As the star of three bona fide comedy classics, It Happened One Night (1934), Midnight (1939) and The Palm Beach Story (1942), Claudette Colbert is at least as well-known as contemporaries like Jean Arthur, Carole Lombard and Irene Dunne, but she was primarily a star for Paramount Studios, which means that many of her films are out of circulation on television. Looking at her filmography, I was surprised to find that there were 22 of her 30s films that I haven’t seen, including interesting-sounding items like Torch Song (1933), where she apparently sings bluesy numbers in her own voice, and The Gilded Lily (1935), where she supposedly does a nightclub act that consists of her admitting that she can’t do a nightclub act. Colbert came across as so worldly and commonsensical that many of her films revolve around how she convincingly talks her way into and out of difficult/unlikely situations, sometimes just for the fun of it. She had a seamless sort of technique which she learned through years on the stage in the twenties, and that technique is what makes her both a bit predictable and finally a little mysterious.
A new biography of the star has just been published, Claudette Colbert: She Walked in Beauty, by Bernard F. Dick, and I read it eagerly; unfortunately, instead of clearing up some of Colbert’s mystery and giving us a sharper picture of her as a person and an actress, this biography creates nothing but confusion. To be fair, Dick is working against two big stumbling blocks. The first is that there’s so little known about Colbert’s childhood in Paris and young adulthood in New York, and presumably there’s no one left to interview about this time of her life, so Dick is reduced to describing the temperature (several times!) on the days when her family crossed the ocean. He goes on for pages about her stage vehicles and her films, but he can’t seem to keep focused on what he’s describing and introduces all kinds of maddeningly irrelevant data, as if he’s trying to fill a word count. This tendency only gets worse as the book goes on: when Colbert receives a Kennedy Center honor along with several other artists, Dick actually describes the entire ceremony.
The second, and more intriguing, stumbling block in this book is the question of Colbert’s sexuality. Digging into a contested subject like this at such a late date is bound to cause trouble for any writer, but Dick refuses to dig much; he accepts all data he can find on this not-insignificant issue at face value. What’s funny, finally, is that the longer he goes on about why she never lived with her first husband, Norman Foster, and why she barely lived with her second husband, Dr. Joel Pressman, the more suspicious he makes these arrangements seem. We are told, through fashion designer Arnold Scaasi, that though Colbert really loved Foster, she allowed her domineering mother to persuade her to abort his child. Dick describes Colbert’s brother (who was her agent) punching Foster at one point, but he just leaves that mystery lying there.
And that’s nothing compared to the bewilderment Dick evinces when dealing with Colbert’s late-fifties relationship with a lesbian artist, Verna Hull, who moved into the same New York building with her, then purchased a house next door to Colbert’s house in Barbados. Dick reveals that Pressman called Hull “the monster,” but he can only come up with vague generalizations about an All About Eve dynamic between Colbert and Hull. Strangest of all is the shadowy figure of Helen O’Hagan, Colbert’s companion for the last twenty years of her life, who unequivocally declares, “Claudette never had a sexual relationship with a woman,” and says that Colbert called the lesbian rumor “the stigma.” It seems like Dick is so completely under O’Hagan’s thumb that he doesn’t dare speculate intelligently on any of this information and what it might mean.
Then there’s the issue of Clark Gable, who starred with Colbert in It Happened One Night. Dick describes two unfunny sounding practical jokes Gable played on Colbert on the set; he dropped a hammer down his pants before a love scene, and then later stuck a tennis racket under a blanket to simulate an erection, with director Frank Capra’s blessing. Colbert’s response? “Aww, you guys!” she cried. Now, I wasn’t there at the time, obviously, and neither was Dick, but he makes it sound like she enjoyed these antics. I get the feeling, though, that she was probably a little irritated, even disgusted, yet she wanted to appear like “one of the boys.” How weird, then, that Colbert later claimed to have slept with Gable, ostensibly to defend his manhood. Again, it doesn’t sound all that likely, which is why it’s exasperating when Dick says that Colbert couldn’t have been a lesbian because she’s so convincing opposite Gable, Joel McCrea and even Don Ameche on screen. Which brings us back to the fact that Colbert had a formidable technique that allowed her to play a wide range of roles.
Notoriously, Colbert always wanted her left profile to be favored in two-shots, and this was a defining obsession. In the eighties, Dick reports that she ruined a Lincoln Center tribute to her work by vetoing any scenes where the right side of her face was visible (her crews called this right profile “the dark side of the moon.”) Once you know this fact about her, it’s impossible to forget it, so that watching her movies, even the best of them, becomes a running gag about trying to see that hated right profile. It really isn’t so different from her left side; Jean Arthur and Norma Shearer, just to name two examples, had more drastically different profiles than Colbert. But she was determined to look her best, and Colbert thought that she knew best about how to present her mobile, Kewpie doll face with its widely spaced eyes and apple cheeks: “I have been in the Claudette Colbert business longer than anybody,” she said, with the pride of an entrepreneur.
Cecil B. DeMille gave Colbert her first big chance on screen with two of his ludicrous but irresistible epics, The Sign of the Cross (1932) and Cleopatra (1934). As the Empress Poppaea in Cross, she is introduced bathing in ass’s milk, her trademark bangs done up in dark ringlets on her forehead. Colbert later claimed that she was wearing a white bathing suit for this bath scene, but this isn’t possible: the milk laps around her nipples several times. At one point, Colbert even runs her hands down her breasts, as if she’s enjoying them for us, while her female servants stare at her, intently. Needing information from a gossipy acquaintance, Colbert is take-charge sexy when she growls, “Take off your clothes, get in here and tell me all about it.” Perhaps this is also technique, but a scene like this is at least as convincing as a hint of lesbianism as the often unpleasantly sexist relations she had with frequent male co-stars like Fred MacMurray and Ray Milland in her lesser comedies.
In both of these DeMille films, Colbert is likably knowing and campy, and there are several moments when she looks like she’s about to crack up laughing, especially in her scenes with Charles Laughton’s Nero in Cross. She wouldn’t have to suppress that laughter for much longer: Colbert is at her best in It Happened One Night, the granddaddy of all screwball comedies. She’s especially winning when she’s teasing Gable’s gruff reporter, humoring him in her throaty voice, as when she listens to his theories on hitchhiking before stopping a car by raising her skirt and displaying a shapely leg; her sarcasm with a slightly dim man is perfectly judged and expressed, never too much, like Jean Arthur, or too subtle, like Irene Dunne. Night is still a beautiful movie, at least in its first hour, and Colbert played endless variations on it, as did many of her fellow actresses of the time.
1939 was probably the peak of her career: she had four different films in release. “I’m no frontierswoman!” she whined, in John Ford’s Drums Along the Mohawk, and she wasn’t kidding, for no performer could have been more out of place in Ford’s world. But when Colbert returned to her French roots in George Cukor’s badly neglected Zaza, she seemed wonderfully stimulated by the chance to be a robust music hall coquette: it has to be her most physically demanding and openly sexual performance, and it shows what a really sensitive director could get out of her. In Mitchell Leisen’s Midnight, a fantasy of luxury, Colbert makes her ultimate claim for the beauty of material goods: “You don’t just fall into a tub of butter,” she counsels, “you jump for it.” This is a woman who loved making money, and it was serendipitous that she worked mainly for Paramount, the ritziest of studios. Her blithe avariciousness never seemed hard or unattractive; later on, it’s no mistake that she was great friends with the Reagans, for she lusted after the good life above all else.
Colbert’s Paris/New York upbringing gave her a special kind of diction: “either” would come out as “eit-thah” or “disaster” as “dis-astah.” Such pronunciation made her seem both earthy and high-falutin,’ and it was in such contrasts that she could work her magic. In It’s a Wonderful World, her third 1939 film, Colbert takes an impossible script, which Ben Hecht must have written in a weekend (the film was shot by W.S. Van Dyke in only 12 days), and makes it hilariously funny by both trying too hard and not seeming to try at all, the reward of her totally technical approach to performing. As Edwina Corday, a kidnapped poetess, Colbert gets laugh after laugh by being slightly ditsy, working in a grey area of impulse, essential intelligence and romantic stupidity so that she seems constantly exciting, a triumphant screwball heroine. This heroine, which Colbert essentially created in It Happened One Night, would have a final hurrah in Preston Sturges’ The Palm Beach Story, where she delivers his rapid-fire, complex dialogue with all her sophisticated, wry, “so that’s the way it is?” gold-digging humor.
In straight dramatic roles, Colbert was often less successful. She’s totally false when she has to utter conventional pieties, as in John Stahl’s superb, troubling Imitation of Life (1934) or David Selznick’s sentimental Since You Went Away (1944), so totally false, in fact, that she seems to be subversively pointing up just how awful such pieties are. But Dick is correct when he highlights her most unusual performance, in Jean Negulesco’s intense prison camp drama Three Came Home (1950). In that very gritty film, she’s magnificent in her scenes with the Japanese commander (Sessue Hayakawa), afraid, apprehensive, yet helplessly sarcastic. After being tortured (an upsetting sequence), Colbert calmly listens to Hayakawa when he tells her that his family was killed in Hiroshima. She tells him she’s sorry, and she is, but only Colbert could have conveyed the fact that this woman isn’t particularly sorry for his loss, not after all she’s suffered in his camp. Because she hurt her back in the Three Came Home torture sequence, Colbert missed out on All About Eve, which she regretted for the rest of her life. Frankly, it makes my head hurt to even try to imagine Colbert playing Margo Channing; surely she would have been fine and technically proficient, a bitchy Ina Claire more than a fire-breathing Tallulah Bankhead, but it would not be the classic film that it is today without Bette Davis.
After playing Troy Donahue’s mother in Parrish (1961), Colbert saw the writing on the wall and returned to the stage in light comedy vehicles. Dick actually uses some direct quotes from others, finally, for this period of her life; when they did The Marriage-Go-Round together on Broadway, the normally unflappable Charles Boyer was not a fan of Colbert and her upstaging antics: “Keep that woman away from me,” he told producer Paul Gregory. Having kept tight hold of her money, Colbert built a sort of paradise for herself in Barbados and entertained there regularly, re-emerging one more time on TV in 1987 for the swanky mini-series The Two Mrs. Grenvilles, where she looked eerily close to her old self, as if she were truly ageless. What her romantic life was we will probably never know, though some of her friends are said to have playfully called her “Uncle Claude.” Dick’s book is not worthy of her, but he does relay some useful things: even after she had a stroke, and even on her deathbed, he reports, Colbert insisted on being fully made-up. That’s the gallantry of a beautiful old lady, and that’s a movie star.
House contributor Dan Callahan’s writing has appeared in Slant Magazine, Bright Lights Film Journal and Senses of Cinema, among other publications.