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Claudette Colbert - 8/18
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Claudette Colbert

Claudette Colbert Profile

She was adorable with her huge eyes and trademark bangs, apple cheeks and throaty laugh, and that profile that photographed perfectly -- when shot from the left, as she invariably insisted. Throughout her long career Claudette Colbert (1903-1996) charmed audiences as a light-hearted comedienne, cool-headed professional and warm-hearted family woman. She won her three Best Actress Oscar® nominations for examples of each area of expertise, playing a screwball runaway bride in It Happened One Night (1934), for which she also won the award itself; a psychiatrist who convinces doubters she's the woman for the job of running a mental hospital in Private Worlds (1935); and a wife and mother whose quiet courage during World War II inspires those around her in Since You Went Away (1944).

Born Lily Claudette Chauchoin in Paris, she was brought to New York as a child of six and was training to become a fashion designer when she was diverted into acting. She made her Broadway debut in The Wild Wescotts (1923) and continued to play ingĂ©nues on the New York stage for the next half-dozen years. Meantime, she made her movie debut in For the Love of Mike (1927), directed by Frank Capra, who would later guide her to her Oscar®. Signed by Paramount, she was put into several not-very-memorable movies. She finally got a role that attracted major attention in the Maurice Chevalier vehicle The Smiling Lieutenant (1931), playing a mousy violinist who secretly knows how to hold a man and shares her knowledge with Miriam Hopkins in song: "Jazz up your lingerie!"

Colbert created a sensation in Cecil B. DeMille's saga of ancient Rome, The Sign of the Cross (1932), in which she played the evil Poppaea and took a famous bath in asses' milk. After her Oscar® win, she worked with DeMille again, this time playing the title role in his elaborate production of Cleopatra (1934). Alternating comedy and drama, Colbert remained a top star of the 1930s with such roles as a White Russian working as a maid in Tovarich (1937), a frontier wife coping with marauding Indians in John Ford's Drums Along the Mohawk (1939), a scatterbrained gold-digger in Midnight (1939) and an eccentric poet who falls for James Stewart as a guy on the lam in It's a Wonderful World (1939).

Boom Town (1940) found Colbert reunited with her It Happened One Night costar, Clark Gable, and playing his faithful wife. She had one of her best comedy roles in Preston Sturges' The Palm Beach Story (1942), as a woman who plans to divorce husband Joel McCrea so she can help him financially. She turned serious in Tomorrow is Forever (1946), playing a woman who suspects that a World War II refugee (Orson Welles) may be her long-lost husband, who was believed killed in action. She played for laughs again in Without Reservations (1946), where she was a novelist at romantic odds with war hero John Wayne. The Secret Heart (1946) has Colbert as the understanding stepmother of suicidal teenager June Allyson, while The Egg and I (1947) -- a big hit -- has her as a sophisticate trying to cope, Green Acres-style, with country life. The Secret Fury (1950) is a thriller in which the plucky actress plays a concert pianist suspected of murder and insanity.

Colbert took a break from the screen after the Western Texas Lady (1955), but returned, elegant as ever, to play Troy Donahue's mother in Parrish (1961). She also returned successfully to the stage and worked in television, remaining active through the 1980s and formally retiring only in 1992. Her two husbands were actor-director Norman Foster and Dr. Joel Pressman.

* Titles in Bold will Air on TCM in August

by Roger Fristoe

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