By Jan Richardson
for her savvy business sense and a sterling film, television and stage career
that spanned more than half a century, Claudette Colbert was born in Paris,
France under the name Lily Claudette Chauchoin in 1903. At the age of 3 she
immigrated to the United States, settling with her family in New York City three
years later. Her education was attained in New York City public schools and the
young Claudette had originally planned a career in fashion design.
At the age of eighteen she was offered a small part
in “The Wild Westcotts,” debuting under the name Claudette Colbert. The
opportunity forever changed her ambitions. Following that production, she worked
in a dress shop to pay for dramatic training. During her early years on stage,
she fought against being typecast as a French maid, but was finally able to
savor her first critical success on Broadway in the production of “The Barker”;
portraying the role of a snake charmer. The following year she made the big leap
to her first film role in a silent movie entitled For the Love of Mike.
The film told the story of three men banding together to raise an adopted son.
Frank Capra, who directed the movie, later stated that he considered it to be
the worst film of his entire career. The 1927 film was a complete disaster at
the newly emerging box office and Claudette vowed it would be her last film.
Two years passed
before Claudette was forced to take back her words. As the Great
Depression settled in, Broadway theaters found it increasingly difficult to
remain open. While the stage remained Claudette’s true love she resigned herself
to film work, just to stay employed. Beginning in 1929 Claudette began
work in several films, including The Hole in the Wall and Honor Among
Lovers. By 1932 she had appeared in some seventeen films, averaging
approximately four films per year. Her roles were diverse, including a “lower
class” woman who charms a wealthy attorney in The Lady Lies (1929), a
tramp disguised as a missionary’s daughter in His Woman (1931) and a
supposed widow who encounters her husband while on vacation with her new lover
in The Man from Yesterday (1932).
By the early
thirties she had starred alongside such notable names as
Gary Cooper and Ginger
Rogers, but it was 1932 that would truly turn the tide in Claudette’s career.
That year she made a cameo appearance as herself in Make Me a Star.
The Sign of the Cross, a historical drama about the persecution of
Christians in ancient Rome, also came out that year. Claudette portrayed the
role of the beautiful and evil Poppaea, wife of Nero. Directed by Cecil B.
DeMille the film won critical acclaim, further elevating Claudette’s rise to
The next few
years saw Claudette starring in a variety of successful films as her name became
synonymous with good quality movies. Her movie star status was so exalted that
when Paramount loaned her out to Columbia to star in
It Happened One Night
in 1934 she was more than a little put out and considered it to be a step down.
Many other leading ladies of the time had already turned down the role of Ellie
Andrews, a spoiled heiress on the run from her father. Claudette didn’t think
much of the script, however she finally agreed to do the movie with a huge raise
(double her normal salary) and on the condition that the film be wrapped up by
the time her scheduled vacation arrived, a scant four weeks later. Despite
Claudette’s opinion, the unlikely comedy was a smash hit; setting the stage for
what would be known as the screwball comedy and sweeping the 1935 Academy
Awards, including Best Actress for Claudette and Best Actor for her co-star;
Clark Gable. Claudette was so surprised at the success of the film she had to
be beckoned from a train station in order to claim the Oscar on the night of the
Awards. The Gable-Colbert duo remained the only two co-stars to have won Oscars
at the same time until Jack Nicholson and Helen Hunt snagged the honor in 1997.
Thus began a
career that would span more than 50 years and include 65 films as well as
numerous stage and television appearances. Following
It Happened One Night,
she was nominated the very next year for Private Worlds. Throughout the
thirties and forties she starred in numerous successful films, garnering a third
Oscar nomination for Since You Went Away in 1944. At the height of her
film career Claudette earned a reputation for her business sense, becoming the
actress in Hollywood. By 1944 she had more than tripled the $50,000 salary she
earned for It Happened One Night, bringing in a whopping $265,000 for
Since You Went Away, a small fortune by the standards of the day.
By the mid
1950’s her screen appearances began to fade. Claudette appeared on several
television programs and returned to her beloved stage, earning a Tony nomination
in 1959 for The Marriage-Go-Round. Her final screen appearance came
in 1961 in Parrish, however her career was far from over. In 1987 she
snared a Golden Globe for her supporting actress role in the TV mini-series
The Two Mrs. Grenvilles.
While she had
married director Norman Foster in 1928, their marriage ended in divorce in 1935
and she quickly married Dr. Joel Pressman. The two remained together until his
death in 1968. In later years, Claudette split her time between New York and a
historic plantation in Barbados where she entertained notable guests. She died
July 30, 1996 in Barbados at the age of 96, after a series of strokes.
Jan Richardson is a freelance writer from
Texas. This is her first submission to The Movie Profiles & Premiums
Other Claudette Colbert Pages:
A Tribute to
Claudette Colbert A salute to the popular star of It Happened One Night
, who didn't want to do it and hated the experience, but won an Oscar for
Jackson's Claudette Colbert Page -- The Actress who Comes Along Once in a