(Air Date: Week Of 8/7/96)
My favourite photograph of Claudette Colbert shows her, at age 86, taking a swim near her home in Barbados. She was definitely the best-looking pin-up girl in her age group: glowing with health and vitality. "If I couldn't laugh, I'd rather die", she said at the time. For most of her life, she made US laugh, too. She had to escape being typecast as a French maid, which is all Broadway producers wanted her to plat at first.
She appeared in a couple of DeMille epics in the early thirties ("Sign Of The Cross" and "Cleopatra") and considered it a definite come-down when Paramount loaned her to Columbia to make her 25th movie, a little screwball comedy co-starring Clark Gable called "It happened One Night". She thought it was terrible before, during and after the filming and thought so little of her chances of winning an Oscar that she had to be summoned from a train station to pick up her Academy Award. Colbert had a disarming system all her own for grabbing her audience's attention. A deep sense of fun & mischief lurked just beneath her carefully cultivated cynical shell. She didn't have to be in love with a guy to play with him, but it helped. And she always seemed to be sizing up every guy in sight, staying several steps ahead of them all.
In "Bluebeard's Eighth Wife", Gary Cooper clearly didn't know what hit him. In "Midnight and "Guest Wife", Colbert had to do some clever footwork to keep up with one of her most effective screen partners, Don Ameche. Colbert was teamed most often with Fred MacMurray, whose perpetually bewildered face disguised the fact that he had one of the best senses of comedic timing in the business. Her tough veneer dissolved when she fell for this overwhelmingly decent guy, seven (!) times. Their expert sparring helped to make "The Egg And I" one of Universal's biggest hits of 1947.
Although she seldom played strictly dramatic roles, she won another Oscar nomination for her strong performance in "Since You Went Away" as the wartime mother of Jennifer Jones and Shirley Temple. Even more striking, although unjustly less well remembered, was her gritty portrait as a prisoner of war in 1950's "Three Came Home". Colbert shifted her energies to Broadway after being cast in a supporting role opposite Warner Bros.' Worst actor of 1961: Troy Donahue as "Parrish". But the impression she made in 65 films is indelible and, surprisingly, far less dated than those of many of her contemporaries. Colbert's sparkling personality, classic tailored wardrobe and short, fluffy hair style rarely changed, only her increasing skill as an actress gave any real sense of the passing of time.
Copyright 1996 Monica Sullivan
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