‘In the Hollywood of the thirties and forties, dominated by elegance, glamour production expertise and lush escapism,’ the film historian William K. Everson wrote in the 1970s, ‘Claudette Colbert was one its most representative stars. Despite her natural skills and theatrical background, she – or the images that came to be Claudette Colbert – was essentially a Hollywood product.’
The reference to her ‘theatrical background’ aside, this could be said about any number of Hollywood stars – male of female – of the studio era. Colbert, who was born on this day, 13 September, in 1903, was a particular ‘product’ of an industry committed to generating lucrative multiples by manufacturing the one-of-a-kind: the unique personality that filled screens and auditoria of movie theaters around the world. So what, if anything, distinguishes Colbert from her peers?
Everson goes on to describe Colbert as ‘sleek, svelte, sophisticated and chic […]. But she was also warm, vivacious and possessed of both charm and a sense of humor – qualities that can’t be mass produced, no matter how complicated the machinery.’
To a Colbert enthusiast such as myself, this certainly rings true – and the attributes ‘warm’ and ‘vivacious’ are especially felicitous when applied to descriptions of the energy with which Colbert invests her roles – a kind of cocktail party gaiety that, whatever the state or root cause of intoxication, is rarely brash and, however much of an effort it may be, as written into a script or demanded by a director, is so transparently genuine and uncontrived that it makes me feel I am in the presence of the very life of the party, and of belonging, even if Claudette’s character just crashed one, as in Midnight.
The other night, I watched Sleep, My Love, a melodrama in which laughs are in short supply, and what struck me as most distinctly Colbert about an otherwise generic thriller of the Gaslight school was seeing her tormented character on a night out with an admirer, getting soused at a wedding, while her husband is plotting to drive her out of her mind by adulterating her cocoa. This woman will lose her man before she loses her marbles.
What Everson refers to as the ‘Colbert Mystique’ is really no ‘mystique’ at all. The quality Colbert brought to the screen was approachability, a glamour that wasn’t a glare. She is neither aloof nor in your face while out of reach in her improbable but never impossible elegance. That approachability did not quite amount to vulnerability, however, as most of her performances – certainly most of her best, excepting Three Came Home – are subdued rather than raw. When asked to lose her cool, to get what used to be called hysterical, as in her none too Secret Fury in the film of that title, she seems to be filling in for another actress; she is simply not Claudette. For the most part, though, when Colbert lets her hair down on the screen, or had reason to tear it out, her bangs require only minor adjustments to be put back in place – and Hollywood dictated that it, and the woman donning the do, had to be back there in that designated up-to-Production Code place before long.
Sure, there might be a wisp of straw in her hair, but we don’t get access to the hayloft where, her laugh suggests, it happened all right; and we are certainly not encouraged to feel entitled to an entire sheaf of evidence. Growing up gay – and knowing I was gay when I was very young without knowing how to let it be known – I found Colbert’s subtlety more relatable than the sass of dames, the fire of Jezebels, or the lure of sirens whose appeal brought on awkwardness and shame rather than arousal in me. This woman would not crack like Susan Hayward, snap like Bette Davis or claw for it like Crawford. She would end up all right, and often owing to her strength, wit and endurance. Granted, having Hattie McDaniel at hand to massage your tired feet doesn’t hurt. But, hired help or none, Colbert’s heroines keep their cool while exuding a warmth that no flamethrower can supply.
There really isn’t any ‘mystique’ there; glamour, yes, and power, but no mystery. Even in matters of sex, as I found most comforting watching Colbert while coming of age in the era of AIDS, Colbert suggests that there need be no mystery at all. When Colbert insists that ‘sex has everything to do with it’ – as one of her characters does in The Palm Beach Story, she doesn’t coo it like West or croon it like Dietrich – she says it flat out, with a conviction born of experience. She’s been there, done that, but she keeps the t-shirt neatly folded in a drawer reserved for her lingerie, which she teaches Miriam Hopkins to ‘jazz up’ in The Smiling Lieutenant.
To this day, I collect Claudette Colbert memorabilia, which I display online. The latest addition to my collection is the above publicity still for Private Worlds (1935), for which Colbert received an Academy Award nomination. This is not the portrait of a fallen woman. We know Colbert’s character will get up, straighten her hair and return to work – as long, that is, as Hollywood permits her to have a career, as a ‘lady doctor,’ no less. Yes, that woman on the floor is a psychiatrist.
Colbert’s own private world was just that: private. Back then, fellow stars could rely on the studio to provide them with a ‘private’ world to parade in public and a cover story to hide behind. Today’s celebrities, unlike the stars of that bygone system, enjoy no such protection; nor, for the most part, do they seem to seek it. We have surrendered our privacy, and having done so doesn’t make us feel more real to each other, much less to ourselves, more liberated or more loved. The illusion Colbert pulls off on the screen is that we, or some of us, might have once had what I now sense lost: a kind of cool warmth that gets us through while drawing others toward us.