APHS

James Stewart and Jean Arthur in Frank Capra's 1939 film, "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington."

To say filmie David Palmieri has a thing for Jean Arthur is an understatement.

He's steeped himself in the quintessential screwball comedienne since migrating south from Montreal to teach French and Canadian studies at Plattsburgh State.

"I've always known she was born here," said Palmieri, who will talk about Arthur before Saturday's screening of "Shane" by the Champlain Valley Film Society.

He learned about her in John Oller's biography, "The Actress Nobody Knew," published in 1997.

"He's a commercial attorney in Manhattan," Palmieri said of the author. "He's not a film historian. He's, obviously, one of these guys who got into actresses, into Hollywood. What is interesting in the Oller biography, the address where she was born is published in the book: 94 Oak St. (in Plattsburgh)."

Palmieri decided to do some sleuthing of his own and checked out the address.

"It's an old, rundown house now. I would think if she was really born there, I could learn anything about it."

Born Gladys Georgianna Greene on Oct. 17, 1900, the actress's family moved to Plattsburgh in 1897.

"The father was from an old Anglo-Saxon family from Vermont," Palmieri said. "The mother was a Nielsen. They were Norwegians in Montana and Dakota territory. Hubert Greene and his wife met out West in the late 1880s and got married. At a certain point, he was a photographer by trade. He was an artist/alcoholic type, and the photography studio went out of business. Jean was very much like her father. She had her own issues walking out on plays."

In 1897, Plattsburgh was booming. Stores were opening. There was a train station and a trolley line coming. The Greenes first lived on South Platt Street in a house Palmieri can't quite figure out.

"I have a feeling the entrance to the South Platt Street Park, there were houses there that got knocked down," he said.

He contacted Oller, who had a birth certificate for two boys who died six hours after birth in 1898.

"In a book published by Dr. Kellogg, I found a little reference: 'A man knocked on my door in the middle of the night. The boys were born without me.' Kellogg doesn't mention they were the brothers of Gladys. When she comes into the world, the family no longer lives on South Platt Street. They moved to 94 Oak St. called the Palmer lot."

Houses were developed there one at a time. There was not a house at this location according to the 1893-94 insurance records.

"On June 1, 1900, the census taker said there was a house at 94 Oak St. built between 1894 and 1900. They (Greenes) were the first tenants. You begin to look at that part of town in a whole different light. I see little Jean Arthur playing there. She's in the house. There were three sons. After that, the next record we have of the family is the Plattsburgh City directory in 1903. They are on Bridge Street," Palmieri said.

Mr. Greene worked as an assistant at Woodward Photography on Clinton Street.

"He was a big-business man, Woodward. The newspaper records he had a wife and in-laws in Jackson, Fla. He went down there in winters. Hubert Greene would go, too. Jean would live with grandparents in Schenectady. Jean was floating around the American Northeast."

In the vicinity of the Amtrak parking lot, there was a one-and-a-half story house, where the Greenes lived also.

"They had another kid. They needed more room. There was a garage there," he said.

The family disappears from the Plattsburgh City directories between 1904 and 1910.

"She shows up in school records in Portland, Maine. The ne'er-do-well father was wandering around. Hubert got a job in Portland, Maine, in 1910. He walks out on his wife and four kids at that point. The sons were grown up. His wife was not easy to live with. He was irresponsible. They both were difficult people in their own way. He loved his freedom more than his family, but he loved his family and wanted to be around them," Palmieri said.

In 1915, Gladys dropped out of high school to help support her family. She finds work in a photography studio. One day a customer asks if she wants to model. One thing leads to another. She's discovered by Fox Film Studios and secures a contract with Paramount and heads to Hollywood.

Her stage name is in honor of her fascination with Joan of Arc and King Arthur. Her first role is in the 1923 silent drama, "Cameo Kirby," directed by John Ford.

"She's in 'The Iron Horse' in 1924; it's the whole '20s silent, pretty blonde, ingénue type. She did good work. She never broke out. When an actress hits 30, the young, fresh work is done. You have to get a lot of ambition and become a great actress or get married or find something else to get a living," Palmieri said.

The actress got busy, though she did take frequent hiatuses from the A-list.

From 1923 to 1966, she appeared in 96 productions from silent films and talkies to the television series, "The Jean Arthur Show" and "Gunsmoke."

Her most noted films are Frank Capra's "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town" (1936), "You Can't Take It With You" (1938) and "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" (1939). She played a rancher's wife in George Stevens's "Shane "(1953).

"Jean Arthur, the star, was born on Oak Street," Palmieri said. "She had a house in Carmel, Calif., John Steinbeck country. She never wrote an autobiography. She never wrote letters. She was cremated. Her ashes were thrown into the Pacific. There's no place in the world to go to see Jean Arthur. She wanted to live through her work."

Email Robin Caudell at: rcaudell@pressrepublican.com

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