Jean Arthur had beat around Hollywood a long time by late 1935, when she was thirty-five years old. She had started out in silents beginning in 1923, featured in several low budget westerns and comedies. When sound came into play, late in the decade, she had a great asset in her husky, nasal voice, distinctive among her peers. But even though she made the transition to talkies smoothly, true stardom continued to elude her. In 1935, she appeared in John Ford's delightful comedy The Whole Town's Talking, starring Edward G. Robinson, where she displayed a flair for comedy that she hadn't shown on screen before. Her wisecracking defender of milquetoast Robinson was a refreshing change of pace.
The same year The Whole Town's Talking was released, Arthur's home studio, Columbia Pictures, was starting production of a film called Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. Frank Capra, fresh from his huge success with It Happened One Night, was the film's director. Set to play the leads were Gary Cooper and Carole Lombard, in a homespun tale of a small town idealist who inherits a fortune and moves to the big city, only to find cynicism and corruption. Three days before production began Lombard withdrew to take the lead in My Man Godfrey. Shooting on Deeds began without a female lead. Then, in what was to be the turning point of her career, Jean Arthur was chosen by Capra to take over the Lombard role. According to Capra's autobiography, he spotted Arthur in the daily rushes of another film she was working on. He then tried to persuade Columbia boss Harry Cohn to give her the part. Cohn was against it but Capra convinced him by having Cohn listen to her voice only and not look at her face (Cohn said Arthur's face was "half angel and half horse", a reference to the star's claim she had a good side and a bad side to be photographed).
The film ended up winning Capra his second Best Director Oscar and making Jean Arthur a full fledged star. After making the classic fantasy drama Lost Horizon (1937), Capra was back at screwball comedy again with You Can't Take It With You (1938). For the female lead in his latest comedy, Capra again wanted Arthur. He called her "his favorite actress." Yet again, his Midas touch struck movie gold with a third directorial Oscar for You Can't Take It With You, as well as the film winning the year's Best Picture (a rare feat for a comedy feature, although Capra's It Happened One Night also reached this pinnacle).
With his fortunes riding high, Capra and Columbia wanted to make a sequel to Mr. Deeds Goes to Town with Gary Cooper and Jean Arthur called Mr. Deeds Goes to Washington. Cooper, however, was unavailable and the story instead became Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) with Arthur and James Stewart, who was borrowed from MGM. Arthur sparkled as Saunders, the cynical secretary who is slowly bowled over by Stewart's idealistic, completely incorruptible Jefferson Smith. Through her exposure in Capra's films, along with other non-Capra films like Easy Living (1937) and Only Angels Have Wings (1939), Jean Arthur one of the queens of the screwball comedy. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington would be the actress and the director's last film together, and Capra's last at Columbia, the studio where they both made their mark in Hollywood.