Early screen star Claudette Colbert was born on September 13, 1903. At her birth in France, her name was Émilie Chauchoin. Her father was French and her mother English. In 1911, the family immigrated to New York. She began her acting career with small stage roles. She was enrolled in school with the intention of becoming a fashion designer but began getting roles on Broadway where she used the stage name of Claudette to which she added her grandmother’s maiden name. Colbert eventually came to the attention of movie producers, first for a silent film, then the talkies. The hardworking actress would film all day and then appear in live theatre at night. In 1930, she appeared in The Big Pond, filmed in French and English, opposite Maurice Chevalier. This was just the first film she made with Chevalier and the first she filmed in French.
When Cecil B. DeMille came calling, she moved to Hollywood, where she began to show a little more skin in his elaborate productions, including Cleopatra. She didn’t like the genre and put her foot down about making any more. Colbert basically stumbled into the huge hit It Happened One Night, with Clark Gable. When she was nominated for an Academy Award for the part, she was so convinced that she wouldn’t win that she was about to set off on a cross-country trip and had to be removed from the train to accept the award. With success came the power to renegotiate her contract and she became the highest paid performer in Hollywood, earning almost half a million dollars a year.
She obsessively controlled how she was filmed so that she would always be presented to advantage. This including requiring sets to be rebuilt so that her right side would never be filmed as she didn’t like a bump on her nose. Although often accused of being exigeante (ex-e-zjay-ahnt), or exacting and difficult to work with, she said, “I know what’s best for me, after all I have been in the Claudette Colbert business longer than anybody.” (The masculine form of the adjective drops the “e” – exigeant.) It’s hard to argue with that one. Colbert even took the rare step of refusing a new contract, figuring she could make more money freelance – and she was right. Since You Went Away resulted in her third Best Actress nomination and grossed $5 million in the U.S. alone. The Egg and I was her last big success in 1947.
After the war, she returned to France where she took a supporting role in a few films, including Royal Affairs at Versailles (Si Versailles m’était conté). Back in the U.S., she began to make appearances on various T.V. shows as well as a return to Broadway.
Colbert died at her home in Barbados on July 30, 1996 after a series of strokes. She left an estate worth 3.5 million to her caregiver and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.