In The Secret Heart (1946)
13 September 1903
|Died||30 July 1996
|Other names||Lily Claudette Chauchoin|
|Education||Art Students League of New York|
|Years active||1919–1965, 1974-1987|
|Spouse(s)||Norman Foster (1928–1935)
Dr. Joel Pressman (1935–1968)
Colbert began her career in Broadway productions during the 1920s, progressing to film with the advent of talking pictures. Initially associated with Paramount Pictures, Colbert later gradually shifted to working as a freelance actor. She won the Academy Award for Best Actress in It Happened One Night (1934), and also received Academy Award nominations for Private Worlds (1935) and Since You Went Away (1944). With her round apple-face, Colbert was known as an expert screwball comedienne, but her dramatic range enabled her to easily encompass melodrama and to play characters ranging from vamps to housewives. During her successful career, Colbert starred in more than sixty movies. She was the industry's biggest box-office star in 1938 and 1942.
By the mid 1950s she had largely retired from the screen in favor of television and stage work, earning a Tony Award nomination for The Marriage-Go-Round in 1959. Her career tapered off during the early 1960s, but in the late 1970s she experienced a career resurgence in theater, earning a Sarah Siddons Award for her Chicago theater work in 1980. For her television work in The Two Mrs. Grenvilles (1987) she won a Golden Globe Award and received an Emmy Award nomination.
Émilie "Lily" Chauchoin (pronounced “show-shwa”) was born in Saint-Mandé (an eastern suburb of Paris), France, to Georges Claude Chauchoin (1867-1925) and Jeanne Marie (née Loew, 1877-1970). Despite being christened "Émilie", she was called "Lily", because she had an aunt living with her by the name of Émilie. The aunt was her maternal grandmother's adopted child, Emilie Loew (1878-1954), who wasn't a blood relative, worked as a dressmaker, and never married. Colbert's nickname "Lily" came from Jersey-born actress Lillie Langtry. Jeanne Chauchoin and Colbert's grandmother Marie Augustine Loew (1842-1930) were born in the Channel Islands in the British Isles, and they were already fluent English speakers before coming to the U.S., though French was spoken in the family circle. Colbert's brother, Charles Auguste Chauchoin (1898–1971), was also born in Jersey. Jeanne held various occupations. While Georges Chauchoin had lost the sight in his right eye and hadn't settled into a profession, he was a pastry-shop owner in Paris and also worked in banking business but made some inappropriate investments. Marie Loew had already been to the U.S., and Georges' brother-in-law (surname Vedel) was already living in New York City. Marie was willing to help Georges financially but also encouraged him to try his luck in the U.S. After suffering business setbacks, in order to pursue more employment opportunities, her family including Marie and Emilie Loew emigrated into Manhattan in 1906. They lived in a fifth-floor walk-up at 53rd Street. Colbert stated that climbing those stairs to the fifth floor every day until 1922 made her legs beautiful. Her parents formally changed her real name to Lily Emilie Chauchoin. Georges Chauchoin worked as a minor official at First National City Bank. Colbert quickly learned English from her grandmother Marie Loew before entering public school and remained fluent in French. She had hoped to become a painter since she could first grasp a pencil. In 1912 her family was naturalized in the U.S. Jeanne clearly favored her son Charles Chauchoin over her daughter.
Colbert studied at Washington Irving High School (known for having a strong arts program), where her speech teacher, Alice Rossetter, encouraged her to audition for a play Rossetter had written. In 1919, Colbert made her stage debut at the Provincetown Playhouse in The Widow's Veil at the age of 15. However, Colbert’s interest in the arts still leaned towards painting.
Intending to become a fashion designer, she attended the Art Students League of New York, where she paid for her art education by working as a dress-shop employee. After attending a party with the writer Anne Morrison, Colbert was offered a bit part in Morrison's play and appeared on the Broadway stage in a small role in The Wild Westcotts (1923). Influenced by her father's middle name Claude, she had been using the name Claudette instead of her first name Lily since high school, and for her stage name she added her maternal grandmother's maiden name Colbert. She formally changed her real name to Lily Claudette Chauchoin. Her father Georges died in 1925 and her grandmother Marie Loew died in New York in 1930.
After signing a five-year contract with the producer Al Woods, Colbert played ingenue roles on Broadway from 1925 through 1929. During this period she disliked being typecast as a French maid. Colbert later said, "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’". She received critical acclaim on Broadway in the production of The Barker (1927) as a carnival snake charmer. She reprised this role for the play's run in London's West End. Colbert was noticed by the theatrical producer Leland Hayward, who suggested her for the heroine role in For the Love of Mike (1927), a silent film now believed to be lost. The film didn't fare well at the box office.
In 1928 Colbert signed a contract with Paramount Pictures, which was looking for stage actors who could handle dialogue in the new "talkies" medium. Colbert's skill as a speaker was one of her best assets, but at first she didn't like film acting. Her earliest films were produced in New York. During production of the 1929 film The Lady Lies, she was appearing nightly in the play See Naples and Die. In 1930 she starred opposite Maurice Chevalier in The Big Pond, which was filmed in both English and French. She co-starred with Fredric March in Manslaughter (1930), receiving critical acclaim for her performance as a woman charged with vehicular manslaughter. She was paired with March in four productions, including Honor Among Lovers (1931) with Ginger Rogers. While these films were box office successes, she also starred in Mysterious Mr. Parkes (1931), which was a French-language version of Slightly Scarlet for the European market, although it was also screened in the United States. She sang opposite Maurice Chevalier in the Ernst Lubitsch musical The Smiling Lieutenant (1931), which was a box office success; Colbert was critically acclaimed for her ability to shrewdly play a character role opposite Miriam Hopkins. Her musical voice was also featured in the 1933 film Torch Singer, which co-starred Ricardo Cortez and David Manners.
Colbert established herself as a femme fatale in two of Cecil B. DeMille's films, where she wore fetishistic costumes that enabled her to gradually remove successive layers of clothing. In the 1932 historical epic The Sign of the Cross she starred opposite Fredric March as the Roman empress Poppea. For an instant, glimpses of her bare breasts and nipples were visible when her character was shown bathing in asses' milk, a scene that came to be regarded as a prime example of Hollywood decadence prior to enforcement of the Production Code. In 1933, Colbert renegotiated her contract with Paramount to allow her to appear in films for other studios. In Cleopatra (1934), she played the title role opposite Warren William and Henry Wilcoxon. Thereafter, Colbert did not wish to be portrayed as overtly sexual and later refused such roles.
Colbert was reluctant to appear as the "runaway heiress" Ellie Andrews in the Frank Capra romantic comedy It Happened One Night (1934). Running behind schedule after several actresses had refused the role, the studio accepted Colbert's demand that she be paid $50,000 and that filming was to be completed within four weeks to allow her to take a planned vacation. Throughout the filming, Colbert felt that the script was weak, and Capra claimed Colbert "had many little tantrums, motivated by her antipathy toward me"; however, "she was wonderful in the part." After filming was completed, Colbert complained to her friend, "I just finished the worst picture in the world." Capra fretted that the film was released to indifferent reviews and initially only did so-so business. But after it was released to secondary movie houses, word-of-mouth began to spread and ticket sales became brisk. It turned out to be a major hit, easily Columbia's biggest hit until the 1980s. The film contained at least one scene that is often cited as representative of the screwball film genre and which soon became well-known. In 1935, despite receiving an Academy Award nomination for her performance, Colbert decided not to attend the ceremony (feeling confident that she would not win) and instead planned to take a cross-country railroad trip. When she was unexpectedly named the winner, studio chief Harry Cohn sent someone to "drag her off" the train (which fortunately had not yet left the station) and take her to the ceremony. Colbert arrived wearing a two-piece traveling suit which she had engaged the Paramount Pictures costume designer, Travis Banton, to make for her trip.
Colbert's success allowed her to renegotiate her contract, raising her salary. In 1935 and 1936, she was listed in the annual "Quigley Poll of the Top Ten Money-Making Stars", which was compiled from the votes of movie exhibitors throughout the U.S. for the stars who had generated the most revenue in their theaters over the previous year. Then she received an Academy Award nomination for her role in the hospital drama Private Worlds (1935).
In 1936, Colbert signed a new contract with Paramount Pictures, and this contract made her Hollywood's highest-paid actress. This was followed by a contract renewal in 1938, after which she was reported to be the best-paid star in Hollywood with a salary of $426,924. At the peak of her popularity in the late 1930s, Colbert earned $150,000 a film. Colbert spent the rest of the 1930s deftly alternating between romantic comedies and dramas, and found success in both: She Married Her Boss (1935) with Melvyn Douglas; The Gilded Lily (1935) and The Bride Comes Home (1935), both with Fred MacMurray; Under Two Flags (1936) with Ronald Colman; Zaza (1939) with Herbert Marshall; Midnight (1939) with Don Ameche; and It's a Wonderful World (1939) with James Stewart.
In addition to Lubitsch, DeMille and Capra, Colbert was working with the top directors in the industry: Dorothy Arzner, Preston Sturges, Frank Lloyd, John M. Stahl, Wesley Ruggles, Gregory La Cava, George Cukor, Mitchell Leisen, and John Ford.
Colbert was a stickler regarding the way she appeared on screen. She believed that her face was difficult to light and photograph, and was obsessed with not showing the right side of her face to the camera, because of a small bump that resulted from a childhood broken nose. She refused to be filmed from right side of her face, and this often necessitated redesigning movie sets. Film technicians described the right side of her face as "the dark side of the moon." During the filming of Tovarich in 1937, one of her favored cameramen was dismissed by the director, Anatole Litvak. After seeing the rushes filmed by the replacement, Colbert refused to continue. She insisted on hiring her own cameraman, and offered to waive her salary if the film went over budget as a result. Gary Cooper was terrified at the prospect of working with Colbert in his first comedy, Bluebeard's Eighth Wife (1938), because he considered Colbert to be an expert in the genre. She learned about lighting and cinematography, and refused to begin filming until she was satisfied that she would be shown to her best advantage. Drums Along the Mohawk (1939) with Henry Fonda was Colbert's first color film. However, she distrusted the relatively new Technicolor process and feared that she would not photograph well, preferring thereafter to be filmed in black and white.
During this time she began appearing for CBS's popular radio program Lux Radio Theater, making 22 episodes between 1935 and 1954. She also appeared for another radio program, The Screen Guild Theater, making 13 episodes between 1939 and 1952.
In 1940, Colbert refused a seven-year contract that would have paid her $200,000 a year, as she had found that she could command a fee of $150,000 per film as a freelance artist. With her manager, Colbert was able to secure roles in prestigious films, and this period marked the height of her earning ability. Colbert once said that Arise, My Love (1940) was her favorite film of her own.
During filming of So Proudly We Hail! (1943), a rift occurred between Colbert and co-star Paulette Goddard. Asked which of her co-stars she preferred, Goddard had replied, "Veronica, I think," referring to Veronica Lake. Goddard further commented that Colbert "flipped" and "was at [my] eyes at every moment," and said that they continued their feud throughout the duration of filming. Colbert was otherwise known for maintaining particularly high standards of professionalism during shooting. Impressed by Colbert's role in So Proudly We Hail!, David O. Selznick approached her to play the lead role in Since You Went Away (1944). She was initially reluctant to appear as a mother of teenaged children, but Selznick eventually overcame her sensitivity. Released in June 1944, the film proved a substantial success and grossed almost $5 million in the United States. The critic James Agee praised aspects of the film, but particularly Colbert's work. Partly as a result, she received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress.
After World War II
In 1945, Colbert ended her association with Paramount Studios, and continued to freelance in such films as Guest Wife (1945) with Don Ameche. She starred opposite John Wayne in the RKO Studios film Without Reservations (1946), with a storyline and setting intentionally inspired by It Happened One Night. Without Reservations grossed $3 million in the U.S., and the overall popularity of Colbert's films during 1946 led to her third appearance in the "Quigley Poll of the Top Ten Money-Making Stars". While working on Without Reservations (1946), director Mervyn Leroy described Colbert as an interesting lady to work with, recalling her habit of not watching where she was going and constantly bumping into things. Praised for her sense of style and awareness of fashion, Colbert ensured throughout her career that she was impeccably groomed and costumed. For the 1946 melodrama Tomorrow is Forever, Jean Louis was hired to create eighteen changes of wardrobe for her.
She achieved great success opposite Fred MacMurray in the comedy The Egg and I (1947). The film was one of the year's biggest hits, and was later acknowledged as the 12th most profitable American film of the 1940s. The suspense film Sleep, My Love (1948) with Robert Cummings was also a commercial success. The romantic comedy Bride for Sale (1949), in which Colbert was part of a love triangle that included George Brent and Robert Young, was well-reviewed and a modest commercial success. Her performance in the Pacific war film Three Came Home (1950) was praised by the critics. However, The Secret Fury (1950), distributed by RKO Studios, was a mystery melodrama that received negative reviews. During this period Colbert was unable to work beyond 5 p.m. each day, due to doctor's orders. While Colbert still looked like a young woman, she found it difficult to make the transition to playing more mature characters as she approached middle age. Colbert once said, "I'm a very good comedienne, but I was always fighting that image, too".
In 1949 she was originally cast in All About Eve, because producer Joseph L. Mankiewicz was enthusiastic about Colbert, feeling that she best represented the style he envisioned for the part. However, Colbert severely injured her back, which led her to abandon the picture shortly before filming began. In later life, Colbert said, "I just never had the luck to play bitches."
For tax reasons Colbert traveled to Europe, making fewer films in the early 1950s. She appeared in Royal Affairs in Versailles with Orson Welles, the only film in which she acted for a French director, although Colbert had only a supporting role rather than top billing. This film was screened in the United States in 1957.
In 1954 Colbert turned down a million-dollar broadcast deal with NBC-TV, but made a pact with CBS-TV to star in several teleplays. After a successful appearance in a television version of The Royal Family, she began acting in various television programs. From 1954 to 1960, she starred in television adaptations of Blithe Spirit in 1956 and The Bells of St. Mary's in 1959. She also guest starred on Robert Montgomery Presents, Playhouse 90, and Zane Grey Theater.
She made a brief return to the screen in Parrish (1961), playing the supporting role of the mother, which received little attention from the press. After that, Colbert instructed her agent to stop his attempts to generate interest in her as a film actress, because there had been no offers.
Her occasional successful acting ventures were appearances on Broadway in The Irregular Verb to Love (1963); The Kingfisher (1978) in which she co-starred with Rex Harrison; and Frederick Lonsdale's Aren't We All? (1985), also with Rex Harrison.
In 1987, Colbert appeared in a supporting role in the television miniseries The Two Mrs. Grenvilles. The production was a ratings success. Colbert won a Golden Globe and received a nomination for an Emmy Award.
Modern critics have pointed out that Colbert had a mixture of unique physical assets (her round apple-face, big eyes, curly light hair, slender body), an elegant voice, aristocratic manner, sleek acting, a tongue-in-cheek vivacity, witty sense of humor and ladylike alluring charm, that distinguishes her from other screwball comediennes of the 1930s such as Jean Arthur and Irene Dunne. In her comedy films, she invariably played shrewd and self-reliant women, but unlike many of her contemporaries, Colbert rarely engaged in physical comedy. Her characters were more likely to be observers and commentators.
In 1928, Colbert married Norman Foster, an actor and director, who co-starred with her in the Broadway show The Barker, and in the 1930 film Young Man of Manhattan, for which he received negative reviews as one of her weakest leading men. Their marriage remained a secret for many years while they lived in separate homes. In Los Angeles, Colbert shared a home with her mother Jeanne Chauchoin, but her domineering mother disliked Foster and did not allow him into their home. Colbert and Foster divorced in 1935 in Mexico. Writer Robert Shaw, a close friend of Colbert's later in her life, claimed that around this time the actress had an affair with Marlene Dietrich, with whom she was photographed sliding down a chute at a Venice Beach amusement park.
Four months after her divorce, Colbert married Joel Pressman, a throat specialist and surgeon at UCLA. She gave a Beechcraft Bonanza single-engine plane to Pressman as a present. They purchased a ranch in Northern California, where her husband kept show cattle. During this period, Colbert drove a Lincoln Continental and a Ford Thunderbird. The marriage lasted 33 years, until Pressman's death of liver cancer in 1968.
Jeanne Chauchoin envied her daughter's talents of art and acting, and never gave Colbert recognition for her success. Colbert spent many years of her life seeking Jeanne's approval. Jeanne let Colbert's brother Charles serve as Colbert's agent. Charles used the surname Wendling which was borrowed from Jeanne's paternal grandmother, Rose Wendling. Charles served as Colbert's business manager for a time, and was credited with negotiating some of her more lucrative contracts in the late 1930s and early 1940s.
Colbert was generally respected for her professionalism, and the New York Times stated that she was known for giving "110 percent" to any project she worked on. Hedda Hopper wrote that Colbert placed her career "ahead of everything save possibly her marriage", with a strong sense of what was best for her, and a "deep-rooted desire to be in shape, efficient and under control". The writer A. Scott Berg remarked that Colbert had "helped define femininity for her generation with her chic manner." Colbert once said, "I’ve been in the Claudette Colbert business a long time."
In 1954 her aunt Emilie Loew died in the U.S. Although virtually retired from the motion-picture industry since the mid-1950s, Colbert was still financially solvent enough to maintain an upscale lifestyle. Despite already having a country house in Palm Springs for staying on weekends, she rented a cottage in Cap Ferrat in southeastern France. Adman Peter Rogers said, "Claudette was extravagant; I never, ever saw her question the price of anything." In 1963, Colbert sold her residence in Holmby Hills (western Los Angeles), so Joel Pressman rented a small house in Beverly Hills.
There has been speculation by some in Hollywood that Colbert was bisexual, namely because of her friendship with the lesbian artist, Verna Hull, but Colbert and her closest friends have denied such a claim. Portrait artist Don Bachardy has written that she was referred to as "Uncle Claude": "I think she's a really good example of a very closeted situation. Only well within her own circle did they know the truth". In 1958 she met Verna Hull, a wealthy painter/photographer and the stepdaughter of a Sears Roebuck heiress. They had a nine-year friendship and painted together, went for drives together, traveled together and even rented twin penthouses in New York. They had a mutual interest in art. When Colbert bought a house in Barbados in the early 1960s, Hull also bought a modest house next door. The friendship ended suddenly when, as Colbert's husband lay dying, Hull warned Colbert that he might at any moment try to kill her to take her with him when he died. Offended, Colbert announced that she would never see Hull or speak with her again. An article in Vanity Fair explains that Hull had warned Colbert that people "would talk" if they were friends, and would suggest that Colbert might be gay. Colbert reportedly laughed off the suggestion, and was secure enough in herself to not be persuaded by others' views.
For years, Colbert divided her time between her apartment in Manhattan and her vacation home in Speightstown, Barbados. The latter, purchased from a British gentleman and nicknamed "Bellerive", was the island’s only plantation house fronting the beach. However, her permanent address remained Manhattan. Later in life, she was also a staunch Republican and natural conservative.
Following a series of small strokes during the last three years of her life, Colbert died in 1996 at her second home in Barbados, where she was employing one housekeeper and two cooks. Colbert’s body was shipped to New York for cremation. A requiem mass was later held at St. Vincent Ferrer church in New York City. Her ashes were buried in the Parish of St. Peter Cemetery, Barbados, along with her mother and second husband.
The childless Colbert left most of her estate, estimated at $3.5 million and also including her Manhattan apartment and Bellerive, to a long-time friend, Helen O'Hagan, a retired director of corporate relations at Saks Fifth Avenue, whom Colbert had met in 1961 on the set of Parrish, her last film and became best friends with around 1970. After the death of Pressman, Colbert instructed her friends to treat O'Hagan as they had Pressman, "as her spouse". Though O'Hagan was financially comfortable without the generous bequest, Bellerive was sold for over $2 million to a midwestern U.S. couple. Colbert's remaining assets were distributed among three heirs: $150,000 to her niece Coco Lewis; a trust worth more than $100,000 to UCLA for Pressman’s memory; and $75,000 to Marie Corbin, Colbert's Barbadian housekeeper.
Awards and honors
- 1935: Won – Academy Award for Best Actress for It Happened One Night
- 1936: Nomination – Academy Award for Best Actress for Private Worlds
- 1945: Nomination – Academy Award for Best Actress for Since You Went Away
- 1987: Nomination – Emmy Award for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Mini-Series or Special for The Two Mrs. Grenvilles
- 1988: Won - Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress in a Series, Mini-Series, or Motion Picture Made for Television for The Two Mrs. Grenvilles
- 1959: Nomination – Tony Award for Best Actress for The Marriage-Go-Round
- 1980: Won - Sarah Siddons Award
- 1985: Won - Drama Desk Special Award
- 1984: Gala Tribute award by the Film Society of Lincoln Center
- 1989: Kennedy Center Honors
- 1990: San Sebastián International Film Festival Donostia Lifetime Achievement Award
- 1999: Colbert was ranked as the 12th greatest female star of all time by the American Film Institute
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- Shipman, David (1970). The Great Movie Stars: The Golden Years. Library of Congress Catalogue Card Number 78-133803. New York: Bonanza Books.
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- Claudette Colbert at the Internet Broadway Database
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- Claudette Colbert at Virtual History