Classic Film Guide

Claudette Colbert

Claudette Colbert was born Lily Claudette Chauchoin in Paris, France in 1903; her family moved to the United States when she was three. Her first onscreen appearance was a starring role in her only silent film, director Frank Capra's (now lost) flop For the Love of Mike (1927), her last was a return to the big screen as Troy Donahue's mother in Parrish (1961). Though she could be seen throughout the latter half of the 1950's on television (and one last time in 1987's The Two Mrs. Grenvilles), she'd stopped making motion pictures by the middle of that decade. However, between 1929 and 1952, she made 60 films ... many of which are unforgettable classics. Some of her best were:
  • Ernst Lubitsch's Academy Award nominated (for Best Picture) comedy The Smiling Lieutenant (1931), in which she plays a nightclub singer named Franzi, who captivates Maurice Chevalier; when Chevalier (in the title role) must marry a Princess (Miriam Hopkins) to prevent a war, he continues his affair with Colbert's character until she meets Hopkins's; Franzi pities her and then decides to teach the Princess how to be sexy enough to entice her husband.
  • as Nero's maneating empress Poppaea in DeMille's pre-code historical drama The Sign of the Cross (1932) opposite Fredric March (as Marcus Superbus) and Charles Laughton's Nero; this one includes her famous ‘nude’ milk bath scene.
  • Frank Capra's Oscar winning romantic comedy It Happened One Night (1934) with Clark Gable; she, her co-star, director Capra, and screenwriter Robert Riskin also took home golden statuettes that year.
  • in the title role of Cecil B. DeMille's historical extravaganza Cleopatra (1934) opposite Warren William's Julius Caesar and Henry Wilcoxon's Marc Antony
  • in the original drama Imitation of Life (1934) as a single mother-entrepreneur who befriends another (Louise Beavers); together, they struggle with various issues while raising their preteen daughters through young adulthood.
  • with Charles Boyer in Anatole Litvak's comedy Tovarich (1937); she and Boyer play Russian royalty who, post-Revolution, take domestic positions in a wealthy Paris household.
  • opposite Don Ameche and John Barrymore in director Mitchell Leisen's charming romantic comedy Midnight (1939), screenplay by Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder.
  • as Henry Fonda's wife in John Ford's Drums Along the Mohawk (1939), with Edna May Oliver.
  • as Gable's "taken for granted" wife in Boom Town (1940) - with Spencer Tracy, Hedy Lamarr, and Frank Morgan - in which she utters the tantalizing (double entendre) line - "you can lick me if it'll help".
  • Preston Sturges's essential screwball comedy The Palm Beach Story (1942), with Joel McCrea
  • in the Pacific during World War II as the head nurse in So Proudly We Hail! (1943) with Paulette Goddard and Veronica Lake.
  • on the homefront with daughters Jennifer Jones & Shirley Temple as well as family friend Joseph Cotten, and boarder Monty Woolley (among others) in producer David O. Selznick's Since You Went Away (1944), for which she earned her last of three Best Actress Academy Award nominations; this essential drama will air twice on the channel in the coming months.
  • as real-life Japanese prisoner-of-war survivor Agnes Newton Keith in the Jean Negulesco-directed, Nunnally Johnson production Three Came Home (1950).

I've yet to see her other Oscar nominated performance in Private Worlds (1935).

© 2006 Turner Classic Movies - this article originally appeared on TCM's official blog

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