“I am not an adult, that’s my explanation of myself. Except when I am working on a set, I have all the inhibitions and shyness of the bashful, backward child, unless I have something very much in common with a person, I am lost. I am swallowed up in my own silence.”Jean Arthur
The More The Merrier (1943) is in my Top 10 Films of All Time. It is a bright, witty, sexy comedy from Columbia Pictures which makes fun of the housing shortage in Washington D.C. during World War II. It stars Jean Arthur, yummy Joel McCrea and Charles Coburn, directed by George Stevens. Coburn won an Academy Award and Arthur was nominated. It was also nominated for Best Director, Best Picture, Best Screenplay.
Under fire at Columbia for turning down too many projects, Arthur and her husband Frank Ross invited a friend, Garson Kanin, to create a vehicle for Arthur, and they paid him out of their own pocket. Kanin’s Two’s A Crowd was then adapted by screenwriter Robert W. Russell with both receiving credit.
Arthur was a bundle of insecurities, suffering debilitating stage fright, yet in the 1930s, she specialized in playing confident, smart women who worked for a living, competing with men in a man’s world.
Arthur was diminutive, just 5 feet, 3 inches, and she possessed a distinctive voice. With a lighthearted flair for reflecting the absurdities of life, a subtle vulnerability, she was lovely, yet never really cast for her beauty, but for her independent spirit, spunk and stubbornness. The voice is so unique. It has a wide range, plus she could control it: adding lilts, catches, and small laughs. Imagine, she spent seven years making silent films at the beginning of her career.
She was a somewhat solitary, very private person, but she was also one of the finest comic actors of The Golden Age of Hollywood.
Her honesty made even implausible scenes appear credible. A shy perfectionist, she was invariably self-critical of her performances, refused to pose for cheesecake photographs, rarely granted interviews and was often suspended by Columbia Pictures for rejecting roles. Arthur:
“I just couldn’t act in a bad picture.”
Arthur was born Gladys Georgianna Greene in Upstate New York. She changed her name to Jean Arthur, a tribute to both Joan of Arc and King Arthur.
Her first film was Cameo Kirby (1923) for John Ford. Those insecurities and a discomfort for working in front of the camera almost finished her career before it started.
After seven years in Hollywood, making more than 30 films, mostly shorts, she called it quits at 30 years old. She decided to give Broadway a chance. Audiences and critics adored her. Arthur:
“On the stage the individual counted. The director encouraged me and I learned how to be myself. I learned to face audiences and to forget them. To see the footlights and not to see them; to gauge the reactions of hundreds of people, and yet to throw myself so completely into a role that I was oblivious to their reaction.”
She returned to Hollywood filled with confidence and became one of the most popular female actors of the 1930s. Yet, Arthur still had to deal with her chronic stage fright. Between takes she would run to her dressing room to throw up. Laid-back Gary Cooper was one of the few actors she worked with who could help her to relax. Cooper would have made me the opposite of relaxed.
Arthur had a string of first-rate, now classic films, working with the best actors and directors: Mr. Deeds Goes To Town (1936), You Can’t Take It With You (1938), Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (1939), The Talk Of The Town.
The More The Merrier has one of the sexiest kissing scenes in movie history. Here, let me show you:
Arthur hated the exploitation, ruthlessness and inherent cruelty of showbiz. She did not attend film premiers or parties in Hollywood. She seldom granted interviews. She gained the moniker “The American Greta Garbo“. And, because of her nerves, every role in every film was an emotional roller-coaster for her.
In 1944, at the height of her fame, Arthur walked away from her contract with Columbia Pictures. When her release was finalized, she ran through the backlot screaming: “I’m free! I’m free!”
But, Arthur didn’t really retire. She worked occasionally, most importantly in the not to be ignored A Foreign Affair (1948) for Billy Wilder, where she plays a prim Iowa congresswoman and rival of Marlene Dietrich, and as a homesteader’s wife in the greatest western of all-time Shane (1953) for George Stevens, which turned out to be the biggest box-office hit of her career and her only color film.
She returned to Broadway where she was cast as the lead in the bubbly comedy Born Yesterday by Garson Kanin. Her nerves and insecurities got the better of her again and she left the production before it opened. She was replaced by the then-unknown Judy Holliday.
Arthur did manage to score triumphs on Broadway in the 1950s, starring in an adaptation of Peter Pan with a score by Leonard Bernstein when she was 50 years old. The production had 321 performances, one of the longest runs for the classic story.
She took on the role of her namesake in a 1954 production of George Bernard Shaw‘s Saint Joan, but she left the play after a nervous breakdown and constant fights with director Harold Clurman. Sadly, her unease with performing in public prevented her from any further sustained success on stage or screen.
With astonishing candor, she described herself as:
“I guess I became an actress because I didn’t want to be myself.”
Still, she tried once more, this time in television in 1966, but after The Jean Arthur Show was canceled after 12 episodes, she took on a new career as a college professor at Vassar. She declared that one of her students, Meryl Streep, was destined for certain stardom.
Then, in 1975, she planned a return to Broadway in The First Monday In October as the first woman to be a Supreme Court Justice (a fantasy at the time), a role written just for her, but once again she suffered from extreme stage fright and quit the production shortly into its out-of-town tryouts.
This time she really did retire to a quiet life, living in Carmel, alone at last. Arthur left this world in 1991, taken by heart failure, not stage fright. She was 90-years old. She had no children. At her request, there was no funeral service; even that would have been too much attention. She was cremated and her remains were scattered off the California Pacific coast.
In 1973, Arthur made the news when she was arrested and jailed for trespassing on a neighbor’s property to console a dog she felt was being abused. An animal lover her entire life, Arthur said she trusted dogs more than people. She was convicted, fined $75 and given three years’ probation.
Like all comedies made during WWII, The More The Merrier was designed to take the worries of war off the minds of the movie goers, at least for a while. Years later this timeless classic continues to entertain and delight fans whatever their worries.