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Jean Arthur Dies; Comedy Film Star of the '30s and '40s

June 20, 1991|MYRNA OLIVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Jean Arthur, whose wit and cracked husky child-woman voice made her one of Hollywood's most popular comedians of the 1930s and 1940s, died Wednesday in Carmel. She was 90.

Miss Arthur died of heart failure in Carmel Convalescent Hospital on the Monterey Peninsula, said spokesman Ronald H. Siebe of Paul Mortuary of Pacific Grove.

Propelled to stardom partially by Hollywood's 1933 Production Code, which prompted screenwriters to substitute quips for double entendres, Miss Arthur cheerfully twitted the top leading men of the era--Gary Cooper in "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town" and "The Plainsman," Cary Grant in "Only Angels Have Wings," and James Stewart in perhaps her best-known film, "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," made in 1939.

"Jean had a very rare and special talent," Stewart said Wednesday after learning of Miss Arthur's death. "My experience working with her is something I will never forget."

She was praised for her role as the savvy political aide who teaches the ropes to the young, idealistic Sen. Smith and then falls in love with him, but the Academy Award eluded her then and throughout her career.

Her only Best Actress nomination was for "The More the Merrier" in 1943. George Stevens, who directed the film, called Miss Arthur "one of the greatest comediennes the screen has ever seen."

Asked why she dropped out of Hollywood after appearing in more than 70 films, Miss Arthur said in 1966: "I hated the place--not the work, but the lack of privacy, those terrible, prying fan magazine writers and all the surrounding exploitation."

Very shy, she resisted posing for the "leg art" obligatory for female stars in the 1930s, and reportedly was known to lock herself in her dressing room and cry after film takes.

Born Gladys Georgianna Greene in New York City, Miss Arthur dropped out of school to become a model when she was 15.

Her debut was a bit part in the 1923 film "Cameo Kirby," which was followed with several undistinguished roles in low-budget comedy shorts and Westerns.

Returning to Broadway, she won critical acclaim in "Foreign Affairs" and "The Man Who Reclaimed His Head" in the early 1930s.

Her Hollywood breakthrough came in 1935, when she first demonstrated her light comedic touch as a witty girl-next-door in director John Ford's "The Whole Town's Talking."

She returned to Broadway for a triumphant "Peter Pan" in the early 1950s and made her final film, "Shane," in 1953, as the frontier mother playing opposite Alan Ladd and Van Heflin.

Always considered somewhat standoffish by Hollywood standards because of her shyness, Miss Arthur went into semi-seclusion in her modest Carmel home, which is surrounded on three sides by the Pacific Ocean.

Arthur was married twice, but had no children. Her first marriage, in 1928 to photographer Julian Anker, lasted only one day before it was annulled. Her second marriage was to Hollywood producer Frank Ross, who later married actress Joan Caulfield, who died of cancer in Los Angeles on Tuesday.

To the surprise of her close friends, Miss Arthur interrupted her apparent retirement after a dozen years to make her first appearance on television, in a guest role on the long-running Western series "Gunsmoke" in 1965.

"When my friends learned I was going to do the 'Gunsmoke' role, they said, 'Don't do that because you won't be able to stand TV. . . . They work so hard and so fast.' But I like to work fast. . . ," she told The Times.

Miss Arthur enjoyed the television debut so much, however, that she agreed to do her own series in 1966, "The Jean Arthur Show," about an attorney.

"I love doing this show because the story is different every time and there are different people," she told a Times interviewer. "You don't have time to get tired because there's something new every week.

"And my wardrobe! Well, when I walk on the set, everyone goes 'ahhh' because my clothes are so beautiful."

Despite her enthusiasm, the series was short-lived, and Miss Arthur returned to Carmel.

At her request, there will be no services. Her ashes will be scattered at sea. Memorial contributions may be made to the Monterey Institute of International Studies, P.O. Box 1978, Monterey, Calif., 93942, or to the Miss Jean Arthur Fund at the Robert Louis Stevenson School, Forest Lake Road, Pebble Beach, Calif. 93953.

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