With the expansion of public domain, some of the great names of the pre-Code era are about to become better known. There are a lot of actresses who were doing solid work in those days whose careers were ended when the kinds of characters at which they excelled stopped being acceptable. There are performers whose best work was in genres we don’t see a lot of anymore—it would be hard for a screwball star to get work in a noir era. Don’t get me wrong; we’ll still be suffering from the stigma of “I don’t watch old movies,” but at least they’ll be more accessible if people happen to be looking around.
Jean Arthur probably would’ve been happier not being a star. Legend has it that, when her contract with Columbia Pictures expired, she ran down the studio streets shouting, “I’m free! I’m free!” She was so opposed to publicity that she was dubbed the American Greta Garbo. And honestly there’s nothing wrong with that, but she also suffered from crippling stage fright. She would vomit before performances and between takes. There are a few stories of plays she dropped out of because she simply couldn’t face the performing—one of which was Born Yesterday, which left an opening for Judy Holliday.
In fact, she was probably happier during her years as a drama teacher. At Vassar, she taught and admired a young Meryl Streep. We would have missed out on some great performances if she’d gone that route, but it probably would’ve been better for her. I’m not saying she would’ve loved life as a stenographer, which is what she was before she went to Hollywood, but I suspect there would’ve been less emotional trauma. She hated the studio system, hated the artificiality, hated being a public figure. In fact, a fan magazine of the era said she was actually more publicity-averse than Garbo.
She is, however, amazing to watch. Her Wikipedia page refers to her early in her career as not having talent, and that is obviously just nonsense. Early in her career, she lacked skill, but she wouldn’t have been able to get the performances she later would despite her stage fright and so forth without talent. Further, both George Stevens and Frank Capra spoke highly of her ability as an actress and comedienne, and apparently quite a lot of her costars agreed. She’s warm and charming and funny, and it’s not difficult to imagine people falling in love with her.
Her last role, her only colour role, came long after she was basically retired from movies. It had been five years since her last film. Marian Starrett, frankly, is more of an archetype than a character, but Arthur gave the role her all. She’s the kind of mother in Shane that you wouldn’t mind having yourself, and it’s not difficult to imagine falling in love with her as an adult. It’s a beautiful farewell to film—and based on what the rest of her acting career looked like, I suspect she wished she’d left her professional career as a performer with it, too.