Claudette Colbert (1903- 1996) was born Emilie Chauchoin in Paris. Claudette Colbert’s 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 the sparkling romantic screwball comedy It Happened One Night (1934) one evening in June and we 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 “got” until seeing this gem.
It Happened One Night was the first film to win all five major Academy Awards: Best Picture, Director, Actor, Actress, and Screenplay.
Colbert’s heart-shaped face, high sweeping 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 leading ladies. She won her Oscar for It Happened One Night the same year that she starred in two other films 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.
Colbert’s leading men included: 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.
Just a few weeks ago, on a Sunday morning, I caught a celebratory showing of five ”Pre-Code” films on TCM. 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 guidelines in 1934. Films in the late 1920s and early 1930s included plenty of sexual innuendo, profanity, drug use, promiscuity, prostitution, infidelity, abortion, intense violence, and homosexuality, all ingredients for 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 orgiastic sex and barbaric violence. In it, Colbert plays “the wickedest woman in the world”, Poppaea, wife of Emperor Nero played by Charles Laughton who stretches, yawns, undulates, and sucks his thumb in an uninhibited exhibition 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, though chances are you’ll be trying for a glimpse of Colbert’s, be it tame or wild. I promise there’ll be no fiddling with the remote or that bag of chips during this sequence. Every time she splashes the water, it brings us a little closer to a glimpse of Colbert’s nipples and you’ll think you’re seeing the whole colbert a few times. There are many delightful close calls from the scene where she was clearly, delightfully, naked. I have read that DeMille doubled up on takes so he could enjoy multiple views of Colbert entering, and emerging from her bath. Ready when you are, Mr. DeMille. It must be seen to be believed.
She played the title role in De Mille’s lavish, historically inaccurate Cleopatra. A trenchant study of racial intolerance, John Stahl‘s Imitation Of Life (1934), about a young widow who becomes a millionaire marketing the pancake recipe of her black friend, played by Louise Beavers. While the widow and her daughter move into society, the black friend insists on keeping in the background. Her light-skinned daughter faces prejudice where her counterpart has privilege and opportunity. She tries 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 from 1936 and 1947.
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 were to make six more films together.
Charles Boyer was Colbert’s co-star in Private Worlds (1935), and not yet fully fluent in English, he also acknowledged the support he received from her. She received her second Oscar nomination for her performance as a psychiatrist in this grim story of mental illness.
She smoothly transitioned to character roles in the 1940s. She was highly sensitive about her age and had to be convinced to play a mother to Jennifer Jones and Shirley Temple in Since You Went Away (1944). She famously feuded with Paulette Goddard during the filming of So Proudly We Hailed (1943) when Colbert overheard her co-star make a reference to their age difference.
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, with Katharine Hepburn replacing her just before filming began. She lost the role of Margo Channing in All About Eve (1950) because of a back injury, a stroke of bad luck that she lamented for the rest of her career.
When her film career began to decline, Colbert moved to the Broadway stage where her 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 South Sea Bubble. Though she and Coward were close friends, they clashed during this production, 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 smoothly with the frequent fluffing of lines by Harrison.
She was unafraid to appear in television projects, winning a Golden Globe and an Emmy Award for The Two Mrs. Grenvilles (1987). The Kennedy Center Honors celebrated her lifetime of achievements in 1989.
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. She was 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 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 wealthy painter/photographer and heir to the Sears Roebuck fortune. They had a relationship that lasted a decade, painting together, going for drives together, traveled together and even rented twin penthouses in NYC. When Colbert bought the house in Barbados in the early 1960s, Hull bought the house 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.