Actress. Born September 13, 1903 in Paris, France. Claudette Colbert epitomizes Old Hollywood glamour, but not the glamour that comes bolstered by furs and feathers like Dietrich's or by mystery and solitude like that of Garbo. Colbert's glamour is the sort that women attain for themselves by using their intelligence to create a timeless personal style. It is an attainable kind of glamour, but only if one has the natural gifts of brains and beauty associated with Colbert.
Colbert is most often remembered for her expert comic timing, which was displayed in a series of screwball comedies she made throughout the 1930s and 1940s, chief among them her Academy Award-winning performance in Frank Capra's It Happened One Night. In that film, Colbert took out a patent on the runaway heiress character, and anyone else who played such a role did so in her shadow. All her comedies present her as a well-dressed modern woman who can handle any situation. Midnight opens on a rainy night in which a train pulls into a Paris station, bearing Colbert, asleep, in a third-class coach. She is without funds, without luggage, and without contacts, but she is nevertheless wearing a fabulous silver lamé evening gown. She wakes up, picks the straw out of her hair, and steps confidently out into the lousy weather, her wits sharp and her wardrobe up to whatever social advantage she can promote. This illustrates a typical Colbert comedy character--the woman of resource, humor, style, and, above all else, confidence.
Despite her association with comedy, Colbert played a wide range of roles. Her versatility is seldom commented on, but it is reflected in her other two Oscar nominations: for her role as a psychiatrist in Private Worlds, and as a wartime wife in Since You Went Away. She appeared in mysteries, costume dramas, melodramas, musicals, and epics. She portrayed everyone from Cleopatra to a modern egg farmer, a villainess to a maid of Salem, an authoress to a nun. Whatever the role, her grace and timing always prevented her from seeming to be humiliated or defeated. Thus, she could endure a prison camp, as in Three Came Home, go out of control on a bobsled in I Met Him in Paris, or fall about in a ship's galley while trying to fry a fish in Skylark, without ever seeming to lose her ladylike grace. This quality, coupled with her delicate features, might have doomed her to stuffy roles had she not also projected a genuine warmth, enhanced by an unforgettable laugh, a delicious speaking voice, and a sparkling quality that humanized her.
At first Colbert planned to become a fashion designer, but a growing interest in dramatics led her to Broadway. She became respected and popular primarily as a result of her 1927 performance as a carnival snake charmer in The Barker, a success which led inevitably to a film career. Her first big hit was as the seductress, Empress Poppaea, in Cecil B. DeMille's The Sign of the Cross, and she might have become typed as a villainess had she not been assigned to It Happened One Night.
Colbert became known in Hollywood for her shrewd business sense, and the successful direction of her career is said to be largely due to her own good instincts. She left the comforts of a Paramount contract after appearing in Practically Yours in 1944, and spent the rest of her Hollywood years as a freelance artist. Her one big career disappointment was due to an illness that forced her to step out of the leading role in All about Eve, which then went to Bette Davis. Otherwise Colbert maintained a steady pace until she chose to retire after playing a mother in Parrish. Although that remains her last feature film, she found continuing popularity and acceptance in the theater, having returned to leading roles in New York and London. After a 25-year hiatus from movies, she gave a heralded performance in the television mini-series The Two Mrs. Grenvilles, playing the matriarch of a socially prominent family.
Claudette Colbert is the sort of actress whose best qualities were those that the passage of time could not date or diminish: a sense of wit, a core of strength, and, above all, a strong projection of intelligence. Had she been only a clotheshorse, or a model of whatever glamorous style was currently in fashion, she would not have lasted. Yet her good looks, slim figure, and timeless chic endured over seven decades of work in film and theater. She herself said it best, "I don't need that awful artificial glamour that Hollywood devises for people who don't have any personalities." Colbert's ability to create her own brand of glamour helped her outlast many of her less self-sufficient contemporaries.
© Biography Resource Center, Gale Group 2001.
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