Editorial: She’s Earned Those Stripes

Jean Arthur in “The Talk of the Town”, 1942 | Columbia Pictures

 

The Editorial: thoughts, short stories
or essays about the world of cinema


 
Nora Shelley is wearing a men’s striped oversized pajamas when the entire town barges into the house she had rented to Michael Lightcap, a law professor who has come here in search of a quiet place to write a book: her mother who is trying to understand what she hadn’t come home, the furniture moving men who are bringing in a few finishing-up pieces for the guest, the policemen who are looking for Leopold Dilg, a troublemaker who has been wrongfully accused of burning down a mill and killing the foreman and who has escaped jail, believing he has no chance of escaping jail, the lawyer who is trying to help him. The fugitive, played by Cary Grant, happens to be in the attic, with an injured foot, and Jean Arthur’s Nora Shelley is helping him hide, and she had to make up an excuse the stay the night to watch him so that he is not discovered.

“Listen, I can’t hang around here even if I wanted to. Lightcap’s ordered me out 50 times since last night. I’m here now only by the grace of being in his pajamas. One minute I’m out of these and I’m out on my ear!”, Nora says to Dilg in The Talk of the Town.

Isn’t Jean Arthur one of the best comedic actors? And she’s at her best in this quick-witted comedy directed by George Stevens. I rewatched it last night. And I just love watching Jean Arthur in it. She is so naturally funny. Comical yet not silly ridiculous. So gracefully yet confidently making her way among all the men. And I love how the romantic story remains in the background and the film does not lose sight of the main plot, of acquitting a wrongfully accused man. And it’s wonderful how Jean manages to strike such a balance between humour and never losing sight of the bigger picture, of what’s right and wrong.

And so she is wearing Lightcap’s pajamas, a wardrobe piece that here plays first and foremost a comedic role (as opposed to Adrian’s costumes on Greta Garbo in The Single Standard), but not quite just. The next morning, before the town barges in, she does an impersonation in front of the mirror, dressed in the pajamas and playing with her hair pretending she has a mustache and changing her voice: “lovely, lovely, really lovely…” She is being watched, naturally, by Lightcap (Ronald Colman), which makes the scene even more hilarious. And, yes, it makes her charming and attractive, in a way only menswear clothes worn by a woman in full confidence of her seductive power can.
 

“The Talk of the Town”, 1942 | Columbia Pictures

 

There is another piece of clothing that makes a great point, too. This time, it’s one of the wardrobe items Irene designed for the character, the pinafore dress, a piece that’s menswear inspired but made for a woman. Nora is wearing it when Leopold arrives in search of a hideout. At one moment, between trying to keep Dilg out of sight and trying to accommodate her tenant who has arrived one day early, she has to run up the stairs. I have always found this sequence so naturally hilarious and unforced, because she does run alright… as if she was wearing trousers. Only she’s not and that’s the best part. She does not sacrifice one drop of femininity while being adventurous, quick and active and, well, physically funny in ways few female actors have been.

Jean Arthur had already demonstrated her humour, fearlessness and appeal in menswear inspired clothes three years earlier, also alongside Cary Grant and interacting with another bunch of men, pilots in that case, in Howard Hawks’ Only Angels Have Wings (more about that, in a future article). But it’s the attitude and body language, the verbal wit and physical humour, that distinctive voice that could be low and husky or going into a high pitch, simply put, so much more than what meets the eye that completes the picture here. She knows how to be romantic, smart and grown-up without forgetting to be a tomboy and free-spirited and funny. She’s right up there, next to another trailblazer of thought and action style and screwball comedy, Katharine Hepburn (Katharine wore a pinafore dress, too, in Woman of the Year, directed by George Stevens and costumed by Adrian, an ahead-of-his-time designer who put an ahead-of-her-time movie star in a tuxedo in the same movie). She was her own person and had a unique screen presence. She was good at what she did. She owned the craft of acting. That’s the brilliance of Jean Arthur.
 

“The Talk of the Town”, 1942 | Columbia Pictures

 
 

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