Claudette Colbert (1903-1996)

Claudette Colbert
Claudette Colbert

Claudette Colbert was a French-born American stage and film actress, one of the most charming and vivacious stars of Hollywood's Golden Age. Claudette Colbert specialised in witty, sexy and elegant roles in romantic comedies and she was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress for three films, 'It Happened One Night' (1935), for which she won the Oscar, 'Private Worlds' (1936), and 'Since You Went Away' (1945). She is the only actress to date, to appear in three films, each of which was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar in the same year. It happened in 1934 and the three nominated movies were 'Cleopatra'; 'Imitation of Life' and, the winner of the Best Picture Award, 'It Happened One Night'.

During her career Claudette appeared in over sixty films, many as leading lady. She is ranked at number 12 in The American Film Institute's list of Greatest Actresses. She was one of the first top Hollywood stars to embrace the new medium of television, and she also returned to Broadway later in her career.

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She was born Emilie Claudette Chauchoin on September 13, 1903, in Saint-Mandé, Seine, France but was raised in New York City after her family immigrated to the United States when she was very young. The family's native tongue was French although all spoke fluent English due to a strong family connection to the British Channel Islands.

Early Acting Experience

She studied at Washington Irving High School where one of her teachers was Alice Rostetter, who was a playwright and actress with the Provincetown Playhouse in Greenwich Village. Alice encouraged Claudette to perform in one of her plays, 'The Widow's Veil' in 1919 and planted the idea of her becoming a professional actress. Claudette had, at the time, set her sights on becoming a commercial artist or fashion designer and she began part-time work in a dress shop whilst studying at the Art Students League of New York. Nevertheless the theater drew her back and after a chance meeting at a party with the playwright Anne Morrison, Claudette appeared on the Broadway stage for the first time in a supporting role in 1923 in Morrison's play, 'The Wild Westcotts'.

Name change 1923

With a professional acting career in prospect, she decided to change her surname and chose the maiden name of her maternal grandmother, "Colbert".

She embarked on a full time stage career in 1925, and the following year had her first big critical Broadway success in 'The Barker', in which she played a snake charmer. In 1927 she made her first film at Long Island's Astoria studio, 'For the Love of Mike' but it was unsuccessful and she went back to Broadway, returning to films at the start of the Sound revolution in 'The Hole in the Wall' in 1929.

Talkies suited Claudette as audiences responded to her cultured, well modulated, voice as well as to her beauty, and with the Depression closing theaters all over America, she decided to forsake the stage for Hollywood.

In the pre-Hays Code era, stardom arrived for Claudette in racy women's pictures such as 'The Lady Lies' in 1929 where she plays a shopgirl who falls for an older man, and 'Honor Among Lovers' in 1931 as a secretary in love with her boss. The Colbert of these years, with black, sometimes bobbed, hair and vampish makeup, is much overtly sexier than in her later star vehicles. This is especially the case in her work for director Cecil B. DeMille: as Empress Poppaea she bathes nude in asses' milk in 'The Sign of the Cross' in 1932; she wears some very fetishistic costumes as the Egyptian siren in 'Cleopatra' in 1934; and in the jungle adventure comedy, 'Four Frightened People' in the same year, she plays a liberated teacher who seems to lose another layer of clothing with each scene.

Hollywood Star 1934

After 1934 Hollywood softened her image, permed and lightened her hair, and cast her as the ideal wife and hostess. Her talent for comedy was well exploited by the likes of Preston Sturges, Ernst Lubitsch, and Sam Wood, and she consistently drew audiences into movie theaters. But her finest performance remains her best known: the spoiled heiress Ellie Andrews on the run in Frank Capra's joyous comedy 'It Happened One Night' in 1934, in which she famously stops traffic by adjusting her stockings at the roadside, and for which she won an Oscar for Best Actress. The film was the first to sweep all five major Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor, and was a major box-office success. Claudette felt so sure she would lose the Best Actress Award to Bette Davis that she didn't even attend the ceremony.

She was now a major Hollywood star. In 1935 she received a second Academy Award nomination for her performance in the hospital drama, 'Private Worlds' and the following year she signed an advantageous new contract with Paramount Pictures, which made her Hollywood's highest paid actress.

Claudette spent the next decade alternating between comedy and drama, frequently in the company of her most popular co-star, Fred MacMurray. She gained a reputation of giving extremely energetic and wholehearted acting performances, which compensated for her occasional imperviousness and her insistence that only one side of her face be photographed (which frequently necessitated redesigning movie sets just to accommodate her phobia about her "bad side").

Her name ensured that films such as 'The Gilded Lily' in 1935, 'Drums Along the Mohawk' in 1939 kept paying customers coming through the turnstiles, and her career continued successfully into the 1940s in films such as 'Boom Town' in 1940, with Clark Gable, Spencer Tracy, and Hedy Lamarr; 'Arise, My Love' in the same year, with Ray Milland; and the Preston Sturges comedy 'The Palm Beach Story' in 1942, opposite Joel McCrea. In 1944 she starred in 'Since You Went Away 'and picked up her third nomination for Best Actress.

Movie Career Decline 1947

Colbert remained at the top until her last big hit, The Egg and I in 1947, after which her career gradually declined in terms of roles and script quality and as her drawing power faded. She set her sights on the role of Margo Channing in 'All About Eve', but injury forced her to relinquish the part to Bette Davis. Although her film career was waning, Claudettebegan to work successfully on television and in the theater with occasional film work such as 'Three Came Home' in 1950, 'Let's Make It Legal' in 1951, and the western 'Texas Lady' in 1955.

Her theatrical work included performances in America and England such as in the popular farce, 'The Marriage Go-Round' in 1958 opposite Charles Boyer, 'The Irregular Verb to Love' in 1963, 'The Kingfisher' in 1978 with Rex Harrison and 'Aren't We All?' in 1985, also with Rex Harrison. She also made a very successful appearance in the television mini-series 'The Two Mrs. Grenvilles' in 1987 for which she won a Golden Globe and received a nomination for an Emmy Award. In 1989 she was presented with a Life Achievement award from the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.


Claudette was married twice, firstly in 1928 to Norman Foster, an actor and director, who had appeared with her in 'The Barker', but they never lived together due to her mother's dislike of Foster. They eventually divorced in 1935 when Claudette married Dr. Joel Pressman, a surgeon. The marriage was childless and lasted until Pressman's death in 1968.

Claudette maintained a lifelong interest in painting, fashion design, and commercial art and retired finally to Speightstown, Barbados where she spent her final years with her friend and companion Helen O'Hagan who looked after her after Claudette suffered a series of strokes. Claudette Colbert died in Barbados on July 30, 1996, aged 92. After cremation and a requiem mass in New York, her ashes were flown back to Barbados and buried at the Godings Bay Church Cemetery in Speightstown.

Claudette Colbert Academy Awards

One Win:
Best Actress ... It Happened One Night (1934)

Two Unsuccessful Nominations:
Best Actress ... Private Worlds (1935)
Best Actress ... Since You Went Away (1944))

Claudette Colbert Filmography

For the Love of Mike
The Hole in the Wall
The Lady Lies
Young Man of Manhattan
The Big Pond
La grande mare
L'énigmatique Monsieur Parkes
Honor Among Lovers
The Smiling Lieutenant
Secrets of a Secretary
His Woman
The Wiser Sex
Misleading Lady
The Man from Yesterday
Make Me a Star
The Phantom President
The Sign of the Cross
Tonight Is Ours
Hollywood on Parade No. A-9
I Cover the Waterfront
Three-Cornered Moon
Torch Singer
The Hollywood You Never See
Four Frightened People
It Happened One Night
Hollywood on Parade No. B-8
Imitation of Life
The Fashion Side of Hollywood
The Gilded Lily
Private Worlds
She Married Her Boss
The Bride Comes Home
Under Two Flags
Maid of Salem
I Met Him in Paris
Breakdowns of 1938
Bluebeard's Eighth Wife
Hollywood Goes to Town
It's a Wonderful World
Drums Along the Mohawk
Boom Town
Arise, My Love
Remember the Day
Hedda Hopper's Hollywood No. 6
The Palm Beach Story
No Time for Love
So Proudly We Hail!
Since You Went Away
Practically Yours