Nationality: American. Born: Claudette Lily Chauchoin in Paris, France, 13 September 1903. Education: Attended Washington Irving High School, New York, graduated 1923; studied briefly at Art Students League, New York. Family: Married 1) the actor Norman
For the Love of Mike (Capra) (as Mary)
The Hole in the Wall (Florey) (as Jean Oliver); The Lady Lies (Henley) (as Joyce Roamer)
The Big Pond (Henley) (as Barbara Billings); La Grande Mare (Henley—French version of The Big Pond ); Young Man of Manhattan (Bell) (as Ann Vaughn); Manslaughter (Abbott) (as Lydia Thorne); L'Enigmatique Monsieur Parkes (Gasnier—French version of Slightly Scarlet ) (as Lucy de Stavrin)
Honor among Lovers (Arzner) (as Julia Traynor); The Smiling Lieutenant (Lubitsch) (as Franzi); Le Lieutenant souriant (Lubitsch—French version of The Smiling Lieutenant ); Secrets of a Secretary (Abbott) (as Helen Blake); His Woman (Sloman) (as Sally Clark)
The Wiser Sex (Viertel) (as Margaret Hughes); The Misleading Lady (Walker) (as Helen Steele); The Man from Yesterday (Viertel) (as Sylvia Suffolk); Phantom President (Taurog) (as Felicia Hammond); The Sign of the Cross (Cecil B. DeMille) (as Empress Poppaea); Make Me a Star (Beaudine) (as guest star)
Tonight Is Ours (Walker) (as Princess Nadja); I Cover the Waterfront (Cruze) (as Julie Kirk); Three-Cornered Moon (Nugent) (as Elizabeth Rimplegar); Torch Singer ( Broadway Singer ) (Hall and Somnes) (as Sally Trent/Mimi Barton)
Four Frightened People (Cecil B. DeMille) (as Judy Cavendish); It Happened One Night (Capra) (as Ellie Andrews); Cleopatra (Cecil B. DeMille) (title role); Imitation of Life (Stahl) (as Beatrice Pullman)
The Gilded Lily (Ruggles) (as Lillian David); Private Worlds (La Cava) (as Dr. Jane Everest); She Married Her Boss (La Cava) (as Julia Scott); The Bride Comes Home (Ruggles) (as Jeanette Desmereau)
Under Two Flags (Lloyd) (as Cigarette)
Maid of Salem (Lloyd) (as Barbara Clarke); I Met Him in Paris (Ruggles) (as Kay Denham); Tovarich (Litvak) (as Grand Duchess Tatiana Petrovna)
Bluebeard's Eighth Wife (Lubitsch) (as Nicole de Loiselle)
Zaza (Cukor) (title role); Midnight (Leisen) (as Eve Peabody/"Baroness Czerny"); It's a Wonderful World (Van Dyke) (as Edwina Corday); Drums along the Mohawk (Ford) (as Lana "Magdelana" Martin)
Boom Town (Conway) (as Betsy Bartlett); Arise My Love (Leisen) (as Augusta Nash)
Skylark (Sandrich) (as Lydia Kenyon); Remember the Day (Henry King) (as Nora Trinell)
The Palm Beach Story (Preston Sturges) (as Gerry Jeffers); Hedda Hopper's Hollywood No. 6
So Proudly We Hail (Sandrich) (as Lt. Janet Davidson); No Time for Love (Leisen) (as Katherine Grant)
Since You Went Away (Cromwell) (as Anne Hilton); Practically Yours (Leisen) (as Peggy Martin)
Guest Wife (Wood) (as Mary)
Tomorrow Is Forever (Pichel) (as Elizabeth MacDonald Hamilton); Without Reservations (LeRoy) (as Christopher "Kit" Madden); The Secret Heart (Leonard) (as Lee Addams)
The Egg and I (Erskine) (as Betty MacDonald)
Sleep, My Love (Sirk) (as Alison Courtland); Family Honeymoon (Binyon) (as Katie Armstrong Jordan)
Bride for Sale (William D. Russell) (as Nora Shelly)
Three Came Home (Negulesco) (as Agnes Keith); The Secret Fury (Mel Ferrer) (as Ellen)
Thunder on the Hill ( Bonaventure ) (Sirk) (as Sister Mary Bonaventure); Let's Make It Legal (Sale) (as Miriam Halsworth)
The Planter's Wife ( Outpost in Malaya ) (Annakin) (as Liz Frazer)
Si Versailles m'était conté ( Affairs in Versailles ; Royal Affairs in Versailles ) (Guitry) (as Mme. de Montespan)
"Elizabeth" ep. of Destinées ( Daughters of Destiny ; Love, Soldiers and Women ; Lysistrata ) (Pagliero) (as Elizabeth I)
Texas Lady (Whelan) (as Prudence Webb)
Parrish (Daves) (as Ellen McLean)
Three Came Home (Negulesco—for TV)
Interview in Films (London), August 1984.
Everson, William K., Claudette Colbert , New York, 1976.
Quirk, Lawrence J., Claudette Colbert: An Illustrated Biography , New York, 1985.
Pacheco, Joseph B., Jr., "Claudette Colbert," in Films in Review (New York), May 1970.
Scott, Allan, "Claudette Colbert: Broadway Belle," in Close-Ups: The Movie Star Book , edited by Danny Peary, New York, 1978.
Shipman, David, in The Great Movie Stars: The Golden Years , rev. ed., London, 1979.
Harvey, S., "Legs," in Film Comment (New York), March/April 1984.
Sigal, Clancy, "Claudette in Control," in Listener (London), 26 April 1984.
National Film Theatre Booklet (London), July 1984.
Denby, David, "A Tale of Two Sillies," in Premiere (New York), June 1990.
Dudar, H., "Claudette Colbert Revels in a Happy, Starry Past," in New York Times , 27 October 1991.
"90th Birthday for Claudette Colbert," in New York Times , 15 September 1993.
Cohen, Meg, " It Happened One Night : Actress Claudette Colbert Reminisces on Film with Clark Gable," in Harper's Bazaar (New York), January 1994.
Obituary in EPD Film (Frankfurt), September 1996.
Obituary in Variety , 5 August 1996.
Obituary in Sight and Sound (London), March 1997.
* * *
Claudette Colbert is the epitome of Hollywood glamour, but not the glamour that comes bolstered by furs and feathers like Dietrich's or by mystery and aloneness like Garbo's. Colbert's glamour is the sort that women attain for themselves by using their intelligence to create a timeless personal style. It is an attainable kind of glamour, but only if one has the natural gifts of brains and beauty associated with Colbert.
Colbert is most often remembered for her expert comic timing, which was displayed in a series of screwball comedies she made throughout the 1930s and 1940s, chief among them her Academy Award-winning performance in Frank Capra's It Happened One Night . In that film, Colbert took out a patent on the runaway heiress character, and anyone else who played such a role did so in her shadow. All her comedies present her as a well-dressed modern woman who can handle any situation. Midnight opens on a rainy night in which a train pulls into a Paris station, bearing Colbert, asleep, in a third-class coach. She is without funds, without luggage, and without contacts, but she is nevertheless wearing a fabulous silver lamé evening gown. She wakes up, picks the straw out of her hair, and steps confidently out into the lousy weather, her wits sharp and her wardrobe up to whatever social advantage she can promote. This illustrates a typical Colbert comedy character—the woman of resource, humor, style, and, above all else, confidence.
Despite her association with comedy, Colbert played a wide range of roles. Her versatility is seldom commented on, but it is reflected in her other two Oscar nominations: for her role as a psychiatrist in Private Worlds , and as a wartime wife in Since You Went Away . She appeared in mysteries, costume dramas, melodramas, musicals, and epics. She portrayed everyone from Cleopatra to a modern egg farmer, a villainess to a maid of Salem, an authoress to a nun. Whatever the role, her grace and timing always prevented her from seeming to be humiliated or defeated. Thus, she could endure a prison camp, as in Three Came Home , go out of control on a bobsled in I Met Him in Paris , or fall about in a ship's galley while trying to fry a fish in Skylark , without ever seeming to lose her ladylike grace. This quality, coupled with her delicate features, might have doomed her to stuffy roles had she not also projected a genuine warmth, enhanced by an unforgettable laugh, a delicious speaking voice, and a sparkling quality that humanized her.
At first Colbert planned to become a fashion designer, but a growing interest in dramatics led her to Broadway. She became respected and popular primarily as a result of her 1927 performance as a carnival snake charmer in The Barker , a success which led inevitably to a film career. Her first big hit was as the seductress, Empress Poppaea, in Cecil B. DeMille's The Sign of the Cross , and she might have become typed as a villainess had she not been assigned to It Happened One Night .
Colbert became known in Hollywood for her shrewd business sense, and the successful direction of her career is said to be largely due to her own good instincts. She left the comforts of a Paramount contract after appearing in Practically Yours in 1944, and spent the rest of her Hollywood years as a freelance artist. Her one big career disappointment was due to an illness which forced her to step out of the leading role in All about Eve , which then went to Bette Davis. Otherwise Colbert maintained a steady pace until she chose to retire after playing a mother in Parrish . Although that remains her last feature film, she found continuing popularity and acceptance in the theater, having returned to leading roles in New York and London. After a 25-year hiatus from movies, she gave a heralded performance in the television mini-series The Two Mrs. Grenvilles , playing the matriarch of a socially prominent family.
Claudette Colbert is the sort of actress whose best qualities were those that the passage of time could not date or diminish: a sense of wit, a core of strength, and, above all, a strong projection of intelligence. Had she been only a clotheshorse, or a model of whatever glamorous style was currently in fashion, she would not have lasted. Yet her good looks, slim figure, and timeless chic endured over seven decades of work in film and theater. She herself said it best, "I don't need that awful artificial glamour that Hollywood devises for people who don't have any personalities." Colbert's ability to create her own brand of glamour helped her outlast many of her less self-sufficient contemporaries.
—Jeanine Basinger, updated by Audrey E. Kupferberg