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New Claudette Colbert bio for her birthday

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Today would have been actress Claudette Colbert’s 105th birthday (she lived to 92, no small achievement). This month marks the publication of a new biography, ‘Claudette Colbert: She Walked in Beauty’ by Bernard F. Dick. A professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University, Dick also has written books about Hal Wallis and Rosalind Russell.

Dick digs into Colbert’s early life. Christened Emilie Chauchoin in her native France, she moved as a girl to America with her family, where she became Lily. Later she called herself Claudette Chauchoin, and eventually, as she became a stage actress, she settled on Claudette Colbert.

Colbert spent many years on the stage, and Dick chronicles her theatrical roles, from the long engagements to the truncated runs, the Broadway shows to the plays in Washington and Connecticut. He demonstrates that the theater is where Colbert got her acting chops, though the biography doesn’t try to synthesize her experiences as much as describe them.

Colbert, who’d been acting in N.Y.-produced Paramount films since 1927, came to Hollywood in 1932 when the studio closed its eastern production studio. Two years later. she’d gone from hardworking actress to star; 1934 saw three of her pictures nominated for Oscars. The range is impressive: She played a vixen in ‘Cleopatra,’ the lead in the melodrama ‘Imitation of Life’ and was a brilliant comedian in ‘It Happened One Night,’ for which she won the Best Actress Oscar. Dick dispels one of the most lasting legends about Colbert from that film:

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Frank Capra seems to have originated the story that in the hitchhiking scene in ‘It Happened One Night,’ Claudette refused to lift her skirt to stop a car, preferring instead to get by on talent, not anatomy; and when she saw a shot of her stand-in’s leg, she insisted that hers was better, demanding to do the scene herself and thus revealing one of the shapliest limbs in movies. In ‘The Smiling Lieutenant,’ [1931] … she removes one of her garters … the camera not only records the removal of the garter but also provides a far-from-fleeting glimpse of a leg that most women would envy. It is difficult to imagine that three years later, when Claudette was making ‘It Happened One Night,’ she could have turned so prudish. Claudette never verified Capra’s version of the story; she only said that that may have been the way he remembered it, implying that it had receded into the mists of myth.

Of course, he goes on to detail her life after 1934, including her willingness to appear on television and her return to the stage. This is nothing if not an affectionate portrait of Colbert, as Dick’s use of her first name indicates, as does the subtitle, taken from the Lord Byron poem. But what else does a lady deserve on her birthday?

— Carolyn Kellogg


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