Having seen a lot of movies throughout the years, I’ve enjoyed more than my fair share of great performances. If I had to pick a leading lady who entertained me time after time and for more years than even I can remember, I would not hesitate to choose Claudette Colbert.
I’m guessing the first time I saw her in a movie was Without Reservations in 1946. I was probably too young to get all the meaning of the lively, playful dialog between Colbert and John Wayne, but her smile and charming little laugh were enough for me. This is a funny little film about a woman who has written a book and is on her way to Hollywood to make it into a movie.
The title refers to a cross-country train ride where she meets and befriends two Marines, Duke and Don DeFore. They don’t seem to like what her book is about or her ideas about men and since it’s obvious she’s falling for Duke, she doesn’t want to reveal her identity… well, not right away. If you’ve never seen it, you’re in for a treat. Since that first time, I’ve seen this movie many times and I’ve come to have more respect for Duke’s sense of timing when delivering funny lines and I’m sure many will agree he was much better at comedy than expected. Who knows, did Claudette Colbert help John Wayne develop his comedic skills?
A few months later, also in 1946, she appeared in a big movie where she proved what an accomplished actress she could be. In Tomorrow Is Forever, she marries George Brent after being told her first husband, Orson Welles, died in World War I. The years pass and the impossible happens… her first husband returns. He’s a different man now; disfigured, crippled and barely recognizable. He doesn’t reveal his true identity but fate takes a hand and Orson steers the family in the right direction in a dramatic conclusion. In this movie, Welles and Brent are both consummate performers and don’t need any of Claudette’s luck to rub off on them, but there is a little girl playing a dramatic part in her movie debut. Is it possible that little Natalie Wood’s star rose because of their chance meeting here?
Also in 1946, Claudette starred in yet another serious movie, The Secret Heart. It’s not a movie that shows up on TV very much, although it should because it’s highly underrated. Probably written for the screen with Claudette Colbert in mind, she is perfect as a woman who deals with having married the wrong guy and after he’s gone, cares for her family against seemingly insurmountable odds. Unable to cope without her father and blaming Claudette for all the tragedy around them, her daughter retreats into herself. The young woman is brilliantly played by June Alyson in her first dramatic role, previously having never appeared in anything other than musicals and light comedies. After this movie, June went on to become a major Hollywood star. Lucky for June!
One year later in 1947, Claudette starred in The Egg and I, this time playing true-life author Betty MacDonald as a homemaker living on a broken-down, abandoned chicken farm. Her husband in this movie was her long-time friend and frequent co-star, Fred MacMurray. She must have liked acting in comedies with Fred — they played romantic duos seven times!
Although Claudette was the draw, this is the movie that introduced legions of fans to Ma and Pa Kettle, played to perfection by Marjorie Main and Percy Kilbride. I’m not sure if Universal Pictures knew what hit them, but once the Kettles made their movie debut, eight more sequels were churned out after The Egg and I, they were among the studio’s most popular entries of the ’40s and ’50s. Considering the low budgets they were assigned, these films were probably huge money-makers for Universal. Again, maybe if it hadn’t been a starring vehicle for Claudette, who knows if the Ma and Pa Kettle movies would have been so well-known?
In 1950, she put aside her zany screwball comedy roles and turned to a much more dramatic part in Three Came Home, one considered by many to be her best career performance. A true story, Claudette plays author Agnes Newton Keith, who is captured and interred in a Japanese prison camp during WWII. Her protagonist in the film was Sessue Hayakawa as the camp’s commandant and the audience sees how each of them knows how the other is thinking and feeling. Enduring brutal hardships, while trying to protect her young son, she is relentlessly subjected to inhumane circumstances from start to finish.
This was by far, not a glamorous role and many Hollywood stars of her stature would not have taken on the grueling physical conditions needed to sustain finishing this movie. In fact, during filming, one scene so intense, she injured her back and had to be released from her next film, a role in which director Joseph L. Mankiewicz thought she would be ideal. That starring role was Margo Channing in All About Eve. Her longtime contemporary Bette Davis, having recently left Warner Brothers, needed a “juicy” role and Mankiewicz got a very good replacement for Colbert. Eve garnered a whopping 14 Academy Award nominations and walked away with six, including the grand prize for Best Picture. Now if that wasn’t luck for Davis, what was?
Through the years, she turned out one stellar performance after another. I saw some of them at their initial theatrical releases, others on late-night TV. Most roles were comedies, some were dramatic… some made me laugh out loud and sometimes, I had a lump in my throat the size of a golf ball. Her classic Imitation of Life could send even the most jaded viewer reaching for the Kleenex. Should I have favorite Claudette Colbert movies? Once, I was asked for a list of my top 10 favorite movies. It took me forever to get it together because I had so many favorites. How, then,could I possibly decide on just one special movie starring Claudette Colbert? It would be so hard to get it down to just one but if I had to say it out loud and make it final, I’d blurt it out and go with The Palm Beach Story …wait, make that Midnight…no, Drums Along the Mohawk. Nope, it’s Since You Went Away…or Boom Town…darn, how could I pick just one?
In truth, if it came down to a shootout, my numero uno would be It Happened One Night. Made in 1934, years before I ever heard of Claudette Colbert, this film seemed to be a lucky charm for all concerned. If you haven’t yet seen this great comedy, do yourself a favor and rent or buy it (Editor’s shameless plug: may we suggest the just-released Criterion Collection edition?), and do it as soon as you can. This classic is not to be missed. Once you can get over the fact that It Happened One Night is now 80 years old, you’ll be a fan forever.
In this movie, Clark Gable became an overnight sensation when he took off his shirt and revealed he did not wear an undershirt, winning the Best Actor Oscar. Claudette revealed she had gorgeous legs when she lifted her skirt in the now-famous hitch-hiking scene and won the Best Actress Oscar. Walter Connelly got to play Walter Connelly again, Frank Capra took home the Best Director statue, and Columbia Pictures walked off with the Academy Award for Best Picture…all in one, unexpected big little movie that no one thought had a chance. Oh yes, it won for Best Screenplay, too; it was Hollywood’s first “grand slam” (sweeping every major award) and it didn’t happen again until One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in 1975!
Claudette was so sure that Bette Davis would win the Best Actress award, she did not even go to the presentation ceremony and was on her way out of town when she was called back directly from the train station to accept her award. Lucky for her the train hadn’t left the station!
Luckiest of all was me, who went to a local retrospective theater in the 1960s to see King Kong but got my scheduling wrong. Instead of “the Eighth Wonder of the World,” they were showing It Happened One Night. Was that luck or fate that led me to read the movie play dates incorrectly? Who can say, but I got my first look at this great classic. How lucky is that?
Of the more than 65 movies she made, mostly from the 1930s to the 1960s, she never ceased to be a shining star — and she did it all wearing her signature bobbed hairstyle. With rare exception, she wore the same short, fluffy style in most of her performances. She also preferred being photographed on her left side. She was supposedly sensitive about a little bump on her nose and felt her right side didn’t show her off to her best advantage. Regardless of reason, she always looked good to me from any angle and through all of her appearances on the silver screen, she had no low points in acting, not that anyone could tell. Even in 1961, in her final theatrical performance as Troy Donahue’s mother in Parrish, she stood above it all. And once again, without having the luck of Claudette’s motherly support, maybe Troy would have become one of the worst actors on the Warner Brothers lot.
Jerry Frebowitz, president of Movies Unlimited, started selling movies for home use in 1975: first as a hobby, then, by 1978, through a small direct mail catalog which eventually grew into the big 800-page version sold today. Jerry is an avid movie fan and collector and particularly enjoys classic films from the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s.