Tuesday, September 13, 2011

A Birthday Tribute to Claudette Colbert

Claudette Colbert, a one-of-a-kind original who was beloved by colleagues and movie audiences alike, was born in France on this date in 1903.


Claudette Colbert was a major star for decades, with her films ranging from Cecil B. DeMille epics to classic comedies to a variety of WWII films. She was Oscar-nominated as Best Actress on three occasions, winning for IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT (1934).

Colbert retired from the screen after PARRISH in 1961, then returned to acting once in TV's THE TWO MRS. GRENVILLES (1987). I've seen part of THE TWO MRS. GRENVILLES, which is available from Warner Archive, and in the section I've seen thus far Colbert commands the screen, despite not having acted for a quarter century; she was awarded the Golden Globe as Best Supporting Actress.

IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT and DRUMS ALONG THE MOHAWK (1939) are some of my very earliest movie memories. They were regularly shown on KTTV Ch. 11 in Southern California, and I watched both films many times as I was growing up. I believe DRUMS ALONG THE MOHAWK played a role in developing my love for American and especially Revolutionary history. Seeing THE PALM BEACH STORY (1942) as a young teen at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art is a favorite movie-going memory; I laughed so hard I cried!

I've seen over two dozen Colbert films, and each and every one is worthwhile. In recent years some of the films which have strongly impressed me were the pre-Code drama TORCH SINGER (1933), in which she sings (!); DeMille's CLEOPATRA (1934), a truly stunning movie experience, with Colbert commanding the screen in the title role; MIDNIGHT (1939), a slice of '30s comedy perfection; the cleverly scripted (by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett) dramedy ARISE, MY LOVE (1940) with Ray Milland; and the David O. Selznick WWII homefront film SINCE YOU WENT AWAY (1944).

Despite having seen so many of her films, there are many Colbert classics I have yet to see, such as THE SIGN OF THE CROSS (1932), IMITATION OF LIFE (1934), her Oscar-nominated role in PRIVATE WORLDS (1935), SO PROUDLY WE HAIL! (1943), and THREE CAME HOME (1950). Claudette Colbert was blessed to appear in many excellent movies, and she also elevated the films she was in to a higher level.

Many actors have been quoted describing Claudette Colbert's professionalism and kindness. Fred MacMurray played opposite Claudette in his first major film, THE GILDED LILY (1935) and said "I'll never forget how kind Claudette was. I didn't have the slightest idea what I was doing, but she was so patient with me. She worked and worked with me and got me through it. She was so positive, so kind-hearted, and so unselfish with other players." MacMurray went on to appear opposite Colbert in several more films.

A few years ago I quoted Natalie Wood and Richard Long, who worked with Claudette a decade later, on TOMORROW IS FOREVER (1946). Wood said Claudette was "so kind...such a loving woman," while Richard Long said "I was green and awkward, and I know she sensed my hesitancies and doubts. I always felt that in the complicated scenes I had to do with her that she was playing back specially to me, her eyes willing ease and encouragement."

June Allyson wrote in her autobiography of asking Colbert to be her daughter's godmother: "I thought of Claudette Colbert and how dear she had been to me ever since THE SECRET HEART...and I knew I wanted her to be Pammy's godmother and someday teach her whatever she needed to know, as she had taught me..."

Claudette Colbert passed away in Barbados in 1996, at the age of 92. Her legacy is not simply a body of outstanding work, but all the other actors she encouraged and inspired.

For more on Claudette Colbert, I recommend CLAUDETTE COLBERT by the highly esteemed film historian William K. Everson, which is part of the Pyramid Illustrated History of the Movies.

Claudette Colbert films reviewed here at Laura's Miscellaneous Musings: SECRETS OF A SECRETARY (1931), THREE-CORNERED MOON (1933), TORCH SINGER (1933), CLEOPATRA (1934), THE GILDED LILY (1935), SHE MARRIED HER BOSS (1935), THE BRIDE COMES HOME (1936), MAID OF SALEM (1937), I MET HIM IN PARIS (1937), BLUEBEARD'S EIGHTH WIFE (1938), MIDNIGHT (1939), ARISE, MY LOVE (1940), BOOM TOWN (1940), SKYLARK (1941), THE PALM BEACH STORY (1942), NO TIME FOR LOVE (1943), SINCE YOU WENT AWAY (1944), WITHOUT RESERVATIONS (1946), THE SECRET HEART (1946), TOMORROW IS FOREVER (1946), THE EGG AND I (1947), SLEEP, MY LOVE (1948), FAMILY HONEYMOON (1949), and LET'S MAKE IT LEGAL (1951).

2012 Update: An additional review: SO PROUDLY WE HAIL! (1943).

2013 Update: Additional reviews: IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT (1934) and THUNDER ON THE HILL (1951).

2014 Update: A new review of THE SECRET HEART (1946).

2015 Update: I've now reviewed FOUR FRIGHTENED PEOPLE (1934).

6 Comments:

Blogger Rachel said...

What a wonderful birthday tribute, Laura. I think my favorite incarnation of Claudette Colbert is Comedy Claudette ("From the moment you looked at me, I had an idea you had an idea"). Funny, sophisticated, confident.

Although I will admit to occasionally playing the "Spot the Right Side of Claudette's Face" game when I watch her movies. But hey, she was a star; I love her for it.

12:13 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thank you, Rachel, I appreciate it!

I think Colbert's confidence is one of her most appealing attributes; as components of that, I really like the intelligence and wit she displays on screen.

It is fun to watch for "the dark side of the moon"! :)

Best wishes,
Laura

1:07 PM  
Blogger grandoldmovies said...

Thanks for such a wonderful birthday tribute. Claudette Colbert was a true star and a great talent. I love her in MIDNIGHT and in FAMILY HONEYMOON, her last film with Fred MacMurray. THE SIGN OF THE CROSS is a must-see; she's so delightfully wicked and sensuous (and there's her nude milk bath!). Whatever she did, she touched with gold!

5:45 PM  
Blogger Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Lovely post. She was terrific, always a pleasure to watch. One of those delightful handful of ladies who could do screwball comedy just as well as she could high drama.

5:01 AM  
Blogger Kevin Deany said...

That was a wonderful tribute, Laura. She's always been a great favorite of mine.

I was fortunate to see her perform live in Chicago when she appeared in a play called "The Kingfisher" with Rex Harrison and George Hearn. She was every bit as glorious on stage as she was in the movies.

7:18 AM  
Blogger Audrey said...

I love Claudette! Earthy, funny, sophisticated, smart, and talented--she was the whole package. This was such a nice tribute to her. I loved the part where you shared quotes from actors that had worked with and known her. It sounds like she was just as nice off-screen as she was on.

4:23 PM  

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