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Colbert's Best in Comedy, Drama Captured on Video

August 02, 1996|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The legendary film star Claudette Colbert, who died Tuesday at age 90 in Bridgetown, Barbados, could do it all. Though the Oscar winner was best known for her comedic skills, she also more than held her own in dramatic fare.

Men adored the sexy, confident, French-born actress and women envied the fact that she got to kiss such handsome leading men as Clark Gable, Gary Cooper, Joel McCrea and Ray Milland.

Thankfully, the majority of her best work is available on video.

Colbert has a field day playing Poppea, the sex-kittenish wife of Rome's Emperor Nero (Charles Laughton) in Cecil B. DeMille's delectable, over-the-top 1932 religious epic "The Sign of the Cross" (MCA/Universal, $15). Colbert's most infamous moment: her bath in a pool of asses' milk.

Two years later, Colbert played the vampy Queen of the Nile in DeMille's lavish, kitschy epic "Cleopatra" (MCA/Universal, $15). Warren William (as Julius Caesar) and Henry Wilcoxon (Marc Antony) play the objects of the Egyptian temptress' desire.

Colbert's "Cleopatra" was overshadowed, though, with her Oscar-winning turn in Frank Capra's comedy classic "It Happened One Night" (Columbia TriStar, $20). In this zippy romance, Colbert plays an unhappy, spoiled heiress who runs away and meets her match while traveling on a bus: a savvy newspaper reporter (Clark Gable). Favorite Colbert moment: her technique in flagging down a car.

Despite a cute opening, the 1938 Colbert-Gary Cooper comedy "Bluebeard's Eighth Wife" (MCA/Universal, $15) is surprisingly static. A rare misfire from the screenwriter team of Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett and director Ernst Lubitsch.

Much more enjoyable is the breezy, romantic 1939 comedy "Midnight" (MCA/Universal, $15), also penned by Wilder and Brackett. Colbert is perfection as a down-on-her-luck singer in Paris who masquerades as an Hungarian countess. Don Ameche co-stars as a taxi driver who falls for Colbert; John Barrymore is a hoot as a wealthy cuckolded hubby.

Colbert showed another side of her talents in 1939 in John Ford's stirring Technicolor epic "Drums Along the Mohawk" (FoxVideo, $20). Colbert and Henry Fonda play newlyweds braving the wilds in this action-packed tale set in pre-Revolutionary War America.

In 1940, Colbert teamed up again with Clark Gable for the rip-roaring romantic drama "Boom Town" (MGM/UA, $20). This time around, Gable and Spencer Tracy play two-fisted oil-drilling buddies; Colbert is the feisty wife of Gable. Avoid the colorized version!

Screwball comedies don't get much better than the 1942 Preston Sturges classic "The Palm Beach Story" (MCA/Universal, $15), which finds Colbert leaving hunky hubby Joel McCrea and befriending a millionairess (Mary Astor) and her bumbling brother (a surprisingly wonderful Rudy Vallee) in Palm Beach. Mad, manic fun.

Colbert earned her third Oscar nomination for her graceful performance in 1944's "Since You Went Away" (FoxVideo, $40), David O. Selznick's lengthy but engrossing World War II melodrama about a mother trying to keep her family together while her husband is off at war. With Jennifer Jones, Shirley Temple, Joseph Cotten and Robert Walker.

Colbert and frequent leading man Fred MacMurray turn on the charm in "The Egg and I" (MCA/Universal, $15), the carefree 1947 adaptation of Betty MacDonald's best-selling account of leaving the big city with her husband and moving to the country to start a chicken farm. The comedy introduced the world to Ma and Pa Kettle (Marjorie Main and Percy Kilbride).

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Oldies but Goodies: New on Tuesday is 1935's "The Mystery of Edwin Drood" (MCA/Universal), a nifty adaptation of Charles Dickens' unfinished murder thriller. Claude Rains, Heather Angel and Douglass Montgomery--wearing more eye makeup than the actresses--star.

Robert Wise directed "Odds Against Tomorrow" (MGM/UA, $20), a taut 1959 heist thriller featuring crisp performances from Harry Belafonte and Robert Ryan.

Warner Bros. Classics presents the 1965 slapstick farce "The Great Race" ($20), starring Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis and Natalie Wood. This edition features the roadshow overture, entr'acte and exit music and original theatrical trailer.

Get out your hankies for "Beloved Infidel" (FoxVideo, $20), the slick 1959 adaptation of gossip columnist Sheilah Graham's (Deborah Kerr) bestseller about her love affair with novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald (Gregory Peck).

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Curio: Arriving Tuesday is "I Want My MTV" (Sony Music Video, $13), the first-ever collection of MTV's popular short films, including the original "Joe's Apartment," on-air promos, station identifications and classic rants from Denis Leary and Jimmy the Cab Driver.

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Documentary: "Our Century" (Central Park Media, $20; $90 for the set) is a French-produced five-volume documentary examination of crucial historical moments of the last 90 years.

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Animation: Tuesday marks the arrival of the Japanese animated thriller "M.D. Geist II: Death Force" (Central Park Media, $20), the sequel to "M.D. Geist." Also available will be the director's cut of "M.D. Geist" ($20).

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Coming Next Week: "Lotto Land" (BMG) is a modest, affable comedy-drama about what happens when Lotto fever strikes a poor Brooklyn neighborhood. Larry Gilliard Jr. stars.

Kurt Russell, Halle Berry and Steven Seagal star in the action-thriller "Executive Decision" (Warner).

"Tommy Boy" funsters Chris Farley and David Spade reunite for the comedy "Black Sheep" (Paramount).

Teresa Randle stars in Spike Lee's comedy "Girl 6" (FoxVideo).

Kelsey Grammer and Lauren Holly star in the comedy "Up Periscope" (FoxVideo).

"Friends" star Matt LeBlanc monkeys around in the kiddie baseball comedy "Ed" (MCA/Universal). Also new: "Big Bully" (Warner); "The Road to Galveston" (Paramount); "Moonshine Highway" (Paramount); "Body of Influence 2" (A-Pix).

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