Claudette Colbert was born in Paris in 1903 as Emilie Chauchoin. Her family moved to Manhattan when she was three years old, making her French, yet thoroughly American. She began acting professionally when she was 15 years old and she worked well into her 80s.
I surfed on to that sparkling romantic screwball comedy It Happened One Night (1934) one evening this past spring and marveled at how fresh it seemed for a film made in the mid-1930s. Directed and co-produced by Frank Capra, it is the tale of a pampered socialite (Colbert) who tries to get out from under her father’s thumb and falls in love with a roguish reporter, played by Clark Gable, an actor I never quite “got” until seeing this gem.
Colbert’s heart-shaped face, high brows, signature bangs, and distinctive voice allowed her to shine in scores of films during the 1930s and 1940s, when she was one of Hollywood’s top stars. She won her Academy Award for It Happened One Night the same year that she starred in two other films that were also nominated for Best Picture: Cleopatra and Imitation Of Life. Colbert could play in anything, light comedy, historical bio-pics, or romantic dramas with equal ease. She was the champagne of movie stars.
Gable, Fredric March, Fred MacMurray, Melvyn Douglas, Ronald Colman, Charles Boyer, Gary Cooper, Don Ameche, Ray Milland, James Stewart, Henry Fonda, Spencer Tracy and the delicious Joel McCrea, were among her favorite leading men.
Just a few weeks ago, on a Sunday morning, I caught a celebratory showing of five “Pre-Code” films on The Criterion Collection. “Pre-Code” refers to a brief era in the American film industry between the introduction of sound pictures in 1929 and the enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code censorship in 1934. Films in the late 1920s and early 1930s included scads of sexual innuendo, plus plenty profanity, drug use, promiscuity, prostitution, infidelity, abortion, intense violence, and homosexuality, all ingredients for the recipe of fun viewing as far as I am concerned. Strong female characters were ubiquitous. Then the Christian Conservatives had to come along and spoil it all.
The nastiest Pre-Code film of them all may be Cecil B. DeMille‘s Sign Of The Cross, a 1932 extravaganza of ancient Rome with orgies and barbaric violence. In it, Colbert plays “the wickedest woman in the world”, Poppaea, wife of Emperor Nero. Nero is played by Charles Laughton who stretches, yawns, and sucks his thumb in an uninhibited, uncensored demonstration of all things we love best in Laughton’s hammy acting.
Colbert is happily naked in her first scene in the film. She is seen bathing in “wild ass’s milk”. I am not certain of the distinction between wild ass milk, and a beverage from a tame ass, but chances are you’ll be trying for a glimpse of Colbert’s ass, tamed or wild. Every time she splashes the water, we get a glimpse of Colbert’s nipples and you’ll likely think you’re going to get a gander the whole colbert a few times. There are so many captivating close calls from that scene where she was clearly naked. I have read that DeMille doubled up on takes so he could enjoy Colbert entering and emerging from her bath. Ready when you are, Mr. DeMille. It must be seen to be believed.
She also played the title role in De Mille’s lavish, historically inaccurate Cleopatra.
A biting look at racial intolerance, John Stahl‘s Imitation Of Life (1934) is about a young widow who becomes a millionaire marketing the pancake recipe of her Black friend (Louise Beavers). While the widow and her daughter gain access into fine society, the Black friend insists on staying in the background. Her light-skinned daughter faces prejudice, so she attempts to pass for white and disowns her mother. Tragedy follows.
Colbert made 15 Pre-Code films. In 1935 she was named the Top money-making star and she remained in the Top Ten for the next decade..
Fred MacMurray had his first major role in The Gilded Lily (1935), and always credited Colbert for the help she gave him. McMurray:
“She was so patient with me. I learned more from her about screen acting than I have ever picked up since.”
They made six more films together.
Charles Boyer was in Private Worlds (1935) with Colbert. He was not fluent in English at this point, and he acknowledged the support he received from his co-star. She received her second Oscar nomination for her performance as a psychiatrist in this grim story of mental illness.
She smoothly transitioned to being a character actor in the 1940s, although she was sensitive about her age and had to be convinced to take the role of mother to Jennifer Jones and Shirley Temple in Since You Went Away (1944). She feuded with Paulette Goddard during the filming of So Proudly We Hailed (1943) when Colbert overheard her talking about the differences in their ages.
Colbert turned down an offer to star in To Each His Own (1946), feeling that its story of unwed motherhood was outdated. Olivia de Havilland won an Academy Award for the role. She withdrew from Capra’s State Of The Union (1948) when he refused to meet her demands that she finish work by 5pm each day; Katharine Hepburn replaced her just before filming began. She lost the role of Margo Channing in All About Eve (1950) because of a back injury, and she she never got over it for the rest of her career.
When her film career began to decline, Colbert moved to the Broadway stage where her acting career started. In 1958, she was Tony Award-nominated for The Marriage Go-Round, a sexy comedy with her friend Boyer and Julie Newmar (who won a Tony for Best Supporting). Other Broadway appearances included: The Royal Family (1954), The Guardsman (1955), and Blithe Spirit (1956) opposite Noël Coward and Lauren Bacall.
In 1951, she toured in Coward’s musical bon bon, South Sea Bubble. Though she and Coward were close friends, they fought during rehearsals, causing Coward to tell her: “I’d wring your neck if you had one.”
In 1984, Colbert returned to the London stage for the first time in 60 years in Aren’t We All? (which is not about lesbianism) opposite Rex Harrison. Her charisma and beauty once again charmed the critics and her professionalism had her dealing with Harrison’s frequent line fluffing.
She was unafraid to appear in television projects, and won a Golden Globe and an Emmy Award for The Two Mrs. Grenvilles (1987).
Colbert was married twice. Rather unconventionally, she lived apart from both husbands. In 1996, she took that final curtain call, leaving peacefully in her sleep at her home in Barbados at 92 years old.
Colbert seems to have been bisexual. I have it on good authority that she had short, torrid affairs with Marlene Dietrich and Joan Crawford in the 1930s, but really, who didn’t? She said:
“No man ought ever to marry an actress. A man can be ideally happy only if he is married to a woman who is completely interested in him. An actress never is.”
Artist Don Bachardy, the longtime partner of writer Christopher Isherwood, wrote:
“We used to call her ‘Uncle Claude’. Actually, I think she’s really a good example of a very closeted situation. Only well within her own circle did they know the truth.”
In 1958, she met Verna Hull, a painter and photographer, and heir to the Sears Roebuck fortune. They had a relationship that lasted a decade, painting together, going for drives together, and traveling together. They even rented side-by-side apartments in New York City. When Colbert purchased her house in Barbados in the early 1960s, Hull bought the home next door.
Colbert left her estate to her “longtime companion”, Helen O’Hagan, a retired executive for Saks Fifth Avenue.
My favorite Colbert film is The Palm Beach Story (1942), a scrumptious screwball comedy directed by Preston Sturges, starring Joel McCrea, Mary Astor and Rudy Vallée.