The versatile stage, screen and television actress, Claudette Colbert, died July 30 on the island of Barbados, where she lived for many years. She was 92 years old and remained remarkably youthful and vivacious until she had a stroke three years ago.
Born Lily Claudette Chauchoin in Paris in 1903, she came to America as a child with her parents and studied art at the Art Students League, but she became fascinated by the theatre. Without studying acting, she made her Broadway debut in 1923 in a minor play called the Wild Wescotts. In a few years, she was appearing in hit plays such as A Kiss in the Taxi (1925) and the 1927 hit, The Barker with Walter Huston and Norman Foster, whom she married in 1928. The Barker, in which she played a snake tamer, ran at Broadway's Biltmore Theatre, where she also later appeared in Tin Pan Alley in 1928 with her husband, whom she divorced in 1935; The Kingfisher with Rex Harrison in 1978, and A Talent for Murder with Jean-Pierre Aumont (1981).
Her other Broadway hits included The Marriage-Go-Round with Charles Boyer (1958) and her last New York appearance with Rex Harrison in Aren't We All? (1985).
Colbert's spectacular screen career began in 1927 and gathered steam with Ernest Lubitsch's The Smiling Lieutenant (1931) and Cecil B. DeMille's The Sign of the Cross, in which she played Nero's lascivious empress who bathed in asses' milk, with kittens lapping up the froth.
Her greatest triumph, however, was Frank Capra's celebrated screwball comedy, It Happened One Night (1934), which neither she nor Clark Gable wanted to make. The film won five Academy Awards, including Oscars for her and Gable. The film contained the immortal hitchhiking scene in which Gable got nowhere with his thumb, but Colbert quickly halted a car by lifting her skirt and displaying her classic gam. The film established Colbert's great flair for sophisticated comedy, which sparkled in such films as The Gilded Lily (1935), Tovarich (1937), Bluebeard's Eighth Wife (1938), Midnight (1939) and The Palm Beach Story (1942).
Her dramatic abilities were proven in Imitation of Life (1934), Cleopatra (1934), Drums Along the Mohawk (1939) and on TV in The Two Mrs. Grenvilles (1986).
In 1935 Colbert married Dr. Joel Pressman. He died in 1968. There are no family survivors.
-- By Louis Botto