

It may seem faint praise to call Mr. Oller's book a definitive biography when it is the ONLY one to have ever been written, but I just don't see how anyone will ever gain more access to Jean Arthur information than he has presented here. Oller has taken the time to interview dozens of Arthur's friends and family members, as well as associates from her film and stage careers and from her various teaching posts.


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The book is remarkably evenhanded. Arthur was apparently a very complex person, with lots of insecurities and neuroses that made her somewhat of a problem to work with.

I'm trying to be kind here. Oller clearly thinks the world of the actress, but at the same time doesn't shrink from telling us when a producer or neighbor had something rotten to say of her. And when Oller runs into an area where the evidence leads to no clear result such as the case of Arthur's possible bisexuality , he gives us the facts as well as can be known and leaves it at that. The book is anything but sensationalistic. This biography traces Arthur's roots all the way back to the 13th century!

It moves swiftly along; indeed, I almost found myself wishing that Oller would devote more space to some of my favorite Arthur movies. One would think that the most interesting segment of this actress' story would be the great Hollywood years, but as it turned out, the latter portion of the book, dealing with Arthur's life after Hollywood, was even more interesting.

Oller takes us on a trip through Arthur's stage career, her life as a student and teacher, and her reclusive final years in Carmel, CA. It's all fascinating material, especially for fans of the actress who were never privy to any of this stuff before. The author writes well; it's hard to believe that this biography is his first book. By reading closely and looking at the notes at the rear of this work, one deduces that Mr.

Oller spent the better part of a decade on this project That said, I should also note that there ARE some small problems with the book; some minor mistakes that a close reading reveals. For example, there are some errors as regards dates. However, in reality, that date was a Thursday. He writes that Arthur's brother Robert was born in March and died in November at age Shouldn't that be 63?

He writes that at the time of Arthur's death in , she hadn't appeared in a film "in more than forty years. Oller tells us that Dee Hoty--the actress who took over briefly for Ms. He writes of an Oscar ceremony in February as being in the "spring"; shouldn't that be "winter"? He tells us that the movie "The Stripper," in which Arthur was reportedly going to make a comeback, was based on the William Inge play "Celebration. To end this nitpicking, Mr.

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Oller tells us that "Shane" was the "third highest-grossing film of I feel that these oversights need to be pointed out, as they tend to undermine an otherwise meticulously researched volume, but at the same time feel a bit churlish for seeming ungrateful for Mr. Oller's hard work. The fact of the matter is that he has done the world, and fans of Ms. Arthur in particular and old-timey movies in general, a terrific service, and I am very grateful to him. I have read his book twice already, and will continue to refer to it for many years.

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Feb 28, Nick rated it it was amazing. Must read.


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  8. View 2 comments. She had a unique voice, one that Frank Capra, her frequent director, once described as accurately as anyone has, as "a thousand tinkling bells. She was one of the best actresses working in the genres of the screwball and romantic comedies of the '30s and '40s: wonderful in films such as "The Whole Town's Talking" , "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town" , "Easy Living" , "Mr Smith Goes to Washington" , and one of my favorites, "The M She had a unique voice, one that Frank Capra, her frequent director, once described as accurately as anyone has, as "a thousand tinkling bells.

    She pretty much played the same character in all these films, a working girl finding excitement and romance in the hustle and bustle of the deco metropolis. There's a purity to her hard to duplicate. And yet, as this book's title suggests, virtually nothing was known about her. She cloaked her life in mystery; even more so than Garbo herself. This biography is the first attempt to find out who this reclusive woman was. I love Arthur's screen persona and her films.

    Jean Arthur : The Actress Nobody Knew by John Oller (1999, Paperback, Reprint)

    So let's just see who she was Into chapter one and liking this author's very readable style and presentation. No jargon, just good straight analysis, well ordered, all the words chosen for smooth comprehension.

    Already I've learned a lot about Jean Arthur and I'm only on page 7. So let's see Liking this Chapter Two: This guy has done his homework, and he can write. It's obvious already that this is an excellent bio. Just upped it to four stars.

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    OK, so I've read it and am impressed by Oller's research. This was not an easy subject; I admire his persistence in tackling a star who eluded the grasp of so many others. Arthur was an introverted, complex, virtually friendless character, but she "owned" herself, as much as one can who is eaten up with various personal issues. She was not a joiner; probably the most reclusive and mysterious of all movie stars; she didn't play the game, was uncompromising. She took on the most ruthless tycoon in Hollywood, Harry Cohn head of Columbia Pictures - defied him repeatedly and eventually won.

    She challenged him during the time when star contracts made them virtual chattel She stayed out of the social game in town, didn't associate with other stars; refused publicity. She followed her own bliss, but by doing so also found dissatisfaction and sadness, and problems with alcohol.

    Perhaps the most interesting parts of the book are about her later years; her problems with various stage productions and as a college acting teacher. It was in these venues that her eccentricities most perplexed her colleagues and charges. Here's what one of the persons from her very small circle of friends said about her: "She's a seagull just flying with the breeze And about time, since it seems the thousandth bio of Marilyn Monroe will doubtlessly outsell it, even though Arthur starred in far more classic films, and was more talented.

    Oh well. View 1 comment. Aug 28, Allyson rated it liked it. Nov 03, John Nondorf rated it it was amazing. I've loved Jean Arthur in several movies and now feel a kinship to her after reading about her introvert life. This book tells her story spots and all and she remains a beauty through and through. May 12, Bruce rated it really liked it. Some years ago I read the memoirs of both Cecil B. DeMille and Frank Capra and those two Hollywood icons had little in common, but both had remarkably similar experiences working with Jean Arthur.

    Both talked about her horrible insecurities and the times they had dealing with them. But the performances she gave made the effort worth it. Her rise was slow and Some years ago I read the memoirs of both Cecil B. Her rise was slow and steady in Hollywood from poverty row westerns to sound where it first it was thought that voice with the squeak in it wouldn't cut it talkies.

    Jean Arthur

    Robinson's girlfriend in The Whole Town's Talking in in that comedy classic. Ford who really didn't like temperament of any kind never used her again though. But Capra did it 3 times with three of her best known films, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington. As light comedienne and the hero's friend and inspiration and spur she found her niche. But with stardom came temperament. She refused fan magazine interviews and cheesecake photos and that kind of fluff.

    She was a publicity man's nightmare.