Friday, May 17, 2013

Claudette Colbert - So Proudly I Hail

One of my favorite actresses of classic Hollywood is Claudette Colbert...a lovely lady and a very talented actress of the American stage and screen. Her illustrious career spanned sixty-four years from 1923 until 1987 with over sixty film and television performances to her credit as well as numerous theatrical performances.  

Emilie Claudette Chauchoin was born to Georges, a baker, and his wife Jeanne on September 13, 1903 in Saint-Mande, Val-de-Marne, France. She had an older brother named Charles, who was five years older than she was. With an uncle already living in New York City, Emilie and her immediate family, as well as her maternal grandmother Marie and an aunt, emigrated to the United States in 1906 and made their home in New York City taking up residence in a fifth-floor apartment on 53rd Street.

Young "Lily", as was her nickname, had two passions: art and theater. As a student at Washington Irving High School, Lily excelled at art and hoped to become a fashion designer. When she was 15 years old, her speech teacher encouraged her to audition for a part in a high school play called "The Widow's Veil", which she won.

Though she enjoyed being on the stage, her desire to study fashion was strong and after she graduated from high school in 1923, she got a job in a dress shop to help pay for her tuition as a student in the prestigious Art Students League of New York.

That same year, Lily attended a party and fellow guest, writer Anne Morrison, offered her small part in her Broadway play "The Wild Westcotts". It was at this time that Lily decided to change her professional name to Claudette Colbert, Colbert being her grandmother Marie's maiden name.

Claudette's great talent and grace brought her much success on Broadway from 1925 until 1929, most notably in "The Barker" (1927). During that time, Claudette married actor Norman Foster, who would later become a director of films like:  "Think Fast, Mr. Moto" (1937), "Charlie Chan at Treasure Island" (1939), "Journey into Fear" (1942), "Rachel and the Stranger" (1948), and "Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier" (1955).


When the Great Depression hit America in the late 1920's, good parts were hard to find on the New York stage. It was during a performance of "The Barker" that Claudette was noticed by theatrical producer Leland Hayward, who offered her a part in a film entitled "For the Love of Mike", which was filmed on Paramount Pictures' Astoria, Queens, New York City studio lot. This was to be her very first film role.

The film was directed by the great Frank Capra and it told the story of three men who adopt a baby boy together named Mike and raise him the best way they can. Despite its tender plot, the film tanked at the box office. Mr. Capra was left without a job and the movie-making experience made such a poor impression on Miss Colbert that she eagerly returned to the theater and famously quoted "I shall never make another film!"


While she held firmly to her belief, movie roles were easier to get than roles on the stage, so Claudette found herself more and more often in front of the camera making films, among them being several pictures in which she played alongside handsome actor Fredric March, like in "Tonight is Ours" (1933) and "The Sign of the Cross".

Frank Capra and Claudette's paths would meet again in 1934 when Mr. Capra cast her for the part of heiress Ellie Andrews in what would become her ticket to stardom in "It Happened One Night". In addition to the success the film made at the box office, Claudette would win a Best Actress Academy Award and Frank Capra would win a Best Director Academy Award. This memorable film showcased Miss Colbert's natural comedic skills and the audience came to recognize her as a bright and shining new comedy star.

In August 1935, Claudette's divorce from Norman Foster was finalized and four months later on Christmas Eve, she married Dr. Joel Pressman. Claudette's happy marriage and a successful movie career made the next fifteen years joyful and busy for the new star.



Some of her best performances were given during this productive time in her career like:

"Imitation of Life" (1934): Fannie Hurst's emotionally stirring novel tells the story of a young widow who starts a profitable flapjack establishment yet she and her maid (Louise Beavers) face bitter challenges involving their daughters. The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture and it was re-made in 1959 with Lana Turner, John Gavin, Sandra Dee and Susan Kohner.

"The Bride Comes Home" (1935): When Jeannette finds out that her supposedly wealthy father is actually penniless, her close friend Jack (Robert Young) offers her job as a secretary for the new men's magazine he has just started. Though Jack is very much in love with her, Jeannette finds herself slowly falling in love with Jack's tough talking friend, bodyguard and fellow staff writer Cyrus (Fred MacMurray).




"Midnight" (1939): Claudette dazzles as Eve Peabody, a penniless girl in France who is hired by Georges (John Barrymore) to attract the attention of a gigolo (Francis Lederer) who is making a play for Georges' wife Helene (Mary Astor). Don Ameche is Tibor, a kind-hearted taxi driver, who has fallen in love with Eve and decides to throw a wrench into her plans by pretending to be her devoted husband! I love this film for its snappy one-liners and the romantic tension between Eve and Tibor. Though, deep down in her heart, she loves Tibor, she is drawn to the promise of a future with financial security. Luckily, Eve comes to the realization that love is more important than anything in the world ( and it is, too! )




"Drums Along the Mohawk" (1939): Magdelana (Claudette) and her husband Gilbert (Henry Fonda) along with other colonists battle attacks with Indians and Tories in New York's Mohawk Valley during the time of the American Revolution. The film was directed by John Ford from a novel by Walter Edmonds. It featured a wonderful cast with character actors like Edna May Oliver, Arthur Shields and Ward Bond.

"Palm Beach Story" (1942): Gerry (Claudette) impulsively travels to Palm Beach, Florida to obtain a divorce from her inventor husband Tom (Joel McCrea) and then snag a millionaire, played to perfection by good-hearted Rudy Vallee. Her plan is to fund her soon-to-be-ex-husband's new invention with money from her new husband. Preston Sturges wrote and directed this witty comedy which is sure to tickle your funny bone!




"So Proudly We Hail" (1943): Allan Scott's story focused on the lives of three brave nurses (Claudette, Paulette Goddard and Veronica Lake) going beyond the call of duty to help the sick and the injured during World War II. This gem featured an excellent cast and it rightly earned four Academy Award nominations.  


"Since You Went Away" (1944): This is my favorite Claudette Colbert film! After her husband leaves for basic training, loving wife Anne (Claudette) bravely continues on with her life at home raising the couple's two teenage daughters Jane and Bridget (Jennifer Jones and Shirley Temple). Anne is a symbol of the wives and mothers who did their duty by helping the men and women fighting overseas and by trying to make life as comfortable as possible on the homefront. The film was based on Margaret Buell Wilder's book and it is beautifully acted and filmed. I love it more each time I watch it.

"The Egg and I" (1947): Bob (Fred MacMurray) is a spirited man who brings Betty, his sophisicated Boston-bred wife, to the country and attempt to raise chickens on their rundown farm. This hilarious film was based on Betty MacDonald's beloved story and it became a hit movie which also helped launch the 'Ma & Pa Kettle' film series with Marjorie Main and Percy Kilbride, who made their debut in "The Egg and I".


"Family Honeymoon" (1949): Katie Armstrong (Claudette) is a widow with three rambuctious children ( Peter Miles, Jimmy Hunt and Gigi Perreau) who marries botany professor Grant Jordan. The newlyweds take off on a honeymoon with the children aboard a train and they make a stop at beautiful Grand Canyon. Mr. Jordan makes every effort to win his stepchildren's approval, though it proves to be a harder task than he had originally thought. Along the way, Grant runs into his former sweetheart Minna (Rita Johnson) who would very much like to re-kindle the fire between Grant and herself. Oh my! 

With the advent of television in the 1950's, Claudette was able to land numerous top notch parts on programs like: "The Ford Television Theater", "Climax!", "The Loretta Young Show", "Robert Montgomery Presents", "Playhouse 90", "The Colgate Theater" and others. She also played Ruth Condomine in "Blithe Spirit" in a 1956 T.V. movie as well as Sister Benedict in the "Bells of St. Mary" in 1959.  


In addition to her T.V. work, Claudette narrated Anne Morrow Lindbergh's memoir "Gift from the Sea" in 1955. That same year, she returned to the stage in "Janus", in which she replaced actress Margaret Sullavan during the spring and summer season. Two years later, from 1958 until 1960, Claudette brought her signature sparkle to the Plymouth Theatre in "The Marriage-Go-Round", co-starring her very dear friend Charles Boyer and Julie Newmar. Claudette's performance earned her a Tony Award nomination in 1959.  

Though her work schedule kept her extremely busy at this time, Claudette and her husband were able to relax and they divided their time between an elegant apartment on Fifth Avenue in New York City and a 200-year old plantation home on the tropical island of Barbados in the Caribbean where they entertained guests such as close friends Mr. and Mrs. Ronald Reagan and singer Frank Sinatra.


Though Claudette possessed the maternal quality that made her the perfect mother on the silver screen, she and her husband did not have any children of their own, which is very sad because I feel as though she would have been a wonderful mother in real life, too.

Miss Colbert's last film appearance was as Troy Donahue's mother Ellen McLean in the 1961 drama "Parrish" which also starred Karl Malden, Connie Stevens and Diane McBain. After the completion of the film, she went into semi-retirement. She would return to the stage in "Julia, Jake and Uncle Joe" and "The Irregular Verb to Love". 

Sadly, Claudette became a widow in February 1968, when her husband Dr. Pressman passed away. Their loving marriage had lasted thirty-three happy years. 




In the years that followed, Miss Colbert played alongside the great English actor Rex Harrison in two plays, "The Kingfisher" for 181 shows from 1978 until 1979 and "Aren't We All" for 93 shows which debuted in 1985. Claudette made her last television appearance in 1987 in the T.V. movie "The Two Mrs. Grenvilles" which also starred Ann-Margret, Stephen Collins and Elizabeth Ashley. She won a Best Supporting Actress Golden Globe Award in 1988 for her portrayal of Alice Grenville. 

At the age of 80, Claudette, looking radiant as ever, was honored with a special tribute by the Lincoln Center in May 1984. She was greeted by a cheering, applauding audience and she thanked them for coming to the event. 

Claudette tragically suffered a series of strokes in the 1990's and on July 30, 1996 she passed away in Speightstown, Barbados at the age of 92. 

The beautiful vivacious Lily Chauchoin delighted us and inspired us with her engaging personality and warmth, and she continues to do so today for each new generation of classic movie fans. Thank you Claudette for all the happiness your films bring into the lives of millions of people around the world!



Written by Diana Metzinger
There were so many wonderful pictures of Ms.Colbert that I had to add some extras to share below :

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