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Claudette Colbert - a Biography

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Claudette Colbert

Cleopatra

Paramount

Claudette Colbert - Hollywood Legend:

Glamorous, beautiful and sophisticated, Claudette Colbert enchanted audiences for nearly 60 years and became a true Hollywood legend.

Her career encompassed film, theater, and television. As a young woman, she moved easily from stage to film, and by 1938, she was the highest-paid film star in Hollywood. Though Colbert began her career at Paramount, she later free-lanced, a bold move unusual for the time. She left behind a legacy of wonderful movies, particularly charming screwball comedies, including It Happened One Night (1934), Midnight (1939), and The Palm Beach Story (1942).

The Early Years:

Born Émilie Chauchoinin Saint-Mandé, France on September 13, 1903, Claudette Colbert was raised in New York City. She began acting on Broadway in the 1920s, adopting "Claudette Colbert" as a stage name. Film agent Leland Hayward discovered her on stage, and she won a role in a Frank Capra film, For the Love of Mike (1927), her only silent movie. Her first sound film was A Hole in the Wall (1929) co-starring Edward J. Robinson.

She received good reviews for the next few years, appearing in 22 films, including The sign of the Cross (1932), I Cover the Waterfront (1933), and Torch Singer (1933).

It wasn't until 1934 that Colbert hit the jackpot. She appeared in three of the four Academy Award-nominated films for Best Picture that year: Cecil B. DeMille's blockbuster Cleopatra, Imitation of Life, and It Happened One Night, her most-remembered film.

Superstardom

Before Colbert was cast in It Happened One Night, several other actresses, including Myrna Loy and Constance Bennett, turned it down. Colbert herself felt the script was weak, but Columbia Studios met her demands: the princely sum of $50,000, with filming completed in four weeks so that she could take a vacation she had already scheduled.

It Happened One Night contains the iconic scene of Colbert showing her leg in order to attract a ride. Originally, a body double was used, but on viewing the rushes, Colbert objected, saying, "That's not my leg!" Another iconic scene, the "Walls of Jericho" the sheet that Gable puts up between their double beds - was actually done by director Frank Capra because Colbert refused to undress in front of the camera.

Colbert won the Academy Award for Best Actress for her role. However, she did not attend the ceremony, believing that Bette Davis would win for Of Human Bondage; she had to be summoned from a train station to get her award. Many years later, she explained her unenthusiastic feelings about the film: "It was right in the middle of the Depression. People needed fantasy, they needed splendor and glamor...And here we were, looking a little seedy and riding on our bus."

In 1935, the Academy Awards honored her again with another nomination, for Private Worlds.

A Diva's Savvy Demands:

Colbert was able to renegotiate her contract for a healthy salary raise, and by 1938, she was the highest paid star in Hollywood with a salary of $426,924.

The actress' tremendous stardom allowed her more control over her films, particularly in the way she was photographed.

She would only be photographed from the left side, and would not commence filming until she was sure the lighting showed her to advantage. During the filming of Tovarich (1937), when a favorite cameraman was fired, Colbert became displeased with the way she looked in the rushes. She hired her own cameraman and promised to waive her salary should the film run over budget. When she saw herself in her first color film, Drums Along the Mohawk (1939), she decided that she didn't look good, and in the future asked to be photographed in black and white.

In 1940, Colbert turned down a seven-year contract for $200,000 a year, realizing that she could make $150,000 per film on her own. Her brother became her manager; among the films she made in the 1940s were Boom Town (1940), Arise, My Love (1940), The Palm Beach Story (1942), So Proudly We Hail (1943), Since You Went Away (1944) and Tomorrow is Forever (1946). For Since You Went Away, David O. Selznick had to persuade her to take a role as the mother of teenagers. Several sets had to be rebuilt to accommodate her demand of being filmed only on the left side. It paid off; she received another Academy Award nomination.

However, her demands were too great for Capra, whose refusal to accede to her requests cost her the lead role in State of the Union with Spencer Tracy. She also lost the role of Margo Channing in All About Eve (1950), due to a back injury. Colbert so regretted relinquishing the role, which went to Bette Davis, that she said she wished that she could have done it, "even in a wheelchair."

Film Career in Decline:

Now in her late forties, like most lead actresses, Colbert saw the roles offered lessen, along with the quality of the films. She commented later that Bette Davis was smart to play character roles early in her career before she was truly old enough; it gave her a longevity in movies. Colbert turned to not only television but went back to the theater in Janus (1956) and The Marriage Go Round (1958). Her last film was Parrish in 1961.

She continued to perform on Broadway and in London in such plays as The Irregular Verb to Love (1963), The Kingfisher (1978), A Talent for Murder (1981) and Aren't We all? (1985). In 1987, Colbert played Elsie Grenville in a TV miniseries, The Two Mrs. Grenvilles; people who knew the real Elsie Grenville marveled at the accuracy of Colbert's portrayal. She won a Golden Globe award. She returned to the theater after the filming.

Claudette Colbert's Personal Life:

Colbert was married to actor-director Norman Foster from 1928 until 1935. After divorcing Foster in 1935, the actress married Dr. Joel Pressman, a UCLA surgeon. Pressman died in 1968. Colbert never remarried.

In her later years, Colbert divided her time between her Barbados home and a Manhattan apartment, but she moved permanently to Barbados in 1993 after a series of strokes. She died there on July 30, 1996. She was 92. She is buried in Barbados.

Claudette Colbert - The Bottom Line:

Today Claudette Colbert is renowned for her versatility, comedic timing, beauty, and her tremendous discipline. She always knew what was best for her, and was never afraid to fight for it. She remains the only actress who starred in three Academy Award Best Picture nominees in the same year.

As delightful as she was in many films, she will forever be remembered for her indelible performance in It Happened One Night.

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