Colbert, Claudette (1903–1996)

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Colbert, Claudette (1903–1996)

American film actress, famed for her warmth, dignified bearing, and charm, who made 62 films, playing sirens, comic roles, and serious dramatic parts alike. Name variations: Claudette Chauchoin (pronounced clo-DET sho-SHWAHN); called "Lily" as a child. Born Claudette Chauchoin in Paris, France, on September 13, 1903 (not the 1905 as listed on her early passport; a mistake she did not correct until she was 75); died on the Caribbean Island of Barbados on July 30, 1996; came to U.S. with family in 1910; daughter of Georges Chauchoin and Jeanne (Loew) Chauchoin; attended New York City public schools; married Norman Foster (an actor), on March 13, 1928 (divorced 1934); married Joel Pressman (a surgeon), in 1936 (died 1968); children: none. Spent her last years between her New York apartment and her retirement home on the Caribbean Island of Barbados.


Sarah Siddons Society (Chicago, Best Actress of the Year, 1980); Lincoln Center (New York) tribute (1984); Legion of Honor (France, 1988); Hollywood Press Association Golden Globe for her role as the elder Mrs. Grenville in "The Two Mrs. Grenvilles"; included in the Kennedy Center Honors (Washington, 1989).

Made first stage appearance in The Wild Westcotts and We've Got To Have Money (both 1923); appeared in The Marionette Man, The Cat Came Back, High Stakes, and Leah Kleschma (1924), A Kiss in a Taxi (1925), Ghost Train and The Pearl of Great Price (1926), The Barker, New York, (1927), London (1928), Fast Life, Tin Pan Alley, and Dynamo (1928), See Naples and Die (1929); returned to the stage in Janus (1956), The Marriage-Go-Round (1958), Julia, Jake and Uncle Joe (1961), The Irregular Verb to Love (1963), The Kingfisher (1979), A Talent for Murder (1981), Aren't We All (1985).


For the Love of Mike (1927); The Hole in the Wall (1929); The Lady Lies (1929); Manslaughter (1930); The Big Pond (La Grande Mer, 1930); Young Man of Manhattan (1930); L'Enigmatique Monsieur Parkes (1931); The Smiling Lieutenant (Le Lieutenant sourient, 1931), Secrets of a Secretary (1931), Honor Among Lovers (1931); His Woman (1931); The Wiser Sex (1932); (unbilled guest) Make Me a Star (1932); Misleading Lady (1932); The Man From Yesterday (1932); The Phantom President (1932); The Sign of the Cross (1932); Tonight is Ours (1933); I Cover the Waterfront (1933); Three-Cornered Moon (1933); Torch Singer (1933); Four Frightened People (1934); It Happened One Night (1934); Cleopatra (1934); Imitation of Life (1934); The Gilded Lily (1935); Private Worlds (1935); She Married Her Boss (1935); The Bride Comes Home (1935); Under Two Flags (1936); Maid in Salem (1937); I Met Him in Paris (1937); Tovarich (1937); Bluebeard's Eighth Wife (1938); Zaza (1939); Midnight (1939); It's a Wonderful World (1939); Drums Along the Mohawk (1939); Boom Town (1940); Arise my Love (1940); Skylark (1941); Remember the Day (1941); The Palm Beach Story (1942); No Time for Love (1943); So Proudly We Hail (1943); Since You Went Away (1944); Practically Yours (1944); Guest Wife (1945); Without Reservations (1946); Tomorrow is Forever (1946); The Secret Heart (1946); The Egg and I (1947); Sleep, My Love (1948); Family Honeymoon (1949); Three Came Home (1950); The Secret Fury (1951); Thunder on the Hill (1951); Let's Make it Legal (1951); The Planter's Wife (also known as Outpost in Malaya, 1952); The Texas Lady (1955); Si Versailles m'était conté (French, 1957); Parrish (1960). Appeared in the television miniseries, "The Two Mrs. Grenvilles" (1987).

Born Claudette Chauchoin in Paris on September 13, 1903, Claudette Colbert was called Lily as a child so that biographies occasionally give her real name as Lily Chauchoin. Her father Georges was an office worker; her mother Jeanne Chauchoin , who lived to be 94 and was, by her daughter's own admission, the dominant force in her life, was a native of the Isle of Jersey and was raised bi-lingually in French and English. A marvelous singer, Jeanne Chauchoin had longed for a career in opera and enthusiastically supported her daughter's decision to go on the stage. It was Claudette's grandmother Marie Loew , who encouraged the family to migrate to the United States, and she accompanied them when they decided to do so in 1910, when Claudette was six. They must be counted among the enormous wave of immigration that engulfed the East Coast cities of America in the decade immediately prior to the First World War, an immigration, however, that contained relatively few natives of France. In later years, Colbert recalled the importance of her mother and grandmother's ability to speak English in getting the family settled in its new homeland.

Once in New York, the Chauchoins took an apartment in the East 50s where Claudette and her brother Charles attended public school. The family attempted to preserve as much of its French heritage as it could at home; Claudette was raised French-speaking, and she and her brother, who later became her agent, were not allowed to play in the city streets.

Colbert's early goal was to become a fashion designer, but, after graduating from Washington Irving High School in 1921, her first employment was as a stenographer in a New York office. She was "discovered," however, at a party in New York by the playwright Anne Morrison , who, struck by her beauty, offered to secure her a part in her new play, The Wild Westcotts, starring Cornelia Otis Skinner , Elliot Nugent and Edna May Oliver . Agreeing to give the theater a try, Claudette made her debut in this production in Stamford, Connecticut, in 1923, at age 19, changing her surname from Chauchoin to the equally French but at least pronounceable Colbert. Originally only three lines, her part was quickly expanded after the Connecticut opening, but the play was not a success in New York. Nevertheless, Colbert received excellent reviews and decided that she never wanted to do anything but act again. The producer Al Woods now took an interest in her career and, placing her under contract, saw to it that she found regular work on the New York stage. Although the parts she played were small in plays now long-forgotten—We've Got to Have Money (1923), The Marionette Man, The Cat Came Back, High Stakes, and Leah Kleschma (all in 1924)—they were excellent "acting classes" for a neophyte, and Colbert gradually developed her natural talents, scoring her first success in the farce A Kiss in a Taxi in 1925. This was followed by the mystery play, Ghost Train, and the expensively mounted but short-lived spectacle, The Pearl of Great Price (both 1926).

In 1927, Colbert had her first striking success as Lou, the snake charmer, in Kenyon Nicholson's drama of circus life, The Barker, starring Walter Huston and Norman Foster, the latter of whom she married on March 13, 1928. The play not only ran 172 performances in New York but also served as the vehicle for Colbert's

London debut the following year. Upon her return to the States, Colbert found herself a "name" in the New York theater and was invited to appear in her initial silent film For the Love o' Mike, produced by First National Studios in New York. Since talkies had made their appearance the previous year, the film was poorly received, but it was directed by Frank Capra, who would be greatly influential in her movie career. Disappointed in the film and swearing never to appear in another, Colbert resumed her stage career, appearing successively in Fast Life and Tin Pan Alley (1928); before the end of the decade, her photograph was being featured in such magazines as Theater and Theater Arts.

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I can say immodestly that I was a very good comedienne, but I was always fighting that image too. I just never had the luck to play bitches.

—Claudette Colbert

Colbert was appearing in one of Eugene O'Neill's less distinguished plays, the drama Dynamo, when Paramount Studios bought out her contract from Woods. She thus joined the exodus of stage artists to the world of filmmaking, where talking films required the services of actors who knew how to speak. Signed by Paramount to a double contract (fourteen years instead of the conventional seven), Colbert was immediately cast in The Hole in the Wall, co-starring Edward G. Robinson, and in The Lady Lies (both filmed in New York during the day in 1929, while she appeared on Broadway at night in Elmer Rice's See Naples and Die). The Lady Lies was a hit, and thereafter Colbert was cast in one picture after another. Her ability to speak flawless French was an early asset, for she recreated her role in The Hole in the Wall in the French version of the film and also appeared in the French version of Slightly Scarlet, released as L'Enigmatique Mr. Parkes, with Adolph Menjou. She did not move to California until 1932.

For a few years, Paramount was not exactly sure what to do with Claudette Colbert or how to utilize her skills. Her first serious film was a remake of the Leatrice Joy silent vehicle Manslaughter, about a woman convicted of manslaughter by her lawyer fiancé (played by Fredric March). Colbert's obvious beauty soon led to her being cast by Cecil B. DeMille as a siren in his Biblical epics. In The Sign of the Cross (a left-handed 1932 version of Quo Vadis by the Polish writer Henry Sienkiewicz), Colbert played opposite Charles Laughton's Nero as Nero's empress, the evil Poppaea Sabina , a part that she had boldly demanded in order to free herself of the rut into which her movie career had quickly fallen. She was required to bathe in a tub of milk. In De Mille's Cleopatra in 1934, she made love to Henry Wilcoxin behind a drawn curtain on the royal barge, while a drummer beat out a steady rhythm for the oarsmen. Years later, Colbert was to remark that she enjoyed playing vixens much more than "goody-goodies" and that she had more fun playing Poppaea than any other role. This grandiose but false start, during which her annual salary soared to the, at that time, impressive sum of $25,000 per year, was quickly rectified, however, when, in the same year, Frank Capra, now at Columbia, borrowed her from Paramount to cast her opposite Clark Gable as the runaway heiress in It Happened One Night. Her part, declined by Myrna Loy, Constance Bennett and Miriam Hopkins , revealed to audiences for the first time Colbert's marvelous comic talents. The film went on to win every major Academy Award for 1934, including Best Picture of the Year, and became one of the great classics of the 1930s. Colbert, whose train was to leave Los Angeles for New York the night of the Oscar presentation, was reluctantly talked into attending. As she sat inside the Biltmore Hotel ballroom, a taxi waited outside. When Colbert won for Best Actress over Grace Moore and Norma Shearer , she raced to the podium, tossed a kiss at emcee Irwin Cobb, snatched her Oscar, thanked "Frank Capra for this," and rushed out the door. In so doing, she brought down the house.

Besides her skill at epic and comedy, Colbert also possessed great talent for drama and melodrama and this, too, was made clear in 1934, when she moved audiences deeply in Fannie Hurst 's melodrama Imitation of Life. This was the story of a white woman (Colbert), who goes into business selling pancake mix prepared by her black cook (Louise Beavers ), whose daughter, able to pass for white, grows up as Colbert's daughter's best friend. Colbert's role was not a major one and many other actresses could have handled it as easily, yet the sincerity and conviction that she brought to the part made it a "Claudette Colbert film" to be remembered. Although it might have been considered risky for an actress of 31 (posing as 29) to play the mother of a grown daughter, Colbert actually welcomed the opportunity, for it gave her a chance to move back and forth between mature and younger roles without the public assuming that she was getting on in years.

Imitation of Life was followed by The Gilded Lily, not an important picture but one that introduced Fred MacMurray, an unknown actor whom Colbert chose as her leading man. The two worked well together and were to be costarred in several other films in later years, most notably No Time for Love (1943), Practically Yours (1944), and The Egg and I (1947).

Although she had rarely been seen in costume films, Colbert now appeared in a cluster of them: Maid in Salem (1937), Bluebeard's Eighth Wife (1938), Drums Along the Mohawk, and Zaza (1939). Drums Along the Mohawk cast her opposite Henry Fonda in the role of a pioneer woman in upstate New York during the American Revolution. Directed by John Ford, it is not considered to have been one of his best films, but it served as Colbert's first exposure in Technicolor, one of the rare color films she ever made. Zaza, on the other hand, based on a Broadway play starring Clara Bloodgood that had shocked New York at the turn of the century, was perhaps the poorest film of her career and certainly her greatest flop.

In the 1940s, Colbert continued to act as frequently as ever until her contract with Paramount ran out in 1944. Her roles ranged from light comedy, such as Arise My Love (1940) and Skylark (1941), to nostalgia in Remember the Day (1941), slapstick farce in The Palm Beach Story (1942), and hard-hitting drama, such as No Time for Love (1943). Colbert's major World War II film roles, however, were as an army nurse in So Proudly We Hail, about the war in the Pacific (1943), and in Since You Went Away, in which she portrayed Anne Hilton, the wife of an American officer, who has just left for foreign duty. The film, also starring Shirley Temple (Black) and Jennifer Jones , begins with Colbert's return from seeing her husband off at the station and ends with the news that, having been earlier listed as missing in action, he is about to come home. The film was a sincere attempt to depict the American homefront during the war years and was so sincerely done, and lathered so little with easy sentimentality, that it stands as a remarkable documentary of the homefront as it really was.

After the war, free from her Paramount contract and able to freelance in Hollywood,

Colbert chose films that she considered best suited to her, for example, the drama Tomorrow is Forever, in which she was allowed to select her co-star, in this case Orson Welles. Nevertheless, the last decade of her career saw her appear in one mediocre film after another although always receiving high praise from the critics for her unfailingly good performances and the spark that she brought to even her poorest roles. In Three Came Home (1950), Colbert's last significant film, she played real-life American author Agnes Newton Keith , who wrote Land Below the Wind, an insightful and sympathetic description of British Borneo. Keith and her family had endured four years of Japanese internment during World War II. Colbert's true costar in the film was the eminent Japanese actor Sessue Hayakawa, who had been appearing in American films since 1916 and whose performance of an understanding semi-sympathetic prison camp commander gave depth to a role that could easily have become a typical wartime stereotyped Japanese villain. Despite its box-office success and critical acclaim, however, this film was always a sore spot in Colbert's memory for, due to a dislocated disc that took place during its filming, she was unable to play the role of Margo Channing in All About Eve (1950), a film in which she had already been cast, and which would certainly have crowned her career. The part, that of an aging Broadway actress pushed out of her place in the theater by a younger but talented upstart, went, of course, to Bette Davis and has since gone on to become a part of motion-picture history. Few viewers of this film are now aware that Anne Baxter , as the wicked and conniving Eve, was cast in her role precisely because of her physical resemblance to Colbert, the actress whom she wished to emulate and eventually replace. Forty years later, Colbert still bitterly nursed her disappointment, claiming that the loss of this role was the worst thing that ever happened in her career.

Thereafter, Colbert's screen career inevitably declined, Hollywood typically having few roles of importance for an actress past the age of 45. A series of undistinguished roles in equally undistinguished films, of which Let's Make it Legal (1952) was perhaps the best, followed one upon the other, culminating in The Texas Lady (1955), and in a single French film Si Versailles m'était conté (1957). Thereafter, she retired from films except for Parrish (1960), a vehicle for the then popular but short-lived matinee idol, Troy Donahue. Though Colbert received excellent reviews, she devoted her last professional years to the stage, touring in The Kingfisher and A Talent for Murder, and appearing in a television miniseries, "The Two Mrs. Grenvilles," in 1987. In 1985, at age 82, she starred with Rex Harrison in a critically praised revival of Frederick Lonsdale's comedy, Aren't We All, receiving rave reviews and an opening-night standing ovation.

Keith, Agnes Newton (b. 1901)

American writer of Asia and Africa. Born in Oak Park, Illinois, on July 6, 1901; daughter of Joseph Gilbert and Grace (Goodwillie) Newton; married Henry George Keith (in British Commonwealth government service in Asia), on July 23, 1934; children: Jean Alison Keith; Henry George Keith.

Agnes Newton Keith began her career as a reporter for the San Francisco Examiner in 1924. Soon after, she was attacked with an iron bar by a drug addict outside the Examiner office and lost the use of her sight for several years. She did not return to writing until after her 1934 marriage to Henry George Keith, who was in the British Commonwealth government service in Asia. The couple moved to Borneo where they lived until 1952. It was while there that the Keiths were interned in the Japanese concentration camp on Berhala Island, North Borneo, during World War II. The commandant of the camp, a Colonel Suga, had read her book about Borneo, Land Below the Wind, in the Japanese translation. Treating her with a modicum of respect, he demanded she write a book about her experiences in camp. She did, but later wrote the uncensored version known as Three Came Home. Aside from Suga, life in the camp with her two children was harrowing; she called it "the darkest hours of all my life."

Of modest height (5′4½″) and slight build (around 108 pounds), Claudette Colbert seemed more of a presence on screen than off. She was noted for her keen fashion sense and was always quietly but tastefully outfitted. That Colbert was a beautiful woman is readily apparent, but more than that she possessed a sweetness of expression and mischievous eye that made her appear to be a woman of great warmth and likability, equally popular with female as well as male audiences. "Audiences always sound like they're glad to see me," she once told an interviewer, "and I'm damned glad to see them." She had a beautifully modulated voice and exquisite diction and spoke with no trace of an accent, either of Paris or New York. Having discovered early in life that she looked best with her brown hair worn in bangs, she kept to this style all her life, simply altering the rest of her hair to suit the current mode.

Colbert was married twice. Following her divorce from Norman Foster in 1934, she married the surgeon Joel Pressman, who, after his retirement from private practice, served on the faculty of the University of California at Los Angeles Medical School. During the more than 30 years of her second marriage, she insisted that their non-related careers made the relationship work. In Hollywood society, which, in those days, was divided into different "sets," the Pressmans enjoyed the company of, among others, Gary Cooper, Jack Benny, Danny Kaye, and George Burns and Gracie Allen . Widowed in 1968, Colbert never remarried and, in recalling her husband, always stressed that what he had done for a living was far more important than her own achievements on stage or screen.

Colbert's early taste for design never left her. Her home in Holmby Hills, built and decorated under her supervision soon after her arrival in Hollywood, was dear to her, and it was there that she lived with each of her husbands. Later, in 1960, after her return to the stage, she purchased a penthouse in New York and finally, three years later, sold the house in California to purchase a vacation home near Bridgetown, Barbados, which she named Belle Rive (beautiful shore), after the plantation in Tennessee Williams' play A Streetcar Named Desire. There, she installed her mother until the formidable old woman died in her 90s, and there she lived six months of the year—off season to avoid the tourists—spending the rest of her time in New York and Paris. Unlike other movie stars of her generation, such as Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo , who became reclusive after their careers faded, Colbert remained very much a part of the active scene. She had always made friends easily and was a good friend in return, and at her homes in New York and Barbados she played host to such luminaries as Anthony Eden, Noel Coward, and Cole Porter. A delightful and earthy storyteller, Colbert was an excellent interview and, in her later years, several magazines featured articles about her that were enlivened with her many anecdotes and reminiscences. She declined all offers, however, to write her memoirs,

which is perhaps to be regretted for she was a woman of remarkable intelligence.

In March 1993, she suffered a serious stroke, which left her confined to a wheelchair at her home in Barbados, but friends say she remained feisty and good-humored. She died on July 30, 1996, just short of her 93rd birthday, and left her estate to a female friend who had cared for her during the last three years of her life.

Colbert played opposite some of the foremost leading men in Hollywood, including Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, Melvyn Douglas, Maurice Chevalier, Ray Milland, John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, David Niven, Henry Fonda, Fredric March, Joseph Cotton, Orson Welles and Spencer Tracy, and performed for some of its greatest directors, Lubitsch, Capra, Cukor, Sturges, Mankiewicz, and Litvak. Despite her French background, Colbert presented, perhaps consciously, the image of the quintessential American woman of breeding and refinement and rarely attempted roles that required her to descend from this ideal. She was noted for her seductiveness in her early roles, the delightfulness of her comic art with its marvelous sense of timing, and eventually for her portrayal of mature women made wise by the passing of years. Beyond this, however, she will be remembered for her dignity, her warmth, and the sincerity that she brought to all of her portrayals. In the Golden Age of Hollywood, Claudette Colbert was one of its finest actresses and one of the most admirable and respected women to achieve stardom.


Current Biography. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1945, 1964.

Emerson, William K. Claudette Colbert. NY: Pyramid, 1976.

The Free Library of Philadelphia, Theater Collection.

Scott, Allan. "Claudette Colbert" in Close-ups: The Movie Star Book. Edited by Danny Peary. New York, 1978.

Shipman, David. The Great Movie Stars: The Golden Years. Rev. ed. New York, 1979.

Robert H. Hewsen , Professor of History, Rowan University of New Jersey

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Colbert, Claudette (1903–1996)

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