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Claudette Colbert

She Walked in Beauty

Bernard F. Dick

Publication Year: 2008

Claudette Colbert's mixture of beauty, sophistication, wit, and vivacity quickly made her one of the film industry's most famous and highest-paid stars of the 1930s and 1940s. Though she began her career on the New York stage, she was beloved for her roles in such films as Preston Sturges's The Palm Beach Story, Cecil B. DeMille's Cleopatra, and Frank Capra's It Happened One Night, for which she won an Academy Award. She showed remarkable prescience by becoming one of the first Hollywood stars to embrace television, and she also returned to Broadway in her later career. This is the first major biography of Colbert (1903-1996) published in over twenty years. Bernard F. Dick chronicles Colbert's long career, but also explores her early life in Paris and New York. Along with discussing how she left her mark on Broadway, Hollywood, radio, and television, the book explores Colbert's lifelong interests in painting, fashion design, and commercial art. Using correspondence, interviews, periodicals, film archives, and other research materials, the biography reveals a smart, talented actress who conquered Hollywood and remains one of America's most captivating screen icons. Bernard F. Dick is professor of communication and English at Fairleigh Dickinson University and is the author of Hal Wallis: Producer to the Stars; Engulfed: The Death of Paramount Pictures and the Birth of Corporate Hollywood; Forever Mame: The Life of Rosalind Russell (University Press of Mississippi); and other books.

Published by: University Press of Mississippi


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pp. vii-viii

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pp. ix-xi

I have been fortunate in being able to correspond with a number of people who either knew Claudette personally and were eager to talk about her or were sufficiently knowledgeable about her career to offer valuable help. My deepest gratitude goes out to the following: John E. Burke, who read this manuscript diligently and offered much useful criticism;...

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pp. xiii-xvi

A film actor’s life is a palimpsest; beneath the porous parchment of facts and dates arranged sequentially or causally—the stuff of obituaries and testimonials— lies another text, a visual one. This is the actor’s true life, his or her creative life, which, finally, is the only life. The facts add up to a chronology; the films, to a legacy. And if the actor has been able to...

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Chapter 1. Lily of Saint-Mand

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pp. 1-14

On 13 September 1903 in Saint-Mandé, an eastern suburb of Paris named after a sixth-century saint and located a little more than three miles from the heart of the city, Jeanne Marie Chauchoin, age twenty-six, gave birth to a second child, a daughter. The child was born at home in the Chauchoins’ apartment on 5 rue Armand Carrel (now l’avenue du Général de Gaulle), the same street where the Chauchoins had a pastry shop, La pâtisserie Chauchoin. The Chauchoins already had a son, Charles Auguste, born five years earlier on 21 September 1898....

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Chapter 2. Becoming Claudette Colbert

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pp. 15-35

In 1919 Claudette had not yet begun to pursue a stage career, although one was beckoning from the wings. Alice Rostetter, who wrote Launcelot George, in which Claudette had appeared at Washington Irving High School, was elated when the Provincetown Playhouse accepted her new play, The Widow’s Veil, for a February 1919 opening. The Provincetown Players had moved from Provincetown, Massachusetts, to New York in 1916; by 1919, the Playhouse, best known for presenting some of Eugene O’Neill’s early works, was...

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Chapter 3. Commuting to Work

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pp. 36-57

“Claudette Colbert is about to go over to the talking films,” the New York Times reported on 17 March 1929. Actually, Claudette already had; her first talkie, The Hole in the Wall, was scheduled to open the following month. In fact, Claudette made her screen debut in a silent: Frank Capra’s For the Love of Mike, released...

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Chapter 4. “Ready When You Are, C. B.”

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pp. 58-76

As soon as The Misleading Lady wound up production, Claudette started packing for Los Angeles. Since there was no more work for her at Astoria, the alternative was returning to the theatre. In 1932, however, she felt that she was no longer a stage actress, but...

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Chapter 5. That Wonderful Year

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pp. 77-99

In 1933, Cosmopolitan published Night Bus, reprinted the following year as a Dell 10-cent “vestpocket” in a series that already included Mary Roberts Rinehart’s Locked Doors, W. Somerset Maugham’s Rain, and Pearl Buck’s Journey for Life. The author was Samuel Hopkins Adams, an investigative reporter who later became a successful writer of fiction. Adams’s...

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Chapter 6. A Night to Remember

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pp. 100-108

When the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced its nominations for 1934, Claudette was flattered to see her name in the Best Actress category. She might also have been pleased that her three films of that year—Cleopatra, Imitation of Life, and It Happened One Night—were up for Best Picture. If she gave the matter any thought...

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Chapter 7. The End of a Modern Marriage

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pp. 109-120

Claudette’s Oscar paid off—literally. In July 1935, Paramount rewarded her with a seven-picture contract that raised her salary to $150,000 a picture and permitted her to make at least three more at other studios. The year 1935 proved memorable for another reason: her relationship with Dr. Joel “Joe” Pressman, whom she first met in August 1933, when he performed her appendectomy, changed dramatically. Plagued...

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Chapter 8. Life after Oscar

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pp. 121-145

Oscars often prove to be a mixed blessing. They are prestigious, of course, but they do not necessarily advance a career or recharge one that has been dormant. When Louise Fletcher won hers for One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), there were more roles, but none as memorable as Nurse Ratched. The Oscar did more for her costar, Jack Nicholson, who won for Best Actor, and again for Terms of Endearment (1983) and As Good as It Gets (1997). Nicholson never lacked for parts tailored to his persona;...

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Chapter 9. Blaze of Noon

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pp. 146-166

These were Claudette’s golden days, which would lose their luster by the end of the 1940s. Meanwhile, her fan base increased. According to the New York Times (7 January 1937), the Motion Picture Herald ranked her eighth among Hollywood’s moneymaking stars of 1936; more important, the year before she came in sixth in terms of popularity, after Shirley Temple, Will Rogers, Clark Gable, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, and Joan Crawford. The New York Times...

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Chapter 10. Claudette and the “Good War”

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pp. 167-178

The picture that should have marked the end of Claudette’s Paramount period was So Proudly We Hail (1943); at least she would have played a woman closer to her age, and not one who should have been in her twenties. Once America entered World War II, the studios rallied around the flag, unleashing a barrage of films ranging from sensationalism (breeding camps in Hitler’s Children [RKO, 1943] and the...

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Chapter 11. Slow Fade to Legend

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pp. 179-200

When Claudette left Paramount in 1944, she did not have a set agenda. She knew only that she wanted to go on making movies on a freelance basis, with script and, of course, salary as the determining factors. For the rest of her film career she alternated between romantic comedies and serious dramas (film noir, war film, western, family melodrama), none of which were especially memorable except the previously discussed Three Came Home, which became her last film of any consequence. To remind...

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Chapter 12. The Last Picture Shows

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pp. 201-214

By the early 1950s, Claudette had reached that stage in her career when she was expected to weave that old black magic and turn dross into silk; or as Ezra Pound put it, acorns into lilies. The magic was intact, but the scripts that came her way only allowed her to play a version of what she once had been. There was still the signature hairdo, the vitality, and the age-defying appearance...

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Chapter 13. The Long Voyage Home

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pp. 215-230

“COLBERT PONDERS RETURN TO STAGE.” So claimed the New York Times (10 March 1949), strongly implying that Claudette “may be lured back next fall to the Broadway stage which she deserted in 1928 for a career in motion pictures.” Claudette had found a play, Lily Henry, that intrigued her, although it is difficult to understand why, since it seemed more like experimental theatre than conventional drama. The play’s premise...

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Chapter 14. She’s Back on Broadway

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pp. 231-246

In February 1955, when Claudette was in New York rehearsing for The Guardsman, she told the New York Times that she would like to return to Broadway: “But I never shall. I don’t want to be away from home on account of Joel Pressman.” A year later, Claudette felt differently; live television prepared her to return to the medium in...

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Chapter 15. The Stigma

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pp. 247-262

When Claudette married Norman Foster in 1927, she was quite open about their marriage; it was a “modern marriage,” a phrase that led to a great deal of speculation. Once Claudette told the fan magazines that she and Norman had separate residences, both in New York and later, briefly, in Los Angeles, the rumors began to fly. The press was relatively discreet...

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Chapter 16. Slow Fade to Black

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pp. 263-283

The Irregular Verb to Love closed in December 1963 after 115 performances. Claudette hoped it would have a longer run, but the play paid the price for opening early in a season that, while not particularly distinguished (the main attractions were Carol Channing in Hello, Dolly! and Barbra Streisand in Funny Girl), included two comedies that proved hugely popular: Barefoot in the Park and Any Wednesday. Still,...

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Chapter 17. Envoi

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pp. 284-298

By 1984, Claudette had become more than a star; she had become venerable, which meant tributes and accolades. In April 1984, shortly before she left for London to start rehearsals for Aren’t We All? she attended the dedication of the Claudette Colbert Building at Kaufman Astoria Studios, where her film career began fifty-five years earlier. The facilities...

Broadway Plays

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pp. 299

Major Radio Appearances

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pp. 300-301

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Major Television Appearances

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pp. 302

All of the following are at the Paley Center for Media, formerly the Museum of Television...


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pp. 303-304

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Source Notes

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pp. 305-318

The following archives, files, and collections were used in researching this book (the abbreviations are used in the notes). Unless otherwise indicated, quoted dialogue and information appearing in the opening credits are taken directly from the films....


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pp. 319-329

E-ISBN-13: 9781604733297
E-ISBN-10: 1604733292
Print-ISBN-13: 9781604730876
Print-ISBN-10: 1604730870

Page Count: 304
Publication Year: 2008