Skip to Main Content
Claudette Colbert

Claudette Colbert: She Walked in Beauty

Bernard F. Dick
Copyright Date: 2008
Pages: 304
  • Cite this Item
  • Book Info
    Claudette Colbert
    Book Description:

    Claudette Colbert's mixture of beauty, sophistication, wit, and vivacity quickly made her one of the film industry's most famous and highest-paid stars of the 1930s and 1940s. Though she began her career on the New York stage, she was beloved for her roles in such films as Preston Sturges'sThe Palm Beach Story, Cecil B. DeMille'sCleopatra, and Frank Capra'sIt Happened One Night, for which she won an Academy Award. She showed remarkable prescience by becoming one of the first Hollywood stars to embrace television, and she also returned to Broadway in her later career.

    This is the first major biography of Colbert (1903-1996) published in over twenty years. Bernard F. Dick chronicles Colbert's long career, but also explores her early life in Paris and New York. Along with discussing how she left her mark on Broadway, Hollywood, radio, and television, the book explores Colbert's lifelong interests in painting, fashion design, and commercial art. Using correspondence, interviews, periodicals, film archives, and other research materials, the biography reveals a smart, talented actress who conquered Hollywood and remains one of America's most captivating screen icons.

    Bernard F. Dick is professor of communication and English at Fairleigh Dickinson University and is the author ofHal Wallis: Producer to the Stars;Engulfed: The Death of Paramount Pictures and the Birth of Corporate Hollywood;Forever Mame: The Life of Rosalind Russell(University Press of Mississippi); and other books.

    eISBN: 978-1-60473-329-7
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations Export to NoodleTools Export to RefWorks Export to EasyBib Export a RIS file (For EndNote, ProCite, Reference Manager, Zotero, Mendeley...) Export a Text file (For BibTex)
  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xii)
    (pp. xiii-xviii)
  5. CHAPTER 1 Lily of Saint-Mandé
    (pp. 1-14)

    On 13 September 1903 in Saint-Mandé, an eastern suburb of Paris named after a sixth-century saint and located a little more than three miles from the heart of the city, Jeanne Marie Chauchoin, age twenty-six, gave birth to a second child, a daughter. The child was born at home in the Chauchoins’ apartment on 5 rue Armand Carrel (now l’avenue du Général de Gaulle), the same street where the Chauchoins had a pastry shop, La pâtisserie Chauchoin. The Chauchoins already had a son, Charles Auguste, born five years earlier on 21 September 1898.

    Immediately after his daughter was born, Georges...

  6. CHAPTER 2 Becoming Claudette Colbert
    (pp. 15-35)

    In 1919 Claudette had not yet begun to pursue a stage career, although one was beckoning from the wings. Alice Rostetter, who wroteLauncelot George, in which Claudette had appeared at Washington Irving High School, was elated when the Provincetown Playhouse accepted her new play,The Widow’s Veil, for a February 1919 opening. The Provincetown Players had moved from Provincetown, Massachusetts, to New York in 1916; by 1919, the Playhouse, best known for presenting some of Eugene O’Neill’s early works, was fulfilling its mission to give new voices in the theater a hearing. One such voice—but unfortunately, not one...

  7. CHAPTER 3 Commuting to Work
    (pp. 36-57)

    “Claudette Colbert is about to go over to the talking films,” theNew York Timesreported on 17 March 1929. Actually, Claudette already had; her first talkie,The Hole in the Wall, was scheduled to open the following month. In fact, Claudette made her screen debut in a silent: Frank Capra’sFor the Love of Mike, released in August 1927. During the 1926–27 season, it was impossible to work in the theatre without being aware of the impact movies were making on American popular culture and of the radical changes occurring within the film industry itself. A few weeks...

  8. CHAPTER 4 “Ready When You Are, C. B.”
    (pp. 58-76)

    As soon asThe Misleading Ladywound up production, Claudette started packing for Los Angeles. Since there was no more work for her at Astoria, the alternative was returning to the theatre. In 1932, however, she felt that she was no longer a stage actress, but rather an actress who could bring the essence of theatre to the screen. Besides, she was under contract to Paramount, which expected her to be on board for her next film,The Man from Yesterday, scheduled for a late June release. Marie Augustine was at Grand Central Station when Claudette and her mother boarded...

  9. CHAPTER 5 That Wonderful Year
    (pp. 77-99)

    In 1933,CosmopolitanpublishedNight Bus, reprinted the following year as a Dell 10-cent “vestpocket” in a series that already included Mary Roberts Rinehart’sLocked Doors, W. Somerset Maugham’sRain, and Pearl Buck’sJourney for Life. The author was Samuel Hopkins Adams, an investigative reporter who later became a successful writer of fiction. Adams’s dialogue was realistically pithy, but when he had to rely on narration and especially description, the man of letters took over and the spindly language became quaintly literary—the kind that pulp writers use when they want to remind themselves and their readers that they are,...

  10. CHAPTER 6 A Night to Remember
    (pp. 100-108)

    When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced its nominations for 1934, Claudette was flattered to see her name in the Best Actress category. She might also have been pleased that her three films of that year—Cleopatra, Imitation of Life, andIt Happened One Night—were up for Best Picture. If she gave the matter any thought, she would have concluded that, of the three,Imitationcould be the dark horse in a race dominated by MGM(The Barretts of Wimpole Street, The Thin Man, andViva Villa), Fox (The House of Rothschild, The White Parade), and...

  11. CHAPTER 7 The End of a Modern Marriage
    (pp. 109-120)

    Claudette’s Oscar paid off—literally. In July 1935, Paramount rewarded her with a seven-picture contract that raised her salary to $150,000 a picture and permitted her to make at least three more at other studios. The year 1935 proved memorable for another reason: her relationship with Dr. Joel “Joe” Pressman, whom she first met in August 1933, when he performed her appendectomy, changed dramatically. Plagued by periodic attacks of sinusitis, Claudette learned that Pressman was also an otolaryngologist and arranged for a consultation. Soon they were no longer doctor and patient. Claudette discovered a man who, unlike the actors she...

  12. CHAPTER 8 Life after Oscar
    (pp. 121-145)

    Oscars often prove to be a mixed blessing. They are prestigious, of course, but they do not necessarily advance a career or recharge one that has been dormant. When Louise Fletcher won hers forOne Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest(1975), there were more roles, but none as memorable as Nurse Ratched. The Oscar did more for her costar, Jack Nicholson, who won for Best Actor, and again forTerms of Endearment(1983) andAs Good as It Gets(1997). Nicholson never lacked for parts tailored to his persona; Fletcher, lacking a persona, simply had to take what was offered her....

  13. CHAPTER 9 Blaze of Noon
    (pp. 146-166)

    These were Claudette’s golden days, which would lose their luster by the end of the 1940s. Meanwhile, her fan base increased. According to theNew York Times(7 January 1937), theMotion Picture Heraldranked her eighth among Hollywood’s moneymaking stars of 1936; more important, the year before she came in sixth in terms of popularity, after Shirley Temple, Will Rogers, Clark Gable, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and Joan Crawford. TheNew York Times(21 March 1937) also reported that seniors at the New York University School of Commerce voted Robert Taylor and Claudette their favorite movie stars. Even...

  14. CHAPTER 10 Claudette and the “Good War”
    (pp. 167-178)

    The picture that should have marked the end of Claudette’s Paramount period wasSo Proudly We Hail(1943); at least she would have played a woman closer to her age, and not one who should have been in her twenties. Once America entered World War II, the studios rallied around the flag, unleashing a barrage of films ranging from sensationalism (breeding camps inHitler’s Children[RKO, 1943] and the bayoneting of Chinese babies and the insertion of bamboo shoots under fingernails inBehind the Rising Sun[RKO, 1943]) to burlesque (Nazis as bumbling clowns inDesperate Journey[Warners, 1942]). Paramount...

  15. CHAPTER 11 Slow Fade to Legend
    (pp. 179-200)

    When Claudette left Paramount in 1944, she did not have a set agenda. She knew only that she wanted to go on making movies on a freelance basis, with script and, of course, salary as the determining factors. For the rest of her film career she alternated between romantic comedies and serious dramas (film noir, war film, western, family melodrama), none of which were especially memorable except the previously discussedThree Came Home,which became her last film of any consequence. To remind audiences of her versatility, Claudette generally chose to follow a comedy with a drama, or a few...

  16. CHAPTER 12 The Last Picture Shows
    (pp. 201-214)

    By the early 1950s, Claudette had reached that stage in her career when she was expected to weave that old black magic and turn dross into silk; or as Ezra Pound put it, acorns into lilies. The magic was intact, but the scripts that came her way only allowed her to play a version of what she once had been. There was still the signature hairdo, the vitality, and the age-defying appearance. Even if you knew her birth date, you would ignore chronology and marvel at a face that never seemed to have undergone cosmetic surgery, although she did admit...

  17. CHAPTER 13 The Long Voyage Home
    (pp. 215-230)

    “Colbert ponders return to stage.” So claimed theNew York Times(10 March 1949), strongly implying that Claudette “may be lured back next fall to the Broadway stage which she deserted in 1928 for a career in motion pictures.” Claudette had found a play,Lily Henry,that intrigued her, although it is difficult to understand why, since it seemed more like experimental theatre than conventional drama. The play’s premise, or rather gimmick, was the separation of a woman’s body and mind, portrayed as individual characters that do not interact with each other.

    On 10 March 1949, two of Claudette’s former...

  18. CHAPTER 14 She’s Back on Broadway
    (pp. 231-246)

    In February 1955, when Claudette was in New York rehearsing forThe Guardsman,she told theNew York Timesthat she would like to return to Broadway: “But I never shall. I don’t want to be away from home on account of Joel Pressman.” A year later, Claudette felt differently; live television prepared her to return to the medium in which she made her reputation. As for Pressman, he had become accustomed to their frequent separations. He also had his own career, which was completely independent of his wife’s. In 1955 he was on the staff of St. John’s Hospital...

  19. CHAPTER 15 The Stigma
    (pp. 247-262)

    When Claudette married Norman Foster in 1927, she was quite open about their marriage; it was a “modern marriage,” a phrase that led to a great deal of speculation. Once Claudette told the fan magazines that she and Norman had separate residences, both in New York and later, briefly, in Los Angeles, the rumors began to fly. The press was relatively discreet, although when columnist Louis Sobol learned that the couple was having marital problems, he observed snidely that “the Claudette (Norman Foster) Colberts are pouting.” Elsewhere, Norman was depicted as an acquiescent husband; Claudette, as a liberated woman, so...

  20. CHAPTER 16 Slow Fade to Black
    (pp. 263-283)

    The Irregular Verb to Loveclosed in December 1963 after 115 performances. Claudette hoped it would have a longer run, but the play paid the price for opening early in a season that, while not particularly distinguished (the main attractions were Carol Channing inHello, Dolly! and Barbra Streisand inFunny Girl), included two comedies that proved hugely popular:Barefoot in the ParkandAny Wednesday. Still, it lasted longer thanJulia, Jake and Uncle Joe,and even though none of her other plays would equal the run ofThe Marriage-Go-Round,she at least knew she could attract an audience—...

  21. CHAPTER 17 Envoi
    (pp. 284-298)

    By 1984, Claudette had become more than a star; she had become venerable, which meant tributes and accolades. In April 1984, shortly before she left for London to start rehearsals forAren’t We All?she attended the dedication of the Claudette Colbert Building at Kaufman Astoria Studios, where her film career began fifty-five years earlier. The facilities were a vast improvement over the ones that she and Edward G. Robinson encountered when they madeThe Hole in the Wall,but at least someone knew that Claudette Colbert had made twelve films there between 1929 and 1932.

    Two weeks after the...

    (pp. 299-299)
    (pp. 300-301)
    (pp. 302-302)
    (pp. 303-304)
    (pp. 305-318)
  27. INDEX
    (pp. 319-329)