on May 7, 2003
It would appear that writing a compelling, readable, and entertaining biography is a daunting task. So many are dry, filled with facts and dates of little interest, or just plain dull. The difference here is that John Oller can actually WRITE. Ms. Arthur is, without doubt, one of the sorely neglected stars of any era. Her comic genius in "The More The Merrier" alone would merit a critical gushing today if anyone in the 21st century had even a modicum of the lady's superb timing and class. That she has appeared in several other classics (perhaps most notably "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington") certainly warrants a full scale biography and Mr. Oller succeeds brilliantly.
The notoriously private Ms. Arthur is not painted as arch nor perverse; simply a woman with a different take on life and Hollywood. She saw there was more to life than glamour and makeup (even attending college during career lulls)and her 'eccentric' personality becomes all the more endearing under Mr. Oller's critical, yet always fair, judgments. The book isn't overstuffed with facts and dates; just what is needed. I wish all biographers would realize that sometimes less is, indeed, more. Highly recommended.
on August 26, 2002
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. 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, 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. 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 (!) but at the same time does not get bogged down in needless verbiage. 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...and the results have paid off extremely well.
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. Oller writes that Arthur's play "The Freaking Out of Stephanie Blake" had a preview on Wednesday, 11/2/67. However, in reality, that date was a Thursday. He writes that Arthur's brother Robert was born in March 1892 and died in November 1955 at age 61. Shouldn't that be 63? He writes that at the time of Arthur's death in 1991, she hadn't appeared in a film "in more than forty years." But if "Shane" came out in 1953, wouldn't that be "a mere" 38 years? Mr. Oller tells us that Dee Hoty--the actress who took over briefly for Ms. Arthur in "First Monday in October"-- was "barely twenty" that year (1975), although the Internet Broadway Database gives her birth date as 8/16/52, making her over 23 at the time. He writes of an Oscar ceremony in February 1935 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." I have always thought the play in question to be called "A Loss of Roses." Does it go by another name? To end this nitpicking, Mr. Oller tells us that "Shane" was the "third highest-grossing film of 1953." But as reported in the book "Box Office Hits," "Shane" came in fourth at $9 million, behind "Peter Pan" ($24 million), "The Robe" ($17.5 million) and "From Here To Eternity" ($12.2 million).
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.
on February 14, 2008
Jean Arthur would seem to be an impossible subject for a biography. The actress, who died in 1991 at the age of 90, was so reclusive she made Garbo look like a party doll. Interviews exist, but not many; fan magazine profiles inevitably puzzled over her, disgusted by an actress who refused to promote her own career. Her autograph is probably rarer than Garbo's, and she left little in the way of writings, no diaries and not much correspondence. Her stage career was based more on quality than quantity, consisting of a mere 17 appearances, some of which were in plays that closed after a single performance.
Fortunately for author John Oller, Arthur made a substantial number of films (89) and, more importantly in trying to unravel this tricky subject, she made a strong impression -- negative, positive, sometimes both -- on practically everybody she encountered, from fellow actors to her stage and film directors to students in her teaching classes to secretaries and stage hands. They've provided Oller with a wealth of history and anecdotal detail. What emerges is a surprisingly detailed, highly readable account of a complex woman whose integrity and perfectionism -- and sometimes pettiness and even arrogance -- both fueled her work and undermined it at almost every turn.
Arthur's high reputation persists on the basis of stage triumphs in Peter Pan and other plays, and supremely of unforgettable performances in screwball comedies like George Stevens's The More the Merrier, Capra films like Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and You Can't Take It with You, and Borzage's dreamy History Is Made at Night. Behind her luminous face and trademark husky voice, according to Oller, was a woman tormented by self-doubt and neurosis who could be charming one minute and a harridan the next. These qualities surfaced quite early in her career before she developed her loathing of the fan magazines. In 1928 she told an interviewer, "I'm hard-boiled now. I don't expect anything" -- harsh words indeed for "a girl of 20," as she said she was. (She was actually 28; like most stars, Arthur wasn't above lying about her age.) Each rejection -- and there were many early on -- was accompanied by crying jags and nervous fits that would only get worse as time went on. Arthur's early films must have been difficult for the highly intelligent, well-read, sophisticated woman Oller portrays; they were mostly horse operas and slapstick comedies, along with walk-ons in bigger pictures. Hollywood didn't know how to use her at first: in Paramount on Parade (1930), the musically ungifted actress performed two numbers.
But Arthur's striking personality shone through by the early 1930s, and she gave memorable performances in a series of films that are remembered today as much for her presence as anything else. In spite of consistent success and critical raves, though, she continued to struggle with anxiety. Capra says she threw up before and after every scene in one of his films (in an inspired phrase he says "those weren't butterflies in her stomach, they were wasps!"). She was as intransigent as some of the Warners women like Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland in fighting the studios' manipulations. Being contracted to Columbia, she had it worse, having to fend off mogul Harry Cohn's capricious career choices and his crude sexual advances. Here her stubbornness paid off in 1938 with a new contract that was one of the body blows to the studios' control over actors.
Arthur's disgust with the machinery of stardom led her inexorably to the stage; more respectable, perhaps, but equally or even more problematic for an actress of her skittish sensibilities. Much of the book is taken up with the wildly dramatic struggle of producers, directors, and friends to get Arthur to go on stage and stay there through the run of a play. This was mostly a vain effort. Arthur gravitated to the counterculture and agreed in 1967 to do a play called The Freaking Out of Stephanie Blake. Riddled with pot-smoking stage hands, props that wouldn't work (one nearly fell on Arthur's head), and actors who didn't show up, the play closed after the first night. Oller's account of these events is hilarious, particularly his description of a crazed Arthur kneeling before an audience begging them to let her leave the stage. She alienated so many of her coworkers that the author probably couldn't list them all without doubling the book's page count. Still, she had her defenders who forgave her endless disappearing act from life, and this was equally due to her winning personality (when she wanted it to be) and her fierce talent.
Her Peter Pan, the best ever according to some observers of the time, made her more enemies than friends but was a huge success while it lasted. It was not a smooth production, however; Arthur nearly crippled it when she came down with one of her many "viral infections" that she seemed able to will into existence in times of stress. Besides the obvious mental relief she got from running away from innumerable commitments, she could spend time indulging her favorite activities: interior decorating, reading, philosophy, and playing with her animals. She found little solace in religion but pursued self-realization through mentors like Erich Fromm. She was also an eloquent observer of politics from the left. "The wrong people are running the country," she said, speaking of Nixon and his cronies. "You only have to look at their brutal faces to know that."
The author doesn't delve too far into Arthur's alleged lesbianism (which writers like Boze Hadleigh have taken for granted). Several things point in that direction: her slightly masculine manner and voice, her lack of interest in motherhood, her almost pathological refusal to wear a dress even when a role demanded it, and most of all the fact that she spent the last decades of her life with devoted "unmarried army nurse" Ellen Mastroianni. But Arthur was so secretive about everything, even with Mastroianni in some areas, that this will probably never be verifiable.
The book attempts some psychoanalysis on his mysterious subject -- perhaps appropriate given Arthur's fascination with therapy and her friendship with Fromm. But these sections are the only labored note here, adding an unnecessarily speculative touch to a book that's well grounded in the topsy-turvy reality of Arthur's life and art.
"You deserve to discover Jean Arthur". That was the way film critic Leonard Maltin eulogized the star of some of the most entertaining and memorable comedies of the 1930's and 1940's when she passed away in 1991 at the age of 90. If you asked me who Jean Arthur was a few years ago I would have been at a loss to tell you. But no more. Over the past few years I have become a huge fan. And the more I see her the more I am captivated by her. She played opposite many of Hollywood's most important leading men of that era including Gary Cooper, Jimmy Stewart and Cary Grant. On screen she was a natural but her private life was marred by bouts of depression and stage fright. Furthermore she hated the Hollywood scene and just about everything associated with it. The more I learned about Jean Arthur the more I wanted to know. Because she was such a private person bordering on the reclusive, precious little has been written about her over the years. John Oller was fascinated by her as well and spent a considerable amount of time tracking down family, friends, colleagues and acquaintances in an attempt to discover just who Jean Arthur really was. The result is his marvelous biography "Jean Arthur: The Actress Nobody Knew". John Oller grabbed my attention in the opening paragraphs of the book and managed to keep me thoroughly engaged throughout. The truth is that I could not put it down.
When Jean Arthur (her real name was Gladys Greene) arrived in Hollywood in the early 1920's she immediately found work in silent movies. In fact her first film "Cameo Kirby" was directed by the legendary John Ford. Arthur kept busy in the 1920's appearing in about a dozen films and with the dawn of the "talkies" many thought that her unusually throaty voice would prove to be a liability. In fact just the opposite was true. It was her voice that endeared her to audiences. During the 1930's and early 1940's Jean Arthur would prove to be one of the brightest stars of a genre that would come to be known as the "screwball" comedy. Arthur would appear in a trio of memorable Frank Capra flicks including "Mr. Deeds Goes To Town", "Mr. Smith Goes To Washington" and my new all-time favorite film "You Can't Take It With You". Yet in spite of all of her success in films Jean Arthur would prove to be a very insecure and difficult person to work with. John Oller chronicles dozens of incidents throughout her storied career where this side of Jean Arthur would rear its ugly head. I find it almost impossible to reconcile her on screen persona with her off screen personality and demeanor. In some ways, I wish I had never found out about it.
In "Jean Arthur: The Actress Nobody Knew" you will discover that Jean Arthur walked away from Hollywood on more than one occasion. She longed to do "live" theater and was particularly interested in playing "Peter Pan" and "Joan of Arc". Eventually she would do both but while "Peter Pan" was a huge success "Joan of Arc" would prove to be very short-lived. Arthur even tried her hand at teaching at Vasser in the late 1960's. One of her students was Meryl Streep. Yet time and again Arthur's lack of self confidence and fear of failure would re-surface and the actress would simply walk away from a production or a project without so much as making a phone call. It was an extremely frustrating situation for just about everyone involved and many of her colleagues eventually tired of her act. But over the years producers could just not help themselves. Because she was such a unique talent many attempts were made to lure Jean Arthur out of retirement. Most ended in frustration and bitter disappointment. Unfortunately, Jean Arthur had neither the psychological makeup nor the physical endurance necessary to complete most of the projects she had agreed to. It was a real shame.
I found "Jean Arthur: The Actress Nobody Knew" to be an exceptionally well written and meticulously researched book. This was obviously a labor of love for John Oller. I particularly enjoyed the 16 page photo gallery in the middle of the book that gives us rare glimpses into Jean Arthur's very private life. To quote Leonard Maltin one more time "Oller has taken on a challenge that would have humbled many an experienced biographer." For most of her life Jean Arthur went out of her way to avoid interviews and shun photographers. She wrote very little down on paper and destroyed most of her momentos before she passed away. Furthermore, she kept to herself much of the time and had few close friends. After reading this book one would have to come to the conclusion that Jean Arthur was really much more as one with nature and the animals that she loved. And she cherished her freedom above all else. She was a very complex figure to be sure. But at the end of the day what I will remember about Jean Arthur is the incredible body of work she left behind. I find her performances in all those Capra classics and later on in films like "The More The Merrier" to be nothing short of unforgettable. Perhaps Charles Champlin, the long-time film critic of The Los Angeles Times summed it up best when he observed: " To at least one teenager in a small town (though I'm sure we were a multitude) Jean Arthur suggested strongly that the ideal woman could be--ought to be--judged by her spirit as well as her beauty....The notion of a woman as a friend and confidante, as well as someone you courted and were nuts about, someone whose true beauty was internal rather than external, became a full-blown possibility as we watched Jean Arthur." Precisely!
Jean Arthur has quickly become my favorite actress of all-time and I continue to snap up her films whenever I can find them. If you are intrigued by this lady as much as I am than I would urge you to pick up a copy of "Jean Arthur: The Actress Nobody Knew". I was thrilled to discover this book and John Oller does not disappoint. This is clearly the most thorough biography that has ever been written about her. It is at once a very informative and highly entertaining look at her life. Very highly recommended!
on December 6, 2004
This is a well written but sad story of a woman's life. Jean Arthur (Gladys Greene) never managed to fit in anywhere. Not Hollywood, not teaching, not the theater, not family. She left a glittering film legacy, but I just felt sad for her. Full of energy, full of life, yet so alone.
on April 3, 2015
Written portraits are by definition close approximations; attempts by researchers and authors to give readers the truest representation with the materials on-hand, all while acknowledging, if they're honest, that they will invariably fall short of the mark.
Additionally, even captured electronic images like photographs and films are inherently flawed, given that they don't reveal anything substantive beyond a particular captured moment. No biography adequately expresses the active living elements of a person's life - especially a celebrity in and out of the spotlight over a period of decades. Still, despite those limitations, those small snippets can be insightful.
Beyond the fans of classic movies and the occasional trivia buff, and as noted in the title, audiences really didn't know Jean Arthur. Fewer still even remember her - which is so very tragic. Author John Oller delves into the very private life of the actress; giving us the shy, quirky, and surprisingly convoluted thespian who helped usher in the Golden Age of Hollywood.
What caught me off guard was learning of her intense and crippling fragility when faced with stressful situations. Given that any field of endeavor where prideful self-promotion is thrown up against an army of critical opinions rife with twisted emotional entanglements - a daily, if not a perpetual, circle of hellish self-doubt must press upon that person's self-worth. Why would she want such a life? To me, it described a person completely fascinated with fire, but positively terrified of flames.
And her constant, almost lifetime effort, searching for a near-mythic "completeness" (my word); that missing element which she sought to fulfill her in ways that fame, money, and companions did not. One wonders if she ever found peace of mind?
I suspect Chapter 17, Martyrdom, and the quotes by George Bernard Shaw and Arthur herself were the most revealing.
That her many behaviors, mildly eccentric as a younger person, became more unmanageable in her later years - was made worse with an increase of her daily vodka intake. Revelation stunner. Really shocked to learn that she self-medicated for almost the entirety of her life. Don't think it's too much of a stretch to say that it's indicative of a deep psychological angst. But I'm no psychiatrist, so I'll refrain from layman speculation. Only that it's not a debate. Especially when noting her post-Hollywood endeavors. Examples of which are her actions during and after the hippie stage play "The Freaking Out of Stephanie Blake". Witnesses who appreciated her energy, also made a point of noting her erratic behavior on and off the stage. Ditto "First Monday In October" several years later, as noted by Oller.
In fact, he explains his view of what fueled Arthur's professional demon - Location 2992-3001 of the Kindle edition.
Can a fan of either the actress or cinematic history truly understand the mind and heart of such a complicated artist? And how does one absorb such a work when the subject is no longer alive to either validate or refute the content and context. Readers can only hope that the author doesn't hold a particular perspective to which he/she molds the facts into their narrative. Extremely difficult challenge since impartiality is no longer taught to students - so caution is always warranted.
Overall, I learned an enormous amount - adding to my very deep appreciation for a grand actress and wondrous person. Jean Arthur was an unusual and complex contradiction whose works continue to engage and entertain.
- Recently saw a program on The Travel Channel titled, "Mysteries Of The Museum". In it they mentioned the legendary make-up artist Max Factor and a bizarre contraption he designed to "capture and perfect" the essence of beauty. Looking very much like the Pinhead freak from the 'Hellraiser' movies, it was his observation that symmetrical faces are the ones the human eye finds most appealing.
This factoid lent additional insight to a cruel and wholly inaccurate comment made by studio chief Harry Cohn to legendary Director Frank Capra when commenting on Jean Arthur as Capra's choice for his movie ''Mr. Deeds'' - that half her face was that of an angel, the other half horse.
on June 5, 2001
John Oller has taken the time and made the effort to reconstruct Jean Arthur's life. Like all biographies, he can only capture a glimpse of who she really was, but what a beautiful glimpse we get! Jean Arthur never wrote her autobiography and is quoted as preferring to "slit her throat" rather than be interviewed. I love Jean Arthur's films as much as anyone, but I respect her uniqueness and admire her privacy. To be a true fan of Arthur is to admire and appreciate the entire person, and without Oller's determination and patience, we would never get to see all aspects of her life and how, like each our own lives, themes emerge that help to explain our identity. The best part of Oller's work is that he lets Arhur's fans see the best in her--if they choose to see it. The best in all of us is in what we accomplish and what we overcome; from this perspective, Jean's life is as good as her acting. Read this book to appreciate the entire Jean Arthur if you love her films. Even better, purchase this book and discover Jean Arthur the person as you rent/purchase her films. She was an amazing lady, and this book is an incredible gift to her fans. You will not be disappointed!!
on January 18, 1999
A very well written and extremely thorough biography of one of the best and brightest stars of the 1930s and early 1940s. The enigma of Jean Arthur -- why she retired at the height of her career during World War Two -- is answered, and the answer offers a fascinating character study of value not only to those of us who love Miss Arthur but to anyone interested in gifted people and in the struggle of a woman attempting to exercise power in the form of self-determination in a male-dominated world. The book also offers an excellent inside view of the film industry and the Broadway theater of the 1940s and 1950s.
on June 25, 2007
I grew up in Carmel, California, and my mother used to drive us along Scenic Drive and point out to us where Jean Arthur lived. We'd sometimes see her walking along that oceanside road, her face always wrapped in a scarf. Mom would talk about the actress being a recluse ("hermit" was the word used then) in a framework that assumed pathology: there must have been something wrong with the actress. And she could not have been happy, either: she never even had children! How could someone do without constant company?
All my life I wondered about this enigmatic recluse. I was fascinated by her reputed traits, which seemed very normal & healthy to me and with which I strongly identified (including her obsessive love & protection of animals). I bought this book more for an understanding of Arthur's personality than her career, although I also loved her movie presence. I was delighted to see the author NOT oversimplify her personality but instead explore all possible causes of her withdrawn nature & sudden walkouts, including the positive causes, and emphasize her fierce individualism and solid integrity, even though on the surface she paid dearly for both. (On a deeper level, she probably became truer to herself.) Oller presents all plausible theories objectively and leaves it to the reader to choose (although I couldn't help but wonder about the additional possibilities of hypoglycemia, of which she had many symptoms, and panic attacks, conditions that might have been treated if diagnosed, maybe relieving some of her suffering). I prefer the theory that she simply did what she wanted and followed some inner direction and that she was predominantly content.
This is a thorough, well-researched account of her career and her place in Hollywood and stage history. But to me, it was even more valuable as an affirmation of her brave values and strengths and her search for meaning and truth in a time where such search, for women, was discouraged.
on November 8, 2000
The recent biography of film star Jean Arthur filled a void about a once favorite movie personality who could play comedy, drama, and westerns. She of the hoarse and endearing voice made many wonderful films with some of the top male stars of the day. She was an odd woman who was extremely difficult to co-stars and directors of both stage and film. The book is somewhat successful in bringing to life her enigmatic personality. Mr. Oller must have had a difficult time in getting his facts for this bio. He writes a chapter on the novel, "The Princess and the Goblin" by Paul Rosner, recently reprinted (a Roman a Clef devoted to this star). The book is a favorite of mine and is once again available in bookstores. Lovers of Jean Arthur should own both books.