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Monday, January 5, 2015

THE REEL REALS: Claudette Colbert

Claudette Colbert

Claudette Colbert was a woman of supreme control. Petite in size, with large eyes and soft features, her air of authority overshadowed her beauty without camouflaging her humanity and vulnerability. What would be considered a "modern woman" even by today's standards, she was ambitious, talented, and liberated, and the strength and unapologetic passion with which she approached life made equally appealing as an actress. Perhaps for this reason alone, her work continues to inspire and attract men and women alike. She was there, front and center: no excuses. Like it or lump it. 

This did not detract from her seriousness as an actress. All that she did, she did with absolute concentration. She knew her stuff, so much so that she didn't shy away from throwing her weight around with Cecil B. DeMille or re-positioning a young Shirley Temple so that her own "good side" would face the camera. She understood the game of Hollywood, and always played the ace. This was as much to maintain her own career as confirm the best possible characterization in any given role. Sensitive to the responsibility of acting for millions, she was eager to cooperate with directors and fellow actors in order to form and inform her work with the utmost integrity and authenticity. She was, as is the popular contemporary phrase, "in it to win it."

The French-born Emilie Claudette Chauchoin moved to America at the age of three, bringing with her the strong work ethic of her baker father. Drawn to drama with a marked intensity from her youth, and put herself through acting school by working at a dress shop. By the age of 20, she was Claudette Colbert and appearing on Broadway. She transferred to film for more lucrative opportunities and built up a fairly respectable reputation for herself, her onscreen charm and natural aura earning fans quickly. However, her partnership with DeMille in The Sign of the Cross (remember the nude milk bath scene?), Four Frightened People, and Cleopatra really amped up her career. Of course, it was after her partnership with that Mr. Gable fellow in It Happened One Night that the "Walls of Jericho" came down, and the love affair with Claudette and the world began. 

Claudette engaged in a varied and intriguing career that spanned 60 years, doing everything from melodrama to screwball comedy-- The Smiling Lieutenant, Imitation of Life, Midnight, Boom Town, The Palm Beach Story, So Proudly We Hail, Thunder on the Hill, television appearances, and continued work in live theater. With her always was her intelligence and intuition-- and a touch of controversy for good measure. Rumors abound of her sexual liaisons with some of the most popular leading men and women of the day, but all even murmered scandals could do nothing to disturb her position as one of the most hailed screen stars of all time. 

After her onscreen career faded out with the fifties, she lived peacefully in Barbados with her husband Dr. Joel Pressman until passing away at the age of 92 after suffering a series of strokes. A fighter until the end, she came, she saw, she conquered, and she made her glorious exit. She was an emotional, uncontrollable universe that was somehow always in control, leaving no stone un-turned and not a dry seat in the house. Hard like a rock and soft as a Lily, the sense of her envelops the idealism of Hollywood past like a comforting friend you can always turn to. She's got your back.

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