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Claudette Colbert Q&A Pt.1: 'The Claudette Colbert Business'

Claudette Colbert and Henry Wilcoxon in Cleopatra by Cecil B. DeMille
Henry Wilcoxon, Claudette Colbert in Cecil B. DeMille's Cleopatra

Claudette Colbert: James Robert Parish Discusses the Legendary Paramount Star – Introduction

You've been planning for some time a biography of Claudette Colbert. How did you become interested in Colbert's life story?

As a very young teenager, I saw several of Claudette Colbert's films on TV and was fascinated by her verve, throaty voice, attractiveness, and acting versatility — whether drama, comedy, or just a "personality" performance. Later, I saw several of her stage vehicles: In pre-Broadway tryout, on Broadway, and on tour, ranging from The Marriage-Go-Round in 1958 to Aren't We All in 1985. On stage, she proved just how superior a (light) comedienne she was, and her energy/presence was truly captivating — no matter how slight the play. Over these years, I became very intrigued with what made her "tick."

 

Would you say there's something that distinguishes Claudette Colbert from the other screwball comediennes of the 1930s — Jean Arthur, Irene Dunne, Myrna Loy, Carole Lombard? And if so, how would you define that special "it" that Colbert possessed?

Colbert had a beguiling mixture of sophistication and "down-to-earthiness," and she was able to call upon this blend when on camera, whether the scene called for her to be funny, poignant, or romantic. She possessed an undeniable Continental flair — due to her French background — that set her apart from the very American Arthur, Dunne, Loy, and Lombard. Then too, unlike her screen comedy rivals, Colbert won an Oscar for starring in a screwball comedy (It Happened One Night in 1934). [Colbert went on to receive two other Academy Award nominations: In 1935 for Private Worlds and in 1944 for Since You Went Away.]

 

In his autobiography, director Frank Capra fired off quite a few complaints about Claudette Colbert. How have her other directors — and co-stars — described working with her?

Contrary to her public image of being gracious and ladylike, Colbert was a determined show business trouper who could be exceedingly tough on fellow performers/technicians who did not meet her particular standards of professionalism. When displeased, she could swear like a sailor. She was also a shrewd businessperson who negotiated very favorable terms for doing her screen projects. Moreover, she was quite stubborn about how she was to be presented on screen — whether it be her trademark bangs hairstyle, the better side of her face that should be featured in movie scenes, or how she should be costumed for filming.

As she famously said about her word being final in matters concerning her professional activities: "I've been in the Claudette Colbert business a long time."

 

Claudette Colbert was the top female Paramount star for nearly a decade, from the mid-1930s to the early 1940s. Did she always have first choice of roles at the studio, or did she have to fight with fellow Paramountie Carole Lombard for the cream-of-the-crop projects?

Just as it was true at other studios, emerging leading ladies at Paramount got typed in particular roles: in the early 1930s at that film lot, soulful Sylvia Sidney handled many of the heavy dramas — especially when it involved a proletarian heroine; tomboyish Carole Lombard played down-to-earth ladies, Marlene Dietrich was the Continental sophisticate; and Colbert was typically the bright beauty who nearly always seemed smarter than her leading man or the script's other characters.

There were several occasions when due to filming schedules and/or producer/director preference, other talent had been wanted for a role first (e.g., Columbia's It Happened One Night, 20th Century-Fox's Under Two Flags, and Paramount's Zaza). However, Colbert was considered so distinctive and versatile that Paramount usually built vehicles expressly for her. And because she loved to work (and even more so loved the high salary she was paid) the film lot kept her constantly busy. [Myrna Loy, Margaret Sullavan, Miriam Hopkins, and Constance Bennett were mentioned for It Happened One Night; Simone Simon and Isa Miranda were initially cast in Under Two Flags and Zaza, respectively.]

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Continue Reading: Claudette Colbert Q&A Pt.2: SINCE YOU WENT AWAY, Cecil B. DeMille Movies, MIDNIGHT

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