Claudette Colbert was a French-born American stage and film actress.
Born in Saint-Mandé, France and raised in New York City, Colbert began her career in Broadway productions during the 1920s, progressing to film with the advent of talking pictures. She established a successful film career with Paramount Pictures and as a freelance performer became one of the highest paid entertainers in American cinema. Colbert was recognized as one of the leading female exponents of screwball comedy, but was also known for her versatility; she won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her comedic performance in It Happened One Night (1934), and also received Academy Award nominations for her dramatic roles in Private Worlds (1935) and Since You Went Away (1944).
Her film career began to decline in the 1950s, and she made her last film in 1961. She continued to act in theater and television, achieving success in each medium during her later years. After a career of more than 60 years, Colbert retired to her home in Barbados, where she died at the age of 92, following a series of strokes.
Colbert received lifetime achievement awards from the Sarah Siddons Society and Kennedy Center Honors, and in 1999, the American Film Institute placed her at number 12 on their "AFI's 100 Years... 100 Stars" list of the "50 Greatest American Screen Legends".
Émilie Chauchoin was born in Saint-Mandé, Seine, France, to Georges Claude, a banker, and Jeanne Loew Chauchoin, a pastry-cook. After some financial reverses, her family emigrated to New York City in 1906. Colbert eventually became a naturalized citizen of the U.S.
Colbert studied at Washington Irving High School, where her speech teacher, Alice Rossetter helped her overcome a slight lisp. Rossetter encouraged her to audition for a play she had written, and Colbert made her stage debut at the Provincetown Playhouse in The Widow's Veil, at the age of fifteen.
She then attended the Art Students League of New York and worked as a stenographer, a salesclerk in women's' clothing, and a tutor in order to pay her expenses. She intended to become a fashion designer but after she attended a party with the playwright Anne Morrison she was offered a three-line role in Morrison's new play. She appeared on the Broadway stage in a small role in The Wild Westcotts (1923). Inspired to pursue a career in theater, Colbert ended her studies and embarked on a stage career in 1925. She adopted the name "Claudette Colbert" as her stage name two years later; she had been using the name of Claudette since high school, and Colbert was the maiden name of her maternal grandmother.
After signing a five-year contract with the producer Al Woods, Colbert played ingenue roles on Broadway from 1925 through 1929. During her early years on stage, she fought against being typecast as a maid, and received critical acclaim on Broadway in the production of The Barker (1927), playing a carnival snake charmer, a role she reprised for the play's run in London's West End.
See Naples and Die and Eugene O'Neill's Dynamo (1929) were unsuccessful, however she was noticed by the theatrical producer, Leland Hayward, who suggested her for a role in Frank Capra's silent film For the Love of Mike (1927), now believed to be a lost film. The film, Colbert's only silent film role, was a box office failure.
Early Film Career
She appeared in the French language, Mysterious Mr. Parkes, one of the few foreign language films of the time to be widely screened in the United States, and was also cast in The Big Pond. The latter was filmed in both French and English, and Colbert's fluency in both languages was a key consideration in her casting. She appeared opposite Maurice Chevalier, who commented of her, "She was lovely, brunette, talented and a delicious comedienne, and her English was perfect." While these films were popular with audiences, one of her films from this period, Young Man of Manhattan, her only collaboration with her then husband, Norman Foster, was criticized by Picturegoer magazine. The magazine criticized Foster's performance and noted him as one of Colbert's weakest leading men, writing, "He did not seem to get any sincerity into his love scenes."
She co-starred with Fredric March in Manslaughter (1930), and received positive reviews for her performance as a rich girl, jailed for manslaughter. The New York Times wrote, "It cannot be denied that Claudette Colbert – given an even chance – is capable of excellent acting." She was briefly paired with March, and they made four films together, including Dorothy Arzner's Honor Among Lovers (1931), which fared well at the box-office. She sang in her role opposite Maurice Chevalier in the Ernst Lubitsch musical The Smiling Lieutenant (1931), which was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture, and was acknowledged by critics for her ability to assert herself opposite the more experienced Miriam Hopkins
Cecil B. DeMille cast her as the Roman empress Poppaea in his historical epic, The Sign of the Cross (1932), opposite Fredric March. In one sequence, Colbert bathes in a marble pool filled with asses' milk, a scene that came to be regarded as an example of Hollywood decadence prior to the enforcement of the Production Code. Later the same year she played in The Phantom President, which was one of Paramount's biggest failures of the year. Other successes of this period included Tonight Is Ours (1933) with Fredric March and Torch Singer (1933), with Ricardo Cortez. In 1933, Colbert renegotiated her contract with Paramount to allow her to appear in films for other studios. However, Cecil B. DeMille's Four Frightened People (1934) failed to find a substantial audience.
During 1934, Colbert's film career flourished. Of the four films she made that year, three of them – the historial biography, Cleopatra, the romantic drama, Imitation of Life and the screwball comedy, It Happened One Night were nominated for Academy Awards for Best Picture.
The film contained at least one scene that is often cited as representative of the screwball film genre and which became well known, even by people who had not seen the entire film. Stranded in the countryside, Colbert demonstrates to an astonished Gable how to hitchhike by displaying her leg. Colbert won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her role. The film was the first to sweep all five major Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor, and was a resounding box-office success. In later life, Colbert reflected upon her misgivings about the film and her lack of confidence when it was completed, commenting, "I left wondering how the movie would be received. It was right in the middle of the Depression. People needed fantasy, they needed splendor and glamour, and Hollywood gave it to them. And here we were, looking a little seedy and riding on our bus".
Colbert's success allowed her to renegotiate her contract, raising her salary. In 1935 and 1936, she was listed in the annual "Quigley Poll of the Top Ten Money Making Stars", which was compiled from the votes of movie exhibitors throughout the U.S. for the stars that had generated the most revenue in their theaters over the previous year.
She received a second Academy Award nomination for her role in the hospital drama, Private Worlds (1935).
In 1936, she signed a new contract with Paramount Pictures, which required her to make seven films over a two year period, and this contract made her Hollywood's highest paid actress. This was followed by a contract renewal in 1938, after which she was reported to be the highest paid performer in Hollywood with a salary of $426,924. Her films during this period include The Gilded Lily (1935) and The Bride Comes Home (1935) with Fred MacMurray, She Married Her Boss (1935), with Melvyn Douglas, Under Two Flags (1936), with Ronald Colman, Maid of Salem (1937), again with MacMurray, Tovarich (1937), with Charles Boyer, Bluebeard's Eighth Wife (1938), with Gary Cooper, Zaza (1939), with Herbert Marshall, Midnight (1939), with Don Ameche and It's a Wonderful World (1939), with James Stewart.
During this time she began acting for CBS' popular Lux Radio Theater, making numerous appearances between 1935 and 1954.
Later film career
In 1940, Colbert refused a seven-year contract that would have paid her $200,000 a year, as she had found that she could command a fee of $150,000 per film as a free-lance artist. With her brother as her manager, Colbert was able to secure roles in prestigious films, and this period marked the height of her earning ability.
Colbert's film career continued successfully into the 1940s, in films such as Boom Town (1940), with Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy and Hedy Lamarr, and Arise, My Love (1940), with Ray Milland. Her performance in the 1942 Preston Sturges comedy, The Palm Beach Story, opposite Joel McCrea was a box-office success.
Impressed by her performance in this film, but aware of Colbert's sensitivity, David O. Selznick approached her to play the lead role in Since You Went Away (1944). She balked at the prospect of playing a mother of teenaged children, but Selznick believed that she was the best candidate for the role, and valued her marketability, commenting that "even light little comedies with her have never done under a million and a half." Eventually, Colbert accepted.
The director, John Cromwell, later noted that Colbert was "level headed, very professional and with no temperament", but Selznick expressed frustration with some of her demands. He wrote in a memo to Colbert's agent that they had rebuilt several sets "because of her refusal to have the right side of her face photographed, on top of which we have to pay her not only a fabulous salary, but also give her two days off a month, which works out to $5000 every four weeks for doing absolutely nothing, and now she's demanding three.... Tell her there's a war on and we all have to make some sacrifices."
Released in June 1944, the film became a substantial success and grossed almost 5 million dollars in the United States. The critic James Agee praised aspects of the film, but particularly Colbert's performance, writing "Selznick has given Claudette Colbert the richest, biggest role of her career. She rewards him consistently with smooth Hollywood formula acting, and sometimes – in collaboration with Mr. (Joseph) Cotten – with flashes of acting that are warmer and more mature." Colbert received her final Academy Award nomination for this performance.
In 1945, Colbert ended her association with Paramount Studios, and continued to free-lance in such films as Guest Wife (1945), with Don Ameche. RKO Studios hired her to appear opposite John Wayne in Without Reservations (1946), with a storyline and setting intentionally inspired by It Happened One Night, however it failed to recoup its high production costs. Nonetheless, the overall popularity of Colbert's films during 1946 led to her making a final appearance in the "Quigley Poll of the Top Ten Money Making Stars".She achieved her last great success opposite Fred MacMurray in the comedy The Egg and I (1947). The film was one of the year's biggest hits, and was later acknowledged as the 12th most profitable American film of the 1940s. Her subsequent films failed to capitalize on her renewed success, with the exception of the suspense film Sleep, My Love (1948) with Robert Cummings.
In 1949, Joseph L. Mankiewicz wrote the part of Margo Channing in All About Eve for Colbert, feeling that she best represented the style of the older actress he envisioned for the part. Mankiewicz admired her "sly wit and sense of class" and felt that she would play the part as an "elegant drunk", who would easily win the support of the audience. Colbert was enthusiastic about the role, and after a succession of noble roles, relished the prospect of playing what she described as a more "feline" character. Before production started, Colbert severely injured her back, while filming a scene for Three Came Home, and although 20th Century Fox postponed the production of All About Eve for two months while she convalesced, she was still not fit enough to take the role and was replaced by Bette Davis. Years later, Mankiewicz commented that he still imagined how effectively Colbert would have embodied the role, and how greatly her portrayal would have differed from Davis's. Colbert described her loss of the role as one of her great regrets, and said that she wished she could have played the role, even if it had been "in a wheelchair".
Her films of this period received mixed reception. The RKO comedy Bride for Sale, in which Colbert was part of a love triangle that included George Brent and Robert Young, was well reviewed and modestly successful. The Secret Fury (1950), also for RKO, was a mystery melodrama that was widely panned, with one critic commenting that Colbert and her co-star Robert Ryan "wandered through the film like two abandoned children in search of their father".
Decline of film career
In the early 1950s, Colbert traveled to Europe and began making fewer films. In 1954, after a successful appearance in a television version of The Royal Family, she began acting in various teleplays. From 1954 to 1960, she appeared in the television adaptations of Blithe Spirit in 1956 and The Bells of St. Mary's in 1959. She also guest starred on Robert Montgomery Presents, Playhouse 90, and Zane Grey Theater.
In 1958, she returned to Broadway in The Marriage-Go-Round, for which she was nominated for a Best Actress Tony Award.
By 1955 she had stopped making films, although returned to the screen in Parrish (1961) for Warner Brothers. When the film was released, most of the studio publicity was in support of the young male lead Troy Donahue, who was being groomed by the studio. Colbert, playing the supporting role of Donahue's mother, received little attention, and the film was not a success. She never made another film although the press occasionally referred to upcoming projects that did not exist. Embarrassed, Colbert instructed her agent to stop his attempts to generate interest in her as a film actress. In the late 1960s, a reporter asked her why she had made no more films, to which she replied, "Because there have been no offers."
Her occasional acting ventures were limited to theater and included The Irregular Verb to Love (1963); The Kingfisher (1978) in which she co-starred with Rex Harrison, and Frederick Lonsdale's Aren't We All? (1985).
In 1987, Colbert appeared in a supporting role in the television miniseries The Two Mrs. Grenvilles. The production was a ratings success and was nominated for several awards. Colbert won a Golden Globe and received a nomination for an Emmy Award. This marked her final performance on film, however she continued to act in theater.
In 1928, Colbert married Norman Foster, an actor and director, who appeared with Colbert in the Broadway show The Barker. However, she and her first husband lived apart, never sharing a home together in Hollywood. They divorced in 1935, and in December of that year, Colbert married Dr. Joel Pressman, a surgeon at UCLA.The marriage lasted 33 years, until Pressman's death of liver cancer in 1968.
Colbert had one brother, Charles (1898-1971), who used the surname Wendling and served as her agent and business manager for a time He is credited with negotiating some of her more lucrative contracts in the late 1930s and early 1940s
Colbert was a staunch Republican and conservative.
For years, Colbert divided her time between her apartment in Manhattan and her summer home in Speightstown, Barbados. After suffering a series of strokes in 1993, she remained in her Barbados home, Belle-rive, where she died on July 30, 1996, at age 92. She was buried in the Parish of St. Peter Cemetery in Barbados. Colbert left no immediate family.
The bulk of Colbert's estate was left to a friend, Helen O'Hagan, a retired director of corporate relations at Saks Fifth Avenue, whom Colbert had met in 1961 on the set of the her last film and who cared for Colbert following her 1993 strokes.
Colbert established one of the most successful film careers of any actress of her generation, and was considered a dependable and bankable star. Her status was reflected in her earnings as one of the best paid performers of the 1930s and 1940s. Colbert once commented that she had sacrificed for the sake of her career.
In discussing Colbert's career, her contemporaries confirmed her drive. Irene Dunne commented that she had lacked Colbert's "terrifying ambition" and noted that if Colbert "finished work on a film on a Saturday, she would be looking for a new project by Monday". Hedda Hopper wrote that Colbert placed her career "ahead of everything save possibly her marriage", and described her as the "smartest and canniest" of Hollywood actresses, with a strong sense of what was best for her, and a "deep rooted desire to be in shape, efficient and under control".
Other actors admired Colbert's comic timing; David Niven related in his biography that Gary Cooper was "terrified" at the prospect of working with Colbert in his first comedy, Bluebeard's Eighth Wife because he considered Colbert to be an expert in the genre. The film gave Niven one of his first significant parts, and he wrote that Colbert took a nurturing role towards him and "was the soul of fun and a most generous performer," although he noted that her insistence that she be filmed only from her right side created difficulties for the cameramen. Her fastidious attitude in this regard became well known, with Doris Day quoted as saying, "God wasted half a face on Claudette". During her heyday, film technicians described the right side of her face as "the dark side of the moon." In a 1930s interview Constance Bennett replied to questions about her own demands, with the comment that Colbert's idiosyncrasies were far more excessive, but Bennett acknowledged that it was an integral part of Colbert's success. Colbert was also generally respected for her professionalism, with the New York Times stating that she was known for giving "110 percent" to any project she worked on, and she was also highly regarded for learning the technical aspects of studio lighting and cinematography that allowed her to maintain a distinctive film image. In her biography, Myrna Loy stated that Colbert, along with Joan Crawford, "knew more about lighting than the experts did."
Modern critics and film historians note that Colbert demonstrated versatility throughout her career, and played characters that ranged from vamps to housewives, and that encompassed screwball comedy and drama. Pauline Kael wrote that Colbert was widely admired by American audiences from the time of It Happened One Night because she represented "Americans' idealized view of themselves — breezy, likable, sexy, gallant and maybe just a little hare-brained."
She found it difficult to make the transition to playing more mature characters as she approached middle-age and expressed her admiration for Bette Davis, saying that she had been able to make the transition more easily because she had shrewdly played character roles as a young woman. The writer A. Scott Berg described Colbert as one of Paramount Studio's greatest assets as she had "proved deft in all genres" and had "helped define femininity for her generation with her chic manner."
She was praised for her sense of style and awareness of fashion, and she ensured throughout her career, that she was impeccably groomed and costumed. Such was the importance she placed upon costuming, that for the 1946 melodrama, Tomorrow is Forever, Jean Louis was hired to create eighteen changes of wardrobe for her.
When she received a Kennedy Center Honor, her fashion sense was referred to with a quotation from Jeanie Basinger in The International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers: "[Her] glamour is the sort that women attain for themselves by using their intelligence to create a timeless personal style."The writer A. Scott Berg described Colbert as one of Paramount Studio's greatest assets as she had "proved deft in all genres" and had "helped define femininity for her generation with her chic manner."
Colbert is cited as a leading female exponent of screwball comedy, along with such actresses as Carole Lombard, Myrna Loy, Rosalind Russell, Irene Dunne and Jean Arthur. In her comedy films, she invariably played shrewd and self reliant women, but unlike many of her contemporaries, Colbert rarely engaged in physical comedy, with her characters more likely to be observers and commentators.