Comet Over Hollywood is doing a mini-series of “Classics in the Carolinas.” I’ll be spotlighting classic movie related topics in South Carolina (my home state) and North Carolina (where I currently live).
With a distinct, squeaky voice and playing determined character, actress Jean Arthur was a top leading lady of the 1930s and 1940s.
Starting her film career in 1923, she played minor roles or unremarkable characters. It wasn’t until 69 films and shorts later and signing contract with Columbia that she made her break in “The Whole Town’s Talking” (1935), co-starring Edward G. Robinson in a dual role. After this film, Arthur co-starred with Hollywood’s top leading men including John Barrymore, William Powell and Herbert Marshall. There was no doubt Arthur was a star when Frank Capra cast her in two of his films, “Mr. Deeds Goes To Town” (1936) and “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington” (1939).
With 95 credits to her name, Arthur retired from acting after the film “Shane” (1953). Arthur only made two other TV or film appearance: on an episode of “Gunsmoke” in 1965 and a short-lived “The Jean Arthur Show” in 1966 which only lasted 12 episodes. She also was a guest on Merv Griffin’s talk show in 1973.
After retiring from films, Jean Arthur went the route of teaching. First, she taught at Vassar in New York and then became an acting instructor in North Carolina.
In 1972, Jean Arthur began teaching at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, located in Winston-Salem, NC, which was announced to the Associated Press in September 1972 by Ronald Pollock dean of the School of Drama.
At this time, the school was named the North Carolina School of the Arts. Founded in 1962, the school is an arts conservatory for high school, college and graduate students.
Arthur was an acting instructor for film, drama and voice majors, according to a Sept. 14, 1972, press release “NCSA Announces New Faculty Appointments,” which was provided to Comet Over Hollywood by the school’s public relations department.
In addition to teaching, Arthur was the narrator for the school’s production of “Peter and the Wolf” in January 1973, according to a press release provided to Comet by the UNCSA public relations. Arthur also directed the play “The Death and Life of Sneaky Fitch” in May 1973, according to school archives.
While teaching, Arthur made friends with teacher Pete Ballard, who accompanied her when she appeared on the Merv Griffin Show, and helped her out when she met some unfortunate publicity, according to the book Jean Arthur: A Biofilmography by Jerry Vermilye.
On March 31, 1973, Arthur was arrested when trying to help a neighbor’s dog, according to Associated Press article “Befriending Chained Dog Gets Jean Arthur Arrested.”
“Former movie actress Jean Arthur was arrested for trespassing, handcuffed and taken to jail barefoot because of what she said were her attempts to console a barking, whimpering German shepherd who was chained in a neighbor’s yard,” the article said.
Arthur’s apartment was next door to the home of Major the German shepherd, owned by Ronald Douglas, 25, and his wife.
Prior to this, Arthur had offered to build a fence for the couple in their mid-20s so the dog could run and not be tied up. The couple didn’t know who she was and refused and told her to stay off their yard, according to the book Jean Arthur: The Actress Nobody Knew by John Oller.
Arthur decided to enter Douglas’s yard on March 31. She was concerned because the dog “barked all day and most of the night and he cried like a child. It kind of broke my heart.” Her lawyer, Weston Hatfield, said Arthur was a “great animal lover who keeps three cats and two canaries in her apartment.”
When Douglas saw Arthur in his yard, he told her to get out, she did and he called the police who served her with a trespass warrant, according to Oller’s book.
Arthur was arrested— she testified in court that police officer H. N. Thomas wouldn’t allow Arthur to go back inside to put on her shoes (she was barefoot) or turn off her stove where she was cooking a meal.
She was taken to Forsyth County jail where she stayed for 40 minutes until she was released on $100 bond. No one knew who she was because she gave police an assumed name.
Ronald Douglas testified in court that he warned Arthur to stay off his property after she threatened to call the Humane Society. She frequently brought the dog food and would go to pet it, according to the article.
Though Arthur tried to keep a low profile during the case, with the help of her friend Pete Ballard, news got out and actors like Amanda Blake, Richard Burton, members of the Fonda family and Elizabeth Taylor reached out with support. Arthur also had breakfast with Helen Hayes the morning of the trial who happened to be in Winston-Salem, according to Oller’s book.
In court on April 11, 1973, she was fined an additional $75 and convicted of cursing an abusing Officer Thomas. This is probably because Jean Arthur called him “goddamned stupid” for not allowing her to share her side of the story, according to a 2009 brief in the Winston-Salem newspaper.
Her lawyer Weston Hatfield later said that everyone was surprised by the national backlash the city and case received. He also said if legal officials had known who Arthur was, the case may have turned out differently, according to Oller’s book.
After the 1973-74, school year completed, Jean Arthur returned to her home in Carmel, CA. The charges were dropped by October 1973, but Arthur was already home, and Major’s owners had also left the area. The dog’s owners received threats after the story received national coverage.