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CLAUDETTE COLBERT

By Jan Richardson

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Caludette Colbert Dixie Premium PhotoClaudette Colbert Screenbook MagazineKnown 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 stardom.

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 Caludette Colbert Dixie Premium Photoin 1934 she was more Claudette Colbert on the cover of LIFE November 13, 1939than 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 highest paid 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.
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Jan Richardson is a freelance writer from Texas.  This is her first submission to The Movie Profiles & Premiums Newsletter.

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 the role!
Denny Jackson's Claudette Colbert Page -- The Actress who Comes Along Once in a Lifetime!