One of the most successful actresses of the Golden Era of Hollywood, Claudette Colbert was a French born lady who had immigrated to America as a child. Artistic and talented as a little girl, she wanted to become a painter. During high school she made her stage debut though she still harbored the dreams of becoming a painter. By the time she was a young woman she decided to become a fashion designer though fate had other plans for her. Young and pretty, she was offered a role in a Broadway play and soon found herself signing a long-term contract. Along with her beautiful looks she was also blessed with great acting skills that made her a much-sought after Broadway actress. She loved the stage and was not much excited about acting in movies as she believed that the stage allowed a greater freedom for her artistic expressions. However, she had to consider movie roles after the depression during which her theatre career began to falter. The era of talkies provided her the opportunity to use her best asset—her lovely, silken voice—on screen. Initially she was afraid of being typecast as the “French Girl” and worked hard to experiment with different types of roles to avoid being stereotyped.
Childhood & Early Life
She was born as Emilie Chauchoin to Georges Claude Chauchoin and Jeanne Marie in Paris, France. Her family migrated to New York City, US, when she was a small child.
She was artistically inclined from a young age and loved painting. For a long time she thought she would become a painter when she grew up.
She went to Washington Irving High School where her teacher encouraged her to try her hand at acting. She made her stage debut at the age of 15 in a play called ‘The Widow’s Veil’.
She went to the Art Students League of New York to study to become a fashion designer. While there she was offered a role by the writer Anne Morrison in one of her plays.
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Determined to make a career for herself in theater, she adopted the stage name of Claudette Colbert and became an actress. She made her Broadway debut in 1923 in a play called ‘The Wild Wescotts’ in which she played a small role.
She easily started getting other offers after her debut and appeared in a number of plays. However, since she was of French origin, she was often cast as the ‘French Girl’—an image she wanted to avoid. She wanted to perform different kinds of roles that allowed her to explore her acting skills.
During the late 1920s she made her entry into films and in 1930 appeared in the movie ‘Manslaughter’ in which she played the role of a woman charged with vehicular manslaughter. Her performance in the movie was critically acclaimed.
She found great success over the 1930s and became one of Hollywood’s highest paid actresses. She portrayed a doctor in the 1935 film ‘Private Worlds’ which told the story of the staff and patients at a mental hospital. This film was a critical success and she was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Actress.
At the peak of her professional career, she earned $150,000 a film. Some of her other films during the 1930s were ‘She Married Her Boss’ (1935), ‘Under Two Flags’ (1936), ‘It’s a Wonderful World’ (1939).
She stared performing for radio during the 1930s and made 22 episodes for CBS’s popular radio program ‘Lux Radio Theater’ from 1935 to 1954. Starting from 1939 she also performed for the radio program ‘The Screen Guild Theater’ which she continued till 1952.
The World War II disrupted her career for a while though she again found success with the 1947 movie ‘The Egg and I’ which was based on a book of the same name by Betty MacDonald.
Following her highly productive film career, she ventured into television as well. Starting from the mid-1950s, she acted in several television programs, including adaptations of ‘Blithe Spirit’ (1956), and ‘The Bells of St. Mary’s’ (1959). She returned to Broadway in 1958 with ‘The Marriage-Go-Round’.
No longer young, the beauty-obsessed Colbert chose to make fewer appearances as she aged. She played Ellen McLean in the 1961 drama film, ‘Parrish’. After this movie failed to generate any interest, she decided to concentrate on stage and television.
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She landed on the role of Alice Grenville in a television movie, ‘The Two Mrs. Grenvilles’ in 1987 which was based on the Woodward murder case. This was her last performance and she retired from all forms of acting after this.
She is best known for playing the leading lady in the 1934 film ‘It Happened One Night’, a romantic comedy in which she plays the role of a spoiled socialite who falls in love with a reporter. The film was a huge success and won several Academy Awards.
Awards & Achievements
She won the Academy Award for the Best Actress in 1935 for her role as Ellen Andrews in ‘It Happened One Night’.
In 1988 she was presented with the Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actress in a Series for the television movie ‘The Two Mrs. Grenvilles’.
The American Film Institute voted her as the "12th Greatest Female American Screen Legend" in cinema in 1999.
Personal Life & Legacy
She married the actor and director, Norman Foster in 1928. They kept their marriage a secret for a long time and divorced in 1935.
Her second marriage was to Joel Pressman, a throat specialist and surgeon. They remained together for 33 years, till Pressman’s death in 1968. They had no children.
She died on 30 July 1996 at the age of 92.