Colbert began her career in Broadway productions during the late 1920s and progressed to motion pictures with the advent of sound film. Initially associated with Paramount Pictures, Colbert gradually shifted to working as a freelance actress. She won the Academy Award for Best Actress in It Happened One Night (1934), and received two other Academy Award nominations. Other notable films include Cleopatra (1934) and The Palm Beach Story (1942).
With her round apple-face, big eyes, charm, aristocratic manner, and flair for light comedy as well as emotional drama, Colbert was known for a versatility that led to her becoming one of the best-paid stars of the 1930s and 1940s. During her career, Colbert starred in more than sixty movies. She was the industry's highest-paid star in 1938 and 1942. Among her frequent co-stars were Fred MacMurray in seven films (1935−1949), and Fredric March in four films (1930−1933).
By the early 1950s, Colbert had basically retired from the screen in favor of television and stage work, and she earned a Tony Award nomination for The Marriage-Go-Round in 1959. Her career tapered off during the early 1960s, but in the late 1970s she experienced a career resurgence in theater, earning a Sarah Siddons Award for her Chicago theater work in 1980. For her television work in The Two Mrs. Grenvilles (1987) she won a Golden Globe Award and received an Emmy Award nomination.
In 1999, the American Film Institute posthumously voted Colbert the 12th Greatest Female star of classic Hollywood cinema.
Émilie "Lily" Claudette Chauchoin (pronounced “show-shwan”) was born in 1903 in Saint-Mandé, France, to Georges Claude Chauchoin (1867–1925) and Jeanne Marie (née Loew, 1877–1970). Despite being christened "Émilie," she was called "Lily," because she had an aunt living with her by the name of Émilie. The aunt was her maternal grandmother's adopted child, Emilie Loew (1878–1954), who was not a blood relative, worked as a dressmaker, and never married. Colbert's nickname "Lily" came from Jersey-born actress Lillie Langtry. Jeanne, Emilie Loew and Colbert's grandmother Marie Augustine Loew (1842–1930) were born in the Channel Islands in the British Isles, and they were already fluent English speakers before coming to the U.S., though French and English were spoken in the family circle. Colbert's brother, Charles Auguste Chauchoin (1898–1971), was also born in Jersey. Jeanne held various occupations. While Georges Chauchoin had lost the sight in his right eye and hadn't settled into a profession, he worked as investment banker, suffering business setbacks. Marie Loew had already been to the U.S., and Georges' brother-in-law (surname Vedel) was already living in New York City. Marie was willing to help Georges financially but also encouraged him to try his luck in the U.S.
In order to pursue more employment opportunities, Colbert and her family, including Marie and Emilie Loew, emigrated to Manhattan in 1906. They lived in a fifth-floor walk-up at 53rd Street. Colbert stated that climbing those stairs to the fifth floor every day until 1922 made her legs beautiful. Her parents formally changed her legal name to Lily Claudette Chauchoin. Georges Chauchoin worked as a minor official at First National City Bank. Before Colbert entered public school, she quickly learned English from her grandmother Marie Loew and remained fluent in French. She had hoped to become a painter ever since she had grasped her first pencil. Her family was naturalized in the U.S. in 1912. Her mother wanted to become an opera singer. After all, Jeanne joined two silent films Journey's End (1918) and The Poison Pen (1919) in supporting roles as Jeanne Loew.
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 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. She was a staunch Republican since she was young. Her father Georges died in 1925 and her grandmother Marie Loew died in New York in 1930.
After signing a five-year contract with producer Al Woods, Colbert played ingenue roles on Broadway from 1925 through 1929. During this period she disliked being typecast as a French maid. 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 received critical acclaim on Broadway in the production of The Barker (1927) as a carnival snake charmer. She 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 the heroine role in For the Love of Mike (1927), a silent film now believed to be lost. The film didn't fare well enough at the box-office.
In 1928, Colbert 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. The Lady Lies was also a box office success. 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), which was the year's 10th domestic box-office success; Colbert was critically acclaimed for her ability to shrewdly play a character role opposite Miriam Hopkins. Colbert concluded the year with appearance in a modest successful film: His Woman with Gary Cooper.
Colbert's career got a huge boost when Cecil B. DeMille cast her as femme fatale in the 1932 historical epic The Sign of the Cross , opposite Fredric March and Charles Laughton. In one of the most notable scenes in her movie career, she bathes nude in a marble pool filled with asses' milk. The film was one of her biggest box-office hits.
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.
For 1933, she was already ranking as 13th box-office star. 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. The film was one of the year's biggest domestic box-office hits. Thereafter, Colbert did not wish to be portrayed as overtly sexual and later refused such roles.Imitation of Life (1934) was the year's 8th domestic box-office success.
Colbert's rising popularity allowed her to renegotiate her contract, which raised her salary. For 1934 and 1935, she was listed 6th and 8th in the annual "Top Ten Money Making Stars Poll." Then she received an 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: 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 contrast to her small height image, Colbert was 5 ft 5 in (165 cm) tall. Hedda Hopper wrote that Colbert placed her career "ahead of everything save possibly her marriage," with a strong sense of what was best for her, and a "deep-rooted desire to be in shape, efficient and under control." The writer A. Scott Berg remarked that Colbert had "helped define femininity for her generation with her chic manner." Colbert once said, "I’ve been in the Claudette Colbert business a long time."
Colbert was a stickler for perfection regarding the way she appeared on screen. She believed that her face was difficult to light and photograph, and was obsessed with not showing the right side of her face to the camera, because of a small bump resulting from a childhood broken nose. She often refused to be filmed from the right side of her face, and this sometimes necessitated redesigning movie sets. During the filming of Tovarich in 1937, 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. Gary Cooper was terrified at the prospect of working with Colbert in his first comedy, Bluebeard's Eighth Wife (1938), which was the year's 15th domestic box-office success. Cooper respected Colbert to be an expert in the genre. 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, which was the year's 6th domestic box-office success. 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's 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 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. Boom Town (1940) was the year's 3rd domestic box-office hit. However, 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. The 1943 film was the year's 12th domestic box-office success. 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 teenaged children, but Selznick eventually overcame her sensitivity. Released in June 1944, the film was the year's 4th domestic box-office hit. and grossed almost $5 million in the United States. The critic James Agee praised aspects of the film, but particularly Colbert's work. Partly as a result, 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), which grossed $3 million in the U.S. While working on Without Reservations, director Mervyn LeRoy described 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, Jean Louis was hired to create eighteen changes of wardrobe for her. Tomorrow is Forever and The Secret Heart (1946) were also substantial commercial successes, and the overall popularity of Colbert during 1946 led her to place 9th in the "Top Ten Money Making Stars Poll."
She achieved great success opposite Fred MacMurray in the comedy The Egg and I (1947). The film was the year's 8th domestic box-office hit 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 a modest commercial success. By 1948 she was still ranking as the 22nd highest box-office star.
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. Her performance in the Pacific war film Three Came Home (1950) was praised by the critics. However, The Secret Fury (1950), distributed by RKO Studios, was a mystery melodrama that received mixed reviews. During this period Colbert was unable to work beyond 5 p.m. each day due to doctor's orders. While Colbert still looked like a young woman, she found it difficult to make the transition to playing more mature characters as she approached middle age. Colbert once said, "I'm a very good comedienne, but I was always fighting that image, too."
In 1949, she was originally cast in All About Eve, because producer Joseph L. Mankiewicz was enthusiastic about Colbert, feeling that she best represented the style he envisioned for the part. However, Colbert severely injured her back, which led her to abandon the picture shortly before filming began. In later life, Colbert said, "I just never had the luck to play bitches."
For tax reasons Colbert traveled to Europe, making fewer films in the early 1950s. She appeared in Royal Affairs in Versailles with Orson Welles, the only film in which she acted for a French director, although Colbert had only a supporting role rather than top billing. This film was screened in the United States in 1957.
In 1954 Colbert turned down a million-dollar broadcast deal with NBC-TV, but made a pact with CBS-TV to star in several teleplays. After a successful appearance in a television version of The Royal Family, she began acting in various television programs. From 1954 to 1960, she starred in 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.
In 1956, Colbert hosted the 28th Academy Awards ceremony.
In 1958, she returned to Broadway in The Marriage-Go-Round, for which she was nominated for a Best Actress Tony Award.
She made a brief return to the screen, opposite Troy Donahue in Parrish (1961). The movie was her last appearance on the big screen, and she played the supporting role of the mother. The film was the year's 19th domestic box-office hit. However, Colbert 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 had been no offers.
Colbert made occasional successful acting ventures in Broadway appearances 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. Colbert once said to an interviewer, "Audiences always sound like they're glad to see me, and I'm damned glad to see them."
In 1987, Colbert appeared in a supporting role in the television miniseries The Two Mrs. Grenvilles. The production was a ratings success. Colbert won a Golden Globe and received a nomination for an Emmy Award.
Modern critics have pointed out that Colbert had a mixture of unique physical assets (her round apple-face, big eyes, curly hair, slender body), an elegant voice, aristocratic manner, relaxed acting, a tongue-in-cheek vivacity, intelligent style, comedic timing and ladylike alluring charm, that distinguishes her from other screwball comediennes of the 1930s. 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.
In 1928, Colbert married Norman Foster, an actor and director, with whom she co-starred in the Broadway show The Barker, and in the 1930 film Young Man of Manhattan, for which he received negative reviews as one of her weakest leading men. Their marriage remained a secret for many years while they lived in separate homes. In Los Angeles, Colbert shared a home with her mother Jeanne Chauchoin, but her domineering mother disliked Foster and did not allow him into their home. Colbert and Foster divorced in 1935 in Mexico.
Four months after her divorce, Colbert married Joel Pressman, a throat specialist and surgeon at UCLA. She gave a Beechcraft Bonanza single-engine plane to Pressman as a present. They purchased a ranch in Northern California, where Colbert enjoyed horseback riding and her husband kept show cattle. During this period, Colbert drove a Lincoln Continental and a Ford Thunderbird. The marriage lasted 33 years, until Pressman's death of liver cancer in 1968.
Jeanne Chauchoin envied Colbert's talents of art and acting, and preferred her son rather than her daughter. Jeanne let Colbert's brother Charles serve as Colbert's agent. Charles used the surname Wendling which was borrowed from Jeanne's paternal grandmother, Rose Wendling. Charles served as Colbert's business manager for a time, and was credited with negotiating some of her more lucrative contracts in the late 1930s and early 1940s.
In 1954, her aunt Emilie Loew died in the U.S. Although virtually retired from the motion-picture industry since the mid-1950s, Colbert was still financially solvent enough to maintain an upscale lifestyle. Despite already having a country house in Palm Springs for staying on weekends, she rented a cottage in Cap Ferrat in southeastern France. Adman Peter Rogers said, "Claudette was extravagant; I never, ever saw her question the price of anything." In 1963, Colbert sold her residence in Holmby Hills (western Los Angeles), so Joel Pressman rented a small house in Beverly Hills.
In 1958 she met Verna Hull, a wealthy painter/photographer and the stepdaughter of a Sears Roebuck heiress. They had a nine-year friendship and painted together, went for drives together, traveled together and even rented twin penthouses in New York. They had a mutual interest in art. When Colbert bought a house in Barbados in the early 1960s, Hull also bought a modest house next door. The friendship ended suddenly after an argument that took place as Colbert's husband lay dying. Colbert denied, and took offence at, lesbian rumours.
For years, Colbert divided her time between her apartment in Manhattan and her vacation home in Speightstown, Barbados. The latter, purchased from a British gentleman and nicknamed "Bellerive," was the island’s only plantation house fronting the beach. However, her permanent address remained Manhattan.
Colbert's mother Jeanne died in 1970 and her brother Charles died in 1971, so her only surviving relative was a niece, Coco Lewis, Charles' daughter.
Colbert sustained a series of small strokes during the last three years of her life. She died in 1996 at her second home in Barbados, where she had employed a housekeeper and two cooks. Colbert’s remains were transported to New York City for cremation and funeral services. A Requiem Mass was later held at Church of St. Vincent Ferrer in Manhattan. Her ashes were buried in the Godings Bay Church Cemetery, Speightstown, Saint Peter, Barbados, alongside her mother and second husband.
Colbert was childless. She left most of her estate, estimated at $3.5 million and also including her Manhattan apartment and Bellerive, to a long-time friend, Helen O'Hagan, a retired director of corporate relations at Saks Fifth Avenue. Colbert had met O'Hagan in 1961 on the set of Parrish, her last film, and the pair became best friends around 1970. After the death of Pressman, Colbert instructed her friends to treat O'Hagan as they had Pressman, "as her spouse." Though O'Hagan was financially comfortable without the generous bequest, Bellerive was sold for over $2 million to David Geffen. Colbert's remaining assets were distributed among three heirs: $150,000 to her niece Coco Lewis; a trust worth more than $100,000 to UCLA for Pressman’s memory; and $75,000 to Marie Corbin, Colbert's Barbadian housekeeper.
The following is a list of feature films in which Colbert had top billing.