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Claudette Colbert

Claudette Colbert

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Also Known As: Lily Emilie Chauchoin Died: July 30, 1996
Born: September 13, 1903 Cause of Death: complications from a stroke
Birth Place: Paris, FR Profession: actor, dress shop employee, French tutor

Biography CLOSE THE FULL BIOGRAPHY

Inimitably charming, witty and sophisticated star of American films from the start of talkies till the mid-1950s, and later a most welcome presence on the stage and in occasional TV. Born in Paris, Claudette Colbert moved to New York when her banker father encountered financial setbacks. Initially intending to become a commercial artist, she studied with speech teacher Alice Rossetter to overcome a slight lisp. Rossetter encouraged Colbert to audition for a play she had just written, "The Widow's Veil" (1919), and so one of the most durable careers in show business began with an appearance as an Irish bride (complete with red wig and brogue). Colbert made her Broadway debut four years later in "The Wild Westcotts" and managed to keep busy in a series of mostly unrewarding stage roles. In 1925 playwright Frederick Lonsdale insisted that Colbert be replaced in the lead role of his "The Fake". Forced to either leave the show or accept the role of understudy (she chose the latter) the disheartened ingenue could not have foreseen that sixty years later she would be starring on Broadway at age 82 in a revival of Lonsdale's "Aren't We All?" (1985). Colbert's break came in 1927 when she essayed a role that...

Inimitably charming, witty and sophisticated star of American films from the start of talkies till the mid-1950s, and later a most welcome presence on the stage and in occasional TV. Born in Paris, Claudette Colbert moved to New York when her banker father encountered financial setbacks. Initially intending to become a commercial artist, she studied with speech teacher Alice Rossetter to overcome a slight lisp. Rossetter encouraged Colbert to audition for a play she had just written, "The Widow's Veil" (1919), and so one of the most durable careers in show business began with an appearance as an Irish bride (complete with red wig and brogue).

Colbert made her Broadway debut four years later in "The Wild Westcotts" and managed to keep busy in a series of mostly unrewarding stage roles. In 1925 playwright Frederick Lonsdale insisted that Colbert be replaced in the lead role of his "The Fake". Forced to either leave the show or accept the role of understudy (she chose the latter) the disheartened ingenue could not have foreseen that sixty years later she would be starring on Broadway at age 82 in a revival of Lonsdale's "Aren't We All?" (1985).

Colbert's break came in 1927 when she essayed a role that would later seem like classic miscasting: the sluttish Lou in "The Barker". Her seductive use of her trim figure led Walter Winchell to dub her "Legs" Colbert (an apt nickname given the means by which Colbert's character in "It Happened One Night" practiced the fine art of hitchhiking). Playing the object of Lou's seductive wiles was boyish Norman Foster, who would soon become Colbert's first husband. The success of "The Barker" led to Colbert's screen debut (and her only silent feature), "For the Love of Mike", directed by Frank Capra. After the film was panned critically and failed financially, its leading lady vowed, "I shall never make another film."

Two years later, however, unable to follow up the success of "The Barker", Colbert took another stab at the movies, signing with Paramount and working at the old Astoria studios so that she could continue her New York stage work. Her carefully modulated alto voice and brisk sincerity quickly gained critical approval in a series of modest soaps and melodramas. Moving to Hollywood, her career rose with such notable features as "The Smiling Lieutenant" (1931, directed by Ernst Lubitsch), Cecil B. DeMille's "The Sign of the Cross" (1932), in which Colbert's Empress Poppaea took a famous bath in asses' milk, and James Cruze's "I Cover the Waterfront" (1933), where she touchingly portayed a child of the wharves who must choose between a transgressive father and a crusading reporter.

It was, however, with "It Happened One Night" (1934, also directed by Capra), that Colbert, on loan-out to struggling Columbia Pictures, really achieved top stardom. Cast as the silk purse which held Clark Gable's rough diamond, Colbert's chic elegance and supple wisecracking were matched by a low-key warmth and humanity that audiences fell for. Convinced that a comedy performance could not cop her the Best Actress Oscar for the year, Colbert was on board a train for New York when she was stopped and whisked to the Academy ceremonies to collect her prize. She had reached her peak and continued in a series of roles that epitomized the tongue-in-cheek Colbert persona: secretaries and struggling actresses who captivate the horsey set ("The Gilded Lily", "She Married Her Boss", both 1935), aristocrats who work as maids or working women who masquerade as aristocrats ("Tovarich" 1937; the superb "Midnight" 1939, one of her best), and young society matrons who indulge in screwball antics ("Bluebeard's Eighth Wife" 1938, unfortunately her only other film with Lubitsch; Preston Sturges's zany classic, "The Palm Beach Story" 1942).

With her round apple-face, prominent cheekbones, trademark curled bangs, puissant playfulness and glistening timing, Colbert is usually associated with romantic comedy. She also distinguished herself, though, in dramas ranging from the pioneering psychological study, "Private Worlds" (1935) to the gentle slice of schoolteacher Americana, "Remember the Day" (1941). Free-lancing more as the 1940s progressed, she did not eschew mother roles in such films as the moving if overly idealized "Mrs. Miniver in America" saga, "Since You Went Away" (1944). Several of her late 40s films (especially the modest "The Egg and I" 1947, which launched the highly popular Ma and Pa Kettle characters in supporting roles) did well enough at the boxoffice to sustain her career, but apart from the restrained, sensible study of women in Japanese concentration camps, "Three Came Home" (1950), Colbert's film career gradually declined in quality, activity and scope. "Let's Make It Legal" (1951) was a belated farewell to the type of comedy she had made her own, while "Texas Lady" (1955) was a watchable but routine Western which only utilized Colbert's zest.

TV took up much of the slack in the mid-50s; Colbert also returned to the stage opposite fellow sophisticates Noel Coward (in "Island Fling") and Charles Boyer (in "The Marriage Go-Round"). Apart from a notable period of inactivity in the late 60s after the death of her second husband, Colbert's later career was marked by several very successful comebacks on both stage ("The Kingfisher" 1978) and TV ("The Two Mrs. Grenvilles" 1987) where she displayed the same stylishness and intelligence which made her such a wonderful archetype of the modern working woman.

VIEW THE FULL BIOGRAPHY

Filmographyclose complete filmography

CAST: (feature film)

1.
 Going Hollywood: The War Years (1983) Herself (Archival Footage)
2.
 Parrish (1961) Ellen McLean
3.
 Texas Lady (1955) Prudence Webb
4.
 Daughters of Destiny (1954) Elisabeth
5.
 Royal Affairs in Versailles (1954) Madame De Montespan
6.
 Outpost in Malaya (1952) Liz Frazer
7.
 Thunder on the Hill (1951) Sister Mary [Bonaventure]
8.
 Let's Make It Legal (1951) Miriam Halsworth
9.
 Three Came Home (1950) Agnes Newton Keith
10.
 The Secret Fury (1950) Ellen [Ewing McLean]
VIEW THE FULL FILMOGRAPHY

Milestones close milestones

1912:
Moved from Paris to New York after father suffered financial reverses in the banking business
1919:
Made stage debut at the Provincetown Playhouse in "The Widow's Veil", written by her speech teacher, Alice Rossetter
1923:
Made Broadway stage debut in "The Wild Westcotts"
1925:
Replaced in leading role of Frederick Lonsdale's "The Fake"
1926:
Traveled to Paris; returned to New York to comply with five-year contract she had recently signed with producer Al Woods
1927:
Enjoyed major Broadway success as the female lead in "The Barker"
1927:
Film acting debut in the silent, "For the Love of Mike"
1928:
Film contract with First National aborted after failure of first film
1928:
Marriage to Norman Foster (in 1927) revealed by New York columnist
1928:
Journeyed with Foster to Paris to recreate their stage roles in "The Barker"
1928:
Signed film contract with Paramount which enabled her to continue stage career
1929:
Played leading roles in two unsuccessful plays by noted playwrights Eugene O'Neill ("Dynamo") and Elmer Rice ("See Naples and Die", her last stage appearance for over 20 years)
1929:
Made talking film debut in second film, "The Hole in the Wall"
1931:
Position in film industry elevated by success of Ernst Lubitsch's popular "The Smiling Lieutenant"
1932:
Briefly went off salary for refusing bland roles
1932:
Appeared in largest film to date: as Poppaea in Cecil B. DeMille's epic, "The Sign of the Cross"
1933:
Renegotiated contract with Paramount; allowed to appear in films at other studios
1934:
Enjoyed landmark career success in Frank Capra's popular and acclaimed Oscar-winner, "It Happened One Night" while on loan to Columbia
1934:
Signed new two-year contract with Paramount; earned $5000 per week
1935:
Co-starred opposite Fred MacMurray for the first of seven films together (in his first substantial lead) in the popular "The Gilded Lily"
1935:
Was named best-dressed actress in Hollywood
:
Made motion picture exhibitors poll of top ten boxoffice stars: 6th place in 1935 and 8th place in 1936
1936:
Plans to star as Joan of Arc in a film directed by Anatole Litvak fell through
1936:
Negotiated new contract with Paramount which called for seven films at $150,000 per film
1938:
Was the sixth top money-making woman in America with an income of $301,944 ($50,000 less than she had made the year before, when she placed fourteenth)
1939:
Starred in first color film, "Drums Along the Mohawk", directed by John Ford and co-starring Henry Fonda
1941:
Joined with Ronald Colman, Charles Boyer, Irene Dunne, Lewis Milestone and Anatole Litvak to form producing unit at Twentieth-Century Fox; Colbert starred in Fox film, "Remember the Day"
1944:
Played a mother with teen-aged daughters for the first time in David O. Selznick's acclaimed homefront saga, "Since You Went Away"
1945:
Left Paramount Pictures after having spent most of her starring career there; last film under contract, "Practically Yours"
1947:
Made motion picture exhibitor's poll of top ten box office stars; placed 9th
1948:
Replaced by Katharine Hepburn in leading role in "State of the Union" after disagreements with director Frank Capra
1950:
Replaced in leading role in "All About Eve" by Bette Davis after suffering severe back injury
1951:
Starred in last screen romantic comedy, "Let's Make It Legal"
1951:
Made TV debut on "The Jack Benny Show"
1951:
Announcments made that she would star in a TV series, "Leave It to Lizabeth"; filmed pilot, but backed out of series commitment
1951:
Starred opposite Noel Coward in successful stage presentation of "Island Fling/South Sea Bubble"
1952:
Traveled to England to star in "Outpost in Malaya"
1952:
Worked in Europe in film and theater; made fewer films, but starred in two in France
1954:
Made pact with CBS to star in five teleplays after successful appearance in "The Royal Family of Broadway"
1955:
Last starring role in an American feature film, "Texas Lady"
1956:
Replaced Margaret Sullavan in the female lead of the Broadway play, "Janus"
1958:
Returned to Broadway to originate a role after 27 years to star opposite Charles Boyer in the popular sex farce, "The Marriage Go-Round"
1959:
Last major acting role on TV for 25 years, in "The Bells of St. Mary's"
:
Hosted monthly CBS afternoon information series, "The Women"
1961:
One-shot return to films: played Troy Donahue's mother in the popular soap opera, "Parrish"
1963:
Appeared in Maxwell House Coffee TV commercials and billboard advertisements
1965:
Made last stage appearance for almost a decade, opposite Brian Ahearne in "Diplomatic Relations"
1969:
Announced that she was going to write a book entitled "How to Run a House" for her friend's Bennett Cerf's Random House Press; book did not materialize
1972:
Made rare public appearance at the "Fabulous Forties" nostalgia night at Manhattan's Roseland
1974:
Returned to the stage to appear in "A Community of Two" in Philadelphia
1978:
Returned to Broadway to star opposite Rex Harrison in "The Kingfisher"
1981:
Acted on Broadway in "A Talent for Murder"
1982:
Appeared on the American Film Institute's televised salute to Frank Capra
1984:
Received tribute for lifetime achievement from the Film Society of Lincoln Center
1984:
A building at the old Kaufman Astoria Studios in New York (where she had made her first films for Paramount) was renamed in her honor
:
Reunited in London and on Broadway with Rex Harrison in revival of Frederick Lonsdale's drawing-room comedy, "Aren't We All?"
1987:
Returned to TV to star opposite Ann-Margret in two-part film, "The Two Mrs. Grenvilles"
1991:
Career celebrated with ceremony and retrospective at New York University
VIEW ALL MILESTONES

Education

Washington Irving High School: New York , New York -
Art Students League of New York: New York , New York -
P S 59: New York , New York -

Notes

Besides her Oscar for "It Happened One Night" (1934), Colbert was also nominated as Best Actress for "Private Worlds" (1935) and "Since You Went Away" (1944). She was also nominated for a Tony for her stage work in "The Marriage Go-Round" (1958) and an Emmy for "The Two Mrs. Grenvilles" (1987).

Colbert is the only actress to star in three films nominated for Best Picture in the same year (1934), three prestigious films of the day which confirmed her as a "top" star: Cecil B. DeMille's playful, sexy epic, "Cleopatra"; John Stahl's notable interracial/mother-love tearjerker, "Imitation of Life", and Frank Capra's aforementioned landmark comedy, "It Happened One Night", which won.

"Claudette Colbert brought a new kind of tongue-in-cheek vivacity to the sound cinema which sustained her as a major movie star for two decades. Her unique combination of physical assets--sleek appearance, trim figure, sparkling heart-shaped face, and throaty, vibrant voice--boosted her to the top ranks of cinema popularity. No matter what the role, she was always a lady. With her innate reticence, charm and poise, she was unsuitable to portray anyone common or vulgar. Her mystique was as alluring as Marlene Dietrich's, but because she best fitted the stereotype of the practical-minded modern woman, she never attained the living legend status reserved for those who play, and seem to be, aloof godesses of physical and intellectual perfection." --James Robert Parish, quoted in "The Paramount Pretties" (Arlington House, New Rochelle NY, 1972)

Companions close complete companion listing

husband:
Norman Foster. Actor, director. Married in 1927; Colbert did not live with him and kept marriage a secret for many years; divorced in August 1935 in Mexico.
companion:
Clark Gable. Actor. Reportedly had affair during filming of "It Happened One Night".
husband:
Joel Jay Pressman. Doctor. Married on December 24, 1935 until his death from liver cancer on February 28, 1968.
companion:
Helen O'Hagan. Was Colbert's companion from c. 1970.
VIEW COMPLETE COMPANION LISTING

Family close complete family listing

father:
George Claude Chauchoin. Worked in banking business. Died in 1925.
mother:
Jeanne Chauchoin. Died in April 1970.
brother:
Charles Colbert. Agent. Older; born c. 1898; helped manage Colbert's career for a time; died in 1971.

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