Hollywood Legend Claudette Colbert Dies

Movies: Oscar-winning star of 'It Happened One Night' was 90.

July 31, 1996| From a Times Staff Writer

Claudette Colbert, who had been a star for so long that almost no one could remember when--or if--she had ever been anything else, died Tuesday. She was 90.

Colbert, who maintained homes in Manhattan and Barbados, died in Bridgetown, Barbados.

She had been hospitalized there in March 1993 after a stroke that affected her right side had put her in a wheelchair. But columnist Liz Smith, who visited her at her island home, Belle Rive, said that despite the stroke, Colbert still applied full makeup daily and joined her guests for lunch, cocktails and dinner.

When friends lamented Colbert's stroke three years ago, she replied with her typical full-throated laugh: "Oh, why not me? It hasn't been fun, but you just have to go on with life and get over it."

Colbert was a popular leading lady for three decades, a veteran of 64 films and a recipient of countless honors.

The winner of one Academy Award and nominated for two others, she specialized in sophisticated comedy but yearned for dramatic roles, especially female villains.

"I just never had the luck to play bitches," she told an interviewer decades before her death. "Those are the only parts that ever register, really."

Two such roles she almost played were Margo Channing in "All About Eve" and Blanche du Bois in the Broadway version of "A Streetcar Named Desire." A skiing accident kept her from one role, movie commitments from the other.

Yet she had never been idle. Her essential career, begun nearly 70 years ago in the theater, continued there long after she ceased to appear in movies.

Her dominance of the screen began in 1932 with a single sensuous scene in Cecil B. De Mille's "The Sign of the Cross" that established her as star material.

She also made "Cleopatra" for De Mille, but that was after she made the film that brought her the Academy Award: the enduring comedy "It Happened One Night," in which her shimmering contralto voice was paired with Clark Gable's macho form and cynical demeanor.

And then followed a string of successes that included "Imitation of Life," "The Gilded Lily," "I Met Him in Paris," "Since You Went Away," "The Egg and I" and many more.

A Claudette Colbert video collection released last year included the films "Cleopatra," "Midnight," "Bluebeard's Eighth Wife" and "So Proudly We Hail."

The three decades of movie history to which she brought a heart-shaped face framed by reddish-brown bangs and highlighted by a bright smile spanned Hollywood's Golden Age--from the intimacy of silent films to the sprawling images of Cinemascope.

Nonetheless, she was known as one of the least "actressy" of actresses, and once said she never even considered acting "the primary thing" in her life.

Indeed, she said she had "never intended to be an actress at all."

Lily Claudette Chauchoin, according to her passport, was born Sept. 13, 1905, in Paris, where her father was a minor functionary in the French banking system. (In her later years, she gave her birth year as 1903.)

The family (including grandmere Marie Loew, a major force in her life) moved to New York City in 1910, settling in Manhattan's East Fifties.

Marie Loew spoke English and French and passed on the languages to her grandchildren. There was no language barrier, therefore, when Lily (as she was then called) and her brother, Charles, entered American schools.

At Washington Irving High School, again at her grandmother's suggestion, Lily studied art and design to prepare for a career in fashion; she also began taking classes at the Art Students League.

There had been one minor digression from this carefully plotted course--the part of Rosalind in a high school production of "As You Like It."

The family hardly noticed, and after graduation, Lily continued her art league classes, took a job in a dress shop to learn more about designing, and gave French lessons in the evenings to augment her income.

"But plans are one thing, and life is another," the actress said in later years. "Grandmere's hopes, and mine, turned pale the day I met Anne Morrison."

Playwright Morrison saw something that Lily's family--and Lily herself--had evidently missed.

She told her that she should become an actress, and wangled the girl a three-line part in a stage play, "The Wild Westcotts," with Cornelia Otis Skinner, Elliot Nugent and Edna May Oliver.

During the show's tryout in Stamford, Conn., Lily's part was expanded--and she acquired a new name. " 'Lily' didn't seem right, somehow," she said, "so I settled on 'Claudette.' And 'Chauchoin' became 'Colbert.' "

For the next three years the young actress survived a series of minor parts, short-lived engagements and less-than-successful road tours in such plays as "We've Got to Have Money," "The Marionette Man," "The Cat Came Back," "High Stakes" and "Leah Kleschna."

However, it was the part of Lou, the snake charmer, in "The Barker" in 1927 that became her true big break.

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