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Under contract to Paramount since the late 1920s, Claudette Colbert had worked her way up from romantic melodramas to DeMille epics to screwball and sophisticated comedies, becoming one of Hollywood's top stars by the late 1930s. Her contract allowed her one film per year on loan-out to other studios, and she always chose those films carefully. Her choice for 1941, Remember the Day, made at 20th Century Fox, was a departure for Colbert, a sentimental and nostalgic film about small-town schoolteacher Nora Trinell, her quiet romance with a fellow teacher, and her friendship with one of her students, Dewey Roberts, who grows up to be a presidential candidate (a character loosely based on the real-life 1940 Republican presidential candidate, Wendell Willkie). The role was a departure for Colbert, who usually played more glamorous characters, and there was some speculation that, in her late 30s, she was anticipating the day when she would play character roles.
However it happened, Colbert gave a touching and vanity-free performance under the practiced eye of director Henry King, who was skilled at evoking small-town America. Colbert was famously fussy about how she was lit and shot -- a cameraman on an earlier film, noting the star's insistence on allowing only the left side of her face to be photographed, referred to her right profile as "the dark side of the moon." However, King (and others) have said that her no-right-profile dictate was her only demand, and for the scenes in which she played Nora as an older woman, King said she had no problem being made up to look like one. In an interview with Colbert biographer Lawrence J. Quirk, King also mentioned her kindness to less experienced players, particularly Douglas Croft, who played the boy she befriends. "She got him to glow with confidence," King recalled, "and I saw her do the same thing with her romantic lead, John Payne, who was then a Fox stock player more noted for his good looks than for his acting skills. Payne gave one of his best performances in that picture."
Actor John Shepperd -- who played the grown-up Dewey, and later used his real name, Shepperd Strudwick, professionally -- also noted Colbert's talent and lack of vanity: "Claudette never got credit for her character portrayals. If she had chosen she could have done middle-aged roles most profitably."
According to Colbert biographer Bernard F. Dick, 20th Century Fox studio head Darryl F. Zanuck intended Remember the Day to be more overtly political. In 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt ran for re-election on a platform of staying out of the war which had engulfed Europe. His Republican opponent Wendell Willkie, a liberal businessman who had never held elective office, advocated supporting the Allies in the war. Zanuck envisioned the film's Willkie-like character changing his previously isolationist views and embracing support for the Allies after re-encountering his former teacher, but given the fraught politics of the era and the threat of war, that angle was considered too controversial. Remember the Day opened just two weeks after Pearl Harbor, and if Zanuck's idea had prevailed, it might have given the film a stronger ending. As it was, critics compared Remember the Day to Goodbye Mr. Chips and were kind, if not particularly excited about it.
Back at Paramount, Colbert returned to familiar territory with her next film, The Palm Beach Story, a sublime Preston Sturges screwball comedy. She was 38 but looked younger, played younger, and continued doing what she excelled at, comedy. Sweetness and nostalgia were fine, and Colbert had proved that she could handle a character role, but she wasn't ready to make that transition just yet. In the years that followed, she aged slowly, gracefully, and beautifully, and never really abandoned her glamorous leading lady status.
Director: Henry King
Producer: William Perlberg
Screenplay: Tess Slesinger, Frank Davis, Allan Scott
Cinematography: George Barnes
Editor: Barbara McLean
Costume Design: Gwen Wakeling
Art Direction: Richard Day, Ward B. Ihnen
Principal Cast: Claudette Colbert (Nora Trinell), John Payne (Dan Hopkins), John Shepperd (Dewey Roberts), Ann Todd (Kate Hill), Douglas Croft (Dewey Roberts as a boy), Jane Seymour (Mrs. Roberts), Anne Revere (Miss Price), Frieda Inescourt (Mrs. Dewey Roberts), Harry Hayden (Mr. Roberts), Francis Pierlot (Mr. Steele), Marie Blake (Miss Cartwright)<
by Margarita Landazuri