Best known for her role in The Palm Beach Story (1942) and for her Academy Award winning role in It Happened One Night (1934).
For the Love of Mike
The Hole in the Wall
The Lady Lies
Young Man of Manhattan
The Big Pond
Mysterious Mr. Parkes
Honor Among Lovers
Secrets of a Secretary
The Wiser Sex
The Man from Yesterday
The Phantom President
The Sign of the Cross
Tonight Is Ours
I Cover the Waterfront
Four Frightened People
The Gilded Lily
She Married Her Boss
The Bride Comes Home
Under Two Flags
Maid of Salem
Met Him in Paris
Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife
It’s a Wonderful World
Arise, My Love
Remember the Day
No Time for Love
So Proudly We Hail!
Tomorrow Is Forever
The Secret Heart
Sleep, My Love
Bride for Sale
Three Came Home
The Secret Fury
Thunder on the Hill
Let’s Make It Legal
The Planter’s Wife
Audiences always sound like they’re glad to see me, and I’m damned glad to see them. ~ Claudette Colbert
Émilie “Lily” Claudette Chauchoin (pronounced “show-shwan”) was born in Saint-Mandé, France in 1903. In order to pursue employment opportunities, her family emigrated into Manhattan in 1906. Colbert quickly learned English from her grandmother Marie Loew before entering public school. She remained fluent in French.
Colbert studied at Washington Irving High School (known for having a strong arts program), where her speech teacher, Alice Rossetter, encouraged her to audition for a play Rossetter had written. In 1919, Colbert made her stage debut at the Provincetown Playhouse in The Widow’s Veil at the age of 15. However, Colbert’s interest still leaned towards painting, fashion design, and commercial art.
Intending to become a fashion designer, she attended the Art Students League of New York, where she paid for her art education by working as a dress-shop employee. After attending a party with the writer Anne Morrison, Colbert was offered a bit part in Morrison’s play and appeared on the Broadway stage in a small role in The Wild Westcotts (1923). She had been using the name Claudette instead of her first name Lily since high school, and for her stage name she added her maternal grandmother’s maiden name Colbert.
In 1928, after several years on Broadway, she signed a contract with Paramount Pictures which was looking for stage actors who could handle dialogue in the new “talkies” medium. Colbert’s elegance and musical voice was one of her best assets, In The Hole in the Wall (1929), audiences noticed her beauty, but at first she didn’t like film acting. Her earliest films were produced in New York. During production of the 1929 film The Lady Lies, she was appearing nightly in the play See Naples and Die.
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), receiving critical acclaim for her performance as a woman charged with vehicular manslaughter. She was paired with March in four productions, including Honor Among Lovers (1931) with Ginger Rogers. 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. She sang and played piano in the Ernst Lubitsch musical The Smiling Lieutenant (1931). Colbert was critically acclaimed for her ability to shrewdly play a character role opposite Miriam Hopkins. Colbert concluded the year with appearance in a modestly successful film: His Woman with Gary Cooper.
In 1933, Colbert renegotiated her contract with Paramount to allow her to appear in films for other studios. Her musical voice was also featured in the 1933 film Torch Singer, which co-starred Ricardo Cortez and David Manners.
By 1933, she had appeared in 20 films, averaging approximately four films per year. A lot of her early films were commercial successes, and her performances were admired. Her leading roles were serious and diverse, which proved her versatility.
Colbert was initially reluctant to appear in the screwball comedy It Happened One Night (1934). 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. Colbert won the Academy Award for Best Actress for the film.
In Cleopatra (1934), she played the title role opposite Warren William and Henry Wilcoxon. Thereafter, Colbert did not wish to be portrayed as overtly sexual and later refused such roles.
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. Colbert spent the rest of the 1930s deftly alternating between romantic comedies and dramas, and found success in both: She Married Her Boss (1935) with Melvyn Douglas; The Gilded Lily (1935) and The Bride Comes Home (1935), both with Fred MacMurray; Under Two Flags (1936) with Ronald Colman; Zaza (1939) with Herbert Marshall; Midnight (1939) with Don Ameche; and It’s a Wonderful World (1939) with James Stewart.
In 1940, Colbert refused a seven-year contract with Paramount, that would have paid her $200,000 a year, after finding out 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 of all her movies. The film won the Academy Award for Best Story.
During filming of So Proudly We Hail! (1943), a rift occurred between Colbert and co-star Paulette Goddard, who preferred another co-star Veronica Lake rather than Colbert. Goddard commented that Colbert “flipped” and “was at [my] eyes at every moment,” and said that they continued their feud throughout the duration of filming. Colbert was otherwise known for maintaining particularly high standards of professionalism and qualities during shooting. Impressed by Colbert’s role in So Proudly We Hail!, David O. Selznick approached her to play the lead role in Since You Went Away (1944). She was initially reluctant to appear as a mother of teen-aged children, but Selznick eventually overcame her sensitivity. She received an Academy Award nomination for Best Actress.
In 1945, Colbert ended her association with Paramount Studios, and continued to freelance in such films as Guest Wife (1945) with Don Ameche. She starred opposite John Wayne in the RKO Studios film Without Reservations (1946).
For tax reasons Colbert traveled to Europe, making fewer films in the early 1950s. For the remainder of the 1950s she moved to television and back to Broadway.
She made a brief return to the screen in Parrish (1961), playing the supporting role of the mother. After that, Colbert instructed her agent to stop his attempts to generate interest in her as a film actress.
Following a series of small strokes during the last three years of her life, Colbert died in 1996 at her second home in Barbados. Colbert’s body was shipped to New York for cremation. A requiem mass was later held at Church of St. Vincent Ferrer in New York City. Her ashes were buried in the Godings Bay Church Cemetery, Speightstown, Saint Peter, Barbados, along with her mother and second husband.