Claudette Colbert won the Academy Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role for her performance in the classic It Happened One Night (1934). This article looks at her life and career up until that time.
Colbert's early story is mostly set in New York, where the French born actress arrived at age eight. She not only grew up in the big city, but came to fame there as well with her start on Broadway and early movie appearances that were often filmed at Paramount's Astoria studio.
Colbert, born Emilie Claudette Chauchoin in Saint-Mande, France in 1903, immigrated to New York at age 8 in 1911.
Of her name, Claudette told a reporter in 1945 that “My family name … is Chauchoin but, because it is a bit of tongue twister (Note: It was pronounced “show-shwan”), I changed it to Colbert.” For those whose tongues are still twisting, Claudette told Arnold Hano that, “In the very beginning, they wanted to give me French roles … That’s why I used to say my name Col-bert just as it is spelled instead of Col-baire. I did not want to be typed as ‘that French girl’” (Quirk (7).
Colbert’s mother was of English descent and biographer Bernard Dick credits Claudette’s grandmother, Marie Augustine Loew, with having helped Claudette learn English (9), though an extensive 1942 biography of Colbert, claims that Claudette didn’t remember how she had mastered her new language. “It must have been in school, for nothing but French was ever spoken in the family circle,” Al Duffy wrote in this series of articles “by arrangement with Columbia Pictures.”
Despite being a Columbia publicity piece the Duffy biography largely checks out against many of the facts of Colbert’s life. I found the Duffy piece serialized throughout six issues of the Hayward Daily Review in the summer of 1942, though I suspect it was originally published earlier because each entry carries the title of Colbert’s 1935 film She Married Her Boss. The series appears to be the leading source of information on Colbert’s early life in Lawrence J. Quirk’s respected Claudette Colbert: An Illustrated Biography, published in 1985.
Claudette Colbert worked her way through New York’s public schools and into Washington Irving High School where she would gain her first acting experience. Washington Irving English teacher Alice Rostetter penned something called Launcelot George for the school’s acting club (Dick 11-12), but more substantially also had another of her plays, The Widow’s Veil, accepted by the Provincetown Players.
Rostetter suggested Claudette to the Players, a non-commercial theatrical company which had semi-recently relocated from Provincetown, MA to New York’s Greenwich Village, and Claudette debuted for them in February 1919. But Claudette’s interest in the arts also crossed over into painting and she soon enrolled in the Art Students League of New York. She also indulged her interest in fashion and earned money for her education in the fine arts through a job as a dressmaker, which didn’t go so well according to the Duffy piece.
In Duffy's 1942 biography of Colbert, Claudette credited a friend, Helen Hackett, with convincing her that she should give the stage a more serious effort. Another friend of Hackett’s, Anne Morrison, had just written a play called The Wild Westcotts that was about to be produced on Broadway and Hackett put in the good word for Claudette. Claudette’s part in The Wild Westcotts was small, just three lines, but this was a Broadway production featuring the likes of Cornelia Otis Skinner and, according to Claudette, Edna May Oliver in the cast.
The Wild Westcotts opened at the Frazee Theatre on Christmas Eve, 1923, and lasted just over three weeks, but this time Claudette Colbert was hooked on acting and wanted to do more. Claudette next talked her way into the leading role in The Marionette Man, which opened in Washington, when she confidently told producer Brook Pemberton that she had had vast experience on the Paris stage.
It was with her next effort that fortunate circumstance caught up with Claudette’s budding talent. She tried to get work with Jessie Bonstelle’s stock company, but Bonstelle didn’t need Claudette when she first applied. Bonstelle eventually got back in touch with Colbert when her star, Katherine Alexander, left the cast of Leah Kleschna. Claudette played the lead in Leah Kelschna for ten weeks, from Detroit to Chicago, where she met and befriended Leslie Howard (Duffy Ch.4).
Howard arranged an introduction to Broadway producer Al Woods for Claudette, who impressed Woods during a short Chicago run for him in The Cat Came Back. Woods brought Claudette back to Broadway in the lead of A Kiss in a Taxi and signed her to a five-year contract. Claudette received fine notices for The Ghost Train for Woods and The Pearl of Great Price for the Shuberts, but had a disagreement with Woods when he wanted her to next play in Crime for him.Claudette had good reason for refusing Crime, but the decision could have easily been a mistake when newcomer Sylvia Sidney rode the part to her own first wave of stardom. But Claudette Colbert preferred another play to Crime and she would become one of Broadway’s biggest hits of 1927 in it. The part was that of a carnival snake charmer in The Barker starring Walter Huston. (Coincidentally, I just discussed the 1928 film adaptation of The Barker in my Milton Sills biography).
The Barker ran for over 220 performances at the Biltmore Theatre during the first half of 1927. It provided Claudette Colbert’s breakout role, one which Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times found “superior” (Quirk 9) and which caused columnist O.O. McIntyre to nominate Claudette Colbert as “most finished actress appearing on the New York stage this season” (McIntyre).
Also cast in The Barker was Norman Foster, as Huston’s son and Colbert’s love interest. The couple became an item off the stage as well and would marry in March 1928. Much was made over Colbert and Foster’s unique marriage arrangement as they lived apart in a novel attempt to preserve the intensity of their love. While this arrangement is always reported with some curiosity, it was the growing disparity in their careers which was usually credited as top factor leading to their mid-1935 divorce.
Claudette’s success in The Barker caught the eye of the film world and she made her movie debut in First National’s For the Love of Mike (1927), a Frank Capra film starring Ben Lyon. Claudette had signed a three-year deal with the film company and was next slated for French Dressing but For the Love of Mike made no impression and was such a disappointing experience for Colbert that she swore off the movies for good: “Films are not for me—they’re off my list permanently … And damn it, my voice is one of my biggest assets and they couldn’t use it!” (Quirk 14).
Yes, For the Love of Mike was a silent film. As was French Dressing, but Claudette would not appear in that one. Instead, it was back to the stage for Woods in The Mulberry Bush to close out 1927. A couple of additional Broadway shows came and went before Claudette, Foster and company took The Barker to London, where she was a hit all over again in 1928.
Back to New York and another quick succession of plays, but one of them, Eugene O’Neill’s Dynamo, earned Claudette another huge round of praise despite the fact that it was, even in Claudette’s own words, “O’Neill’s worst play” (Quirk 14). Also starring Glenn Anders, Helen Westley and Dudley Digges, Dynamo did last 50 performances at the Martin Beck Theatre in early 1929.
By 1929 the movies were talking and Broadway stars were growing in demand as the film studios shed silent stars who failed to impress when recorded for sound. Paramount lured Claudette back to the movies with a deal promising that all of her films would be made at their East Coast Astoria studio, enabling her to continue acting on the stage as well. While she would appear in Elmer Rice’s See Naples and Die later that year, it would be Claudette Colbert’s final appearance on Broadway until 1955.
Thanks to sound Claudette’s second run on film was much more enjoyable that her first. Claudette Colbert was soon on her way to becoming the star we celebrate today.
This phase of her movie career kicked off with The Hole in the Wall, a 1929 release that introduced moviegoers to another former Broadway star, Edward G. Robinson, who had previously appeared in a couple of silent films himself. Next Claudette was reunited with Walter Huston of The Barker in The Lady Lies (1929) and after that came her only feature film with husband Norman Foster, Young Man of Manhattan (1930), better remembered for drawing notice to young Ginger Rogers as Puff Randolph.
Claudette made her Hollywood debut opposite Fredric March in Manslaughter (1930) and then played in Paramount’s French version of Slightly Scarlet, L’enigmatique Monsieur Parkes (1930), with Pittsburgh born Adolphe Menjou in the title role. After that it was time for a break and Claudette traveled with friends over the next several months.
Upon her return Claudette would make her most memorable impression on film to date as Franzi, the object of Maurice Chevalier’s desire in Ernst Lubitsch’s The Smiling Lieutenant (1931). Chevalier carries on an affair with the Colbert character before a mistaken wink winds up marrying him to a Princess played by Miriam Hopkins. Claudette winds up winning our hearts by giving the inexperienced Hopkins the help she needs to win Chevalier over. The famed Lubitsch touch is all over The Smiling Lieutenant, a film best described as delightful.
After a string of films which Cecil B. DeMille considered “fluffy, lightheaded stuff which, I felt, did not give scope enough to her talent,” (Quirk 51) the famed director made Colbert his Poppea in The Sign of the Cross (1932). DeMille famously asked Colbert, “How would you like to play the wickedest woman in the world?” and Claudette bit. The Sign of the Cross is far from a great movie, it plays as great camp today, but Claudette is certainly memorable in it, especially thanks to her infamous milk bath!
While The Sign of the Cross was disappointing at the box office it did raise Colbert’s star status. But it would be another year before Claudette Colbert became a star of the highest magnitude when she was loaned out to Columbia for It Happened One Night (1934), a film which famously didn’t thrill any of its stars … until it swept the Oscars capturing Claudette Colbert her only Academy Award for Best Actress in a Leading Role and securing her place in film history for all of time.
For me Claudette Colbert represents sophistication and sex and, similarly, wit and humor. She has one of the most unique faces in film history and thanks to her own self-awareness it was near always photographed from its most perfect left side. Her hairstyle fit and it never changed. Photos of Colbert from the 1980’s show the same look she had by the late 1920’s. Age can change appearances, sometimes drastically so, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone with such a consistent and thus easily recognizable look over a period of 60-plus years of adulthood!
A couple of additional notes, just to tie up the most important loose ends: Colbert's second marriage, to Dr. Joel Pressman in 1935, was far more successful than her first. They remained married until his death in 1968. They had no children.
Claudette Colbert's final film was 1961's Parrish, but she remained active on stage appearing on Broadway as late as 1985 and returning to television in the 1987 made-for-TV movie The Two Mrs. Grenvilles.
She died in Barbados in 1996, age 92.
- ”At the Theaters.” Port Arthur News 18 Aug 1927: 6. NewspaperArchive. Web. 11 Sep 2012.
- Dick, Bernard. Claudette Colbert: She Walked in Beauty. University of Mississippi, 2008.
- Duffy, Al. “Life of Claudette Colbert: Star of She Married Her Boss.” Hayward Daily Review 27 Jun-3 Jul 1942: 4+. NewspaperArchive. Web. 12 Sep 2012.
- Johnson, Erskine. “In Hollywood.” Laredo Times 13 Jan 1943: 3. NewspaperArchive. Web. 11 Sep 2012.
- McIntyre, O.O. “Day by Day.” North Adams Transcript 5 Aug 1927: 4. NewspaperArchive. Web. 13 Sep 2012.
- Quirk, Lawrence J. Claudette Colbert : An Illustrated Biography. New York: Crown, 1985.
- ”Who is ‘Stachel Pants?’” Salt Lake Tribune 18 Mar 1945: 4. NewspaperArchive. Web. 11 Sep 2012.