Jean Arthur is one in the great basketful of Hollywood personalities of the ’30s and ’40s who make even the most workmanlike studio product seem galvanizing. But she’s rarely invoked in discussions of screwball classicdom, because her films don’t place her there—there’s no My Man Godfrey or Bringing Up Baby or Nothing Sacred, just a handful of tarnishing Capra and George Stevens vehicles and a wealth of semi-lost silent work. Neither is Arthur commonly remembered as a beauty, and yet she radiated what movies capture best in the luckiest stars: the energy of will, the impish wit of ardor, the blazing loveliness of neurotic joy. She was gorgeous from the inside out, rarely weeping (and weep she did) without an empathic smile, and rapping out her lines in a famous, beloved cashmere croak, possibly the most distinctive voice of any Golden Era actress. Most of all, she had what the camera hunts hungrily for, a friendly, hypnotic glow that few are born with, as if there’s a cine-genic chromosome floating around in the helix, showing up once in every few million.
That she’s remembered best for Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) is unfortunate; although she shines in the film, her context is simpleminded and sanctimonious. Likewise, she is the sole source of sexual anxiety in Hawks’s Only Angels Have Wings (1939), yet she manages to make her whining tomboy irresistible. At MOMA, Arthur’s best work shows up in the relatively neglected Easy Living (1937), where she plays a working girl off on a tear after a fur coat lands on her head from a high window, and in The More the Merrier (1943), a wartime farce about out-of-control apartment subletting that pairs her with the wretchedly underrated Joel McCrea and Oscar-winning Charles Coburn, a combo that served her better than being the standby girl to Cary Grant or James Stewart. She was also stuck, with varying results, between Grant and Ronald Colman in Stevens’s oddly philosophical wartime comedy The Talk of the Town (1942), and between Alan Ladd and Van Heflin in the frontier scrotum-swinging of Stevens’s Shane (1953). But the prize here might be Frank Borzage’s History Is Made at Night (1937), a wildly uneven but gently fantastical romance that pairs her with a boyish and nutty Charles Boyer, and climaxes on a stranded ocean liner.