Claudette Colbert, the studio era's perky, independent-minded – and French-born – “all-American” girlfriend (and later all-American wife and mother), is Turner Classic Movies' star of the day today, August 18, 2014, as TCM continues with its “Summer Under the Stars” film series. Colbert, a surprise Best Actress Academy Award winner for Frank Capra's 1934 comedy It Happened One Night, was one Paramount's biggest box office draws for more than decade and Hollywood's top-paid female star of 1938, with reported earnings of $426,944 – or about $7.21 million in 2014 dollars. (See also: TCM's Claudette Colbert day in 2011.)
Right now, TCM is showing Ernst Lubitsch's light (but ultimately bittersweet) romantic comedy-musical The Smiling Lieutenant (1931), a Best Picture Academy Award nominee starring Maurice Chevalier as a French-accented Central European lieutenant in love with an orchestra leader (Claudette Colbert), but coerced into marrying a sweet but unsophisticated American-accented Central European princess (Miriam Hopkins). The Lubitsch Touch is found just about everywhere in The Smiling Lieutenant, especially in the Colbert-Hopkins musical number “Jazz Up Your Lingerie.” Unfortunately, Maurice Chevalier's overbearing hamminess is also found just about everywhere in the film.
On the upside, The Smiling Lieutenant's two leading ladies are fine, even though Colbert's performance is overshadowed by Hopkin's transformation from duckling to swan. Despite having about a half a dozen movies to her credit – including a previous pairing with Maurice Chevalier, Hobart Henley's The Big Pond – at the time Colbert was still better known as a Broadway actress (e.g., The Barker, Tin Pan Alley) than as a movie star.
The Smiling Lieutenant was adapted by Samson Raphaelson and Ernest Vajda (Lubitsch collaborators on Broken Lullaby and The Merry Widow), from Oscar Strau's operetta Ein Walzertraum (“A Waltz Dream”), itself based on Hans Müller-Einigen's novel Nux, der Prinzgemahl (“Nux the Prince Consort”). Now, if you do enjoy The Smiling Lieutenant, may I recommend Erik Charrell's German-made The Congress Dances / Der Kongress tanzt, a bittersweet 1931 comedy-drama starring Lilian Harvey and Willy Fritsch that in my view far surpasses any other Hollywood movie of the genre, from The Smiling Lieutenant to Ramon Novarro's final MGM star vehicle, Dudley Murphy's The Night Is Young (a 1935 release that heavily borrows from Charrell's film).
TCM movie premiere: 'Skylark'
Mark Sandrich, best known for his handling of five Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musicals – among them The Gay Divorcee, Top Hat, and Follow the Fleet – directed the 1941 comedy Skylark, based on a play and novel by The Smiling Lieutenant co-screenwriter Samson Raphaelson. In this Paramount release, which happens to be the one TCM premiere featuring Claudette Colbert, the actress plays Ray Milland's neglected housewife, who ends up falling for an attorney (Brian Aherne). I haven't seen Skylark, which has been a hard-to-find title; hopefully, in the near future TCM will lease the Universal library (which includes most pre-1948/1949 Paramount talkies), so we'll finally get a chance to see some incredibly (and absurdly) rare Claudette Colbert movies, from her pre-Code fare (Secrets of a Secretary, Misleading Lady, The Wiser Sex) to her Academy Award-nominated turn in Private Worlds.
Note: Mark Sandrich would direct Colbert once again in the 1943 World War II drama So Proudly We Hail!, an unusual production in that it revolves around female characters facing death and mayhem in the Pacific. Among Colbert's So Proudly We Hail! co-stars were Best Supporting Actress Oscar nominee Paulette Goddard and grenade-carrying Veronica Lake – who, surprisingly, walks away with the movie. Sandrich would die of a heart attack at age 43, while directing the 1946 Bing Crosby-Fred Astaire musical Blue Skies.
More Claudette Colbert films
Wrapping up TCM's Claudette Colbert film marathon will be Jean Negulesco's World War II-set drama Three Came Home (1950), in which Colbert plays an American held prisoner by the Japanese; Henry King's nostalgic Remember the Day (1941), starring Colbert on loan-out to 20th Century Fox, and co-starring John Payne – best known for his musicals with the likes of Alice Faye, Betty Grable, and Carmen Miranda, and for his impressive physique as displayed in a classic boxing-ring-set George Hurrell photograph; and Robert Z. Leonard's psychological melodrama The Secret Heart (1946), an MGM release co-starring Walter Pidgeon and June Allyson – as the widow Colbert's unbalanced stepdaughter – and one of Colbert's last major box office hits.
Of note, the cast of The Secret Heart features a trio of silent era movie stars by then reduced to playing bit parts: Anna Q. Nilsson (Regeneration, Sorrell and Son), King Baggot (who toplined very early versions of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Ivanhoe), and Wyndham Standing (Theda Bara's leading man in The Unchastened Woman), in addition to, according to online articles, the voices of Hume Cronyn and Audrey Totter during a dinner party sequence.
For the record, trailing Claudette Colbert, among the top-paid Hollywood actresses of 1938 – with earnings of more than $100,000 – were Irene Dunne, Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer, Greta Garbo, Ginger Rogers, Katharine Hepburn, Loretta Young, Bette Davis, Myrna Loy, Jean Arthur, Marlene Dietrich, and Barbara Stanwyck.
Following a series of strokes, Claudette Colbert died in Speightstown, Barbados, on July 30, 1996. According to author James Robert Parish, who has done research on Colbert for a prospective biography, she was 94 years old; online sources usually have the actress born on September 13, 1903. (See also “Claudette Colbert: Q&A with author James Robert Parish.”)
Claudette Colbert movies: TCM schedule on Monday, August 18, 2014
3:00 AM PARRISH (1961). Dir.: Delmer Daves. Cast: Troy Donahue, Claudette Colbert, Karl Malden, Dean Jagger, Connie Stevens, Diane McBain, Sharon Hugueny, Dub Taylor, Hampton Fancher, Sylvia Miles, Madeline Sherwood, Frank Campanella, Carroll O'Connor, Vincent Gardenia. Color. 138 mins. Letterbox.
5:30 AM OUTPOST IN MALAYA (1952). Dir.: Ken Annakin. Cast: Claudette Colbert, Jack Hawkins, Anthony Steel, Ram Gopal, Jeremy Spenser, Peter Asher, Tom Macaulay, Sonya Hana, Andy Ho, Alfie Bass, Victor Maddern, Bill Travers. Black and white. 90 min.
9:00 AM WITHOUT RESERVATIONS (1946). Dir.: Mervyn LeRoy. Cast: Claudette Colbert, John Wayne, Don DeFore. Black and white. 101 min.
1:15 PM IT'S A WONDERFUL WORLD (1939). Dir.: W. S. Van Dyke II. Cast: Claudette Colbert, James Stewart, Guy Kibbee. Black and white. 86 min.
3:00 PM IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT (1934). Dir.: Frank Capra. Cast: Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert, Walter Connolly. Black and white. 105 min.
5:00 PM THE SMILING LIEUTENANT (1931). Dir.: Ernst Lubitsch. Cast: Maurice Chevalier, Claudette Colbert, Miriam Hopkins. Black and white. 89 min.
7:00 PM SKYLARK (1941). Dir.: Mark Sandrich. Cast: Claudette Colbert, Ray Milland, Brian Aherne, Binnie Barnes, Walter Abel, Mona Barrie, Grant Mitchell, Ernest Cossart, Warren Hymer, James Rennie, Hobart Cavanaugh, Irving Bacon. Black and white. 94 min.
9:00 PM THREE CAME HOME (1950). Dir.: Jean Negulesco. Cast: Claudette Colbert, Patric Knowles, Florence Desmond. Black and white. 105 min.
11:00 PM REMEMBER THE DAY (1941). Dir.: Henry King. Cast: Claudette Colbert, John Payne, John Shepperd. Black and white. 86 min.
1:00 AM THE SECRET HEART (1946). Dir.: Robert Z. Leonard. Cast: Claudette Colbert, Walter Pidgeon, June Allyson, Lionel Barrymore Robert Sterling, Marshall Thompson, Elizabeth Patterson, Richard Derr, Patricia Medina, Dwayne Hickman, Anna Q. Nilsson, Barbara Billingsley, King Baggot, Wyndham Standing, and the voices of Hume Cronyn and Audrey Totter. Black and white. 97 min.
Source for Claudette Colbert's 1938 earnings, Roger Manvell's Love Goddesses of the Movies. Claudette Colbert and Maurice Chevalier The Smiling Lieutenant photo: Paramount Pictures.