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Acclaimed comedy actress, mother in "Shane,' Jean Arthur

Published Jun. 20, 1991|Updated Oct. 13, 2005

Jean Arthur, the throaty-voiced blonde who brought the girl next door to life on the screen and played down-to-earth heroines in 1930s hits like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, died Wednesday of heart failure. She was 90. Miss Arthur, who had lived as a recluse in the Northern California seaside resort of Carmel for 35 years, died in Carmel Convalescent Hospital, according to a spokesman for Paul Mortuary in Pacific Grove.

She spent her last years in a modest house overlooking Carmel Bay, where she tended elaborate gardens behind a tall wood fence.

Described by director Frank Capra as his favorite actress, her unusual cracked, husky voice enthralled audiences, leaving them switching from laughter to tears from the 1930s until 1953, when she made her last film, Shane.

In addition to Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, she starred in such Capra hits as Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and You Can't Take It With You.

Born Gladys Georgianna Green in New York, she quit school at 15 to become a model. She went into silent films at 17 and appeared in five Broadway plays before playing in low-budget westerns.

The daughter of a studio photographer, she appeared in about 70 films, playing opposite such stars as James Stewart, Gary Cooper, Alan Ladd and Melvyn Douglas.

The turning point in her career came in 1935 in John Ford's The Whole Town's Talking, in which she first demonstrated her light comedy touch and girl-next-door appeal.

Her popularity peaked with Capra's social comedies in the late 1930s. She starred as Calamity Jane in The Plainsman opposite Gary Cooper in 1937 and she was nominated for an Oscar for best actress for her role in The More the Merrier in 1943.

Its director, George Stephens, once called her "one of the greatest comediennes the screen has ever seen."

After a long-running fight with Columbia studio boss Harry Cohn, she was released from contract commitments with that studio in the mid-1940s.

Following A Foreign Affair in 1948, Miss Arthur and her second husband, film producer Frank Ross, were divorced after 17 years of marriage. She stayed out of films until 1953 when she made a triumphant return as the frontier mother in Shane with Alan Ladd.

Her career was plagued by nerves. She would lock herself in her dressing room and cry after film takes and have to be coaxed back on to the set.

She refused to pose for swimsuit photographs, a must for stars in the 1930s, and shunned interviews because of her shyness.

She interspersed her film career with a few stage roles, appearing on Broadway as Peter Pan in 1950. A guest star role in an episode of the hit television series Gunsmoke in 1965 led the following year to a short-lived series called The Jean Arthur Show, in which she played a lawyer.


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