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In The Secret Heart (1946)
13 September 1903
|Died||30 July 1996 (aged 92)|
|Spouse(s)||Norman Foster (1928–1935)|
Dr. Joel Pressman (1935–1968)
In The Secret Heart (1946)
13 September 1903
|Died||30 July 1996 (aged 92)|
|Spouse(s)||Norman Foster (1928–1935)|
Dr. Joel Pressman (1935–1968)
Colbert began her career in Broadway productions during the 1920s, progressing to film with the advent of talking pictures. Initially associated with Paramount Pictures, later gradually Colbert shifted to a freelance actor. She won the Academy Award for Best Actress in It Happened One Night (1934), and also received Academy Award nominations in Private Worlds (1935) and Since You Went Away (1944). Colbert was known as the expert screwball comedienne, but had talent to forge a decent film career for herself in versatility playing characters that ranged from vamps to housewives that encompassed melodrama, led to her becoming the industry's biggest box-office star in 1938 and 1942.
At the mid 1950s she largely retired from the screen in favour of television and stage work, earning a Tony Award nomination in 1959. Her career tapered off during the early 1960s, but in the late 1970s, she experienced a career resurgence on theater, earning a Sarah Siddons Award in 1980. Also for television work in The Two Mrs. Grenvilles (1987), she won a Golden Globe Award and received an Emmy Award nomination. Later in life, she split her time between New York and her second home in Barbados, where she died at the age of 92, following a series of strokes.
Émilie "Lily" Chauchoin (pronounced “show-shwan”) was born in Saint-Mandé (an eastern suburb of Paris), France, to Jeanne Marie (née Loew) Chauchoin (1877-1970) and Georges Claude Chauchoin (1867-1925). Despite being christened "Emilie", she was called "Lily", because she had a aunt living together, maternal grandmother's adopted child, Emilie Loew (1878-1954), who wasn't a blood relative, worked as a dressmaker and never married. Colbert's nickname "Lily" came from actress Lillie Langtry born in the island of Jersey. Colbert's grandmother Marie Augustine Loew (1842-1930) and Jeanne Chauchoin were born in the Channel Islands and were of English descent, so they were already a fluent English speaker before coming to the U.S. though French was spoken in the family circle. Also Colbert's brother Charles Auguste Chauchoin (1898–1971) was born in the island of Jersey. Jeanne Chauchoin held various occupations. Though Georges Chauchoin had lost the sight in his right eye and hadn't settled into a profession, he had a pastry shop in Paris, had been a banker and did some inappropriate investments. Marie Loew had already been to the U.S., and Georges Chauchoin's brother-in-law, surname Vedel, was already living in New York City. Marie Loew was willing to help Georges Chauchoin financially, but also encouraged him to try his luck in the U.S.. To pursue more opportunities for employment, Colbert's family with Marie Loew and Emilie Loew emigrated to New York City in 1906. Georges Chaucoin worked at Citibank. In 1912 her family were naturalized in the U.S.. Colbert quickly learned English, while being fluent in French.
Colbert studied at Washington Irving High School, where her speech teacher, Alice Rossetter, encouraged her to audition for a play Rossetter had written. Colbert made her stage debut at the Provincetown Playhouse in The Widow's Veil at the age of 15. But Colbert’s interest in the arts was still towards painting.
She attended the Art Students League of New York, intending to become a commercial fashion designer such as her aunt Emilie Loew, and she earned money for her education through a job as a dress shop employee. But she appeared on the Broadway stage in a small role in The Wild Westcotts (1923). Initially influenced by her father's middle name Claude, she had been using the name Claudette instead of her nickname Lily since high school, and for her stage name she added her maternal grandmother's maiden name, Colbert. Her father Georges Chauchoin died in 1925.
After signing a five-year contract with the producer Al Woods, Colbert played ingenue roles on Broadway from 1925 through 1929. During her early years on stage, she fought against being typecast as a maid, and received critical acclaim on Broadway in the production of The Barker (1927) as carnival snake charmer. She later reprised this role for the play's run in London's West End. Colbert was noticed by the theatrical producer Leland Hayward, who suggested her for a role in Frank Capra's film For the Love of Mike (1927), now believed to be lost. The film, Colbert's only silent film role, didn't fare well at the box office.
In 1928 Colbert signed a contract with Paramount Pictures, who were looking for stage actors who could handle dialog in the new "talkies" medium. Colbert's skill as speaker was one of her best assets. At first, Colbert didn't like film acting, during production of the 1929 film, The Lady Lies, she was appearing nightly in the play See Naples and Die. Her earliest films were produced in New York. In 1930 she starred opposite Maurice Chevalier in The Big Pond, which was filmed in both English and French. She co-starred with Fredric March in Manslaughter (1930), which was critical acclaimed for her acting as a rich girl and vehicular manslaughter. She was paired with March in four productions, including Dorothy Arzner's Honor Among Lovers (1931). While these films were box office successes, she also starred in Mysterious Mr. Parkes (1931), which was a French-language version of Slightly Scarlet for the European market, although it was also screened in the United States. Colbert later said, “In the very beginning, they wanted to give me French roles … That’s why I used to say my name Col-bert just as it is spelled instead of Col-baire. I did not want to be typed as ‘that French girl’”. She sang opposite Maurice Chevalier in the Ernst Lubitsch musical The Smiling Lieutenant (1931), which was box office success and critically acclaimed for her ability to shrewdly play character role opposite Miriam Hopkins.
Colbert landed her famous role as a femme fatale in Cecil B. DeMille's films where she wears fetishistic costumes which lose another layer of clothing. In the 1932 historical epic, The Sign of the Cross, she starred opposite Fredric March as the Roman empress Poppaea. For an instant, glimpses of her bare breasts and nipples were visible in a scene where her character was bathing in asses' milk, a scene that came to be regarded as an example of Hollywood decadence prior to the enforcement of the Production Code. In 1933, Colbert renegotiated her contract with Paramount to allow her to appear in films for other studios. In Cleopatra (1934), she played the title role opposite Warren William. Thereafter, Colbert did not wish to be portrayed as overtly sexual and later refused such roles.
Colbert was reluctant to appear as the "runaway heiress," Ellie Andrews, in the Frank Capra romantic comedy, It Happened One Night (1934), opposite Clark Gable and released by Columbia Pictures. Behind schedule after several actresses had refused the role, the studio accepted Colbert's demand that she be paid $50,000 and that filming was to be completed within four weeks to allow her to take a planned vacation. Through the filming, Colbert felt that the script was weak, and Capra claimed, Colbert "had many little tantrums, motivated by her antipathy toward me," however "she was wonderful in the part." After filming was completed, Colbert complained to her friend, "I just finished the worst picture in the world." Capra fretted that the film was released to indifferent reviews and initially only did so-so business. Then, after it was released to the secondary movie houses, word-of-mouth began to spread and tickets sales became brisk. It turned out to be a major hit, easily Columbia's biggest hit to date. The film contained at least one scene that is often cited as representative of the screwball film genre and which became well known, being a resounding box-office success. In 1935, after her Academy Award nomination, Colbert decided not to attend the presentation, feeling confident that she would not win the award, and instead, planned to take a cross-country railroad trip. After she was named the winner, studio chief Harry Cohn sent someone to "drag her off" the train, which had not yet left the station, and take her to the ceremony. Colbert arrived wearing a two-piece traveling suit which she had the Paramount Pictures costume designer, Travis Banton, make for her trip.
Colbert's success allowed her to renegotiate her contract, raising her salary. In 1935 and 1936, she was listed in the annual "Quigley Poll of the Top Ten Money Making Stars", which was compiled from the votes of movie exhibitors throughout the U.S. for the stars who had generated the most revenue in their theaters over the previous year. She received a second Academy Award nomination for her role in the hospital drama, Private Worlds (1935).
In 1936, Colbert signed a new contract with Paramount Pictures, and this contract made her Hollywood's highest paid actress. This was followed by a contract renewal in 1938, after which she was reported to be the best-paid star in Hollywood with a salary of $426,924. At the peak of her popularity in the late 1930s, Colbert earned $150,000 a film. Colbert spent the rest of the 1930s deftly alternating between romantic comedies and dramas, and found success in both.
Colbert was a stickler for regarding the way she appeared on screen. She believed that her face was difficult to light and photograph, and she was obsessed with not showing right side of her face, to the camera, because of a small bump that resulted from a childhood broken nose. She refused to be filmed from right side of her face, and it often necessitated redesigning movie sets. She learned about lighting and cinematography, and refused to begin filming until she was satisfied that she would be shown to her best advantage. Drums Along the Mohawk (1939) with Henry Fonda was Colbert's first color film. However, she distrusted the relatively new Technicolor process and feared that she would not photograph well, preferring thereafter to be filmed in black and white.
During this time she began appearing for CBS' popular radio program Lux Radio Theater, making 22 episodes between 1935 and 1954. She also appeared for another radio program The Screen Guild Theater, making 13 episodes between 1939 and 1952.
In 1940, Colbert refused a seven-year contract that would have paid her $200,000 a year, as she had found that she could command a fee of $150,000 per film as a freelance artist. With her manager, Colbert was able to secure roles in prestigious films, and this period marked the height of her earning ability. Colbert once said that Arise, My Love (1940) was her favorite film of her own.
During filming of So Proudly We Hail! (1943), a rift occurred between Colbert and co-star Paulette Goddard. Asked which of her costars she preferred, Goddard had replied, "Veronica, I think," referring to Veronica Lake. Goddard further commented that Colbert "flipped" and "was at Paulette's eyes at every moment," and said that they continued their feud throughout the duration of filming. Impressed by Colbert's role in this film, but aware of her sensitivity, David O. Selznick approached her to play the lead role in Since You Went Away (1944). She was initially reluctant to appear as mother of teenaged children, but Selznick admired her marketability. Released in June 1944, the film became a substantial success and grossed almost $5 million in the United States. The critic James Agee praised aspects of the film, but particularly Colbert's work. She received her third Academy Award nomination for Best Actress.
In 1945, Colbert ended her association with Paramount Studios, and continued to free-lance in such films as Guest Wife (1945), with Don Ameche. She starred opposite John Wayne in the RKO Studios film Without Reservations (1946), with a storyline and setting intentionally inspired by It Happened One Night. Without Reservations grossed $3 million in the U.S., and the overall popularity of Colbert's films during 1946 led to her making third appearance in the "Quigley Poll of the Top Ten Money Making Stars". She achieved great success opposite Fred MacMurray in the comedy The Egg and I (1947). The film was one of the year's biggest hits, and was later acknowledged as the 12th most profitable American film of the 1940s. The suspense film Sleep, My Love (1948) with Robert Cummings, was also a commercial success. The romantic comedy Bride for Sale (1949), in which Colbert was part of a love triangle that included George Brent and Robert Young, was well reviewed and modestly commercial success. Her subsequent films received mixed reception, with the exception of the Pacific war film Three Came Home (1950), in which her acting was praised by the critics. The Secret Fury (1950), distributed by RKO Studios, was a mystery melodrama that received negative reviews.
In the early 1950s, Colbert traveled to Europe, making fewer films. She appeared in the French film Royal Affairs in Versailles, one of only two films she acted in her native country, however Colbert had a supporting role rather than top billing in the film.
In 1954, after a successful appearance in a television version of The Royal Family, she began acting in various teleplays. From 1954 to 1960, she starred in the television adaptations of Blithe Spirit in 1956 and The Bells of St. Mary's in 1959. She also guest starred on Robert Montgomery Presents, Playhouse 90, and Zane Grey Theater.
She made a brief return to the screen in Parrish (1961), playing the supporting role of mother, which received little attention from the press. After that, Colbert instructed her agent to stop his attempts to generate interest in her as a film actress, because there have been no offers.
Her occasional acting ventures were limited to theater and included appearances on Broadway and in London in The Irregular Verb to Love (1963); The Kingfisher (1978) in which she co-starred with Rex Harrison, and Frederick Lonsdale's Aren't We All? (1985) also with Rex Harrison.
In 1987, Colbert appeared in a supporting role in the television miniseries The Two Mrs. Grenvilles. The production was a ratings success and was nominated for several awards. Colbert won a Golden Globe and received a nomination for an Emmy Award.
In 1928, Colbert married Norman Foster, an actor and director, who co-starred with her in the Broadway show The Barker, and in the 1930 film Young Man of Manhattan which received negative reviews as one of her weakest leading men. Their marriage kept a secret for many years, they lived in separate homes, supposedly because Colbert's mother Jean Chauchoin disliked Foster and would not allow him into their home. Colbert and Foster divorced in 1935 in Mexico.
In 1930, Colbert's grandmother Marie Loew died in New York. In 1954 her aunt Emilie Loew died in the U.S.. Her brother Charles used the surname Wendling which was borrowed from Rose Wendling who was Jean Chauchoin's paternal grandmother. He served as Colbert's agent and business manager for a time, and was credited with negotiating some of her more lucrative contracts in the late 1930s and early 1940s.
After suffering a series of strokes in 1993, she took up permanent residence at her home in Barbados, where she died on July 30, 1996, at age 92. Colbert is buried in the Parish of St. Peter Cemetery in Barbados.
The bulk of Colbert's estate, estimated at $3.5 million, was left to a friend, Helen O'Hagan, a retired director of corporate relations at Saks Fifth Avenue, whom Colbert had met in 1961 on the set of the her last film. O'Hagan cared for Colbert following her 1993 strokes.
Colbert was generally respected for her professionalism, with the New York Times stating that she was known for giving "110 percent" to any project she worked on. Irene Dunne noted that if Colbert "finished work on a film on a Saturday, she would be looking for a new project by Monday". Hedda Hopper wrote that Colbert placed her career "ahead of everything save possibly her marriage", and described her as the "smartest and canniest" of Hollywood actresses, with a strong sense of what was best for her, and a "deep rooted desire to be in shape, efficient and under control".
One example of Colbert's determination to control the way she was photographed occurred during the filming of Tovarich in 1937, when one of her favored cameramen was dismissed by the director, Anatole Litvak. After seeing the rushes filmed by the replacement, Colbert refused to continue. She insisted on hiring her own cameraman, and offered to waive her salary if the film went over budget as a result. Other actors noted Colbert's comic timing; David Niven related in his biography that Gary Cooper was "terrified" at the prospect of working with Colbert in his first comedy, Bluebeard's Eighth Wife (1938), because he considered Colbert to be an expert in the genre. While working on Since You Went Away (1944), David O. Selznick wrote in a memo to Colbert's agent that they had rebuilt several sets "because of her refusal to have the right side of her face photographed, on top of which we have to pay her not only a fabulous salary, but also give her two days off a month, which works out to $5000 every four weeks for doing absolutely nothing, and now she's demanding three...." During her heyday, film technicians described the right side of her face as "the dark side of the moon." While working on Without Reservations (1946), director Mervyn Leroy referred to Colbert as an interesting lady to work with, recalling her habit of not watching where she was going and constantly bumping into things. Praised for her sense of style and awareness of fashion, Colbert ensured throughout her career that she was impeccably groomed and costumed. For the 1946 melodrama, Tomorrow is Forever (1946), Jean Louis was hired to create eighteen changes of wardrobe for her.
In a 1930s interview Constance Bennett replied to questions about her own demands, with the comment that Colbert's idiosyncrasies were far more excessive, but Bennett acknowledged that it was an integral part of Colbert's success. In her biography, Myrna Loy stated that Colbert, along with Joan Crawford, "knew more about lighting than the experts did." The writer A. Scott Berg described Colbert had "helped define femininity for her generation with her chic manner."
She was signed to appear in State of the Union with Gary Cooper, who was replaced by Spencer Tracy. Two days before filming began, Colbert advised the director Frank Capra that she was unable to work beyond 5 p.m. each day, citing "doctor's orders". Capra refused to accommodate her terms and cast Katharine Hepburn in the role. In 1949, she was signed to appear in All About Eve. Producer Joseph L. Mankiewicz was enthusiastic about Colbert, feeling that she best represented the style of the older actress he envisioned for the part. Before production started, Colbert severely injured her back, although 20th Century Fox postponed the production of the film for two months while she convalesced, she was still not fit enough to take the role and was replaced by Bette Davis. In later life, Colbert said, "I just never had the luck to play bitches." Colbert found it difficult to make the transition to playing more mature characters as she approached middle-age. "I'm a very good comedienne," Colbert once said. "But I was always fighting that image, too".
Modern critic pointed out that Colbert had a mixture of unique physical assets (her round apple-face, big eyes, curly light hair), cultured voice, sleek acting, a tongue-in-cheek vivacity and ladylike alluring charm, due to her French background that distinguishes her from the other screwball comediennes of the 1930s such as Jean Arthur, Irene Dunne, Myrna Loy, Carole Lombard. In her comedy films, she invariably played shrewd and self-reliant women, but unlike many of her contemporaries, Colbert rarely engaged in physical comedy. Her characters were more likely to be observers and commentators.
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