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Colbert--a Trouper Carries On

October 13, 1985|KEVIN THOMAS

SAN FRANCISCO — "Upon my soul, you become younger every day!"

What a wonderful entrance line for an actress--provided, of course, that she can get away with it.

But that's no problem for Claudette Colbert when she steps on stage here at the Curran Theater, where she's starring with Rex Harrison in a revival of Frederick Lonsdale's drawing room comedy "Aren't We All?," which moves to Los Angeles' Wilshire Theater Oct. 25. It already has had successful runs in London and New York.

In black chiffon shimmering with silver beading--and slit on one side to show the leg that stopped traffic so memorably in "It Happened One Night"--the 82-year-old Miss Colbert proceeds to treat this slenderest of amusing period pieces with the deftness of one of those sophisticated romantic comedies that remain among the most enduring of the films she made in the '30s and '40s. Her colleagues keep up with her pace the best they can.

As the glamorous widow Lady Frinton, Miss Colbert has an eye on Harrison's widowed Lord Grenham, whose son (Simon Jones) has had the bad luck to be caught kissing another woman by his wife (Lise Hilboldt) just as she's returned from Egypt. Complications proliferate in suitably elegant settings.

"I'm so excited about going to L.A.," said Miss Colbert, smartly dressed in black slacks and sweater, as she made her way through cheering crowds to her limousine after a recent Sunday matinee. "I'm going to look up all my old friends there--the ones I have left! I still have quite a few, luckily. I want to see Jimmy and Gloria Stewart and Audrey and Billy Wilder and so many others."

Only moments later, she was offering vodka and caviar in her handsome Nob Hill hotel suite. "Now where were we? Oh yes, my friends. I just can't wait to see them. Unfortunately, as I'll be working, I won't have much time for anything else. There's one thing I know I won't do: I will religiously avoid driving by my old house. I never thought it would affect me so when I tried it once. God knows, I was happy there! But I will try to get out during the day, and I do love late suppers. After the show, I'm always famished! I'm going to have a good time in L.A., I just know it."

Claudette Colbert is just as you would hope she'd be. Along with the well-known wit and charm she has a realistic, sensible detachment. This is a woman in whom clearly strength and femininity are not mutually exclusive qualities. For more than 30 years, she managed to combine a major career with a happy marriage (to Dr. Joel Pressman, who died in 1968). Since then she has kept busy working in the theater. She could have rested on her Golden Era star laurels but instead remains a trouper.

She and Harrison are on their third cast since they opened in London last year and, because of prior commitments on the part of some of their colleagues, they face further changes when they open in Washington after the Los Angeles run. ("Nancy called and said she and Ronnie are coming to the show," said Miss Colbert, who has entertained the President and the First Lady in Barbados.) She takes all this in stride but with a genuine concern for maintaining the play's light tone and rapid pacing. She has a very clear idea, not just of what's good for her, but what is good for the play as a whole.

Best of all, she is still the Claudette Colbert of fond screen memories. Blessed with large brown eyes, set off by those famous bangs and those apple cheeks, she is ever the beauty. On stage or off, she is boundlessly vital and chic. With her, youth is a matter of spirit, and she looks sensational because long ago she developed a timeless sense of style that has firmly secured her place on the all-time best-dressed lists. Not for her is the waxworks, stop-the-clock look but a naturalness combined with a dedicated care of self. She is clearly of the belief that says you owe it to yourself and to your public to look your best. Miss Colbert is no nostalgia item but a dynamic, contemporary woman more concerned with how her next performance is going to go than what she did 50 years ago, as rewarding and applauded as that may have been at the time.

Yet she is wisely wary about a return to the screen. "I would want it to be something really exciting," she said. "Let's face it, at my age there aren't that many parts that are right for me. And whenever they ask you to do those guest shots on TV the material is always so poor."

For more than two decades, Miss Colbert has spent much of her free time at her home in Barbados, where she says movies are a bit slow in arriving. "But now we get things by satellite, and friends do try to tape things for me. I loved 'The Jewel in the Crown' and 'A Passage to India.' I admire those big spectaculars like 'Star Wars,' but they're not quite my thing.

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