COLBERT, CLAUDETTE (Lily Claudette Chauchoin) (1903–1996) Actress
Known best for her romantic comedies, Claudette Colbert was one of film’s greatest leading ladies of the 1930s. On September 13, 1903, she was born Lily Claudette Chauchoin in Paris. When she was six, her family moved to New York City, where she dreamed of becoming a fashion designer. With the encouragement of playwright Anne Morrison, she instead reluctantly opted for a stage career, beginning in 1923 with a three-line part in The Wild Westcotts. Professionally, she called herself Claudette Colbert, taking her paternal greatgrandmother’s maiden name as her surname. Colbert spent several years in small stage roles before finding her breakout role in The Barker (1927), in which she played a carnival snake charmer. During its extended New York run, she married her costar, actor Norman Foster, whom she divorced six years later. Colbert also made her first film, For the Love of Mike (1927), a silent campus comedy directed by Frank Capra. The experience convinced Colbert that film acting was not for her. Performing in silents did not give her a chance to use what she considered one of her best assets—her low, mellow voice.
With the onset of the Great Depression, funding for Broadway shows dried up. Colbert realized that if she wanted to work, she had no choice but to become a film actress—a prospect made more attractive by the advent of talking pictures. She moved to Los Angeles and was quickly typecast in virtuous ingenue roles. Eager to show her range, she played the wicked Empress Poppaea in The Sign of the Cross (1932), Cecil B. DeMille’s extravaganza set in Nero’s Rome. A scene in which she took a bath in asses’ milk made her a sex symbol and a star.
After appearing in several undistinguished films, Colbert found her best part in Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934). She was unimpressed by the script, but jumped at the chance to act opposite Night’s male star, Clark Gable. Though dismissed by all as a routine comedy during its filming, it became one of the great sleeper hits in Hollywood history. It won five Academy Awards, including one for Colbert for best actress. She became forever associated with one of its most famous scenes, in which she taught Gable a lesson in hitchhiking by lifting her skirt to display her shapely leg and bringing a car to a screeching halt.
The business-savvy Colbert parlayed the success of Night into a long-term contract with Paramount, which made her one of the highest-paid actresses of the 1930s and 1940s. Colbert took on a variety of films, from the campy Cleopatra (1934) to the tearjerker Imitation of Life (1934) to the dramas Private Worlds (1935) and Since You Went Away (1944). For these last two films, she received her second and third Oscar nominations. Colbert,
however, made her most indelible mark in comedies, including Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (1938), Midnight (1939), The Palm Beach Story (1942), and The Egg and I (1947). Among her peers, Colbert earned a reputation as the most levelheaded of all Hollywood stars. She exuded a natural sense of style and confidence onscreen and offscreen. As she once noted, “I don’t need that awful artificial glamour that Hollywood devises for people who don’t have any personali ties.” Colbert was well-known for insisting on being photographed from the left to hide a small bump on her nose—a habit inspired by “professionalism, not vanity.” What might have seemed narcissistic was actually just another example of her practical approach to doing her job.
For a star of her stature, Colbert also had a remarkably uneventful personal life. In 1935 she married her doctor, Joel Pressman, whom she called her best friend. Their successful marriage ended with Pressman’s death in 1968. When asked to write an autobiography, she refused, explaining “The trouble is I’ve been happy, and that’s no story.” Colbert continued to work in films through the 1950s, although good roles were increasingly hard to find. One of her greatest disappointments was losing, as a result of a skiing accident, the role of the sharp-tongued Margo Channing in All About Eve (1950), which won BETTE DAVIS an Oscar. Colbert later bemoaned that she “just never had the luck to play bitches. Those are the only parts that ever register, really.”
After appearing in more than 60 films, Colbert left Hollywood to return to Broadway in 1961. Aided by her timeless beauty and ever-slender figure, she was cast in many hit plays, including The Marriage-Go-Round (1956), The Irregular Verb to Love (1963), and The Kingfisher (1978). She also appeared frequently on television. Her last role in the 1986 miniseries The Two Mrs. Grenvilles earned her an Emmy nomination. Colbert then retired to her plantation in Barbados, where she was known as a gracious host to her many guests. After suffering a stroke in 1993, she died at her home on July 30, 1996, at the age of 92.
Everson, William K. Claudette Colbert. New York: Pyramid, 1976.
“Hollywood Legend Claudette Colbert Dies.” The Los Angeles Times, July 31, 1996, p. 1. Quirk, Lawrence J. Claudette Colbert: An Illustrated Biography. New York: Crown Publishers, 1985.
Recommended Recorded and Videotaped Performances
Cleopatra (1934). Universal, VHS, 2000.
It Happened One Night (1934). Columbia Tristar, DVD/VHS, 1999/1998.
The Palm Beach Story (1942). Universal, VHS, 1998.