It’s no secret that director Frank Capra loved actors. From watching his films, we can see which actors he liked to work with—and which actors liked to work with him—because of their repeated appearances in his movies. One of those actors was Jean Arthur, who became his quintessential populist heroine while working with him on three of his biggest hits: Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), You Can’t Take it With You (1938), and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939).
Frank Capra (1897-1991) got his start in silent films, working as a gag writer for the likes of Hal Roach, Mack Sennett, and Harry Langdon, and began directing in 1926. He excelled at making screwball comedies, and he had his first major hit with It Happened One Night (1934), the first film to win the “Big Five” at the Oscars: Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, Screenplay.
Jean Arthur (1900-1991) also started out in silent films, making her screen debut in John Ford’s Cameo Kirby (1923). After spending several years playing unremarkable roles in comedy shorts and westerns, her breakout role came when she starred opposite Edward G. Robinson in Ford’s The Whole Town’s Talking (1935). It was here where people began to notice her wholesomeness as well as her comedic talent. Capra noticed Arthur too, and he cast her opposite Gary Cooper in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), which was the start of their winning collaborative relationship that produced two more hits: You Can’t Take it With You (1938) and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). Working with Capra was a major turning point for Arthur; in my opinion, these three films are the best of their careers.
Capra and Arthur did have their obstacles, however. In the biography Jean Arthur: The Actress Nobody Knew, author John Oller wrote that Arthur had a pathological shyness that came from fear and self-doubt, which was often mistaken for aloofness. But her stage fright wasn’t a diva act, and Capra knew this. He was firm but gentle in getting her in front of the camera, and as if by magic, she became the picture of confidence. Watching her warm, poised, and confident performances on screen, one would never suspect the inner turmoil she was going through. Despite all this, it did not stop them from making wonderful films together and expressing sincere admiration for one another:
Frank Capra on Jean Arthur:
“She was always prepared, worked hard and was one of the best damned actresses I ever worked with.”
“You didn’t need to explain everything to her. She knew the business, the craft and the art of acting. You knew when you hired her that she would bring that indefinable aggressive attitude to a role. Yet, she was equally at home with comedy. I can’t quite explain what made her such a great actress…a star. And she wasn’t a star because they made her a star…she was a star because she was born that way.”
Jean Arthur on Frank Capra:
On the essential difference between Capra and other directors:
“He lets you alone more. You never know he’s on the set. And you won’t hear him, he never raises his voice. Sometimes he’ll ask a bunch of electricians up there, ‘How did it look?’ But he’s invisible. He’s so tiny you could almost not see him. He’s a great director, and he does it seemingly without any effort. He’s a very pleasant, good-looking, agreeable man.”
“He seems very modest—he understands what you’re trying to do, and what you’re doing, and if you need some help. He lets you do what you want—he might make a suggestion here and there—but somehow he gets what he wants.”
Arthur was Capra’s quintessential leading lady and played his signature populist heroine: a cynical woman who is won over by the end of the film and also acts as a protective figure for the naive, idealistic hero and helps him achieve his goal. Arthur perfectly conveys the image of an independent woman without having to articulate a feminist point of view. She never had to tell the audience that she was strong-willed and confident; those traits just emanated from her. Her Capra heroines were complex, but true-to-life; she expresses a combination of vulnerability and strength that makes those characters believable. Arthur was at her best when she worked with Capra, and it is apparent in all three of their films.
Below are scenes from Arthur and Capra’s three films that are a testament to their brilliance:
Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936)
Small-town boy Longfellow Deeds (Gary Cooper) inherits $20 million from his rich uncle and moves to New York City where he immediately encounters conflict in an unfamiliar, heartless environment and struggles to maintain his integrity against greed, phonies, and those who try to prevent him from giving away his wealth to those in need. Arthur plays Babe Bennett, a Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper reporter who falls in love with Deeds while getting an inside story and making fun of him in her newspaper.
Her performance in this film is best summarized by Capra himself:
“It wasn’t really until I met her that I knew she was better than most of the films she’d been in. Her confident voice and manner…her demeanor…persuaded me that she could play the cynic who comes to believe in Longfellow Deeds. Some actresses could have played the cynical part, while others could have done the romantic ending. But no one could have done them both as well as Jean.”
You Can’t Take it With You (1938)
In this comedy based on the play of the same name, the level-headed Alice Sycamore (Arthur) has to introduce her eccentric family to the snobby parents of her fiance Tony Kirby (James Stewart). Chaos inevitably ensues.
Capra’s love for actors and talent for working with them is evident in this ensemble piece; all the actors (many of whom appear in several Capra films) have fantastic chemistry and the acting seems effortless. The scene above, in which Alice tells her grandfather (Lionel Barrymore) about her fiance, is one of the most charming in the film. Though Barrymore does most of the talking, he doesn’t overshadow Arthur, whose body language and facial expressions convey those of a person in love so endearingly.
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
Naive and idealistic Jefferson Smith (James Stewart) is hastily appointed to fill a recently vacated seat in the U.S. Senate. When he gets to Washington, he discovers the shortcomings of the political process as his plans for a national boys’ camp lead to a conflict with his state’s corrupt political boss. Clarissa Saunders (Arthur) is Smith’s cynical secretary, who mocks his idealism while secretly admiring him, and serves as his protector and mentor in his fight against corruption.
Clarissa Saunders in my favorite Jean Arthur character and the scene above is my favorite in the film. In it, Saunders gives Smith the realist rundown of proposing a bill. Arthur’s sardonic wit and comedic timing are central in this scene, and the cuts to Stewart’s earnest, yet disappointed reactions are perfectly timed.
Capra and Arthur could have worked together a fourth time: she was his first choice to play Mary in It’s A Wonderful Life (1946), but she turned down the role because she thought it was “colorless” and the character didn’t have anything to do. Though I wish there could have been more Arthur-Capra collaborations, the three they did accomplish were special. Like Saunders and Mr. Smith, they nurtured their skills and learned from each other, which proved beneficial to themselves as well as their audiences.
This post is for CineMaven’s Classic Symbiotic Collaborations Blogathon, where more than 50 bloggers wrote about actor-director collaborations from the classic film era. Click the banner below to read all the wonderful entries!
McBride, Joseph. Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success, 2011.
Blowen, Michael. “Jean Arthur At 80: A Legend Made of Style and Substance, Not Publicity” The Boston Globe. October 20, 1985.
TCM: Jean Arthur Profile
IMDb: Frank Capra
IMDb: Jean Arthur
Course Notes, TCOM 363: Film Genres, Professor: Dr. Wes Gehring, Department of Telecommunications, Ball State University, Fall 2013.
Edit, 1/30/16: This post has been edited to reflect that Jean Arthur was Frank Capra’s signature populist heroine.