Arthur is best known for her feature roles in three Frank Capra films: Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, You Can't Take It With You, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, films that were not only part of the screwball comedy genre but also championed the everyday heroine.
Discovered by Fox Film Studios while she was doing commercial modeling in New York City in the early 1920s, Arthur debuted in the silent film Cameo Kirby (1923), directed by John Ford, and made a few low-budget silent westerns and short comedies. She was selected as one of the WAMPAS Baby Stars in 1929, but she became stuck in ingénue roles. It was her distinctive, throaty voice – in addition to some stage training on Broadway in the early 1930s – that helped made her a star in the talkies.
In 1935, at age 34, she starred opposite Edward G. Robinson in the gangster farce The Whole Town's Talking, also directed by Ford, and her popularity began to rise. By then, her hair, naturally brunette throughout the silent film portion of her career, was bleached blonde and would stay that way. Like Claudette Colbert, she was famous for maneuvering to be photographed and filmed almost exclusively from the left; both actresses felt that their left was their best side, and worked hard to keep it in the fore. In fact, producer Harry Cohn is reputed to have described Jean Arthur's imbalanced profile as "one side angel, the other side horse."
The turning point in Jean Arthur's career came when she was chosen by director Frank Capra to star in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. Capra had spotted her in a daily rush from the film Whirlpool in 1934 and convinced Columbia Studios head Harry Cohn to sign her for his next film as a tough newspaperwoman who falls in love with a country bumpkin millionaire. Arthur costarred in three celebrated 1930s Capra films: her role opposite Gary Cooper in 1936 in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town made her a star, while her fame was cemented with You Can't Take It With You (1938) and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington in 1939, both with James Stewart. She was reteamed with Cooper, playing Calamity Jane in Cecil B. DeMille's The Plainsman (1936), and appeared as a working girl, her typical role, in Mitchell Leisen's 1937 screwball comedy Easy Living opposite Ray Milland. So strong was her box office appeal by 1939 that she was one of four finalists that year for the role of Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind; the film's producer, David O. Selznick, had briefly romanced Arthur in the late 1920s when they both were with Paramount Pictures.
She continued to star in films such as Howard Hawks' Only Angels Have Wings in 1939, with love interest Cary Grant, 1942's The Talk of the Town, directed by George Stevens (also with Grant), and again for Stevens as a government clerk in 1943's The More the Merrier, for which Jean Arthur was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress (losing to Jennifer Jones in The Song of Bernadette). As a result of being in the doghouse with studio boss Harry Cohn, her fee for The Talk of the Town (1942) was only $50,000 while her male co-stars Grant and Ronald Colman received upwards of $100,000 each. Arthur remained Columbia's top star until the mid-1940s, when she left the studio and Rita Hayworth took over as the studio's reigning queen. Stevens famously called her "one of the greatest comediennes the screen has ever seen", while Capra credited her as "my favorite actress".
Arthur "retired" when her contract with Columbia Pictures expired in 1944. She reportedly ran through the studio's streets, shouting "I'm free, I'm free!" For the next several years, she turned down virtually all film offers, the two exceptions being Billy Wilder's A Foreign Affair (1948), in which she played a congresswoman and rival of Marlene Dietrich, and as a homesteader's wife in the classic Western Shane (1953), which turned out to be the biggest box-office hit of her career. The latter was her final film and coincidentally, the only color film in her repertoire.
Arthur's post-retirement work in theater was intermittent, somewhat curtailed by her longstanding shyness and discomfort about her chosen profession. Capra claimed she vomited in her dressing room between scenes, yet emerged each time to perform a flawless take. According to John Oller's biography Jean Arthur: The Actress Nobody Knew (1997), Arthur developed a kind of stage fright punctuated with bouts of psychosomatic illnesses. A prime example was in 1945, when she was cast in the lead of the Garson Kanin play Born Yesterday. Her nerves and insecurity got the better of her and she left the production before it reached Broadway, opening the door for Judy Holliday to take the part.
Arthur did score a major triumph on Broadway in 1950, starring in an adaptation of Peter Pan playing the Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up when she was almost 50. She tackled the role of her namesake, Joan of Arc, in a 1954 stage production of George Bernard Shaw's Saint Joan, but she left the play after a nervous breakdown and battles with director Harold Clurman.
In 1967, she was coaxed back to Broadway to appear as a midwestern spinster who falls in with a group of hippies in the play The Freaking Out of Stephanie Blake. William Goldman, in his book The Season reconstructed the disastrous production, which eventually closed during previews when Arthur refused to go on.
Arthur next decided to teach drama, first at Vassar College and then the North Carolina School of the Arts. While teaching at Vassar, she stopped a rather stridently overacted scene performance and directed the students' attention to a large tree growing outside the window of the performance space, advising the students on the art of naturalistic acting: "I wish people knew how to be people as well as that tree knows how to be a tree."
While living in North Carolina she made front page news by being arrested and jailed for trespassing on a neighbor's property to console a dog she felt was being mistreated. An animal lover her entire life, Arthur said she trusted them more than people.
She turned down the role of the lady missionary in Lost Horizon (1973), the unsuccessful musical remake of the 1937 Frank Capra film of the same name. At the Yale Law School Film Society weekend with Capra in February, 1972, she attended a small afternoon symposium at his invitation. (In addition to Capra and Arthur, the session attended by film historian and collector William K. Everson and Wesleyan University Prof. Jeanine Basinger, who has since become a widely noted film scholar.) During the course of discussions, Everson mentioned a silent film in which, Everson stated, Arthur had appeared and which Capra had directed. Neither actress nor director remembered the picture. When Everson persisted, both Arthur and Capra became irritated, and remarked that they were much more interested in the future than the past. Capra urged her to stay for the screening that night, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, and assured her the audience would be delighted and overwhelmingly enthusiastic. She declined because, she said, she had to go home to Vassar and feed her cats.
In 1975, the Broadway hit play First Monday in October, about the first female Supreme Court justice, was written especially with Arthur in mind, but once again, she succumbed to extreme stage fright and quit the production shortly into its out-of-town run in Cleveland. She then retired for good, retreating to her ocean home in Carmel, California, steadfastly refusing interviews until her resistance was broken down by the author of a book on her one-time director Capra (she once famously said that she’d rather have her throat slit than do an interview).
Arthur is portrayed by Vicki Belmonte in the TV film The Scarlett O'Hara War (1980).
Upon her death film reviewer Charles Champlin wrote the following in the Los Angeles Times:
To at least one teenager in a small town (though I’m sure we were a multitude), Jean Arthur suggested strongly that the ideal woman could be — ought to be — judged by her spirit as well as her beauty… The notion of the woman as a friend and confidante, as well as someone you courted and were nuts about, someone whose true beauty was internal rather than external, became a full-blown possibility as we watched Jean Arthur.
Alternative country artist Robbie Fulks included a song titled "Jean Arthur" on his 1999 compilation The Very Best of Robbie Fulks. The track expounds on the actress's unique personality and style.