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From the current Winter 2023 Issue

On stage, screen and radio, CLAUDETTE COLBERT could do it all

A CLASS OF HER OWN

By Walter Scannell

 

Modern Hollywood is a place that makes films based on franchises, with filming and release schedules sometimes mapped out years in advance. Still, it’s hard to imagine any actor in modern Hollywood who would have the time to appear in two films that had been nominated for Best Picture Oscar in the same year — let alone to star in them.

Claudette Colbert, on the other hand, found herself not only appearing in, but starring in three of the 1934 films that were nominated for Best Picture: Imitation of Life, Cleopatra, and It Happened One Night. It’s a rare actress who could carry anything from melodrama to mythic spectacle to screwball comedy, but Claudette Colbert was that rare actress. It’s hard to imagine her as anything but the star.

She was born Emilie Claudette Chauchoin in (or at least very near) 1903, in the French community of Saint-Mande. She was raised in a household that spoke both English and French; as a result, when her father Georges Chauchoin suffered setbacks in his job as an investment banker in 1906, it made sense for him to take the family (his wife, mother-in-law, son and daughter) to New York City to try his luck.

Although Georges had a desk job at a Manhattan bank, his position at the bank was such that he could afford only a fifth-floor walk-up apartment for his family. In later years, Colbert would joke that her shapely legs came from years of climbing all those steps. Her family was naturalized as U.S. citizens, and as a teenager she learned acting at Washington Irving High School. By the time she entered the Art Student League of New York to study fashion design, she was calling herself by her middle name, Claudette.

With an apple-shaped face and high cheekbones, Emilie was a teenager when a speech teacher talked her into appearing in a minor play. Later, someone at a party persuaded her to appear in another stage drama and the ball was rolling. For the stage, she assumed her maternal grandmother’s maiden name of Colbert, believing it would be easier to pronounce than Chauchoin.

After finishing with school, Claudette worked at a dress shop before signing a five-year contract with a theatrical producer. She was barely out of her teens when New Yorkers saw her in small roles in a number of now-forgotten plays. The most successful of these was The Barker, a carnival drama in which Colbert played an alluring young snake charmer. The show was successful enough to travel to London’s prestigious West End and Colbert went along with it. When she returned to New York, a theatrical producer recommended her for a part in Frank Capra’s 1927 silent dramatic film For the Love of Mike, a financial failure that is now considered lost.

Colbert was so embittered by the experience that she vowed “I shall never make another film.” Of course, she did; within two years, Hollywood was adapting to sound and directors were desperate for performers who looked good and spoke well. Paramount found Claudette was not only lovely but also gifted, with a musical inflection and a relaxed elegance.

The studio immediately starred her opposite David Newell and Edward G. Robinson (playing his first gangster role) in A Hole in the Wall, the story of a woman who is sent to prison on a false charge and gets revenge by turning her daughter into a thief. From there, she went on to co-star with Walter Huston in The Lady Lies, the story of a wealthy widower whose children disapprove of the women with whom he spends his time.

Now on her way to stardom, Colbert became self-conscious about the way cameras portrayed her. She believed her face was difficult to light and photograph and insisted that directors avoid close-ups of her right side, due to what she maintained was a bump on her nose from a childhood injury. Although she insisted her demand was based on “professionalism, not vanity,” one film historian reported that at least once it was necessary to rebuild sets to accommodate the newly required camera angles.

At first, Paramount was unaware of Colbert’s flair for comedy, so they paired her with twice with dramatic star Fredric March, in 1930’s Manslaughter and the 1931 drama-romance Honor Among Lovers. She finally got to show off that flair in Ernst Lubitsch’s musical farce The Smiling Lieutenant. As an amorous cabaret singer, she stole the show from respected actress Miriam Hopkins (to whom she sang “Jazz Up Your Lingerie”) and leading man Maurice Chevalier.

From then on Colbert averaged about four pictures a year, making all sorts of films because she could do it all. It helped that in addition to talent, Colbert had class — whether playing a society girl or a fallen woman, her characters displayed a dignity that caused you to root for them. She could breathe life into wealthy characters, at a time when Hollywood generally showed well-bred women as snobbish, callow or indifferent.

She promoted her classy image by seeking parts with numerous costume changes, to the envy of females from teenagers to matrons. Not only were her characters often smarter than the men, she expressed her intelligence with such grace that male audiences loved it.

Eventually, Claudette the businesswoman renegotiated her Paramount contract so that she could cross over to any rival studio that had an interesting property. All the while, she kept her private life so private that most of what we know about her is up on the screen.

Colbert’s star rose even further in 1932 when she passed celebrated director Cecil B. DeMille one day on the Paramount lot. DeMille, whose pictures had become synonymous with spectacle, was casting his Roman epic The Sign of the Cross and looking for an actress to play Poppaea, the seductive, manipulative wife of Nero. When DeMille saw Colbert walking by, he introduced himself by calling out, “How would you like to play the wickedest woman in the world?”

“I’d love to,” Colbert replied.

In the film’s most famous scene, she takes a luxurious milk bath, as Nero’s wife reportedly did. It’s a testament to Colbert’s acting that she could look as though she was enjoying herself, even though the shoot itself involved Colbert spending two days (apparently nude) sitting in a marble pool of increasingly smelly powdered milk.

Inspired by the film’s historical context, Paramount pitched it toward students and churchgoers. Regrettably, Catholic Church officials were outraged, so much so that they created the Catholic Legion of Decency in response — which, in turn, led to the creation of the strict 1934 Production Code. As a result, when the film was re-released in 1938, several scenes from the original film were deleted. (They were later restored for home video release.) Despite the controversy, the epic became one of Colbert’s biggest box-office hits.

Naturally, DeMille had no one else in mind for his 1934 extravaganza about history’s most famous flirt, Cleopatra. (Catholic Legion of Decency rating: objectionable in spots, not suitable for children.) To modern audiences, the film’s opulence and excess (some of which is still stunning) might risk overshadowing Colbert’s performance. However, her portrayal brings out the Egyptian queen’s inner life, from coldness, calculation and manipulation to — eventually — loving warmth.

Looking back, 1934 was not only Colbert’s best year in movies, it’s hard to imagine anyone having a more successful one. The year actually began with DeMille taking Colbert in the opposite direction of Cleopatra — both in terms of character and geography — for Four Frightened People. Filmed on location in Hawaii, the film features Colbert as a mild-mannered geography teacher, trapped in a jungle with three fellow passengers (Mary Boland, William Gargan and Herbert Marshall) who have escaped a plague-ridden ship.

That same year, Universal put Colbert in Imitation of Life. Although just past thirty, Colbert played the unglamorous role of a widow raising a teenaged daughter (Rochelle Hudson) who takes in an African-American mother and daughter (Louise Beavers and Fredi Washington) and partners with the mother to manufacture and sell a pancake batter mix. The film was well-received, although the racial issues it examined (such as Washington’s character denying her heritage in favor of “passing” for white) often got more attention than the acting.

That wasn’t the case with Colbert’s fourth film of 1934 — and against all odds, it turned out to be the best and biggest one of all. Originally, Colbert wanted no part of It Happened One Night, the story of a runaway heiress who disappears and the reporter who tracks her down. She thought director Frank Capra had bungled For the Love of Mike; for his part, Capra was hoping Columbia Pictures would land someone else.

The fact was, however, there were no other suitable actresses left; Miriam Hopkins, Loretta Young, Myrna Loy, Margaret Sullavan, and Constance Bennett had already rejected the original version of the screenplay. Finally, Colbert signed up after Columbia agreed to double her salary (to $50,000) and Capra promised she’d be done after four weeks of shooting.

The filming itself was a tense experience; co-star Clark Gable reportedly showed up on the set muttering “Let’s get this over with,” while Capra recalled Colbert “had many little tantrums.” She balked at undressing (hence the famous “Walls of Jericho” scene) and refused to show her leg in the hitch-hiking scene. Capra brought in a chorus girl for the shot, at which point Colbert cried out, “That’s not my leg!” So she smiled for the camera, raised her skirt and went home after four weeks, telling friends “I’ve just finished the worst picture in the world!”

Then an amazing thing happened: The film that no one had enjoyed making became a hit and wowed audiences across the country. Colbert hadn’t changed her opinion of the film even after her performance was nominated for an Oscar; in fact, she was so certain that Bette Davis would win for Best Actress that she decided to leave town rather than attend the ceremony.

A Columbia rep tracked her down at the train station and brought her back to pick up her Academy Award. Before the night was over, It Happened One Night had made a clean sweep, winning for best picture, best actress, best actor, best director, and even best adapted screenplay.

By 1935, Claudette was ranked sixth among Hollywood’s top money-makers, and was nominated for a second Academy Award for Private Worlds, playing a doctor in a mental hospital. This time, she lost to Bette Davis for Dangerous.

From then on Colbert carefully sculpted her career. As she once said, “I know what’s best for me — after all, I have been in the Claudette Colbert business longer than anybody.” Part of that career navigation was consciously choosing a balance of comedies and dramas, in effect creating and sustaining two overlapping audiences for herself. Ever protective of her image as she got older, she insisted on her own cameraman for the 1937 film Tovarich, offering to relinquish her salary if it made the picture go over budget.

Filmgoers enjoyed her chemistry with Fred MacMurray in 1935’s The Gilded Lily, in which she played a stenographer-turned-performer. Before the decade was done, she had played a doomed cafe singer in the Foreign Legion drama Under Two Flags, a Russian emigre in the delightful Tovarich, a glamorous music hall singer in Zaza and a slightly goofy poet (kidnapped by detective James Stewart) in It’s a Wonderful World. In Ernst Lubitsch’s comedy Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife, Colbert slaps Gary Cooper so hard that she stuns him. Later in the film she knocks down David Niven, all while remaining utterly feminine.

The year 1939 is considered to be Hollywood’s best ever; that year, Colbert made one of her best comedies, the delightful Midnight. For this film, she plays a showgirl who arrives in Paris flat broke. Her frequent co-star Don Ameche played the cab driver who helps her out and the legendary John Barrymore appeared as a millionaire who hires her to break up his wife’s extracurricular romance.

That same year saw Colbert and Henry Fonda in the Revolutionary War drama Drums Along the Mohawk. The absence of chemistry between the two stars was intentional, with Fonda playing a farmer who marries a woman from a higher station. Audiences were thrilled, but Colbert disliked the way she looked in Technicolor and resolved to appear only in black-and-white films from then on.

By this time, Colbert had established herself as the highest-paid actress in Hollywood. Knowing her worth, she declined a Paramount contract renewal in 1940, deciding she could make more per picture as a freelancer. One of her first films under this arrangement was MGM’s Boom Town, the highest grossing film of 1940. Of course, it helped that Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy and Hedy Lamarr were in it as well. That same year saw her team with Ray Milland in the film that Colbert recalled as her favorite, the wartime romance Arise My Love.

Maverick writer-director Preston Sturges (who specialized in knock-about farce) was late in admiring Colbert, but once he realized her gift for comedy he asked her to star in 1942’s The Palm Beach Story. The story concerns a wife who loves her husband (Joel McCrea) so much that she plans to divorce him temporarily so that she can use her wiles to persuade a suitor to invest in her ex-hubby’s grand venture, and then re-marry him. As if this weren’t crazy enough, Sturges starts with what may be the screwiest opening of any film, something beyond wacky that you have to see for yourself.

By now she was familiar even to people who never went to the movies, thanks to radio: On two dozen occasions, she brought her velvety contralto speaking voice to the Lux Radio Theater. Several of these appearances involved adaptations of her more popular films (including It Happened One Night and Midnight); just as often, however, she was pinch-hitting for the likes of Katharine Hepburn (in Alice Adams), Irene Dunne (in The Awful Truth) and Carole Lombard (in Hands Across the Table). She also appeared on air with comedians Jack Benny, Bob Hope and Bergen and McCarthy, her upscale demeanor making her a marvelous foil for their comically crass advances.

With America’s entry into World War II, fluffy comedies were out of fashion. Colbert took part in the war effort (many of her radio appearances during this period involved promoting bond drives) and headlined the grim 1943 drama So Proudly We Hail, about nurses left behind after the fall of Bataan.

The next year, however, famed producer David Selznick had to talk her into playing the mother of two teenagers in Since You Went Away, the story of a family’s adjustments to life during wartime while the father (Joseph Cotten) goes into the service. Though she was more than 40 years old at the time, Colbert was sure the role would limit her in the future. That didn’t stop Since You Went Away from becoming the year’s third highest-grossing motion picture, while Colbert’s performance nabbed her another Oscar nomination.

For all of her dramatic accomplishments during the war, it was clear that moviegoers missed seeing Colbert in comedies. She gave them what they wanted, co-starring with MacMurray in 1944’s Practically Yours, with Ameche in 1945’s Guest Wife and opposite — of all people — John Wayne in 1946’s Without Reservations.

In 1947, Colbert ranked among Hollywood’s ten highest-grossing stars — thanks in part to The Egg and I, a fictional treatment of Betty MacDonald’s best-selling account of a city couple who move to a chicken farm in the country. One of the funniest scenes involves Claudette’s Betty trying to get out of a mud puddle while her oblivious husband (Fred MacMurray) chats with an impeccably dressed, attractive blonde neighbor.

As the 1940s went on, Colbert still had star power but was becoming rather mature for romantic comedies. That didn’t stop her from appearing in such trifles as Family Honeymoon (her seventh and final pairing with MacMurray) and Bride For Sale, but she also began to spend more time in melodramas, beginning with 1946’s Tomorrow is Forever. For this tear-jerker, Colbert plays a woman who gets word that her husband (Orson Welles) has been killed in battle during World War I. Twenty years later, after she has remarried, he returns with a changed face. During the course of filming, esteemed director Jean Louis provided her with eighteen changes of costume!

Although Colbert was top-billed in The Secret Heart, MGM’s 1946 Christmas release (and another box-office hit), she wasn’t essential to the plot. The story really centers around the anguish of her step-daughter (June Allyson) following her father’s suicide. Less commercially successful was a rare foray into mystery, Sleep My Love, directed by the legendary Douglas Sirk. For this neo-noir, Colbert plays a sleepwalker whose husband (the usually easy-going Don Ameche) takes part in a plot to convince her to kill herself.

The 1950s started strong for Colbert with the release of Three Came Home. Based on a true story, Colbert plays an American woman held captive in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. Colbert threw herself into the part so thoroughly that she injured her back in one scene (which was later deleted). The result was losing out on what she believed would be the role of a lifetime — veteran actress Margo Channing in All About Eve. (The part went to Bette Davis, who proved it was the role of a lifetime.) Upon recovering, Colbert used her dramatic skill in Thunder on the Hill as a nun trying to free a young woman who has been convicted of murder.

Although Colbert never had any children, she played a mother on more than one occasion; still, fans must have been surprised to see her play a grandmother (albeit a glamorous one) in the 1951 farce Let’s Make it Legal, the story of a woman whose plans to divorce her husband (MacDonald Carey) hit a bump when an old flame (Zachary Scott) comes to town. Reviewers said the film came alive only when she was on the screen — no mean feat when a young Marilyn Monroe was sixth-billed.

By the mid-1950s, interesting movie scripts were arriving less frequently, although she did travel to France for a small part in director Sacha Guitry’s historical drama Royal Affairs in Versailles. Like a lot of movie stars entering their fifties, Colbert turned to television, making guest appearances on everything from The Best of Broadway to Playhouse 90 to Zane Grey Theater. She even appeared with playwright/actor Noel Coward and Lauren Bacall in a television production of Coward’s play Blithe Spirit.

After playing Troy Donahue’s mother in the 1961 film Parrish, Colbert turned away from Hollywood and back to the stage. She starred in a handful of Broadway plays, including The Marriage-Go-Round (with Charles Boyer), The Irregular Verb to Love (with Cyril Ritchard) and a revival of the drawing room comedy Aren’t We All? with Rex Harrison. “Audiences always sound like they’re glad to see me,” she told one interviewer of her stage work, “and I’m damned glad to see them.”

Colbert was even coaxed back to television in 1987, winning a Golden Globe Award for her performance in The Two Mrs. Grenvilles, a miniseries based on the Dominick Dunne novel. From then on, Colbert retired to Barbados with a housekeeper and two cooks. She suffered a series of small strokes in the 1990s and died in 1996.

Near the end of her life, Claudette Colbert was asked why she’d never written an autobiography. She replied, “I’ve been happy, and that’s no story.” In fact, it’s one of the best stories of all. Look over her body of work and marvel at how many of her performances — be they in comedies, solid dramas, or melodramatic weepers — remain fresh today. Her performances are rightly hailed decades later for her exquisite timing, her natural allure, her relaxed performing style... but most of all for her class.


Tune in to Those Were the Days on March 11 to hear Claudette Colbert in radio adaptations of five of her most famous films.

 

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