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Claudette Colbert

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Claudette Colbert

Claudette Colbert
Colbert in The Secret Heart, 1946
Born Emilie Chauchoin
(1903-09-13)13 September 1903
Saint-Mandé, France
Died 30 July 1996(1996-07-30) (aged 92)
Speightstown, Barbados
Resting place
Godings Bay Church Cemetery, Speightstown, Saint Peter, Barbados
Nationality American
Other names Lily Claudette Chauchoin
Ethnicity British French
Education Art Students League of New York
Occupation Actress
Years active 1919–1965, 1974–1987
Spouse(s) Norman Foster (1928–1935)
Dr. Joel Pressman (1935–1968) his death

Claudette Colbert (; 13 September 1903 – 30 July 1996) was a French-born American actress, and a leading lady for two decades.

Colbert began her career in Broadway productions during the 1920s, progressing to film with the advent of talking pictures. Initially associated with Paramount Pictures, Colbert later gradually shifted to working as a freelance actor. She won the Academy Award for Best Actress in It Happened One Night (1934), and also received Academy Award nominations for Private Worlds (1935) and Since You Went Away (1944). With her round apple-face,[1] Colbert was known as an expert screwball comedienne,[2] but her dramatic range enabled her to easily encompass melodrama and to play characters ranging from vamps to housewives.[3] During her career, Colbert starred in more than sixty movies. She was the industry's biggest box-office star in 1938 and 1942.[3]

By the mid 1950s, she had largely retired from the screen in favor of television and stage work, earning a Tony Award nomination for The Marriage-Go-Round in 1959. Her career tapered off during the early 1960s, but in the late 1970s she experienced a career resurgence in theater, earning a Sarah Siddons Award for her Chicago theater work in 1980. For her television work in The Two Mrs. Grenvilles (1987) she won a Golden Globe Award and received an Emmy Award nomination.

In 1999, the American Film Institute voted Colbert the "12th Greatest Female American Screen Legend" in cinema.


  • Early years 1
  • Breakthrough 2
  • Widespread recognition 3
  • After World War II 4
  • Personal life 5
  • Awards and honors 6
  • Filmography 7
  • References 8
  • External links 9

Early years

Émilie "Lily" Chauchoin (pronounced “show-shwa”) was born in First National City Bank.[6] Colbert quickly learned English from her grandmother Marie Loew before entering public school[10] and remained fluent in French.[11] She had hoped to become a painter since she could first grasp a pencil. In 1912 her family was naturalized in the U.S.[6] Jeanne clearly favored her son Charles Chauchoin over her daughter.[9]

Promotional photo for the Broadway production La Gringa, 1928

Colbert studied at Washington Irving High School (known for having a strong arts program), where her speech teacher, Alice Rossetter, encouraged her to audition for a play Rossetter had written. In 1919, Colbert made her stage debut at the Provincetown Playhouse in The Widow's Veil at the age of 15.[1] However, Colbert’s interest in the arts still leaned towards painting.[9]

Intending to become a fashion designer, she attended the Robert Young, was well-reviewed and a modest commercial success.[53] Her performance in the Pacific war film Three Came Home (1950) was praised by the critics.[3] However, The Secret Fury (1950), distributed by RKO Studios, was a mystery melodrama that received negative reviews.[53] During this period Colbert was unable to work beyond 5 p.m. each day, due to doctor's orders.[54] While Colbert still looked like a young woman,[9] she found it difficult to make the transition to playing more mature characters as she approached middle age.[37] Colbert once said, "I'm a very good comedienne, but I was always fighting that image, too."[34]

In 1949, she was originally cast in All About Eve, because producer Joseph L. Mankiewicz was enthusiastic about Colbert, feeling that she best represented the style he envisioned for the part. However, Colbert severely injured her back, which led her to abandon the picture shortly before filming began. In later life, Colbert said, "I just never had the luck to play bitches."[34]

For tax reasons[9] Colbert traveled to Europe, making fewer films in the early 1950s. She appeared in Royal Affairs in Versailles with Orson Welles, the only film in which she acted for a French director, although Colbert had only a supporting role rather than top billing.[55] This film was screened in the United States in 1957.[56]

Publicity photo, 1959

In 1954 Colbert turned down a million-dollar broadcast deal with NBC-TV,[9] but made a pact with CBS-TV to star in several teleplays. After a successful appearance in a television version of The Royal Family,[1] she began acting in various television programs. From 1954 to 1960, she starred in 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.

She made a brief return to the screen in Parrish (1961), playing the supporting role of the mother, which received little attention from the press. After that, Colbert instructed her agent to stop his attempts to generate interest in her as a film actress, because there had been no offers.[57]

Her occasional successful acting ventures were appearances on Broadway in 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), also with Rex Harrison.

In 1987, Colbert appeared in a supporting role in the television miniseries The Two Mrs. Grenvilles." The production was a ratings success. Colbert won a Golden Globe and received a nomination for an Emmy Award.

Modern critics have pointed out that Colbert had a mixture of unique physical assets (her round apple-face,[1] big eyes, curly light hair,[3] slender body), an elegant voice, aristocratic manner, sleek acting, a tongue-in-cheek vivacity, witty sense of humor and ladylike alluring charm,[58] that distinguishes her from other screwball comediennes of the 1930s such as Jean Arthur and Irene Dunne.[45] In her comedy films, she invariably played shrewd and self-reliant women, but unlike many of her contemporaries, Colbert rarely engaged in physical comedy. Her characters were more likely to be observers and commentators.[2]

Personal life

In 1928, Colbert married Norman Foster, an actor and director, with whom she co-starred in the Broadway show The Barker, and in the 1930 film Young Man of Manhattan, for which he received negative reviews as one of her weakest leading men.[11] Their marriage remained a secret for many years while they lived in separate homes.[1] In Los Angeles, Colbert shared a home with her mother Jeanne Chauchoin,[59] but her domineering mother disliked Foster and did not allow him into their home.[60] Colbert and Foster divorced in 1935 in Mexico.[1] Writer Robert Shaw, a close friend of Colbert's later in her life, claimed that around this time the actress had an affair with Marlene Dietrich, with whom she was photographed sliding down a chute at a Venice Beach amusement park.[61]

Four months after her divorce, Colbert married Joel Pressman, a throat specialist and surgeon at UCLA.[3] She gave a Beechcraft Bonanza single-engine plane to Pressman as a present. They purchased a ranch in Northern California, where her husband kept show cattle. During this period, Colbert drove a Lincoln Continental and a Ford Thunderbird.[9] The marriage lasted 33 years, until Pressman's death of liver cancer in 1968.

Jeanne Chauchoin envied her daughter's talents of art and acting, and never gave Colbert recognition for her success. Colbert spent many years of her life seeking Jeanne's approval.[9] Jeanne let Colbert's brother Charles serve as Colbert's agent. Charles used the surname Wendling which was borrowed from Jeanne's paternal grandmother, Rose Wendling.[6] Charles served as Colbert's business manager for a time,[5] and was credited with negotiating some of her more lucrative contracts in the late 1930s and early 1940s.[11]

Colbert was generally respected for her professionalism, and the New York Times stated that she was known for giving "110 percent" to any project she worked on.[32] Hedda Hopper wrote that Colbert placed her career "ahead of everything save possibly her marriage," with a strong sense of what was best for her, and a "deep-rooted desire to be in shape, efficient and under control." [37] The writer A. Scott Berg remarked that Colbert had "helped define femininity for her generation with her chic manner."[62] Colbert once said, "I’ve been in the Claudette Colbert business a long time."[45]

In 1954, her aunt Emilie Loew died in the U.S.[6] Although virtually retired from the motion-picture industry since the mid-1950s, Colbert was still financially solvent enough to maintain an upscale lifestyle. Despite already having a country house in Palm Springs for staying on weekends, she rented a cottage in Cap Ferrat in southeastern France. Adman Peter Rogers said, "Claudette was extravagant; I never, ever saw her question the price of anything." In 1963, Colbert sold her residence in Holmby Hills (western Los Angeles), so Joel Pressman rented a small house in Beverly Hills.[9]

There has been speculation by some in Hollywood that Colbert was bisexual, because of her special friendship with the lesbian artist, Verna Hull, but Colbert and her closest friends have denied such a claim.[63] Portrait artist Don Bachardy has written that she was referred to as "Uncle Claude:" "I think she's a really good example of a very closeted situation. Only well within her own circle did they know the truth."[61] In 1958 she met Verna Hull, a wealthy painter/photographer and the stepdaughter of a Sears Roebuck heiress. They had a nine-year friendship and painted together, went for drives together, traveled together and even rented twin penthouses in New York. They had a mutual interest in art. When Colbert bought a house in Barbados in the early 1960s, Hull also bought a modest house next door. The friendship ended suddenly when, as Colbert's husband lay dying, Hull warned Colbert that he might at any moment try to kill her to take her with him when he died. Offended, Colbert announced that she would never see Hull or speak with her again.[9] An article in Vanity Fair explains that Hull had warned Colbert that people "would talk" if they were friends, and would suggest that Colbert might be gay. Colbert reportedly laughed off the suggestion, and was secure enough in herself to not be persuaded by others' views.

For years, Colbert divided her time between her apartment in Manhattan and her vacation home in Speightstown, Barbados.[3] The latter, purchased from a British gentleman and nicknamed "Bellerive," was the island’s only plantation house fronting the beach.[9] However, her permanent address remained Manhattan. Later in life, she was also a staunch Republican and natural conservative.[64]

Colbert's mother Jeanne died in 1970 and her brother Charles died in 1971,[1] so her only surviving relative was a niece, Coco Lewis, Charles' daughter.[34][65]

Following a series of small strokes during the last three years of her life, Colbert died in 1996 at her second home in Barbados,[3] where she was employing one housekeeper and two cooks. Colbert’s body was shipped to New York for cremation.[9] A requiem mass was later held at St. Vincent Ferrer church in New York City.[66] Her ashes were buried in the Godings Bay Church Cemetery, Speightstown, Saint Peter, Barbados,[67] along with her mother and second husband.[9]

The childless Colbert left most of her estate, estimated at $3.5 million and also including her Manhattan apartment and Bellerive, to a long-time friend, Helen O'Hagan, a retired director of corporate relations at Saks Fifth Avenue, whom Colbert had met in 1961 on the set of Parrish, her last film[68][69] and became best friends with around 1970.[1] After the death of Pressman, Colbert instructed her friends to treat O'Hagan as they had Pressman, "as her spouse."[61] Though O'Hagan was financially comfortable without the generous bequest, Bellerive was sold for over $2 million to David Geffen. Colbert's remaining assets were distributed among three heirs: $150,000 to her niece Coco Lewis; a trust worth more than $100,000 to UCLA for Pressman’s memory; and $75,000 to Marie Corbin, Colbert's Barbadian housekeeper.[9]

Awards and honors

Year Award Category Project Result
1935 Academy Award Best Actress It Happened One Night Won
1936 Academy Award Best Actress Private Worlds Nominated
1945 Academy Award Best Actress Since You Went Away Nominated
1959 Tony Award Best Actress The Marriage-Go-Round Nominated
1960 Hollywood Walk of Fame Star at 6812 Hollywood Blvd.[70] Won
1980 Sarah Siddons Award[71] Won
1984 Film Society of Lincoln Center Lifetime Achievement Award[72] Won
1985 Drama Desk Drama Desk Special Award[73] Won
1987 Primetime Emmy Award Outstanding Supporting Actress The Two Mrs. Grenvilles Nominated
1988 Golden Globe Award Best Supporting Actress in a Series The Two Mrs. Grenvilles Won
1989 Kennedy Center Honors Lifetime Achievement Award[74] Won
1990 San Sebastián International Film Festival Donostia Award[75] Won
1999 American Film Institute Greatest Female Stars[76] 12th




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  2. ^ a b DiBattista, Maria (2001). Fast Talking Dames. Yale University Press. p. 210.  
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Pace, Eric (1996-07-31). "Claudette Colbert, Unflappable Heroine of Screwball Comedies, is Dead at 92".  
  4. ^ COLBERT, Claudette. British Film Institute.
  5. ^ a b c Quirk, Claudette Colbert," p. 5.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h Dick, Bernard F. (2008). "CHAPTER 1. Lily of Saint-Mandé". Claudette Colbert: She Walked in Beauty. University Press of Mississippi. 
  7. ^ "MyHeritage Family Trees". Retrieved 2013-02-27. 
  8. ^ "Ellis Island National Monument: Destined For Fame". American Park Network. Retrieved 2013-02-25. 
  9. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n "A Perfect Star". Vanity Fair. January 1998. 
  10. ^ a b "Hollywood Legend Claudette Colbert Dies". Los Angeles Times. July 31, 1996. 
  11. ^ a b c d e Shipman, The Great Movie Stars, p. 113.
  12. ^ a b Hal Erickson. "Claudette Colbert". All Movie Guide. Retrieved 2013-02-11. 
  13. ^ "Claudette Colbert, actress".  
  14. ^ Jan Richardson. "CLAUDETTE COLBERT". The Movie Profiles & Premiums Newsletter – Immortal Ephemera. Retrieved 2013-03-25. 
  15. ^ Quirk, Lawrence J. Claudette Colbert : An Illustrated Biography. New York: Crown, 1985.
  16. ^ Basinger, Jeanine; Audrey E. Kupferberg. "Claudette Colbert — Films as actress:". Retrieved 2007-12-03. 
  17. ^ Classic Film Guide.
  18. ^ Quirk, p. 64 citing The New York Times.
  19. ^ Hal Erickson. "Manslaughter". All Movie Guide. Retrieved 2013-02-11. 
  20. ^ "Claudette Colbert (1903–1996)". Hollywood's Golden Age. Retrieved 2012-07-24. 
  21. ^ Springer, John (1978). They Had Faces Then, Annabella to Zorina, the Superstars, Stars and Starlets of the 1930s. p. 62.  
  22. ^ Edwards, Anne (1988). The DeMilles, An American Family. William Collins, Sons & Co. p. 121.  
  23. ^ Chaneles, Sol (1974). The Movie Makers. Octopus Books. p. 97.  
  24. ^ Hirschnor, Joel (1983). Rating the Movie Stars for Home Video, TV and Cable. Publications International Limited. p. 87.  
  25. ^ Pace, Eric (1996-07-31). "Claudette Colbert, Unflappable Heroine of Screwball Comedies, is Dead at 92". The New York Times. p. 4. 
  26. ^ "It Happened One Night." Retrieved: December 7, 2009.
  27. ^ McBride 1992, pp. 308–309.
  28. ^ Kael, Pauline (1984). 5001 Nights at the Movies. Zenith Books. p. 285.  
  29. ^ Edmonds, I. G. and Mimura, Reiko (1980). The Oscar Directors. Tantivy Press. p. 48.  
  30. ^ Sharon Fink. "Oscars: The Evolution of Fashion." St. Petersburg Times, February 24, 2007.
  31. ^ a b "The 2006 Motion Picture Almanac, Top Ten Money Making Stars". Quigley Publishing Company. Retrieved 2006-08-18. 
  32. ^ a b c d Shipman, The Great Movie Stars, p. 115.
  33. ^ Karney, Robyn (1984). The Movie Stars Story, An Illustrated Guide to 500 of the World's Most Famous Stars of the Cinema. Octopus Books. p. 53.  
  34. ^ a b c d "Oscar-Winner Claudette Colbert dead at 92". Retrieved 2012-02-20. 
  35. ^ Helen Dudar, "Claudette Colbert Revels in a Happy, Starry Past," The New York Times, 27 October 1991, p. A-1
  36. ^ Hal Erickson. "biography". allmovie. 
  37. ^ a b c d Shipman, David (1988). Movie Talk. St. Martin's Press. p. 126.  
  38. ^ Niven, David (1976). Bring on the Empty Horses. Putnam. p. 286.  
  39. ^ Kotsilibas-Davis and Loy, Myrna (1988). Being and Becoming. Donald I. Fine Inc. p. 119.  
  40. ^ Finler, p. 24.
  41. ^ "Lux Radio Theater"Audio Classics Archive Radio Logs: . Retrieved 2007-11-23. 
  42. ^ "The Screen Guild Radio Programs". Radio Program Logs – The Digital Deli Online. Retrieved 2013-02-15. 
  43. ^ "Claudette Colbert – Pure Panache – Biography". Retrieved 2007-11-25. 
  44. ^ "Claudette Colbert Biography (1903–1996) – Lenin Imports". Retrieved 2007-11-25. 
  45. ^ a b c Andre Soares (Aug 12, 2011). "Claudette Colbert Q&A Pt.1: ‘The Claudette Colbert Business’". Alt Film Guide. 
  46. ^ Haver, pp. 338–340.
  47. ^ Haver, p. 342.
  48. ^ Jewell and Harbin, p. 211.
  49. ^ "Without Reservations: Business and Box Office Data."
  50. ^ Stephanie Thames. "Without Reservations (1946)". TCM. Retrieved 2013-01-31. 
  51. ^ Jewell and Harbin, p. 209.
  52. ^ Finler, p. 216.
  53. ^ a b Jewell and Harbin, p. 248.
  54. ^ Anderson, Christopher (1997). An Affair to Remember, The Remarkable Love Story of Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy. William Morrow and Co. Inc. pp. 191–192.  
  55. ^ Soares, Andre (January 12, 2005). "Best Films – 1954". Alternative Film Guide. 
  56. ^ "Royal Affairs in Versailles"Release dates for . IMDb. Retrieved 2013-04-21. 
  57. ^ Shipman, The Great Movie Stars, p. 117.
  58. ^ James Robert Parish (1972). The Paramount Pretties. New Rochelle NY: Arlington House. p. 92. 
  59. ^ Andre Soares (Aug 12, 2011). "Claudette Colbert Q&A Pt.3". Alt Film Guide. 
  60. ^ DiLeo, John (October 5, 2008-10-05). "Star Light, Star Bright". Washington Post. p. BW08. Retrieved 2008-10-08. 
  61. ^ a b c Mann, William J. (2001). Behind the Screen: How Gays and Lesbians Shaped Hollywood, 1910–1969. New York: Viking. pp. 81–82.  
  62. ^ Berg, A. Scott (1989). Goldwyn. Sphere Books. p. 190.  
  63. ^ "Claudette Colbert". Vanity Fair. Retrieved May 22, 2014. 
  64. ^ Derek Granger (1996-08-02). "Obituary: Claudette Colbert". The (London) Independent. 
  65. ^ Amy Fine Collins (January 1998). "A Perfect Star". Vanity Fair. 
  66. ^ Dick, Bernard F. (2008). "Chapter 17. Envoi". Claudette Colbert: She Walked in Beauty. University Press of Mississippi. 
  67. ^ Claudette Colbert at Find a Grave
  68. ^ Stephanie Harvin, "O'Hagan, a Legend at Saks," Post and Courier, 23 August 1996
  69. ^ "Colbert's Will Provides for Longtime Friends," Austin American-Statesman, 10 August 1996, page B12
  70. ^ "Hollywood Chamber of Commerce, Walk of Fame, Claudette Colbert". Retrieved 2008-01-18. 
  71. ^ "Sarah Siddons Society Awardees". Retrieved 2008-01-18. 
  72. ^ Robertson, Nan. "Film Society of Lincoln Center". New York Times. Retrieved 2008-01-18. 
  73. ^ Drama Desk Award winners
  74. ^ "The Kennedy Center, Biography of Claudette Colbert". Retrieved 2008-01-19. 
  75. ^ "Archive of awards, juries and posters". San Sebastián International Film Festival. Retrieved 2008-01-18. 
  76. ^ "AFI's 100 Years, 100 Stars, American's Greatest Legends" (PDF). American Film Institute. Retrieved 2008-01-18. 


  • Finler, Joel W. (1989). The Hollywood Story: Everything You Always Wanted to Know About the American Film Industry But Didn't Know Where to Look. Pyramid Books.  
  • Jewell, Richard B. and Harbin, Vernon (1982). The RKO Story. Octopus Books.  
  • Quirk, Lawrence J. (1974). Claudette Colbert An Illustrated Biography. Crown Publishers.  
  • Shipman, David (1970). The Great Movie Stars: The Golden Years. Library of Congress Catalogue Card Number 78-133803. New York: Bonanza Books. 

External links

She achieved great success opposite Fred MacMurray in the comedy

Promotional photo of Colbert and Patric Knowles for Three Came Home, 1950

In 1945, Colbert ended her association with Paramount Studios, and continued to freelance in such films as Guest Wife (1945) with Don Ameche. She starred opposite John Wayne in the RKO Studios film Without Reservations (1946), with a storyline and setting intentionally inspired by It Happened One Night.'[48] Without Reservations grossed $3 million in the U.S.,[49] and the overall popularity of Colbert's films during 1946 led to her third appearance in the "Quigley Poll of the Top Ten Money-Making Stars."[31] While working on Without Reservations (1946), director Mervyn Leroy described Colbert as an interesting lady to work with, recalling her habit of not watching where she was going and constantly bumping into things.[50] Praised for her sense of style and awareness of fashion, Colbert ensured throughout her career that she was impeccably groomed and costumed. For the 1946 melodrama Tomorrow is Forever, Jean Louis was hired to create eighteen changes of wardrobe for her.[51]

After World War II

During filming of So Proudly We Hail! (1943), a rift occurred between Colbert and co-star Paulette Goddard. Asked which of her co-stars she preferred, Goddard had replied, "Veronica, I think," referring to Veronica Lake. Goddard further commented that Colbert "flipped" and "was at [my] eyes at every moment," and said that they continued their feud throughout the duration of filming.[37] Colbert was otherwise known for maintaining particularly high standards of professionalism during shooting.[45] Impressed by Colbert's role in So Proudly We Hail!, David O. Selznick approached her to play the lead role in Since You Went Away (1944). She was initially reluctant to appear as a mother of teenaged children, but Selznick eventually overcame her sensitivity.[46] Released in June 1944, the film proved a substantial success and grossed almost $5 million in the United States. The critic James Agee praised aspects of the film, but particularly Colbert's work.[47] Partly as a result, she received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress.

In 1940, Colbert refused a seven-year contract that would have paid her $200,000 a year, after finding out that she could command a fee of $150,000 per film as a freelance artist. With her manager, Colbert was able to secure roles in prestigious films, and this period marked the height of her earning ability.[32] Colbert once said that Arise, My Love (1940) was her favorite film.[43][44]

During this time she began appearing for CBS's popular radio program Lux Radio Theater, making 22 episodes between 1935 and 1954.[41] She also appeared for another radio program, The Screen Guild Theater, making 13 episodes between 1939 and 1952.[42]

Screenland magazine cover, 1945

Colbert was a stickler regarding the way she appeared on screen. She believed that her face was difficult to light and photograph, and was obsessed with not showing the right side of her face to the camera, because of a small bump resulting from a childhood broken nose.[35] She refused to be filmed from right side of her face, and this often necessitated redesigning movie sets.[36] Film technicians described the right side of her face as "the dark side of the moon."[37] During the filming of Tovarich in 1937, one of her favored cameramen was dismissed by the director, Anatole Litvak. After seeing the rushes filmed by the replacement, Colbert refused to continue. She insisted on hiring her own cameraman, and offered to waive her salary if the film went over budget as a result.[32] Gary Cooper was terrified at the prospect of working with Colbert in his first comedy, Bluebeard's Eighth Wife (1938), because he considered Colbert to be an expert in the genre.[38] She learned about lighting and cinematography, and refused to begin filming until she was satisfied that she would be shown to her best advantage.[39] Drums Along the Mohawk (1939) with Henry Fonda was Colbert's first color film. However, she distrusted the relatively new Technicolor process and feared that she would not photograph well, preferring thereafter to be filmed in black and white.[40]

In addition to Lubitsch, DeMille and Capra, Colbert was working with the top directors in the industry: Mitchell Leisen, and John Ford.

Publicity photo, c. 1940s

In 1936, Colbert signed a new contract with Paramount Pictures, and this contract made her Hollywood's highest-paid actress.[32] This was followed by a contract renewal in 1938, after which she was reported to be the best-paid star in Hollywood with a salary of $426,924.[33] At the peak of her popularity in the late 1930s, Colbert earned $150,000 a film.[34] Colbert spent the rest of the 1930s deftly alternating between romantic comedies and dramas, and found success in both: She Married Her Boss (1935) with Melvyn Douglas; The Gilded Lily (1935) and The Bride Comes Home (1935), both with Fred MacMurray; Under Two Flags (1936) with Ronald Colman; Zaza (1939) with Herbert Marshall; Midnight (1939) with Don Ameche; and It's a Wonderful World (1939) with James Stewart.

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 who had generated the most revenue in their theaters over the previous year.[31] Then she received an Academy Award nomination for her role in the hospital drama Private Worlds (1935).

Colbert in It's a Wonderful World, 1939

Widespread recognition

Colbert was reluctant to appear as the "runaway heiress" Ellie Andrews in the Frank Capra romantic comedy It Happened One Night (1934). Running behind schedule after several actresses had refused the role, the studio accepted Colbert's demand that she be paid $50,000 and that filming was to be completed within four weeks to allow her to take a planned vacation. Throughout the filming, Colbert felt that the script was weak,[24] and Capra claimed Colbert "had many little tantrums, motivated by her antipathy toward me"; however, "she was wonderful in the part."[25] After filming was completed, Colbert complained to her friend, "I just finished the worst picture in the world."[3][26] Capra fretted that the film was released to indifferent reviews and initially only did so-so business. But after it was released to secondary movie houses, word-of-mouth began to spread and ticket sales became brisk. It turned out to be a major hit, easily Columbia's biggest hit until the 1980s.[27] The film contained at least one scene that is often cited as representative of the screwball film genre and which soon became well-known.[28][29] In 1935, despite receiving an Academy Award nomination for her performance, Colbert decided not to attend the ceremony (feeling confident that she would not win) and instead planned to take a cross-country railroad trip. When she was unexpectedly named the winner, studio chief Harry Cohn sent someone to "drag her off" the train (which fortunately had not yet left the station) and take her to the ceremony. Colbert arrived wearing a two-piece traveling suit which she had engaged the Paramount Pictures costume designer, Travis Banton, to make for her trip.[30]

Colbert and Clark Gable in It Happened One Night, 1934

Colbert established herself as a femme fatale in two of Cecil B. DeMille's films, where she wore fetishistic costumes that enabled her to gradually remove successive layers of clothing.[20] In the 1932 historical epic The Sign of the Cross she starred opposite Fredric March as the Roman empress Poppea. For an instant, glimpses of her bare breasts and nipples were visible when her character was shown bathing in asses' milk,[21] a scene that came to be regarded as a prime example of Hollywood decadence prior to enforcement of the Production Code.[22] In 1933, Colbert renegotiated her contract with Paramount to allow her to appear in films for other studios. In Cleopatra (1934), she played the title role opposite Warren William and Henry Wilcoxon. Thereafter, Colbert did not wish to be portrayed as overtly sexual and later refused such roles.[23]

Colbert in Cleopatra, 1934

In 1928, Colbert signed a contract with Paramount Pictures,[1] which was looking for stage actors who could handle dialogue in the new "talkies" medium. Colbert's skill as a speaker was one of her best assets,[3] but at first she didn't like film acting.[12] Her earliest films were produced in New York. During production of the 1929 film The Lady Lies, she was appearing nightly in the play See Naples and Die. In 1930 she starred opposite Maurice Chevalier in The Big Pond, which was filmed in both English and French. She co-starred with Fredric March in Manslaughter (1930), receiving critical acclaim[18] for her performance as a woman charged with vehicular manslaughter.[19] She was paired with March in four productions, including Honor Among Lovers (1931) with Ginger Rogers. While these films were box office successes,[11] she also starred in Mysterious Mr. Parkes (1931), which was a French-language version of Slightly Scarlet for the European market, although it was also screened in the United States. She sang opposite Maurice Chevalier in the Ernst Lubitsch musical The Smiling Lieutenant (1931), which was a box office success;[3] Colbert was critically acclaimed for her ability to shrewdly play a character role opposite Miriam Hopkins.[11] Her musical voice was also featured in the 1933 film Torch Singer, which co-starred Ricardo Cortez and David Manners.

Colbert in I Cover the Waterfront, 1933


After signing a five-year contract with the producer Al Woods, Colbert played ingenue roles on Broadway from 1925 through 1929. During this period she disliked being typecast as a French maid.[14] Colbert later said, "In the very beginning, they wanted to give me French roles … That’s why I used to say my name Col-bert just as it is spelled instead of Col-baire. I did not want to be typed as ‘that French girl.’"[15] She received critical acclaim on Broadway in the production of The Barker (1927) as a carnival snake charmer. She reprised this role for the play's run in London's West End.[16] Colbert was noticed by the theatrical producer Leland Hayward, who suggested her for the heroine role in For the Love of Mike (1927), a silent film now believed to be lost.[17] The film didn't fare well at the box office.[3]


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