Those who remember Claudette Colbert, Turner Classic Movies’ “Summer Under the Stars” featured 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.
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.
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.]
- A 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).
John Litel, Claudette Colbert, Paulette Goddard (third from the right) in Mark Sandrich’s So Proudly We Hail!
- With her film stardom behind her, Claudette Colbert returned to the stage. What was that like for her? Did she miss Hollywood, or was she content with being back on Broadway?
Colbert had always adored performing on the stage and wisely decided to return to Broadway where she knew her age would not rule out starring vehicles. The relocation to Manhattan (while her husband Dr. Joel Pressman remained in Los Angeles) suited her strong desire to participate in the chic New York social scene, and to enjoy life in the metropolis where she had grown up. In New York – out of the Hollywood media glare – she was much freer to live life on her own terms.
- There have been many rumors that Claudette Colbert was a lesbian whose marriage was one for appearances’ sake. Is there anything you can tell us about that matter?
Much of that will be saved for the book. However, her marriages were rather “unique.” She and her first husband, film actor/director Norman Foster, lived apart, never sharing a home together in Hollywood. Instead, Colbert chose to live with her domineering mother in Los Angeles.
From 1935 until his death in 1968, Dr. Joel Pressman was Colbert’s spouse. His main duty in their childless marriage was to be her social companion at industry/social events. By the mid-1950s, when Colbert relocated to New York City (and then to her estate in Barbados) she and Pressman lived essentially apart. Over the years, Claudette had several close women friends.
- And finally, which ones of Claudette Colbert’s films and performances would you, personally, list as her best?
There are several Colbert performances I especially admire, including the 1935 comedy The Gilded Lily and the 1943 battlefront drama So Proudly We Hail!. One of my particularly favorite Colbert performances is in the World War II drama Arise, My Love, directed by Mitchell Leisen. In this patriotic yarn co-starring Ray Milland, Colbert has solid opportunities to display a range of her talents: light comedy, romance, and action.
[Right: Stephen Collins and Claudette Colbert in the 1987 TV movie The Two Mrs. Grenvilles, for which Colbert won a Best Supporting Actress Golden Globe and an Emmy nomination.
On his website, Stephen Collins says, “It was a rare treat and honor to work with Claudette. This was her first appearance on film in over twenty years. She was an amazing pro, a great dame, and always showed up to work – even at 5AM – with perfectly done make-up and her hair coiffed and camera-ready. No one ever saw her in curlers. Legendary hairdresser Sydney Guilaroff did her hair, as well as Ann-Margret’s. Sometimes, he’d even fix mine.” Photo © NBC]