Monday, December 5, 2016

This Day in TV History (Jean Arthur Sitcom Fades Out, With Its Star)

Dec. 5, 1966—The 12th first-run episode was the final appearance, on the big or small screen, for one of the brightest but most tormented lights of Hollywood’s Golden Era. The Jean Arthur Show, by most accounts a formulaic sitcom, was unworthy of the talents of Jean Arthur, the raspy-voiced but endearing actress who made the likes of Gary Cooper, James Stewart, Cary Grant, and Joel McCrea appear to best advantage.

You can find many of Arthur’s approximately 80 sound and silent films on TCM, and they are among the best that Hollywood produced in the late Thirties and early Forties: Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Easy Living, Only Angels Have Wings, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Talk of the Town, and The More the Merrier. Though not a classic beauty, she possessed a vivacity and a froggy voice that made Depression-era audiences warm to this spunky career girl.

Robbie Fulks summed up perfectly how classic-movie aficionados like me have felt about this star: “She could light one cigarette/And smile while the world caught fire.” The country music star titled his tribute after the actress’ name, but he could have, with perfect justice, used the refrain of his song: “God’s Jean Arthur.”

Yet Arthur, a notably shy and private woman who abominated Tinseltown’s publicity machine, reacted with relief when her contract with Columbia Pictures expired in 1944. She made only two films thereafter: Billy Wilder’s A Foreign Affair and George Stevens’ Shane. After the latter was released in 1953, she became something of a recluse.

Fast forward to the mid-1960s. Lucille Ball, who cited Arthur as an inspiration for her own comic style, tried to cajole her friend into appearing on her first post-Desi Arnaz series, The Lucy Show. Astonishingly, though, Arthur’s agent somehow talked her into doing an entire series focused on her, not just a guest appearance on someone else’s. After a surprisingly successful “tryout” on Gunsmoke meant to gauge how well she adjusted to the grind of television, the green light was given for her own show.

The premise must have sounded perfectly fine to Arthur: a widowed lawyer who continually astonishes her partner, her straitlaced son, with her unconventional ways. The profession of that career would have appealed to an actress who specialized more in career women than housewives. And the notoriously press-averse star not only agreed to interviews with the media, but even promoted the show’s advertisers in commercials. (The sole episode I've come across is this YouTube clip.)

None of it did any good. The show could never get out of the bottom third of all TV shows. Nor did it ever enjoy a healthy afterlife in syndication: it didn’t even last half a season.

The cancellation of her show did nothing to encourage Arthur to return to her home. In fact, she decided to take an even bigger risk: a return to Broadway for the first time since she had appeared in Peter Pan in 1950, a show in which she not only had the starring role but had invested $50,000 of her own money: The Freaking Out of Stephanie Blake.

How bad was it? William Goldman, in The Season: A Candid Look at Broadway, called the comedy “the one legendary production” of that year—if you associate “legendary” with “a certain kind of Broadway show that by virtue of its birth agonies and the resulting publicity achieves an immortality most productions never dare aspire to.” Critic Peter Filichia, imagining a “Broadway Time Machine,” wished he could have seen Arthur’s final preview performance for this show: “A friend who was there told me that Arthur broke character and the fourth wall to tell the audience that she was leaving show business and giving away all her worldly possessions."

As I discussed in a prior post, Arthur had yet another unusual post-TV gid. A decade after the end of her sitcom, the actress—by now a septuagenarian—was prevailed upon to take the role of the first (fictional) female Supreme Court justice in the Cleveland opening of the Jerome Lawrence-Robert E. Lee play, First Monday in October. 

It was not a happy experience, as the stage fright that had afflicted Arthur three decades before in out-of-town tryouts for Garson Kanin’s Born Yesterday returned with a vengeance. She never acted again. The actress who had played fearless, wisecracking women fell victim to the most disabling fear that a stage performer can experience. No matter: Jean Arthur may have died in 1991, but she is still "God's Jean Arthur" to those who catch her film work.

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