Mostly a Paramount star, Claudette Colbert hasn’t been a frequent presence on Turner Classic Movies — that is, apart from reruns of her relatively few movies at MGM, Warner Bros., and RKO. Unfortunately, TCM’s "Summer Under the Stars" day dedicated to Colbert — Friday, August 12 — won’t rectify that glaring cinematic omission. [Claudette Colbert Movie Schedule.]
Despite the fact that dozens of Claudette Colbert movies remain unavailable — thanks to Universal, owner of the old Paramount movie library — TCM is only presenting one Colbert premiere, Ken Annakin’s British-made 1952 drama The Planter’s Wife / Outpost in Malaya, co-starring Jack Hawkins. Of course, one rarely seen movie is better than none, but still… Think The Wiser Sex, The Lady Lies, Manslaughter, Young Man of Manhattan, The Phantom President (in case it’s lying in some vault somewhere), The Man from Yesterday, Misleading Lady, His Woman, Zaza, Secrets of a Secretary, I Met Him in Paris, Texas Lady, Practically Yours, Skylark, Private Worlds, Tonight Is Ours — the list goes on and on.
Jack Conway’s Boom Town (1940) and Robert Z. Leonard’s The Secret Heart (1946), both MGM releases, are on TCM just about every month. The box office blockbuster Boom Town is a comedy-drama featuring four big names: Colbert, Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, and Hedy Lamarr. It’s also mostly a dud, much like the previous (highly popular) Tracy-Gable pairing, Test Pilot (1938). The Secret Heart tried to be a dramatic showcase for June Allyson, who plays an emotionally unstable young woman, but it didn’t quite succeed.
Colbert is in good form in Mervyn LeRoy’s so-so comedy Without Reservations (1945), but leading man John Wayne always seemed much more convincing making love to a horse than to a woman. Delmer Daves, a director of several classy 1950s Westerns, went the way of all melodrama following the success of A Summer Place (1959). In Parrish (1961), he once again directed that film’s young lead, handsome Troy Donahue, but the box office results weren’t nearly as strong. Colbert is fine in what amounts to a supporting role as the troubled Donahue’s mother; Karl Malden, as usual, overacts in a role made to order for Arthur Kennedy, Robert Preston, or even Charles Bickford.
Two 1939 Colbert comedies are examples of the best and the worst of the studio era: Mitchell Leisen’s Midnight is funny and witty and one of a kind (despite elements possibly borrowed from George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion), whereas W. S. Van Dyke’s It’s a Wonderful World is unfunny, dumb, and utterly conventional. Additionally, Midnight offers Colbert in top form as an unemployed showgirl posing as royalty, while John Barrymore delivers a sensationally over-the-top performance that may well be the very best of his long film career. Now, one thing both Midnight and It’s a Wonderful World have in common is the casting of an inadequate leading man: Don Ameche in the former, James Stewart in the latter.
Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night (1934) is everybody’s favorite comedy — except mine. I much prefer Midnight, for one. But then again, Midnight wasn’t nominated for a single Academy Award, whereas It Happened One Night won the top five: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Clark Gable), Best Actress (Colbert), and Best Screenplay (Robert Riskin). As much as I like Colbert’s runaway heiress, I wish Miriam Hopkins, Margaret Sullavan, and Constance Bennett had their own versions as well. All three actresses — and a few others — passed on the part.
Since You Went Away (1944) was to have been the Gone with the Wind of the homefront. Unfortunately for producer David O. Selznick, this World War II family melodrama fell short both in terms of prestige and popularity. Even so, Since You Went Away became a major box office hit and it has a number of things going for it as well, among them John Cromwell’s sensitive direction, Colbert’s excellent performance as the resilient matriarch whose husband is fighting overseas, Lee Garmes and Stanley Cortez’s black-and-white cinematography, and Jennifer Jones waving goodbye to Robert Walker in a darkened train station.