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Claudette Colbert: Author James Robert Parish Discusses the Paramount Star

Claudette Colbert Paramount
Claudette Colbert, Paramount star

Claudette Colbert legs, Clark Gable, It Happened One NightThose who remember Claudette Colbert, Turner Classic Movies' “Summer Under the Starsfeatured player today, will likely picture a woman raising her skirt so as to hitch a ride in Frank Capra's 1934 Academy Award-winning comedy It Happened One Night. After all, Colbert's left leg immediately succeeds where Clark Gable's left thumb failed. [Claudette Colbert Movie Schedule.]

Colbert, however, could get her way without having to resort to displaying her ankle to helpless oncoming drivers. In fact, during her nearly three decades as a film star – a film superstar during more than half that period – Colbert almost invariably got her way in both dramas and comedies, whether in modern dress or in period costumes. All she needed to do was raise a knowing eyebrow, open a megawatt smile, or bathe naked in a pool filled with asses' milk.

On screen, Colbert could be funny, heartbreaking, witty, dazed and confused, sophisticated, bourgeois, sexless, sexy. On the set of her films, she could be the perfect diva, making demands on how she should be lit and how she should be photographed. Indeed, according to cinematographer Joseph August, Frank Capra and Colbert “ended up hating each other” after working together in the actress' only silent film, For the Love of Mike. Things didn't improve any during the shooting of their second joint effort, It Happened One Night.

But (at least in her films) Colbert couldn't be one thing: phony. Whether because of her extensive Broadway training, or merely because the actress had what it takes to behave naturally in front of the camera, the vast majority of her performances hold up remarkably well. Despite the elaborate coiffures, the glamorous gowns, and the penciled eyebrows, Colbert exuded freshness at a time when so many performers – both male and female, stage-trained or not – believed that film acting meant posing and declaiming.

Back in March 2007, James Robert Parish, author of The RKO Gals, The Paramount Pretties (among them Colbert), Fiasco: A History of Hollywood's Iconic Flops, and It's Good to Be the King: The Seriously Funny Life of Mel Brooks, among dozens of other titles, agreed to answer a few questions (via email) about Claudette Colbert. At the time, Jim was doing research on Colbert's life for a possible book project. Please click on the link below the check out the reposted Parish/Colbert q&a.

Claudette Colbert photo via Doctor Macro.

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

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.]

Claudette Colbert She Married Her Boss poster Gregory La CavaA follow-up to the previous question: Which roles did Claudette Colbert want – whether at Paramount or elsewhere – that she didn't get?

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).

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20 Comments to Claudette Colbert: Author James Robert Parish Discusses the Paramount Star

  1. Bob Faust

    If you want to be shocked beyond belief visit Claudette Colbert's grave on Barbatos It is located in a deserted cemetary full of junk and in total disrepair. I could'nt
    believe my eyes .How could this happen to such a famous star.

  2. Jacklyn Johnson

    Claudette Colbert demonstrated versatility throughout her career, and played characters that ranged from vamps to housewives, and that encompassed screwball comedy and drama. She was an amazing actress! Thanks for the heads up on the Evertalk page Christina.

  3. Christina Smythe

    Claudette Colbert was one of the most charming and vivacious stars of Hollywood's golden age. Someone should create a page for Claudette

  4. Danae Prange

    i LOVE Burkely Duffield!!

  5. Bill

    My mother and she graduated from the same high school-Washington Irving High School in Manhattan.
    There was something really special about Miss Colbert. She was really beautiful, extremely talented and very versatile as an actress. I have seen many of her films. She was chic and beautiful, but also down to earth. I never had the privilege of meeting her. I really would have wanted to. People that I know who have met her said that she was as nice in person as she was in her films.
    She led a great life. She traveled extensively, saw much of the world, associated with the famous and gave the world a lot of pleasure. It seems strange that she is no longer with us.

  6. Lamar Wyatt

    My friend believes he has an Er Coupe Airplane that once was bought by Cladette for her husband Dr presman. Is there any information you might have on this?

  7. vera brown

    she was to me a quality of genuiness probable the same off screen. besides self diciplined
    probable the same off screen as on screen.

    acting is seeing the same person each movie but
    different roles putting ones self in to the job.
    remaining the same person showing the person in the acting.
    does this make sense?

  8. vera brown

    don`t give out my name or email.
    not enough information put to the public is given to inform people to see the burial place of claudette colburt is keep up. why is`nt the actors guild doing up keep of stars burial place.

    the quality of pictures before 1970`s needs to be perserved for our kids heritage. the quality of viewing today trashes entertainment descent for viewing for the younger generation.

    a generation is growing up with out the american dream or middle class or a chance to climb from
    beginning to succed in home ownership or career.

    someway keeping alive something in this nation
    of what it really is.


  9. Bob Faust

    I just returned from Barbados where I visited Claudette Colberts grave site in St.Peters cemetary. I was deeply saddened. It is a dump. The cemetary is about 100 yards wide and 200 yards deep. No grass, no tree's, just dirt. Broken and turned over grave stones. It looked like a World War I no man's land. Holes,and junk on the ground. Many unmarked graves. It is located in a run down ares of Sprightstown on Highway 1. There is one tree near her cript. Her cript is in a low place about four feet deep. It's red granite. Her ashes are in a vase next to her husbands Joel Presman's coffin. How could such a beautiful, talented and world class celeberty end up in such a bad place. Is there no family to care for it. I'll never forget the scene. Bob Faust

  10. Tom

    The SSDI site is great for the actual birthdates of stars although some names I can't find at all - Norma Shearer for example. I wonder if maybe Norma never did become a US citizen despite reports that she had.

    It's interesting that many stars were apparently younger than the age “assigned” to them - anyone who has read a fair amount of old movie mags should know that things like birthdates, age, and birth year were almost never mentioned so maybe a lot of YOB printed in early film books were taken out of the air.

    Mary Boland was born in 1882, not 1880 as most sources state. Vilma Banky was born in 1901 while several had “guessed” her being older. Gloria Swanson and Lana Turner told the truth about being born in 1899 and 1921 while some have claimed a year or two earlier.

    The topper for me was Mae Murray. I argued against those in the past on other websites who suggested she was possibly born before 1889, saying that it was unlikely, but there it is on SSDI - born in 1884!!! I stand corrected.

  11. Andre


    Thanks. I've copied the info, and I've forwarded it to Jim Parish.

    I've asked him twice about Colbert's date of birth, and both times he affirmed that she was born in 1901.

    I'll see if I can get him to elaborate a little more on that.

  12. Tom

    Claudette Colbert was born in 1903, maybe there is some confusion here about her birth year being two years early because it was publicized as 1905 for decades but Claudette herself confirmed it as 1903 in the 1980's.


  13. Andre


    Did Claudette Colbert have a house on Fire Island?

    And I'll look for your Marlene Dietrich podcast.

  14. Harry

    Gosh, no, I didn't even get to see Aren't We All when it was playing in London and New York. I mailed my speech to her home in Barbados and, much to my surprise, received the autograph I posted here, in my Colbert tribute:


    You know, she's my favorite leading lady. I often wonder why, at the age of 9, I became so intrigued by her image; I'd like to think that I sensed something that was reassuring. She had the dignity and confidence I lacked growing up. She was never shrill or, say, obvious. And as much as I envy those among my acquaintances who got to wave at her on Fire Island, I never required any such hints or clues. I simply felt embraced.

    Could Ms. Colbert play a Welsh character? I'm not sure; there's probably not much left of the culture in the radio adaptation. I am fairly certain, however, that she did not attempt a phony accent. Once I'm through with Ms. Dietrich, I'm going to devote a podcast to her radio performances.

    Thanks for getting all of us talking about her.

  15. Andre


    Claudette Colbert, then in her mid-30s, was indeed too old to play Scarlett. Curiously, Jean Arthur and Tallulah Bankhead, who were about the same age, were considered for the part.

    If I remember it correctly, Arthur was one of Selznick's favorites to play Scarlett. Arthur was great, but that would have been a very bad bit of miscasting.

    I'll ask re: Jimmie Hicks.

  16. Tom

    I would imagine Claudette didn't pursue GWTW because she knew she was too old, too womanly (as opposed to girlish), and lacked the extreme sex appeal the role required. Most of the “contenders” were similarly deprived in all three areas but apparently lacked Colbert's common sense. I don't see Claudette's French-ness as a handicap, however, after all Scarlett was half-French and her coquetry could be seen as the “French” in her. Claudette herself loved the South and had many friends in New Orleans (she had her Barbados home built to resemble a New Orleans mansion) and was a big enough fan of the book GWTW to attend the film's world premiere in Atlanta - the only major star there not involved with the production other than, of course, Mrs. Clark Gable, Carole Lombard.

    Los Angeles-based film historian Jimmie Hicks was working on a Claudette Colbert biography in the 1990's, does anyone know if he is still pursuing that project or completed it?

  17. Andre


    You've raised a valid point, even though there have been stories about Claudette Colbert's sexual orientation since — at least — the 1970s. Of course, that per se doesn't mean she *was* gay or bisexual or whatever. (In fact, the 1970s stories come from a thoroughly unreliable source.)

    Now, there weren't any stories about, say, Ramon Novarro being gay until after his death. That doesn't mean Novarro wasn't gay. He was.

    Ultimately, one must go by the available evidence (or lack thereof) and reach one's own — as unbiased as possible — conclusions.

  18. Benny Drinnon

    They didn't say that Claudette Colbert was a lesbian while she was still alive. Doesn't it look kind of funny when they wait till after someone's dead to say something like that?

  19. Andre


    Did I get this right?? You showed Claudette Colbert your prepared speech, and she autographed it?

    Did you ever sit down to talk to her?

    I also have a Claudette Colbert autograph, though I've never met her. A friend, then working as a busboy at a restaurant, got her to sign her name on a napkin. He then gave it to me. That ragged napkin is still here — somewhere.

    So, you think Claudette Colbert could play Welsh??

  20. Thanks for this interview, Andre. I am really looking forward to Jim's book and a reassessment of Colbert's career. I just dropped her name yesterday when I considered American actors playing Welsh parts; I'd done more than that if I had a recording of her Lux performance in The Corn Is Green.

    I mentioned her business savvy, her reluctance to stretch, and rumors about her gender-orientation in a short undergraduate speech on her (hey, my professor did say, pick any topic). Colbert didn't seem to mind it, I guess (otherwise I wouldn't have gotten that autograph).

    Later, in another college essay titled “Ladies in Loco-Motion,” I discussed her roles as will-powered women on the go (on buses and trains) and how that image changed toward the end of the war when she became the tormented wife (Sleep, My Love), the frustrated farmer (The Egg and I), or the frazzled newlywed (Family Honeymoon). After flinging Mein Kampf out of her compartment window in Arise, My Love or plunging into adventure on trains bound for Paris or Florida, she got derailed with projects like Without Reservations. No matter how deficient her knowledge about the Budapest subway, she sure looked great in a tight Bronx Local.