Jean Arthur (1900-1991) was a popular 1930s comedic actress largely remembered today for spirited performances in Frank Capra’s classics, such as “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” and “You Can’t Take it with You.”
Her career began in the silent era, with appearances in more than 50 films during the 1920s, but by 1944 she had essentially retired from Hollywood, briefly returning for two more films, including “Shane” in 1953.
Surprisingly, despite her often sparkling screen performances, Arthur suffered from bouts of severe stage fright throughout her career which hampered her later attempts at theater and a short-lived TV show.
Two decades after leaving Hollywood, Arthur’s interests turned to teaching.
“Jean arrived at Vassar in 1968,” recalled Evert Sprinchorn, former head of the drama department at historic Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. “The dean of the arts college met her on an ocean liner during a transatlantic crossing and the two struck up a friendship. Jean was going through a difficult period and I believe the dean created the position for her.”
During her four years at Vassar, Sprinchorn interacted with Arthur more than other staff, as she was very private.
“I found her to be intelligent, unassuming, detesting pomposity, and with a genuine artistic flair,” he said. “I never pumped her for tales about old Hollywood, regrettably, but very occasionally a little tidbit would slip from her lips. Once, she did bring up working with Cary Grant in ‘Only Angels have Wings’ and said he was ‘so silly.’”
In addition to being quite shy, Sprinchorn says Arthur was “very, very puritanical.”
“You would never hear a swear word come out of her mouth,” he said. “We went to Yale to see a student-written play which contained some rather salacious scenes. There was nothing really outrageous, but Jean didn’t like it at all.”
During her first year, Arthur lived on campus in a small, two-room apartment.
“She furnished it herself and would visit local antique shops for pieces,” Sprinchorn said. “It was very attractive and she had a real talent for interior decorating.”
Later, Arthur rented an off-campus apartment where Sprinchorn was occasionally invited for dinner.
“We would read scenes together and sometimes have students over if more characters were required,” he said. “I think she was considering a return to the stage.”
That never materialized, however, due partly to her battle with stage fright.
Arthur’s introverted nature was also evident to Spinchorn when she described encountering Jimmy Cagney in Poughkeepsie.
“Cagney had a farm about 30 miles away and loved spending time there,” explained Spinchorn. “Jean never met him in Hollywood, so I asked what she said to him. She replied ‘Oh, I didn’t talk to him!’”
Despite her own inhibitions, Arthur wasn’t shy about expressing her disdain for the pompous.
“Even though she was distant, Jean was very down to earth and hated people putting on airs,” Spinchorn said.
He recalls attending a reception after a play and a woman dashing into the room to be the first to meet Arthur.
“[She] obviously thought herself to be terribly important in the community [and] came up to Jean and introduced herself. Quick as a flash and completely deadpan Jean said ‘And I’m Martha Washington!’ to which the woman had no response. It was almost like a Marx Brothers scene.”
With greater interest in classic Hollywood today, Sprinchorn said he regrets not pressing Arthur more about her movie career.
“But she was there to do a job and we respected her privacy.”
Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery, Ala., and has written features, columns, and interviews for over 500 magazines and newspapers.