Thursday, 7 March 2013

Claudette Colbert

Since watching ‘It happened one Night’ yesterday, I just had to find out more about Claudette Colbert, one of Hollywood's best loved leading ladies of the 1930s and 40s.

Claudette Colbert was born Émilie Chauchoin on 13 September 1903 in Paris, France, to Jeanne Marie (née Loew) Chauchoin and Georges Claude Chauchoin. She was nick named “Lily" after a popular actress of the time, Lillie Langtry.  The Chauchoin family emigrated to new York in 1906 to find better employment, and the family was naturalized in the U.S. in 1912.

Colbert with her mother and brother, 1907

Colbert studied at Washington Irving High School, where she spoke French and English, and she appeared in her first play at age 15, “The Widow's Veil.” She was more interested in painting than acting at that time, and wanted to become a fashion designer. In 1923 she appeared on the Broadway stage in a small role in The Wild Westcotts using the name Claudette, from her father’s middle name Claude,  and her maternal grandmother's maiden name, Colbert. In 1925 her father died, and probably to ensure she remained financially secure, she then signed a five-year contract with  producer Al Woods, playing on Broadway from 1925 through to 1929. In 1927 she received critical acclaim as carnival snake charmer in “The Barker” and then landed a role in Frank Capra's 1927 silent film For the Love of Mike (now believed lost).
Colbert in 1926

The new talking pictures required actors who could speak well – Colbert’s greatest asset - and in 1928 she signed a contract with Paramount Pictures   Her earliest films were produced in New York, and she continued acting on Broadway in the evenings. That year she also got married, to her co-star in “The Barker,” Norman Foster. He also appeared with her in the 1930 film Young Man of Manhattan which he received negative reviews as one of her weakest leading men. Colbert's mother apparently disliked Foster and would not allow him into their home, and they kept their marriage a secret for many years, living in separate homes. 

Claudette Colbert & Norman Foster in “The Barker” 1927
 In 1930 she starred opposite Maurice Chevalier in The Big Pond, which was filmed in both English and French, then with Fredric March in Manslaughter in which she received further critical acclaim. She made four films with March, including Honor Among Lovers (1931). Not wanting to be type cast as a “French girl” she pronounced her name Col-bert instead of Col-baire, but it was her French background, cultured voice and witty comments that distinguished her from the other comediennes of the 1930s such as Jean Arthur, Irene Dunne, Myrna Loy and Carole Lombard.

Claudette-Colbert (1)

In the 1932 historical epic, The Sign of the Cross, she starred opposite Fredric March as the Roman empress Poppaea,  and glimpses of her bare breasts were regarded as an example of Hollywood decadence prior to the enforcement of the Production Code in 1934. She renegotiated her contract with Paramount in 1933 to allow her to appear in films for other studios,but in 1934 played the title role in Cecil B. DeMille’s Cleopatra for Paramount, her last overtly sexual role.

Henry Wilcoxon's Antony falls for Claudette Colbert's Cleopatra

 I looked yesterday at Frank Capra’s  1934 romantic comedy, It Happened One Night where Colbert starred opposite Clark Gable. Columbia Pictures were behind schedule after several actresses had refused the role, and 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. Capra claimed, Colbert "had many little tantrums, motivated by her antipathy toward me," during filming, however "she was wonderful in the part." The film won five academy awards.

Colbert with Frank Capra, Clark Gable and Carole Lombard at a charity event, 1935

Winning an academy award allowed Colbert to renegotiate her contract and raise her salary, and in 1935 and 1936, she was listed in the annual "Quigley Poll of the Top Ten Money Making Stars." Colbert received a second Academy Award nomination for her role in the hospital drama, Private Worlds in 1935, and in 1936, Colbert signed a new contract with Paramount Pictures, making her Hollywood's highest paid actress.  In 1938 her contract was renewed, and she was reported to be the best-paid star in Hollywood with a salary of $426,924.  At the peak of her popularity in the late 1930s, acting in both romantic comedies and dramas, Colbert earned $150,000 for each movie.

Joel McCrea & Claudette Colbert in Private Worlds

Colbert learned about lighting and cinematography, as she believed that her face was difficult to light and photograph. She did not like to show the right side of her face to the camera because of a small bump on her nose, and often movie sets had to be re-designed to accommodate filming her left side. In her biography, Myrna Loy stated that Colbert, along with Joan Crawford, "knew more about lighting than the experts did," and film technicians described the right side of her face as "the dark side of the moon." She distrusted the new colour films, again fearing she would  not photograph well, and after the technicolor Drums Along the Mohawk with Henry Fonda in 1939, preferred to be filmed in black and white.

Colbert in Drums along the Mohawk directed by John Ford, 1939.

In 1935 Colbert and Foster divorced and in December of that year, Colbert married Joel Pressman, a surgeon at UCLA. The marriage lasted 33 years, until his death of liver cancer in 1968. Gossip columnist Hedda Hopper wrote that Colbert placed her career "ahead of everything save possibly her marriage.

Colbert and Pressman c, 1940
In 1935 Colbert also appeared on radio for CBS' Lux Radio Theater, making 22 episodes between 1935 and 1954. She also appeared for another radio program The Screen Guild Theater, making 13 episodes between 1939 and 1952.

Colbert and Joel McCrea doing a Lux Radio Theatre broadcast, 1937
Earning $150,000 per film as a freelance artist, Colbert turned down a seven-year contract that would have paid her $200,000 a year. The late 30s and early 40s saw her at height of her earning ability, with movies such as Arise, My Love in 1940, and So Proudly We Hail! In 1943 she played the mother of teenage children (something she never was but could have been at age 40) in Since You Went Away which grossed almost $5 million in the United States and earned her another Academy Award nomination for Best Actress.

Colbert with Paulette Godard and Veronica Lake in So Proudly we Hail

In 1945, Colbert ended her association with Paramount Studios, and continued to free-lance in such films as Guest Wife  with Don Ameche in 1945 and Without Reservations with John Wayne in 1946, which grossed $3 million in the U.S. Colbert had great style, and ensured that throughout her career she was impeccably groomed and costumed. For the 1946 melodrama, Tomorrow is ForeverJean Louis was hired to create eighteen changes of wardrobe for her. By the end of 1946 she made her third appearance in the "Quigley Poll of the Top Ten Money Making Stars".

Cinematographer Joseph Valentine shows some strips of film to the stars
Guest Wife, Don Ameche, Claudette Colbert and Dick Foran

Colbert starred in one of 1947’s biggest hits, the comedy The Egg and I, with Fred McMurray followed by the also successful  Sleep, My Love in 1948 with Robert Cummings, and the romantic comedy Bride for Sale in 1949 with George Brent and Robert Young. The Pacific war film Three Came Home in 1950 received critical praise, but The Secret Fury, also in 1950 received negative reviews.

Colbert and Fred McMurray in the Egg and I, 1947

In the early 1950s Colbert reduced her film appearances. She travelled to Europe and appeared in a supporting role in the French film Royal Affairs in Versailles. From 1954, after a successful appearance in a television version of The Royal Family, she began acting in various teleplays including Blithe Spirit in 1956 and The Bells of St. Mary's in 1959 and continued acting on television and on Broadway during the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. In 1961 she filmed her last movie for the silver screen, Parrish. In 1987 Colbert won a Golden Globe Award for The Two Mrs. Grenvilles as well as an Emmy Award nomination. Later in life, she split her time between New York and her second home in Barbados, where she died at the age of 92, following a series of strokes.

Colbert in the 1980s, still stylish

Colbert's only surviving relative was her niece, Coco Lewis, her brother's daughter, but the bulk of her estate, estimated at $3.5 million, was left to a friend, Helen O'Hagan, whom Colbert had met in 1961 on the set of the her last big film, and had cared for Colbert following her strokes.

She really was a wonderful actress, and a pretty good business woman as well. And so photogenic!  More images on tumblr.

Deb xx

1 comment:

  1. I agree. What a great actress Claudette Colbert was. I thought of her and the film THE EGG AND I when writing my latest blogpost on eggs as comfort food:


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