Obituary: Jean Muir

Dick Vosburgh
Thursday 01 August 1996 23:02 BST

In 1950, Jean Muir, an actress with more than 30 films and eight Broadway plays behind her, had the unenviable distinction of being the first person in the field of broadcasting to be blacklisted.

She was born Jean Muir Fullarton, her father a certified public accountant, her mother a substitute teacher. An only child, she decided on a theatrical career when she saw a production of The Merchant of Venice at the age of nine. Ten years later, as Jane Fullarton, she made her Broadway debut in The Truth Game (1930), starring its author, Ivor Novello. Next came a small role in Constance Collier's Broadway revival of Peter Ibbetson (1931). Saint Wench (1933), a one-week flop, none the less led to a film contract with Warner Bros, and a shorter name.

Jean Muir's height - 5ft 9in - was a headache when she played opposite such diminutive leading men as Paul Muni in The World Changes (1933) and Richard Barthelmess in A Modern Hero (1934). Another problem for Warners was her dedicated work on behalf of the Screen Actors' Guild, a union whose establishment they strenously opposed. She also questioned everything at the studio - particularly its publicity practices - soon earning herself the nickname "Studio Pest".

In 1934 the Listener's young film critic Alistair Cooke rose from a sick- bed to write of the film As the Earth Turns, "It has two merits that belong to it and it alone: they are Jean Muir and the sincerity of its idealism. Jean Muir's is as lovely a face as these influenza-sodden eyes have seen even in their brightest days." Cooke then went on to suggest Muir's ideal director - Charles Chaplin. Although she was never directed by Chaplin, she did get to work with Max Reinhardt on Warner Bros' all-star version of A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935) and in Reinhardt's lavish Hollywood Bowl production that perceded it. She made a spirited Helena, a role for which her height was, for once, an advantage.

In a 1934 interview, Muir had stated, "I have no desire to waste my time here. If I cannot do great work in movies, I shall not remain in Hollywood." Three years later, after making five undistinguished films in a row, she packed her bags and left for Broadway, where she appeared in Pride and Prejudice and People at Sea (both 1937), and on the radio. She was coaxed back to the Coast to make And One was Beautiful at MGM, and The Lone Wolf Meets a Lady at Columbia (both 1940), before returning to Warner Bros, to make her last ever film, The Constant Nymph, playing the supporting role of Joan Fontaine's older sister. By now, Muir was married and heavily pregnant, and had to be hidden behind a cello for much of her screen time.

For the rest of the 1940s she concentrated on her dual role of wife and mother, apart from an occasional theatre, television or radio appearance. In 1950 she decided to accept a lucrative offer from General Foods, who were sponsoring a new television sitcom, The Aldrich Family. As the radio version had enjoyed a run of 14 years, there were high expectations for its television incarnation, with Muir playing the lovable Mother Aldrich. Only hours before the first episode was to be broadcast, General Foods did a quivering impersonation of their own product, Jell-O, and sacked her simply because her name had appeared in the notorious book Red Channels, the report of Communist influence in radio and television.

By 1956 Muir, who could now only get work teaching drama or directing it in community theatre, had become an alcoholic and was suffering from cirrhosis of the liver. Her marriage was over and she had been given six months to live. Faced with this alternative, she managed to give up alcohol, and return to acting, first in a Broadway production of Patricia Jourdry's National Theatre play Semi- Detached (1960). It only ran a week, but Muir's reviews were favourable, with one critic warmly welcoming her back.

In 1968 Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri, asked her to head their new drama department. She taught there for eight happy years, until forced to retire at the age of 65. She then took teaching jobs at universities in Missouri and Mexico.

The American writer William Manchester called her "a martyr, sacrificed to ignorance and fear as surely as any Salem 'witch' in 1692". Appropriately, one of her most successful student productions at Stephens College was The Crucible, Arthur Miller's pointed re- creation of the 17th-century witch-hunts. When Jean Muir heard that the play was on the theatre department's list of possible presentations, she told them, "If you decide to do The Crucible, I think you'll be missing an awful lot of publicity by not using me as the director!"

Dick Vosburgh

Jean Muir Fullarton (Jean Muir), actress: born New York City 13 February 1911; married Henry Jaffe (two sons, one daughter; marriage dissolved); died Mesa, Arizona 23 July 1996.

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