Best Actress of 1936 – Jean Arthur (Mr. Deeds Goes to Town)

Other Notable Performances:

Jean Harlow (Libeled Lady)

Carole Lombard (My Man Godfrey)

Isuzu Yamada (Osaka Elegy)

Irene Dunne (Theodora Goes Wild)

Ruth Chatterton (Dodsworth)

Chouko Iida (The Only Son)

Isuzu Yamada (Sisters of the Gion)

Sylvia Sidney (Sabotage)

Bette Davis (The Petrified Forest)

Miriam Hopkins (These Three)

Ginger Rogers (Swing Time)

Danielle Darrieux (Mayerling)


This was a tough one for me.  It boiled down to a three-way tie between Jean Arthur, Jean Harlow and Carole Lombard, who gave three of the best performances of their careers.  I loved Jean Harlow’s determined, but ignored fiancée of Spencer Tracey in Libeled Lady – serving as an energetic counterpoint to Myrna Loy’s reserved performance.  On the other hand, Carole Lombard’s Irene Bullock is a pure treat.  She’s zany and unpredictable, without sacrificing credibility.  We know Irene isn’t an actual person, but Lombard makes us believe she could exist – not a small fear for such a wacky character.

I finally settled on the less flashy performance of Jean Arthur in Frank Capra’s Mr. Deeds Goes to Town.  There’s more of an arc for Arthur than Harlow or Lombard, and her journey is genuinely earned.  She plays Babe Bennett, a cynical reporter, ready to do whatever it takes to get the story.  She is particularly eager when her editor promises her an extended paid vacation to get the dirt on New York’s newest millionaire.  Longfellow Deeds (Gary Cooper) has inherited a massive fortune from an unknown distant relative.  The apparent country bumpkin has little understanding of the unwritten rules of fine society, nor does he much care about them.  He freely ignores these phony rules.  Taken out of context reports of his anti-social antics make him look alternately arrogant, crazy and/or stupid.  To get a firsthand account of Deeds’ unpredictable behavior, Babe schemes her way into his life, preying on his neighborliness, decency, and naivety.  She is dismissive of the young man’s plight, apathetic about the damage she is doing.  Like so many movies of the 1930s we see reporters doing anything and everything to get the story.  (I’ve never figured out if they are supposed to be heroes or villains, or some gray area between the two.  I mostly find them obnoxious.)

It wouldn’t be a Capra picture if she didn’t fall for him, but how does she tell him she is really the reporter that has been filing all the distorted, embarrassing stories about him?  Her struggle is sincere, without becoming maudlin.  As she cares more for the man, the more she directs her substantial energy to try and save his fortune from greedy, double-dealing attorneys, and him from the madhouse.  (After all, how else does a society that bases our worth on our bank statements deal with a man who resolves to give away his fortune?)

It’s a great performance by an actress who is sadly not remembered as well as she should be.  She could play hard-boiled, zany, maternal, sincere, and about everything in between.  Her schoolgirl looks and high-pitched voice could have doomed her to supporting comedic roles, but her deep intelligence came shone through on the screen, making it almost inevitable that she would end up playing leading parts like Babe Bennett in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town.



Filed under 1936, Yearly Best Performances

4 responses to “Best Actress of 1936 – Jean Arthur (Mr. Deeds Goes to Town)

  1. No doubt this is a great choice Jason, and your qualifications are wonderful in this excellent validating essay.

    I will go with Carole Lombard for MY MAN GODFREY, one of your own top choices.

    A magnificent list of runners-up follows. Your major omission for me is INGRID BERGMAN for “Intermezzo.” I’ll add these as well:

    Irene Dunne, SHOWBOAT
    Francis Farmer, COME AND GET IT
    Greta Garbo, CAMILLE
    Paulette Godard, MODERN TIMES (I know we disagree here)
    Miriam Hopkins, THESE THREE
    Myrna Loy, LIBELED LADY
    Luise Rainer, THE GREAT ZIEGFELD (for the phone scene alone!)

    I can’t say I disagree with any of your superb runners-up.

    • I can’t disagree with Lombard. She is great.

      Your own additions are great, but, as always, there are a few I haven’t seen, like “Intermezzo,” “Valiant Is the Word for Carrie,” and “Love from a Stranger.”

      “Come and Get It” is a movie I watched many years ago and really hated, so I declined to rewatch it now, though mayb e I should since there are a few performances from that movie you have mentioned.

  2. Pingback: Leonard Bernstein, ‘Play Dead,’ ‘Kimberly Akimbo,’ Ozu and ‘Hereafter’ on Monday Morning Diary (October 25) « Wonders in the Dark

  3. Well, this is very sweet of you!

    Presently, about Christmas 1933, she’s back in California. To visit her parents and not to shoot films. But Columbia talks her into a film project. So I gotta write something. Although one sadly can’t get her early movies. 😦

    Her 1937 HISTORY IS MADE AT NIGHT pleases me very much. That one could even be one of my “best”. But I might surprise with some other almost forgotten flick …
    In 1936 it might be Jean’s MORE THAN A SECRETARY. This is a very sophisticated film, as I feel. And wonderfully crazy.

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