Claudette Colbert - Reception


Colbert established one of the most successful film careers of any actress of her generation, and was considered a dependable and bankable star. Her status was reflected in her earnings as one of the best paid performers of the 1930s and 1940s. Colbert once commented that she had sacrificed for the sake of her career. In discussing Colbert's career, her contemporaries confirmed her drive. Irene Dunne commented that she had lacked Colbert's "terrifying ambition" and noted that if Colbert "finished work on a film on a Saturday, she would be looking for a new project by Monday". Hedda Hopper wrote that Colbert placed her career "ahead of everything save possibly her marriage", and described her as the "smartest and canniest" of Hollywood actresses, with a strong sense of what was best for her, and a "deep rooted desire to be in shape, efficient and under control".

Other actors noted Colbert's comic timing; David Niven related in his biography that Gary Cooper was "terrified" at the prospect of working with Colbert in his first comedy, Bluebeard's Eighth Wife, because he considered Colbert to be an expert in the genre. The film gave Niven one of his first significant parts, and he wrote that Colbert took a nurturing role towards him and "was the soul of fun and a most generous performer," although he noted that her insistence that she be filmed only from her left side created difficulties for the cameramen. Her fastidious attitude in this regard became well known, with Doris Day quoted as saying, "God wasted half a face on Claudette". During her heyday, film technicians described the right side of her face as "the dark side of the moon." In a 1930s interview Constance Bennett replied to questions about her own demands, with the comment that Colbert's idiosyncrasies were far more excessive, but Bennett acknowledged that it was an integral part of Colbert's success. Colbert was generally respected for her professionalism, with the New York Times stating that she was known for giving "110 percent" to any project she worked on, and she was highly regarded for learning the technical aspects of studio lighting and cinematography that allowed her to maintain a distinctive film image. In her biography, Myrna Loy stated that Colbert, along with Joan Crawford, "knew more about lighting than the experts did."

Modern critics and film historians claimed that Colbert demonstrated versatility throughout her career, and played characters that ranged from vamps to housewives, and that encompassed screwball comedy and drama. Pauline Kael wrote that Colbert was widely admired by American audiences from the time of mid-1930s.

Colbert found it difficult to make the transition to playing more mature characters as she approached middle-age. "I'm a very good comedienne," Colbert said. "But I was always fighting that image, too". Praised for her sense of style and awareness of fashion, Colbert ensured throughout her career that she was impeccably groomed and costumed. For the 1946 melodrama, Tomorrow is Forever, Jean Louis was hired to create eighteen changes of wardrobe for her.

When Colbert received a Kennedy Center Honor, her fashion sense was referred to with a quotation from Jeanie Basinger in The International Dictionary of Films and Filmmakers: " glamour is the sort that women attain for themselves by using their intelligence to create a timeless personal style." The writer A. Scott Berg described Colbert as one of Paramount Studio's greatest assets, as she had "proved deft in all genres" and had "helped define femininity for her generation with her chic manner."

She is cited as a leading female exponent of screwball comedy, along with such actresses as Jean Arthur, Irene Dunne, Carole Lombard, Myrna Loy and Rosalind Russell. In her comedy films, she invariably played shrewd and self-reliant women, but unlike many of her contemporaries, Colbert rarely engaged in physical comedy. Her characters were more likely to be observers and commentators.

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