Who was it that said “I shall do my very best to be of aid to anyone who has a problem, large or small”? If the title of this, the 824th entry into the broadcastellan journal did not give away the answer, it might have been anyone’s guess. And perhaps it still is, the black-and-white of legacy media notwithstanding. According to Photoplay – a publication leaving more room for doubt than any self-respecting sceptic would require – that Nightingalean sentiment emanated from the pen of none other than Claudette Colbert, a leading lady most widely known for her Academy Award-winning performance in It Happened One Night – a lady, no less, who gave anyone involved in making movies no end of problems by not letting a Hollywood studio lamp shine on the right side of her face, a cheek that came to be dubbed the dark side of the moon.
Dear me, I thought, when, quite by accident, I discovered that I my favorite film star lent her name to a “Dear Abby” column over a decade before the pseudonymous Abby started answering letters from all and sundry. Having written two letters to Ms. Colbert myself – albeit not until 1991, mind – I was anxious to find out just what advice was given in her name to alleged Photoplay readers whose last names were, as is both customary and convenient, reduced to initials.
Turns out, Colbert was taking the oath of a post office left vacant by a Hollywood legend. “I hope that my efforts will be in keeping with the high standards that have been maintained by my predecessor, Bette Davis,” the “What Should I Do?” column opened in January 1944, now bearing the reassuring subtitle “Your Problems Answered by Claudette Colbert.” In turn, Davis would more than live up to the “high standards” set by Colbert, snatching from the latter the leading role in All About Eve before ending up “writing a letter to daddy” (the address being “heaven above”) in the grand-mommie dearest of all hagsploitation movies Whatever Happened to Baby Jane.
A lot of mail was exchanged on the screen during the 1940s, from Take a Letter, Darling (1942) to Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948). Ms. Davis, of course, had headed The Letter a few years prior to assuming her Photoplay post, which might have been regarded by someone involved in the venture as a letter of recommendation for the job. By that same dubious logic, the cast of the 1949 movie A Letter to Three Wives could have taken over from Ms. Colbert, whose name remained associated with the column until the early 1950s. Urgent memo to self: no check will be in the mail if I don’t put a stop to those preposterous footnotes and start reading “What Should I Do?”
Most likely, the writer responsible for that column throughout was Fredda Dudley, herself a frequent contributor to Photoplay (pictured here with Colbert). This was acknowledged belatedly by the magazine in an editor’s note stating that the “editorial services” of Dudley had been assigned to Colbert due to the “increasing amount of work entailed in handling the many letters.” Whatever the Colbert’s actual involvement, the fact is that the actress’s name became attached to the Photoplay department at a pivotal moment in the career of a star who, in, 1938, had reportedly been the highest paid woman in the United States.
“What Should I Do?” started just as Colbert was beginning to ask herself that very question. “What Should I Do?” with my career, that is. The question was answered, to just about nobody’s satisfaction, in 1945, when Colbert decided to walk away from her lucrative Paramount contract – a decision that, in hindsight, has been deemed detrimental to her legacy, which, taken into her own hands at middle-age, might not however have been in safer ones at her former studio.
The wisdom of Colbert’s call is judged by her subsequent choices as an independent player, choices that include a string of mediocre movies in which she permitted herself to be cast as the better half – dutiful and at times tormented wives – whereas most of her Paramount vehicles showcased Colbert as a headstrong, independent spirit or career woman. Well, never mind that now. I have written an essay about it in college, titled “Ladies in Loco-Motion.”
Back, at last, to the Photoplay column, the copy of which falls in line with the roles Colbert opted to play since Guest Wife (1945). “Here is my problem,” a letter signed “Eleanor G.” reads:
I am now twenty-eight. I graduated from grammar school at thirteen and went to work to help my family. I am engaged to marry a fine man of thirty, who is now in the armed forces. Once when he and I were casually discussing education and I mentioned how important I consider it, he said he was graduated from high school, naming the school, and asked me where I had earned my diploma. I mentioned a school nearby to save my pride. Deep within me I harbor a feeling of inadequacy because I really can’t boast of a diploma. By working hard, saving and studying whenever I had a minute, I have now amassed enough money to secure a college education and I know that I can pass the entrance exams because I have prepared for them.
Just go for it, I feel inclined to exclaim, with a fair amount of what may with some justification be deemed presentism – the imposing of a latter-day perspective on the past; then again, the present is not what it used to be, and women, in the United States in particular, are expected nowadays to give up their hard-fought-for freedoms, which are whittled away under the alarmingly un-American mantle of “Christian Nationalism.”
Gee, Eleanor G., I can see myself Dear-Abbying away at the typewriter: “You can have your academic career, your man – who may very well require some therapy, returning from the front – and your family. No need to settle for one or the other, challenging though the path ahead may be.” Not so the chauvinist Zeitgeist-reflecting “What Should I Do?” column, which advised decidedly otherwise, even though it conveyed its conservative message to “Dear Miss G.” in liberal terms worthy of the most famous Eleanor R. of them all.
“I agree wholeheartedly with you that education enriches life,” the reply opens. “However,” it went on,
in the gentlest way possible, I must disagree with your interpretation of education.
I think you have been making yourself miserable by telling yourself that an educated person is only one who has attained, first a high school diploma, then a university degree. Yet, in the history of America, some of the most “educated” speeches ever made, that is the most timeless, the most significant, the most humanitarian, were made by a man who did sums on the back of a coal shovel, and studied his lessons alone before a fireplace: Abraham Lincoln. One of my favorite definitions is this: An educated human being is one who has never stopped learning. Bearing in mind that description, I would say that you are a well educated person.
When your fiance comes back tell him about your educational background. Explain to him your desire for more education. I am sure he will admire you more for this eagerness. Then marry and have children. Continue your reading and your already horizon-expanding study . . . but forego formal university training. At the present time, I feel certain that you are ready to begin the training of children who will grow up to be assets to the community in which they live—just as you are.
“Continue your … study … but forego formal university training”! That is just the kind of lesson female post-Second World War readers were expected to accept, as men returned, in whatever unfit condition, to reclaim the positions that their female substitute had proven capable of filling in wartime.
In the January 1944 issue, the advice given to a “troubled and unsure” fiancé of a soldier who returned from war with one of his legs amputated – leaving her to go “almost out of [her] mind” wondering whether he would still the husband she could be “gay” and “active” with – was that, with her “assistance and comradeship,” the “future husband” would “be able to enjoy practically every active sport” that she herself enjoyed.
Not surprisingly, Photoplay’s agony column was lampooned by student-journalists of Northwestern University, who, in the May 1948 issue of their journal Purple Parrot subtitled a send-up of the “What Should I Do?” department “Your Problems Made Worse.” Sample question: “I am desperate. My husband has just taken poison. What should I do?” Response: “My dear, I do hope you attended the funeral.”
Now, Colbert did not exactly end up with egg on her face giving her name to “What Should I Do?” At the very least, it provided her with a monthly platform to promote her post-Paramount outputs, of which only one, The Egg and I, proved a runaway hit.
The editors of Photoplay, meanwhile, felt apparently under no obligation to go over easy on any proverbial egg Colbert might have laid at the time. In the July 1947 issue, for instance, The Egg and I was dismissed as “a disappointment.”
Any resemblance in this mediocre film to the fun-raising characters of the best-seller must have gotten there by mistake.
For instance, Claudette Colbert is a chic, well-groomed Betty. She can wallow in mud, scrub floors and fall off a roof and still emerge looking ready to model country clothes for Vogue. The rowdy Kettles of the book have degenerated into a slap-happy pair with, heavens above, a hand-some clean young son who works hard so he can go to college! The final sin is the dragging in, via shining station wagon, of blonde Louise Allbritton, who owns a million-dollar farm down the road and is on the make for Bob.
“The omelet fell,” the review concluded tersely. No cooking tips were offered to the actress in return.
So tantalizing was the promise of having questioned answered by a woman as gracious and level-headed as Colbert came before the public in many of her films – her performance in Since You Went Away coming to mind most readily – that the idea was taken up as well by Movieland magazine, which in its August 1947 issue posed the following question to its readers: “If you were going to see Claudette Colbert tomorrow, what would you ask her? Pretend for a moment that you’re going to interview this famous star.” Twenty-four of those questions were answered in a subsequent issue.
While I cherish the autograph I received in reply, I regret not having had the courage to ask Claudette Colbert any questions when I wrote to her, first to send her the script of a speech I had given about her career in a college speech class and then again to wish her well after a stroke she suffered in March 1993.
“Dear Miss Colbert,” I can now only write to the notional address of “heaven above,” I wonder how you managed to keep your private worlds so carefully under wraps that hardly anything could be said about you that would supply the fast-food joints run by today’s social media. However many eggs were broken in the making of you, the omelet you served up as a substitute for a spicier dish never quite fell.