The Benda Mask
Untold secrets of Jean Arthur
"With acting, it's ultimately all about who you are." Jack Nicholson, 2004
Behind the Mona Lisa cast, the tennis match between eyes and lips, there's steel. Amusement in the half-wink on the left, allure but underlying her other brilliant blue, iron. Stamped on the back of this black-and-white 8-by-10 65, 70 years ago:
"THE BENDA MASK ... JEAN ARTHUR,
Paramount player, aptly simulates the girl of the Benda mask ... Benda masks are so named after the famous artist who originated them ...
PLEASE CREDIT PARAMOUNT!
Only The Benda Mask isn't among the 89 films stamped with Jean Arthur (1900-1991), beginning in 1923. Neither is it mentioned in the scattered descriptions of her work, approximately 35 titles of which one might, if resourceful, lay eyes on half that many for the average renter in the above-average video/DVD market. (That's you, Austin.) Columbia, the studio that finally broke Arthur in the mid-Thirties, loaned her out to Paramount for 1937's luminous screwball Easy Living. But the majority of the actress' filmography after 1934 softie Whirlpool (a pre-Mr. Deeds Goes to Town reporter role) is viewable, and the facade on demand is the comedienne's 1,000-watt smile.
That high beam is a fleeting, unbilled smirk as the doe-eyed, brunet secretary in the Buster Keaton DVD Seven Chances (1925), Arthur's earliest available screen appearance. More than three dozen unseen silents predate Warming Up, the initial soundie and Paramount debut for Arthur, who signed a three-year contract with the studio in 1928. Despite positive press ("Arthur's beauty and personality pulled a tough game out of the fire for Paramount on Warming Up," wrote Variety), her contract wasn't renewed in 1931, at which point she returned home to New York to work on Broadway. Whirlpool was Arthur's first contract commitment to Columbia, who broke her again a decade later when the studio's notorious Harry Cohn drove her screaming off-screen, save for her final two films, Billy Wilder's A Foreign Affair (1948) and Shane (1953).
Meaning, the Benda mask dates back to sometime between 1928 and 1931, most likely in one of three rarities: a serial titled The Masked Menace, and either The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu (1929) and/or The Return of Dr. Fu Manchu the following year. Two precodes from those years The Saturday Night Kid, stolen from Clara Bow, and DVD cheapie The Silver Horde, with future The More the Merrier co-star Joel McCrea find Arthur nervy, scheming, spoiled, her trademark Betty Boop twitter still girlish, ô la Minnie Mouse. Her fling with rising Paramount executive David O. Selznick resulted, years later, in Arthur being considered for the role of Scarlett O'Hara in Gone With the Wind.
According to Jean Arthur: A Bio-Bibliography (1990), one of two books on the Garbo-esque recluse, Arthur's "first hints of unorthodox behavior (in Hollywood's way of thinking) are here mentioned" in the Paramount era. Meanwhile, John Oller's Jean Arthur: The Actress Nobody Knew (1997) quotes Arthur's very first printed interview, a year prior to The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu, the most likely point of origin for the Benda mask.
"I've had to learn to be a different person since I've been out here. Anybody that sticks it out in Hollywood for four years is bound to change in self-defense. Oh, I'm hard-boiled now. I don't expect anything. But it took me a long time to get over the hoping, and believing, people's promises."
Arthur's inquisitor was no doubt giving her subject the once-over in person, but could've just as easily been examining a promotional picture:
"Her face is childish, with young curves and coloring. Her eyes are older than the rest of her."
The Austin Film Society sits headquartered in a triplewide on the same lot as an Austin Film Studios hangar, deep in the heart of the old Mueller airport. Exterior, brown box. Inside, it's a ministudio, a wonderland of cinema. Richard Linklater's Robert Bresson posters hang everywhere.
If You Could Only Cook
AFS Director of Programming Chale Nafus spreads the first batch of Jean Arthur 8-by-10s over a long conference table. NYC's Photofest (www.photofestnyc.com) licenses film memorabilia, charging per use of image. We need only one. Absent is any Benda mask, hanging next to the light switch in the nearby home office of a Chronicle editor; these vintage stills are confined to the seven films of upcoming AFS series Talk of the Town: The Films of Jean Arthur. Said editor/"guest curator" is helping choose an icon for the series flier.
Arthur's long, auburn hair from George Stevens' marvelous The Talk of the Town (1942) isn't face-on, so that won't do. Her shoulder-length, blond curls in Only Angels Have Wings (1939), another Howard Hawks raid, are tempting, but not quite. Too Many Husbands (1940), which proffers more photographs than people who've seen its inspired silliness, is briefly in the running. Nafus lingers over a posed prize from If You Could Only Cook (1936), Arthur face to face to face with Herbert Marshall and Leo Carillo, both suitors covered with lipstick traces. Arthur as Cinderella in Easy Living gets a close examination by the curator. His mind reels at the films left on the cutting-room floor.
Obviously, there are the Capras Mr. Deeds (1936), You Can't Take It With You (1938), and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) undoubtedly much of Arthur's finest work in the service of overzealous Americana. That goes double for The Plainsman (1937), Cecil B. DeMille's reteaming of Deeds' Arthur and Gary Cooper. The heroine as Calamity Jane kills in leather pants. Man. Dark, darker, darkest-horse DVD A Lady Takes a Chance (1943), Arthur and John Wayne, also does the cowboy comically. The No. 1 not-found: Public Hero #1 (1935), Arthur and Chester Morris foiling the Dillinger escape plan. Their freshly showered couch cozy, her combing of his hair, rival their co-star Lionel Barrymore's looking-glass scene with Arthur in You Can't Take It With You for incandescent intimacy.
In the end, some 69 glorious black-and-whites never had a chance against another nameless portrait, a glamour shot from 1937. Like the Benda mask, it's more or less a one-of-a-kind, since later in her career Arthur fought the studio system PR machinery at every step. Gazing upon Arthur's gowned glow, it's hard to reconcile the anecdote in Frank Capra's autobiography, The Name Above the Title:
"I ran up to Cohn's office. 'Jean Arthur?' he rasped out of the corner of his mouth. 'D'ja ever hear her?'
"'Well, no '
"'There you are. Three times she's left Broadway to crack Hollywood. Nothing.'
"I wouldn't back off. Arthur had the quality I wanted. 'Okay, listen,' said Cohn, flipping the intercom keys, 'let's get some opinions.'
"He bounced Jean Arthur's name from Briskin, Riskin, and Nod and some others. The responses: 'Good actress, but she's worked at Paramount, Fox, Selznick's.' 'Nobody's signed her' ... 'she's cuckoo' ... 'been around' ... 'no name.'
"'But she's got a great voice, Harry '
"Great voice? D'ja see her face? Half of it's angels, and the other half horse."
Forever after, Arthur was shot primarily from the right side.
J.B. Ball (Edward Arnold), the third biggest banker in Manhattan, has just hurled his wife's sable coat off the roof of their Fifth Avenue penthouse. Preston Sturges' Easy Living script, his first project under a Paramount contract that eventually made him the father of modern writer/directors, picks up the action.
TOP OF MOVING [OPEN AIR] BUS ... LOOKING FORWARD ...
On the rear seat sits a turbaned Hindu reading a book. In front of him sits Mary Smith, a pretty young woman, modestly dressed, her hat jauntily topped by a long feather. Her face is serene; she enjoys the day. The seat ahead of her is empty, but the rest of the bus is filled. The coat falls over Mary's head and she screams a muffled scream under the coat. Her feather is broken and hanging in front of her face. She turns around and glares indignantly at the Hindu.
What's the big idea?
CLOSE SHOT ... HINDU ... PAST MARY
Startled, the Hindu looks up and points to his book.
As with Arthur, fate was as cruel as it was kind to Sturges. The comedic boons of both paid off in precipitous Hollywood arcs. Fittingly, the intersection of Arthur and Sturges left happy accidents in each garage. Easy Living dropped second at the automat of screenwriter and co-stars Arthur and Arnold, barely in the same Capras (You Can't Take It With You and Mr. Smith) for all their nonexistent banter. Their chemistry distinguishes Sturges' Diamond Jim (1935). A second banana in this loosely based biopic of foodie Diamond Jim Brady, Arthur's romantic catalyst both of them derails the tale more than once. And if DeMille's Lux Radio Theatre version of another Sturges spin-off, Remember the Night, is any indication, Arthur might have been better cast than Barbara Stanwyck opposite Fred MacMurray in the 1940 theatrical release.
Moreover, Sturges is paramount to Talk of the Town: The Films of Jean Arthur. Thanks to AFS' bountiful Unfaithfully Yours: The Satire of Preston Sturges series in 2000 ("Fast, Cheap, & Out of Control," Screens, January 14, 2000), a local TCM fanatic got in touch with the fact that the big screen indeed magnifies the appeal of old films. The jet-engine roar of laughter at the Texas Union Theater for Sturges' classic The Palm Beach Story could never be out-decibelled by the continuous belly laughs of A Foreign Affair, foxholed into the film society's Driven Into Paradise: European ...migré Directors in Hollywood 1933-1950 series of spring 2003. Nor by the inclusion of You Can't Take It With You in AFS' roundly savored Lunatics and Lovers: Screwball Comedy of the Thirties. Yet the sable had sailed. The offhand series suggestion to Nafos following A Foreign Affair was optioned.
And so, sadly, a local writer finally Googled "Benda Mask." He didn't want to. He was content that Jean Arthur should remain an enigma, just like all the rest.
"W.T. Benda (Wladyslaw Theodore Benda) was the premiere mask maker of the early 20th Century. His masks were shown in magazines such as Vanity Fair and Vogue. ... As a result, it was quite logical for the editors of Collier's to turn to Benda for the cover illustration of The Mask of Fu Manchu."
I knew it was Fu Manchu.
"There is no denying the incredible mystical and psychological power of the mask," wrote Benda (1873-1948). "The wearer literally becomes the personality visible to the outside world, and internal personality traits are submerged, forgotten, abandoned."
That was Jean Arthur, all right a sable coat falling out of the sky.