(b. 3 September 1903 in Paris, France; d. 30 July 1996 in Barbados, West Indies), actor of stage, screen, television, and radio who won the Academy Award for best actress for the comedy classic It Happened One Night.
Colbert was born Lily Claudette Chauchoin. When the financial situation in France adversely affected her father, Georges Chauchoin, a banker, he and his wife, Jeanne Loew Chauchoin, brought Colbert and her brother to New York City in 1912. Colbert attended Public School #15 and graduated from Washington Irving High School in 1923. Her first high school role was Rosalind in Shakespeare’s As You Like It. After graduation, Colbert attended the Art Students League, gave French lessons, and worked in dress shops, aspiring to a career in fashion design.
Colbert made her first Broadway appearance in 1923 in a small role as Sybil Blake in Anne Morrison’s The Wild Westcotts. One story about this role says that Colbert so impressed Morrison at a social function that the playwright inserted a few lines for Colbert to speak, and that during the pre-Broadway run the director felt compelled to enhance her role. In any event, the bubbly five-foot-four, hazel-eyed Colbert resolved to become an actress. She adopted “Claudette Colbert” as her stage name—“Colbert” being her paternal grandmother’s maiden name.
She performed in almost a dozen plays between 1924 and 1926 in New York, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. Although Colbert never took any formal acting lessons, she educated herself in acting techniques by observing well-established actors as she stood in the wings during performances. Al Woods, producer at New York’s Eltinge Theatre, gave her a five-year contract, which began in the 1925–1926 season. Greater financial responsibilities intensified her drive toward a successful acting career when her father died in 1926. When Colbert starred in Kenyon Nicholson’s melodrama The Barker in 1927, she impressed audiences and critics with the development of her character, Lou, the seductive snake charmer. The play became the vehicle for her London debut on 7 May 1928. She performed in several other Broadway plays from the fall of 1928 through 1929, including Eugene O’Neill’s Dynamo and Elmer Rice’s See Naples and Die, her final Broadway appearance until 1955.
Colbert secretly married Norman Foster, her costar in The Barker, on 13 March 1928 in London. The couple preferred to live apart for much of the first year of their marriage and, even when the press disclosed the marriage, they generally lived at separate addresses in California. A Mexican divorce dissolved the marriage in August 1935. On 24 December 1935, in Yuma, Arizona, Colbert married Dr. Joel J. Pressman, who had been her overseeing physician during some of her (lifelong) sinus problems. Pressman died of liver cancer on 26 February 1968. Colbert had no children.
Colbert’s first and only silent film, which was directed by Frank Capra, was For the Love of Mike, which she filmed in 1927 while still starring in The Barker. The film demanded so much studio time that Colbert could barely make her first entrance in the play. Colbert was so displeased with the entire experience and the resulting film that she resolved never to act on the screen again. Yet within two years, perhaps in part due to the effect the Great Depression had on the finances of Broadway, she agreed to a fourteen-year contract (1930–1944) with Paramount. Colbert worked through 1931 at the Paramount studios in the borough of Queens in New York City before moving to Hollywood with her mother and brother. In 1929 she starred with Edward G. Robinson in her first talking picture, The Hole in the Wall. Colbert’s early films were melodramas or sophisticated comedies. She appeared with Walter Huston in The Lady Lies (1929), joined Foster in Young Man of Manhattan (1930), and acted with her French compatriots Maurice Chevalier (The Big Pond, 1930; The Smiling Lieutenant, 1931) and Charles Boyer (The Manfrom Yesterday, 1932; Private Worlds, 1935; and Tovarich, 1937).
During her peak years, some of Colbert’s costars included Fredric March, Herbert Marshall, Melvyn Douglas, John Barrymore, Ray Milland, Robert Young, Ronald Colman, David Niven, James Stewart, Henry Fonda, and Spencer Tracy. The motion picture high points of these years were Ernst Lubitsch’s The Smiling Lieutenant; two films directed by Cecil B. DeMille, The Sign of the Cross (1932) and Cleopatra (1934); Mitchell Leisen’s outstanding comedy, Midnight (1939); Colbert’s first Technicolor film, John Ford’s Drums Along the Mohawk (1939); and Preston Sturges’s The Palm Beach Story (1942).
The pinnacle of Colbert’s motion-picture career was Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934). She was not overly impressed with the script, and at the time was preparing for a ski trip to Sun Valley, Idaho. Unable to secure his first choice for the role, Capra coaxed Colbert into accepting the lead by promising to double her current salary at Paramount ($25,000 per film) and to squeeze the filming into several weeks to finish in time for Christmas. Colbert won the 1935 Academy Award for best actress for her role in the film. It was so unusual for a comedy to win a top Academy Award that Colbert, attired in a traveling suit and ready to board a train, had to be rushed by studio personnel to the Los Angeles Biltmore Hotel, where she proudly accepted her award. Her two subsequent Academy Award nominations were for Private Worlds (1935), about the staff in a mental institution, and Since You Went Away (1944), a home-front World War II drama, in which she played the mother of Jennifer Jones and Shirley Temple. Colbert’s final film with Paramount was Practically Yours (1944) with Fred MacMurray. During her years with Paramount, Colbert made more than forty films.
In the late 1930s and 1940s Colbert engaged in occasional radio work for DeMille’s Lux Radio Theatre on CBS: Hands Across the Sea and The Awful Truth. During her freelancing period from the mid-1940s through 1961, Colbert worked with at least six American studios, as well as studios in England and France. She made two more films at United Artists with Don Ameche, a comedy, Guest Wife (1945), and a thriller, Sleep, My Love (1948); her last two of seven films with MacMurray at Universal, The Egg and I (1947) and Family Honeymoon (1948); some unusual war-related films at RKO-International, Tomorrow Is Forever (1946) with Orson Welles and George Brent; and at Twentieth Century-Fox, Three Came Home (1950) with Sessue Hayakawa. Colbert made her last comedy in 1951 (Let’s Make It Legal, Twentieth Century-Fox) and her final film in 1961 (Parrish, Warner Brothers).
During the early 1950s Colbert continued performances on Lux Radio Theatre and appeared in the theater and the new medium of television. She returned to Broadway in 1956 to replace Margaret Sullavan in Janus. On 29 October 1958 Colbert opened in the first of over 450 performances of The Marriage-Go-Round, a comedy with Boyer for which she received a nomination for the Tony Award for best actress.
Colbert made her first television appearance in April 1951 on CBS’s The jack Benny Show and the first of her many dramatic television roles in September 1954 in The Royal Family for CBS’s The Best of Broadway. Among her numerous television appearances were Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit (1956), General Motors Fiftieth Anniversary Show (1957), and The Bells of St. Mary’s (1959). In 1987, almost thirty years after The Bells of St. Mary’s, Colbert appeared with Ann-Margaret in The Two Mrs. Grenvilles on NBC, for which she was nominated for an Emmy (1987) and awarded a Golden Globe (1988). At the 1988 American Festival in Deauville, France, Colbert was presented with the medal of the French Legion of Honor. In 1984 she was honored by the Film Society of Lincoln Center, and in 1989 she was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Honor from the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.
In the mid-1970s Colbert embarked upon a third phase of her stage career, beginning in 1974 with Community of Two in Philadelphia. For her role in The Kingfisher (1978), she won the Sarah Siddons Society Award for best actress. Her final stage performance was in Frederick Lonsdale’s Aren’t We All?, which opened in London in the summer of 1984 and subsequently toured in the United States and Australia.
In addition to property in California, two apartments in Manhattan (at 136 East Sixty-fourth Street) and an apartment in the Passy district of Paris, Colbert and her husband owned an estate in Saint Peter, Barbados, West Indies, which they named “Bellerive.” After they sold the estate in California where Colbert had lived with her mother for many years, they made Bellerive their permanent residence. Colbert enjoyed painting portraits, swimming daily in her pool, and entertaining friends. Even after a stroke in March 1993 left her confined to a wheelchair, she was still able to visit with her friends. Colbert died at the age of ninety-two; her remains were cremated and divided between New York and Barbados. Her cremated remains in Barbados are placed near her husband, who is buried in St. Peter’s Cemetery.
Claudette Colbert sparkled in the spotlight of theatrical fame, first during the late 1920s and again over fifty years later. She also reigned as one of Hollywood’s highest-salaried stars from the mid-1930s through the 1940s. Because of her professional perfectionism and earnest approach to her dramatic craft—whether on stage, screen, radio, or television—she created vibrant personalities that ranged from queens of antiquity, to seventeenth-and eighteenth-century Americans, to contemporary sophisticated ladies, to modern wartime internees, that captivated and sustained the interest of the audience. Colbert always gave an interesting screen performance, even when the rest of a film was mediocre. She excelled in screwball comedies such as It Happened One Night, and that film has become an enduring classic.
The Billy Rose Theatre Collection at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center holds some clippings, photographs, and scrapbooks about Colbert’s career. Colbert never wrote an autobiography. She did give interviews to Lawrence J. Quirk for parts of Claudette Colbert: An Illustrated Biography (1985), which covers her personal and professional life on stage and screen and contains an excellent selection of photographs, a filmography, and an index. There are interviews in the New York Times, such as 24 Mar. 1935, 17 Feb. 1946, and 27 Feb. 1955. Other works focusing on Colbert are: Joseph B. Pacheco, Jr., “Claudette Colbert: Projected a Cheery Insouciance During Depression and War,” Films in Review (21 May 1970), with stills and filmography; James Robert Parish, “Claudette Colbert,” in The Paramount Pretties (1972), a discussion of her stage, screen, radio, and television credits, with some interesting quotes, a summarizing essay, a biographical section, filmography, and photographs; Parish, “Fred MacMurray-Claudette Colbert,” in Hollywood’s Great Love Teams (1974), a discussion of their films, along with film synopses and commentary; David Shipman, “Claudette Colbert,” in The Great Movie Stars: The Golden Years (1979), a succinct summary of her career; and Annette Tapert, The Power of Glamour (1998), a discussion of her style, personality, sense of fashion, disciplined routine, and an insight into her lifestyle, with a collection of spectacular photographs. For extensive bibliographies see Mel Schuster, Motion Picture Performers: A Bibliography of Magazine and Periodical Articles, 1900–1969 (1971) and Supplement No. 1, 1970–1974 (1976). Obituaries are in the New York Times and Los Angeles Times (both 31 July 1996) and London Times (1 Aug. 1996). Many of Colbert’s sixty-four films are available on commercial videocassettes; the Library of Congress has a sound recording of some of The Barker.
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 Foster, 1928 (divorced 1935); 2) Dr. Joel J. Pressman, 1935 (died 1968). Career: 1912—family moved to New York; 1923—met playwright Anne Morrison, offered bit part in her The Wild Westcotts; changed name to Colbert; 1925–26—on Broadway in A Kiss in a Taxi; 1927—first film role, for Paramount at Astoria studios; 1929—first talkie, The Hole in the Wall; Paramount contract; 1944—terminated Paramount contract; 1952–55—worked in European films and theater; 1956—replaced Margaret Sullavan in Broadway production of Janus; occasional stage appearances: with Rex Harrison on Broadway in The Kingfisher, 1978, and in London and New York in Aren't We All?, 1984–85; 1984—tribute staged by Film Society of Lincoln Center; 1987—in TV mini-series The Two Mrs. Grenvilles. Awards: Best Actress Academy Award, for It Happened One Night, 1934. Died: July 29, 1996.
Films as Actress:
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)
By COLBERT: article—
Interview in Films (London), August 1984.
On COLBERT: books—
Everson, William K., Claudette Colbert, New York, 1976.
Quirk, Lawrence J., Claudette Colbert: An Illustrated Biography, New York, 1985.
On COLBERT: articles—
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