Friday, September 13, 2019

A Tribute to Claudette Colbert

Note: Today is the birthday of one of my very favorite actresses, Claudette Colbert.

I celebrated Colbert with a birthday tribute here in 2011.

Today I honor her with this adaptation of my 2015 column originally published at ClassicFlix. While this piece shares some of the same anecdotes as my 2011 post, it also includes a list of a dozen essential Claudette Colbert films. Click any of the hyperlinked titles for an extended review.

Claudette Colbert, an elegant star adept at both comedy and drama, was born in France on September 13, 1903.

Colbert's family moved to the U.S. when she was young. By her early 20s she was acting on Broadway, where she found particular success in the 1927 production THE BARKER, costarring Walter Huston and her future first husband, Norman Foster.

Colbert's film career began that same year, and by the early '30s she was the star of such films as Ernst Lubitsch's THE SMILING LIEUTENANT (1931) and Cecil B. DeMille's THE SIGN OF THE CROSS (1932). Her film career would last over three decades, punctuated with a notable one-role TV comeback in the late '80s.

Much has been written about Colbert -- her fashion sense, her famed desire to be photographed from the left side of her face -- but perhaps one of the most admirable things about her is the way she mentored younger actors, helping them when they were just starting out. In a business known to have its fair share of self-centered stars, Colbert was the opposite.

Fred MacMurray worked with Colbert on his first major film, THE GILDED LILY (1935), and said, "I'll never forget how kind Claudette was...She was so positive, so kind-hearted, and so unselfish with other players." GILDED LILY costar Ray Milland said years later Claudette was "spiritually lovely inside."

Natalie Wood, who appeared in TOMORROW IS FOREVER (1946), was also quoted years later as saying Colbert was "so kind...such a loving woman," while Richard Long, another costar from that film, 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 so appreciated Colbert's help on THE SECRET HEART (1946) that she and Dick Powell asked Colbert to be the godmother to their daughter, Pamela; Allyson hoped Colbert would "someday teach her whatever she needed to know, as she had taught me." Claudette Colbert's legacy is thus not simply her work on screen but the many actors she generously helped early in their careers.

Claudette Colbert left the screen after PARRISH (1961), but 26 years later she made a spectacular comeback in the TV-movie THE TWO MRS. GRENVILLES (1987). She gave such an assured performance that it seemed impossible she'd been off the screen for over a quarter of a century, and she was awarded a Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress.

Colbert was married to actor-director Norman Foster from 1928 to 1935, after which she married Dr. Joel Pressman, a union which lasted until his death in 1968. Foster, incidentally, would also have a very successful second marriage, to Loretta Young's older sister, Sally Blane.

Colbert died in 1996 in Barbados, where she had a home for many years. She was 92.

Claudette Colbert was in so many interesting films it's difficult to try to limit the discussion of "must see" titles! Here are a baker's dozen of essential Claudette Colbert films which are all available on DVD.

IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT (1934) - Colbert won an Academy Award as Best Actress for this sleeper hit which swept the Oscars. Whether learning to dunk donuts or teaching Clark Gable the most effective way to hitchhike, Colbert is perfection itself in IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT as a runaway heiress who finds love with a newspaper reporter.

CLEOPATRA (1934) - This Cecil B. DeMille epic has to be seen to be believed. Colbert is front and center as the bold, haughty, seductive -- and funny -- title character, wearing eye-popping creations by Travis Banton. The first time I saw this film I found myself repeatedly exclaiming 'Wow!'

MIDNIGHT (1939) - This film written by Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder and directed by Mitchell Leisen is one of the best comedies ever made. It deserves to be even better known than it is, as it's brilliantly funny. Colbert plays a poor Cinderella who moves into the upper echelon of high society thanks to an odd "fairy godmother," played by John Barrymore; meanwhile she's also fallen in love with a penniless taxicab driver (Don Ameche). This is a witty, highly imaginative film, executed in every way with great style, and Colbert was never better.

DRUMS ALONG THE MOHAWK (1939) - Director John Ford's first Technicolor film couldn't have been more different from the same year's MIDNIGHT, yet it's equally outstanding and Colbert looked lovely in Technicolor! Colbert plays Lana, the wife of a frontier settler (Henry Fonda) in the Colonial era, who must overcome fear and cope with both Indian attacks and the American Revolution.

THE PALM BEACH STORY (1942) - The fact that Colbert starred in some of the greatest comedies ever made is no accident; she's a key reason the movies were so good. Preston Sturges' THE PALM BEACH STORY is another great example. Colbert loves her husband (Joel McCrea) but decides that since they're flat broke the only thing to do is go to Palm Beach and find a rich millionaire who will marry her -- after making her ex wealthy with a divorce settlement! The story gets loonier than that, and it's a great ride, with priceless supporting performances by Mary Astor and Rudy Vallee. Colbert's line deliveries are razor sharp, and she's a stunner in gowns by Irene.

NO TIME FOR LOVE (1943) - This is one of Colbert's lesser-known comedies, but it's a gem. She's teamed with frequent costar Fred MacMurray as an upper-class magazine photographer who meets working-class ditch digger MacMurray on a shoot. They have electric chemistry, and Colbert is once again at her very best, tossing off zingers and looking smashing in gowns by Irene.

SO PROUDLY WE HAIL! (1943) - One of the best WWII films and a moving tribute to the nurses who served at Bataan and Corregidor. With Veronica Lake and Paulette Goddard in fine support it's a somber, realistic film with the only concession to glamour being the black nightgown Goddard clings to as a morale booster.

SINCE YOU WENT AWAY (1944) - Another of the finest films made depicting the WWII era. Having received Best Actress nominations for IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT (1934) and PRIVATE WORLDS (1935), Colbert received her third and last Best Actress nomination as a woman trying to raise her daughters (Jennifer Jones and Shirley Temple) and stay financially afloat while her husband is off to war.

WITHOUT RESERVATIONS (1946) - This charming "rom com" pairing of Colbert with John Wayne works surprisingly well. Colbert plays a writer traveling to Hollywood to consult on the filming of her new book; learning that the casting of Cary Grant has fallen through, she believes a Marine pilot (Wayne) on the train would be perfect for the part! The genteel yet game Colbert and rough-hewn Wayne have excellent chemistry.

THE SECRET HEART (1946) - An enjoyable melodrama in which Colbert plays a widow who has raised a pair of stepchildren (Robert Sterling and June Allyson) and is now ready for love with an old friend (Walter Pidgeon), if her neurotic stepdaughter can get out of the way! I like the easy teaming of Colbert and Pidgeon, who seem to be having as much fun as their characters.

THE EGG AND I (1947) - This isn't the best of Colbert's films with Fred MacMurray, but this story of city slickers trying to make a living on a farm is perhaps the best-known film they made together, and it's fun to watch. The movie is particularly notable for spinning off Ma and Pa Kettle (Marjorie Main and Percy Kilbride) into their own movie series.

SLEEP, MY LOVE (1948) - Claudette plays a seemingly happily married woman who's being "gaslighted" into thinking she's crazy by her slimy husband (Don Ameche). Robert Cummings plays Claudette's new friend turned knight in shining armor in this well-paced thriller directed by Douglas Sirk. The movie has a nice sense of humor along with thrills and chills.

THUNDER ON THE HILL (1951) - A lesser-known film worth checking out and another directed by Douglas Sirk, with Colbert playing a nun improbably trying to clear a young woman (Ann Blyth) of her brother's murder. This film has a well-constructed story and interesting setting, with Colbert excellent as a perfectionist still dealing with guilt over her own sister's suicide.

This post is adapted from an article originally published by ClassicFlix in 2015.


Blogger Net - "It's a Wonderful Movie" said...

What a wonderful birthday tribute to Claudette Colbert! She was such an amazing actress, who could easily do drama or comedy!

Love all the pics you included! :)

Blessings! Net

8:53 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thank you, Net! She really was special, and her work has brought so many of us great happiness over the years. Thank you for letting me know you enjoyed the photos!

Best wishes,

10:29 AM  

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