We watched If Only You Could Cook the other night. It’s one of the early screwball comedies (1935) and by no means one of the best. The premise is worthy of four Pinocchios, the script has holes in it you could drive a Peterbuilt through, the directing is only competent (William Seiter, who made his name directing excellent slapstick with the likes of Laurel & Hardy, but screwball is not slapstick), and even the great Herbert Marshall seems to have trouble with his thankless role as the millionaire executive pretending to be a butler. It has Leo Carrillo looking and sounding as if he were doing an imitation of himself, and the great Lionel Stander with his voice like a cement mixer in need of new ball bearings. Great actors and great comedians all, but none of them are enough to really make it work.
But it also has Jean Arthur, the great, the delicious, the delightful, the incomparable Jean Arthur, the beautiful, vulnerable Jean Arthur. And I think it is that last quality that defined her and made her career as much as her talent, her comic timing, and her marvelous unique, raspy/squeaky voice.
It’s a very difficult thing, trying to define what makes one person a star and not another. We use the word charisma, but I not sure what that means or how to define it. It has to do with talent, but it is not talent. It’s something many actors can’t define or sometimes even recognize in themselves. There is a story possibly true, possibly apocryphal, that when Lawrence Olivier and John Gielgud were doing some Shakespearean play together (Romeo and Juliet, perhaps, where they took turns alternating playing Romeo and Mercutio? some other play?) on one particular night Olivier reached a transcendent level of performance, wowing the audience and awing his fellow actors. But instead of basking in the glow of congratulations, he stormed into his dressing room and slammed the door. The other actors, dumbfounded, gawked at each other, and only Gielgud had the courage to go in and confront Olivier.
“My dear boy,” he said, “what on earth is the matter? You were absolutely, unbelievably magnificent.”
And Olivier looked up at him and said: “That’s what’s wrong. I know I was, but I don’t know how I did it.”
Of course many actors have techniques and tricks and tools they know work and work well, and they use them, but many actors never quite understand themselves what makes them so special. (On the other hand, of course, some are actually fools enough to believe their own press and think they really are special when in reality they are, at their best, dreary, and frequently loathsome.) Jean Arthur was beautiful, but not a great beauty. She was talented, but so were many others. She was sexy, but not nearly as obviously or as much so as many others. She was charming, but so were all of the ladies of the screwball comedy genre. But what made her so singular was the combination of beauty, talent, sex appeal, charm, the voice, all of it masking a tremendous vulnerability and fragility. She obviously knew enough about herself to understand her strengths and weaknesses (she preferred to be photographed from the left only), and she said herself she loved acting, but she also was apparently so stricken with stage fright that she used to frequently throw up before filming a take. Many actresses and even some actors throw up from fear before a stage performance, but I have never heard of any other actor who threw up from fear before filming on a sound stage. It evidently became worse as she got older; she was the original choice to play the lead in Garsin Kanin’s Born Yesterday, but got so terrified she quit, making Judy Holiday a star. She had a nervous breakdown trying to do Shaw’s Saint Joan for director Harold Clurman. She walked out on two more Broadway plays, unable to stand the extreme stage fright, and finally walked out on her career. She became an acting teacher, first at Vassar (where one of her students was, supposedly, Meryl Streep), and later at the University of North Carolina, and finally retired to a reclusive life in Carmel, California where she steadfastly refused to do any kind of publicity or interview. Even at the height of her success she was as reclusive as Garbo.
These actions have, to me, all the earmarks of a very vulnerable person, and I believe it was that quality underlying the raspy wisecracks and the niceness that made her so…well, okay, charismatic.
But in 1935, when she was just beginning to come into her own in terms of ability, fame, success, recognition, she manages to be the reason to watch If Only You Could Cook. It’s not even one of her best performances, but it has that wonderful charm, that quality of being a girl a man could talk to, would want to talk to. You want to take her in your arms and kiss her, but you want to say the things that will be a natural set-up for one her quips. You want to make her laugh and to laugh with her as you hold her. That’s Jean Arthur.