Hollywood Legend Claudette Colbert Dies

<i> From a Times Staff Writer</i>

Claudette Colbert, who had been a star for so long that almost no one could remember when--or if--she had ever been anything else, died Tuesday. She was 90.

Colbert, who maintained homes in Manhattan and Barbados, died in Bridgetown, Barbados.

She had been hospitalized there in March 1993 after a stroke that affected her right side had put her in a wheelchair. But columnist Liz Smith, who visited her at her island home, Belle Rive, said that despite the stroke, Colbert still applied full makeup daily and joined her guests for lunch, cocktails and dinner.

When friends lamented Colbert’s stroke three years ago, she replied with her typical full-throated laugh: “Oh, why not me? It hasn’t been fun, but you just have to go on with life and get over it.”


Colbert was a popular leading lady for three decades, a veteran of 64 films and a recipient of countless honors.

The winner of one Academy Award and nominated for two others, she specialized in sophisticated comedy but yearned for dramatic roles, especially female villains.

“I just never had the luck to play bitches,” she told an interviewer decades before her death. “Those are the only parts that ever register, really.”

Two such roles she almost played were Margo Channing in “All About Eve” and Blanche du Bois in the Broadway version of “A Streetcar Named Desire.” A skiing accident kept her from one role, movie commitments from the other.

Yet she had never been idle. Her essential career, begun nearly 70 years ago in the theater, continued there long after she ceased to appear in movies.

Her dominance of the screen began in 1932 with a single sensuous scene in Cecil B. De Mille’s “The Sign of the Cross” that established her as star material.

She also made “Cleopatra” for De Mille, but that was after she made the film that brought her the Academy Award: the enduring comedy “It Happened One Night,” in which her shimmering contralto voice was paired with Clark Gable’s macho form and cynical demeanor.

And then followed a string of successes that included “Imitation of Life,” “The Gilded Lily,” “I Met Him in Paris,” “Since You Went Away,” “The Egg and I” and many more.

A Claudette Colbert video collection released last year included the films “Cleopatra,” “Midnight,” “Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife” and “So Proudly We Hail.”

The three decades of movie history to which she brought a heart-shaped face framed by reddish-brown bangs and highlighted by a bright smile spanned Hollywood’s Golden Age--from the intimacy of silent films to the sprawling images of Cinemascope.

Nonetheless, she was known as one of the least “actressy” of actresses, and once said she never even considered acting “the primary thing” in her life.

Indeed, she said she had “never intended to be an actress at all.”

Lily Claudette Chauchoin, according to her passport, was born Sept. 13, 1905, in Paris, where her father was a minor functionary in the French banking system. (In her later years, she gave her birth year as 1903.)

The family (including grandmere Marie Loew, a major force in her life) moved to New York City in 1910, settling in Manhattan’s East Fifties.

Marie Loew spoke English and French and passed on the languages to her grandchildren. There was no language barrier, therefore, when Lily (as she was then called) and her brother, Charles, entered American schools.

At Washington Irving High School, again at her grandmother’s suggestion, Lily studied art and design to prepare for a career in fashion; she also began taking classes at the Art Students League.

There had been one minor digression from this carefully plotted course--the part of Rosalind in a high school production of “As You Like It.”

The family hardly noticed, and after graduation, Lily continued her art league classes, took a job in a dress shop to learn more about designing, and gave French lessons in the evenings to augment her income.

“But plans are one thing, and life is another,” the actress said in later years. “Grandmere’s hopes, and mine, turned pale the day I met Anne Morrison.”

Playwright Morrison saw something that Lily’s family--and Lily herself--had evidently missed.

She told her that she should become an actress, and wangled the girl a three-line part in a stage play, “The Wild Westcotts,” with Cornelia Otis Skinner, Elliot Nugent and Edna May Oliver.

During the show’s tryout in Stamford, Conn., Lily’s part was expanded--and she acquired a new name. “ ‘Lily’ didn’t seem right, somehow,” she said, “so I settled on ‘Claudette.’ And ‘Chauchoin’ became ‘Colbert.’ ”

For the next three years the young actress survived a series of minor parts, short-lived engagements and less-than-successful road tours in such plays as “We’ve Got to Have Money,” “The Marionette Man,” “The Cat Came Back,” “High Stakes” and “Leah Kleschna.”

However, it was the part of Lou, the snake charmer, in “The Barker” in 1927 that became her true big break.

The play ran for 172 performances on Broadway and led to her first movie contract, starring opposite Ben Lyon in the silent film “The Love o’ Mike.”

When “The Barker” finally closed (“Mike” had been made during its stage run), Colbert remained on Broadway, appearing in “Fast Life,” “Dynamo” and “See Naples and Die,” all in 1928, and then crossed the Atlantic to recreate her role in “The Barker” on the London stage.

But the advent of sound had led to an immediate demand for stage-trained performers; Colbert abandoned the stage to portray a distressed heroine trying to elude Edward G. Robinson in “A Hole in the Wall” for Paramount. She followed with another picture, “The Lady Lies,” in 1929 and appeared in “The Big Pond,” “Young Man of Manhattan,” and “Manslaughter” the following year.

Those pictures established her credentials as a film actress. But they also typecast her; for the next three years (except for her role in “The Smiling Lieutenant” in 1931) she portrayed sweet, clinging, virtuous women in such pictures as “Secrets of a Secretary,” “The Wiser Sex” and “Misleading Lady.”

She grew weary of the casting and demanded to play what she once called “the wickedest woman in the world.”

The 1932 role was that of Poppaea in “The Sign of the Cross,” and a single scene--her bath in milk--established Claudette Colbert as a major sex star.

She was to reinforce that image in De Mille’s “Cleopatra.” But by that time, she had already appeared in the role that was to win her an Oscar.

Nobody had expected it.

The picture was a lightweight comedy, a thin tale about a runaway heiress and a newspaperman. Audience reaction, however, was instantaneous.

“It Happened One Night” was the sleeper hit of 1934.

It swept the Oscars (and because Gable appeared nude from the waist up, it almost demolished the undershirt business) and ensured the career credentials of just about everyone involved with the movie.

One other event of 1934 was less satisfactory; in 1928, she had married actor Norman Foster, her co-star in “The Barker.” But the different courses of their careers had imposed severe strains, and they divorced.

Colbert followed her successes in “One Night” and “Cleopatra” with “Imitation of Life,” in 1934, and with “The Gilded Lily,” “Private Worlds” (an Oscar nomination) and “She Married Her Boss” the following year, when she was named one of the 10 top moneymaking stars.

“Gilded Lily” also marked her first screen appearance with Fred MacMurray, with whom she would be successfully teamed in a number of pictures over the following decade.

She remarried--to Dr. Joel Pressman, a surgeon who died in 1968--and appeared in “Under Two Flags,” which, while not a roaring success, reflected credit on the star.

But worthwhile scripts were becoming harder to find.

The success of “I Met Him in Paris,” “It’s a Wonderful World” and “Midnight” were balanced by the lesser response to “Maid of Salem,” “Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife,” “Drums Along the Mohawk” and “Zaza,” the story of a French can-can dancer that became Miss Colbert’s one real failure.

She survived this. But the indifferent box-office appeal of “Boom Town,” which starred her with Gable and Spencer Tracy in 1940, sent her back to light comedy with Ray Milland in “Arise My Love.” That one brought her back to the win column with industry financiers.

“Skylark,” “Remember the Day,” “Palm Beach Story” and “No Time for Love” kept her busy in the early years of World War II, and the war itself inspired two of her more powerful performances.

Her role as an Army nurse during the Battle of Bataan in “So Proudly We Hail” was one of the less overstated--and more effective--performances among wartime dramas, while her portrayal of a wife and mother in “Since You Went Away” won a a third Academy Award nomination.

Teamed again with MacMurray for the lighthearted “Practically Yours” in 1945, she went on to roles in “Guest Wife,” “Tomorrow Is Forever,” and “The Secret Heart,” which drew critical groans--but not for her performances.

“One of the endearing qualities about Claudette Colbert,” critic Alton Cook wrote in 1947, “is her consistently excellent playing in mediocre pictures. Her luck in choosing vehicles has not been good.”

Even rejoining MacMurray for “The Egg and I” and “Family Honeymoon” failed to produce commercial magic.

There was new critical acclaim for “Three Came Home,” but her next few films, including “Texas Lady” in 1955, were relatively unsuccessful. In the years that followed, she began to move away from films, returning to the stage and going into television.

She was a guest on several regular TV shows, acted in special productions of “Blithe Spirit” and “The Guardsman” and in 1957 starred in a 90-minute CBS production of “One Coat of White,” with Paul Henreid.

She was host of a monthly documentary series, “Woman,” and starred opposite Edward G. Robinson in the Maxwell House Coffee programs of the 1963-65 seasons. Twenty years later a supporting appearance in the 1986 TV special “The Two Mrs. Grenvilles” brought an Emmy nomination.

She made what proved her final screen appearance as Troy Donahue’s mother in “Parrish” in 1960.

Colbert had replaced Margaret Sullavan in “Janus” on Broadway in 1956, and two years later appeared opposite Charles Boyer in “The Marriage-Go-Round,” which ran for 450 performances.

Another play, “Julia, Jake and Uncle Joe” flopped in just two performances, but she followed with “The Irregular Verb to Love,” a success of the 1963-64 Broadway season, opposite Cyril Ritchard.

The death of her husband in 1968 was a shattering blow.

“He was my best friend,” she said. “I had been hemmed in all my life, thinking that if I wanted to go somewhere, I couldn’t. All of a sudden I was completely alone--my mother and my brother died not long after--and I could go anywhere. And it was awful.”

But she survived. “I don’t have any patience with people who say ‘I can’t,’ ” she said. “You can do anything you want to do if you try.”

At age 82 she remained much the glamorous presence she had been 50 years earlier, wearing a black chiffon, silver-beaded gown slit on one side to show the leg that had stopped traffic in “It Happened One Night.” The vehicle was the drawing-room comedy “Aren’t We All” in which she co-starred with Rex Harrison on a U.S. and British tour.

Interviewed on the eve of her acceptance in 1989 of the Kennedy Center honors, she disarmed reporters by saying little except, “There’s nothing new I can tell you. What’s great is that I’m still here.”

She had expressed a similar feeling in 1981 after a return to Broadway with the mystery, “A Talent for Murder.” Reminding people that one of her idols, actress Lynn Fontanne, was then past 90, she said, “I’m going to do that!”