Claudette Colbert Faced Life With Resilient Style
Claudette Colbert, who died Tuesday, brought an innate wit and self-reliance to a wide range of roles, yet in a fundamental way was always her sophisticated, resilient self, which was characteristic of the great stars of Hollywood’s golden era.
Whether she was the “Maid of Salem” or Cleopatra or, as in “Midnight,” a beauty who winds up in Paris with only the designer gown on her back, you could count on Colbert to face up to whatever situation she found herself in without self-pity and usually with crisp humor.
She was like this in real life, refusing to feel sorry for herself after a stroke put her in a wheelchair in 1993 and continuing to entertain her friends at her home in Barbados, where she died. Along with her well-known wit and charm she revealed in conversation a realistic, sensible quality of detachment about herself. She was a woman in whom clearly strength and femininity were not mutually exclusive qualities.
Those qualities shone on the screen in more than 60 films. Famously, a broken back from a skiing accident lost her “All About Eve” to Bette Davis, but she already had achieved screen immortality, especially in screwball comedy and in particular with “It Happened One Night,” one of the most beloved of all American movies. This is the 1934 Frank Capra classic in which Colbert’s runaway heiress proved to wise-guy reporter Clark Cable that when it comes to hitchhiking, the well-turned leg is mightier than the thumb.
“We never dreamed what we had in ‘It Happened One Night,’ ” she told me in 1985. “I only did it because I wanted to make a picture with Clark Gable. Clark was a terribly real person.
“When Capra had that scene on the bus when we all sing, I recall thinking, ‘How can all the passengers remember all the words to “The Man on the Flying Trapeze”? What has it got to do with the story?’ I asked Frank. He said something brilliant: ‘You’re right, it has nothing to do with the rest of the picture. If it doesn’t go over with the audience, we can cut it out.’ ” (It did go over and remains a moment of collective happiness arguably without parallel in American movies.)
Blessed with large brown eyes, set off by those famous bangs and apple cheeks, Colbert looked much the same over the decades. With her, youth was a matter of spirit, and she stayed looking sensational because she developed a timeless sense of style that firmly secured her place on the all-time best-dressed lists. Not for her was the waxworks, stop-the-clock look but a naturalness combined with a dedicated care of self. She was of that generation of stars that believed firmly that you owe it to yourself and to your public to look your best. For years she gave her official birth date as 1905, but late in life volunteered that it was 1903.
She was no nostalgia item, but a dynamic, contemporary woman more concerned with how her next performance would be than what she did she 50 or 60 years earlier, as rewarding and applauded as that may have been at the time. She remained the Claudette Colbert of fond screen memories but admitted to Vanity Fair recently that she wished she could still work.
Although Colbert enjoyed reading the Hollywood memoirs of some of her friends, she was not inclined to write her own and wasn’t sure anyone would be interested anyway.
“I’ve had a lovely life. I’ve been blessed. The only bad thing is that my husband died much too soon. [Dr. Joel Pressman died in 1968.] When I went on the stage, I had success; when I went on the screen, I had success; when I got married, I had success. Well, my first marriage [to the late actor-director Norman Foster, to whom she was wed from 1928 to 1935] wasn’t too successful.
“But my life has been wonderful, and for a book I think you have to have had a lot of trouble or a lot of sexual activity! They seem to want the gossipy things, and I’m not about to do that. And as for the funny things that happened, they may have been funny at the time, but they’re not always funny now. I’ve had a helluva life. Maybe I’m wrong, but I’m afraid it’s not the kind that sells books!”