On This Day in 1903: A Girl Named Lily Enters a Nickelodeon-crazy World

The “On This Day” feature I inaugurated last Friday as an experiment in blog-streamlining turned out to be more of a challenge than I had anticipated. To be sure, there is no lack of pop cultural fodder to be culled from various sources, even though I soon realized it would not suffice simply to delve deep into the pit of “unpopular culture” in order to conjure up something worthwhile and intriguing to me. Not that I minded having to read a Shakespearean tragedy or Victorian poetry to make it all work to my satisfaction. Nothing is less pleasing than the presentation of mere trivia. Trivia, after all, is everything about which one has nothing to say.

Matter is never trivial—minds are. Any tidbit is a tadpole out of which may grow a stimulating thought. As soon as a piece of otherwise useless information is brought into meaningful relationships, as soon as it becomes the plaything of the imagination, it ceases to be mere quiz piffle. As I discovered, however, it can become quite burdensome and tedious to let the calendar dictate what datum should be dusted off and taken for an airing. Unless, of course, the day happens to be 13 September—the birthday of my favorite motion picture actress, Ms. Claudette Colbert.

Today, nearly a decade after her death, the charming Parisienne born Lily Claudette Chauchoin is mostly remembered for her Oscar-winning performance in It Happened One Night, the only cinematic landmark in her long and lucrative career. I have ceased to be amazed how many well-educated people draw a blank when confronted with her name. She is not one of the untouchables, no larger-than-life goddess like Garbo or Dietrich. She has not inspired the cult following of queer icons like Joan Crawford or Bette Davis. She is no longer thought of as being among the accomplished or outstanding actresses of her day (that is, the 1930s and ‘40s)—probably because she was so decidedly of her day. 

During the Depression and the lean years of wartime rationing, Colbert represented the savvy and urbane gal who could make something out of next to nothing, who survived and thrived using her charm, her wits, and her gams. She wasn’t a gold-digger—she was an adventuress. Here’s a definition of the label, taken from Preston Sturges’s Palm Beach Story:

Colbert (about to run away from her husband): “I might not get married again. I might become an adventuress.”

McCrea (the befuddled husband): “I can just see you starting for China on a twenty-six foot sailboat.”

Colbert: “You’re thinking of an adventurer, dear. An adventuress never goes on anything under three hundred feet with a crew of eighty.”

Instead of waiting to land a husband, she was on her way to make a living. Her characters were rarely tawdry or shrill, rarely timid or severe, which rendered her inoffensive and commendable to audiences of both sexes. The quintessential Colbertian heroine got into precarious situations in order to get out of untenable ones. Standing the test of nonsensical commotion, she was the epitome of common sense. Accessible and admirable at once, she was always Practically Yours.

One biographer attributed her transient stardom to her inability to gauge which projects would translate into cinematic events of lasting brilliance, as well as her failure to forge long-term professional relationships with renowned directors or remarkable actors, connections that worked wonders for comparatively colorless actresses like Myrna Loy. Instead, worked most frequently with artists who, however commercially successful, are for the most part considered second-rate today (such as director Mitchell Leisen or actor Fred MacMurray).  While overstated, there is some truth in this observation.

Now, I don’t generally hold with the what-would-have-happened-if school of thinkers; but if you ever wondered what Colbert might have done with the parts played by Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday, Katharine Hepburn in Alice Adams, Irene Dunne in The Awful Truth and Magnificent Obsession, or Margaret Sullavan in Shop Around the Corner, consider tuning in to the Lux Radio Theatre, where she was also heard revisiting the stage role that brought her fame long before Hollywood claimed her: Lou in The Barker.

Even when dealing with stage and screen, radio can often be relied give us a fuller picture; in this case, a fuller picture of an enterprising adventuress who made it her career to “paint the lily.”

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