Colbert knew her limitations (because of her sophisticated look and being French-born), so, once a star, she stayed away from seeking parts that would be too far afield from her screen type. Noticeably, she was one of the few actresses in late-1930s Hollywood who did not seek the role of Scarlett O’Hara in Gone with the Wind despite the fact that she was a great favorite and personal friend of GWTW producer David O. Selznick.
A few years later, Selznick offered Colbert a huge salary to star in his life-on-the-homefront World War II saga, Since You Went Away. She couldn’t resist the hefty fee, but lived to regret the decision, because the set of that picture was so strife-torn — with married Selznick pursuing married young leading lady Jennifer Jones, who played Colbert’s daughter in the film. [Jones was then married to actor Robert Walker, who plays her soldier boyfriend in Since You Went Away. She later divorced Walker and married Selznick.]
Whenever people think of Claudette Colbert, they think of It Happened One Night. Whenever I think of Claudette Colbert, I think of The Sign of the Cross, Midnight, and Since You Went Away. How did she get involved in those four films? Did she have anything to say about them later on?
Paramount’s Cecil B. DeMille was struck by Colbert’s beauty, wit, and sophistication, which made her ideal to play the decadent Empress Poppaea in The Sign of the Cross. (Besides, she was already under Paramount contract.) Her performance in that epic was the first of three pictures — including Cleopatra in 1934 — she made with DeMille. She acknowledged that working in DeMille vehicles did much to elevate her from the actress pack, and helped to make her a top Hollywood star. [The third DeMille-Colbert collaboration was the over-the-top adventure-comedy-melodrama Four Frightened People, also released in 1934.]
Many actresses had been wanted for It Happened One Night, including Myrna Loy, Margaret Sullavan, and Constance Bennett. They refused, but Colbert finally accepted the assignment — not because she had great faith in the project but because she was able to negotiate a highly favorable loan-out salary (and she had already worked with director Frank Capra in For the Love of Mike — her 1927 screen debut). Colbert always was amazed that such a little picture as It Happened One Night could bring her and the film such enduring tributes.
Midnight (1939) was originally planned to star Marlene Dietrich, but she was on her way out of Paramount by the time it was filmed. Colbert was a natural replacement choice for this chic comedy set in Paris, and she found working with director Mitchell Leisen a felicitous experience.
As noted above, David O. Selznick used his friendship with Colbert — and offering her a hefty fee ($265,000) — to gain her participation in Since You Went Away.
Claudette Colbert’s stardom fizzled in the early 1950s. Apart from the fact that she was then in her early 50s, that the studios’ contract players were being let go, and that female moviegoers were staying home to watch I Love Lucy — did Colbert fail to do something that would have kept her film stardom afloat?
Colbert was born in 1901 [older sources said 1905; new sources say 1903; Jim has confirmed it’s 1901] and by the time of Texas Lady in 1955 she was in her mid-50s. Although she remained strikingly attractive and retained a youthful figure, she was smart enough to know that in fast-changing Hollywood — where the studio system was dying — her screen stardom days were over. Most of her contemporaries (e.g., Carole Lombard, Sylvia Sidney, Marlene Dietrich, Kay Francis, Jean Arthur, Irene Dunne) were either dead, retired, or had migrated to TV work (as did Colbert in the 1950s).