Best known for her stylish portrayals in a series of screwball comedies in the late 1930s and '40s, Claudette Colbert was born Lily Claudette Chauchoin on September 13, 1903 in Paris, France. Her banker father moved the family to New York, USA when she was three. She was educated in the New York City schools and planned a career as a fashion designer. She enrolled in the Art Students' League where she paid for her dramatic training by working in a dress shop. She made her Broadway debut in 1923 in the stage production of "The Wild Wescotts." It was during this event that she adopted the name Claudette Colbert. Her Broadway appearances appearances led to a contract with Paramount. Her first film was 1927's disastrous Fof the Love of Mike. She had her first big success in 1932 when Cecil B. DeMille approached her with the offer: "Claudette, how would you like to play the wickedest woman in the world?" She jumped at the chance to play Poppea in The Sign of the Cross and DeMille brought out the haughty sensuality and earthy humor that finally set her apart from the crowd of die-cut screen ingenues. (The film also gave her one of her all-time sexiest roles, with a now-famous nude milk bath among its highlights.) Colbert's fine comic timing and her unique ability to portray characters who thrived in whatever situation they found themselves made her a model for other actresses. One such resourceful character was runaway heiress Ellie Andrews in Frank Capra's It Happened One Night (1934), a surprise hit that earned Colbert that year's Oscar for Best Actress. She played the famous femme fatale in Cecil B. DeMille's spectacular Cleopatra (1934). She was nominated for an Oscar for her portrayal of Dr. Jane Everest in the psychiatric drama Private Worlds (1935}. Also known in Hollywood for her shrewd business sense, Colbert fashioned for herself a significant screen career. By 1938, her keen ability in business made her the highest paid star in Hollywood. She showed time and time again that she was one of the screen's leading light comediennes in such films as She Married Her Boss, The Gilded Lily, The Bride Comes Home (all 1935), Bluebeard's Eighth Wife (1938), It's a Wonderful World, the terrific Midnight (both 1939) and The Palm Beach Story (1942). Colbert also played a variety of parts in dramatic films as well, from the costume dramas Maid of Salem (1937) and John Ford's Drums Along the Mohawk (1939, which cast her as a frontier wife), to such high-grade weepers as Arise, My Love (1940, reportedly the actress' favorite film) and Remember the Day (1941). She atarred in two memorable patriotic films, So Proudly We Hail (1943) and Since You Went Away (1944, for which she received her third Best Actress nomination). She made quality films in the late 1940s such as the comedies Without Reservations (1946), The Egg and I (1947) and dramas The Secret Heart (1946), Sleep, My Love (1948), and especially Three Came Home (1950), in which she beautifully portrayed prisoner of war Agnes Newton Keith. Her film career waned in the '50s and she turned to television and returned to the stage. She returned to the stage in 1956 when she replaced Margaret Sullavan during the spring and summer in the comedy "Janus." Appearances in other Broadway productions followed, including "The Marriage-Go-Round," for which she was Tony-nominated in 1959. Her last feature film was Parrish (1961). She continued to tour in elegant stage productions through the 1980s, often working with Rex Harrison. In 1987 Colbert appeared with Ann-Margret and Stephen Collins in a two-part CBS TV miniseries, "The Two Mrs. Grenvilles," dazzling viewers with her marvelous appearance. She received a Life Achievement Award from the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts in 1989. She announced her formal retirement in 1992. During her later years Colbert divided her time between an apartment in New York and a 200-year-old plantation house in Speightstown, Barbados, where she entertained such guests as Frank Sinatra and the Ronald Reagans. She passed away in Barbados July 30, 1996 after a series of strokes. She was married twice and had no children. Her first husband was actor-director Norman Foster. They divorced in 1935, and she wed Dr. Joel Pressman, who died in 1968. Of actress Claudette Colbert it has been written, "[Her] glamour is the sort that women attain for themselves by using their intelligence to create a timeless personal style" (Jeanie Basinger in The International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers).
"Most of us don't know about happiness until it's over."
QUOTES ABOUT CLAUDETTE COLBERT
Her New York Times obituary gave more insight into her professionalism: "She could appear worldly and sophisticated yet down to earth, and this quality, combined with acute attention to camera angles, lighting and other professional details, helped her to sustain a remarkably durable career that encompassed more than 60 films and many stage appearances."
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