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Miss Perfection—Claudette Colbert

The last time Claudette Colbert saw Paris, she went with her husband, Dr. Joel Pressman, to visit a world famous French ear, nose and throat specialist. That’s Joel’s specialty, too, but Joel was shy about his French and Claudette had the translator’s job.

Claudette stood by as Joel interviewed the great man. “Attendez,” he said at last, disappearing into his office. He returned with a plate bearing a pickled human head, sawed neatly in two to reveal the passages. This he handed to Claudette with a “S’il vous plait,” and while he and Joel peered at the grisly object, she translated their medical jabberings as best she could. That is, until she felt her knees begin to sag.

A nurse caught her and the pickled head as both of them started toward the floor.

To my knowledge, that’s the only time in her life that Claudette Colbert ever came near losing a head.

I’ve known her a good twenty years, and I think she is just about the smartest, canniest and smoothest 18-carat acting lady I’ve seen cross the Hollywood pike.

Claudette knows her own mind better than any star I’ve ever met. She added herself up long, long ago and came out with the right answers—in every little thing.

A few years ago, I did a picture with her. Our parts called for swanky get-ups, and one day Claudette and I decided to call on Antoine, the famous hair stylist, before we started shooting. Shorties were stylish then. I sat in the great man’s chair first, and got glamor-sheared like a lamb in no time; then came Claudette’s turn.

Antoine flashed his shears and made possibly three snips—clip, clip, clip. That was all. “No,” said Claudette suddenly, halting the operation.

“But, Miss Colbert,” protested the coiffure king, “this is the new style.”



“Maybe it’s new,” replied Claudette firmly, looking critically in the mirror, “but I know how I look best.”

When we walked out, Claudette’s coiffure was maybe a mite shorter all around, but otherwise exactly as it was when she went in. Exactly, I might add, as it was when she first came to Hollywood, and exactly as she wears it today—a close bob, curled at the ends by her own hands. It’s perfect for Claudette, and she knows it.

She can do practically anything for herself better than anyone else can. When she was a little girl, she wore button shoes and her mother, Mme. Chauchoin, used to try to button them up for her when she got dressed. “I wouldn’t let her,” Claudette told me once. “I knew she could do it in five minutes and it would take me a half-hour. But I had to do it myself. I’m still that way.”

Sometimes I have to laugh at Claudette’s utterly practical approach to her job. I visited her set on The Egg and I one day, and she was doing a hilarious farm scene with Fred MacMurray that called for her to tumble in squishy mud. It was nippy weather and the prop boys, who love Colbert, had heated the mud so she wouldn’t get chilled.

One take passed, the director cried “Cut” and everybody left the set for a breather—except Claudette. She stayed in the mud.

“Hey,” I said, “aren’t you coming out? Do you like it there?”

“Yep, I do,” came back Claudette. “If I come out, I’ll get cold—and I’ll have to get right back in, anyway. This mud’s nice and warm. I’m staying.”

paramount on parade . . .

Claudette came to Hollywood—and Paramount—before the parade of glamor queens hit. She watched them breeze in—Marlene Dietrich, Carole Lombard, Mae West—all in the spotlight, and certainly in the case of Mae and Marlene, a spotlight highlighted with shenanigans, poses and personal acts. Colbert didn’t go in for that sort of thing; she just kept on playing good parts in good pictures and she was still there when the battalion of beauty rivals had bowed out. Yet all the time—then as now and ever—she was getting her way. She’s called her own shots on every picture she’s made in twenty years of stardom.

Except for once, she has never played a picture without reading the entire script in advance. The one time she skipped that canny rule, I happened to have a little bit to do with it. But Claudette’s keen mind weighed the odds and made her decision.

That was when David Selznick offered her the part of Jennifer Jones’ mother in Since You Went Away. What made her knit her cautious brows was the unfinished script. Selznick shot Since You Went Away pretty much on the cuff. It was his baby, and he wrote a lot of it as the camera rolled.

“Listen, Claudette,” I pointed out one afternoon, “you know David Selznick has never made a bad picture.”

“What’s more,” I went on, “you know if a picture isn’t good at first, he’ll do it over until it is. That happened with Gone With the Wind, the pappy of all boxoffice hits, and a couple of others, too.

“Okay,” I summed up. “You’re an actress. You like the part so far. You know you can trust David Selznick. It looks like a good risk, doesn’t it?”

She thought just a few seconds. “That’s right,” she said. And right then she decided to do it.

Frank Capra, Mitchell Leisen and Ernst Lubitsch are her favorite directors. Frank made her first picture, Love O’ Mike, years ago, also her favorite and Oscar-winner with Gable, It Happened One Night, and now he’s got her again for another hit in State of the Union. Mitch Leisen steered a great Colbert movie, Arise My Love. But I think the one she likes to work with best is jolly, shrewd, twinkly Ernst. He’s got a bead on that canny French head of Claudette’s.

I remember one scene Claudette did with Gary Cooper in Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife. She was supposed to jump on Gary’s lap, muss him up with kisses and nibble onions at the same time.

so shy . . .

Sometimes Claudette gets a streak of shyness, and Gary’s certainly no greeter. They were both self-conscious and stiff as boards. Before the scene, Claudette broke down completely.

“Oh, Ernst,” she confessed, “I don’t think I can do that—it’s, it’s just impossible!” She was actually blushing, and Gary was fidgeting dismally in his chair with exactly the same bashful block.

“Watch me,” said Ernst, springing right onto Gary’s startled lap, cigar and all. He cooed to the beet-red Coop, kissed him, snuggled and snapped off the scallions like the most coy cutie in the world, until Claudette and even Coop—shaken though he was—broke into uncontrollable roars. They did it themselves the next take, and had fun. I’ve always thought that Gary turned in his gayest, screamiest comedy in Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife.

Lubitsch gets the palm for that breakdown—but another time, well—I tell her I’ll always believe she cracked her ankle in Arise My Love on purpose.

Things weren’t so rosy on that set before Claudette sprained and half-busted her ankle. Her leading man was stiff by nature and standoffish, even a little surly at being stacked up against an actress like Colbert. I’m not saying seriously, of course, that she twisted her foot as a cagey maneuver—but when she did, and had to be carried to and from the set and her dressing-room in the strong arms of that standoffish guy, what followed were some of the greatest love scenes ever put on film.

And I know something else, too. Not long after a certain young man won himself an Academy Oscar, he and his wife had dinner with Claudette and her husband in New York. The Oscar-winner arrived fifteen minutes ahead of his wife, and Claudette could tell he had something on his mind. Finally, he came out with it.

“Claudette,” he said, “I want to thank you for my Oscar. If I hadn’t played with you in Arise My Love, I’d never have won my award for The Lost Week End.”

His name? By now you ought to know. Ray Milland, of course.

Claudette’s first interest, however, is her own career. It comes above everything else—save possibly her marriage. Most of her marvelous self-discipline stems from her deep-rooted Gallic desire to be efficient, good, and in shape, always.

I’ve had dinner at Claudette’s when she stuffed her guests with rare morsels like sauerkraut cooked in champagne and crépes suzettes for dessert. I lapped ’em up, but not Claudette. She has herself in training and under control always.

Claudette’s a little embarrassed when you quiz her about her success. “I never really had any struggle at all,” she says apologetically. She was a little French girl brought to America, raised in New York. She wanted to design dresses originally, sold a few sketches around New York for $3 apiece and decided that would never make her rich. So she gave a few French lessons to help out, and one of her pupils, a Broadway actress, said, “I can get you a part on the stage.” Claudette’s been acting ever since; part followed part, money followed more money—a Broadway hit, New York movies and then Hollywood.

dough-girl . . .

Claudette’s one of the richest girls in town today. Away back when she was earning those first $50-a-week checks on the stage, she started a trust fund for her old age. By now she has a pack of gilt-edged securities. Her brother, Charlie Wendling, is her business manager and agent, but she works right along with him. Claudette’s on my best-dressed list, year in and year out, but that doesn’t mean she buys clothes every hour on the hour.

We two were wailing about the fashion revolution the day I saw her. “What are you going to do about these new hemlines?” I asked Claudette. She whisked up her skirt to show me her hem—four or five inches full. “I’ve always had all my suits and dresses made with a deep hem,” said Claudette. “For insurance. Now I’m going to let ’em down.”

Claudette’s one big extravagance is. her house. She wanted a beautiful colonial house, and she got it. Trouble is, it’s too big—seven or eight servants can get lost around the place. During the war, Claudette moved into an apartment.

Because of her thrift, wealth and her direct, businesslike attitude, Claudette has been painted now and then as a tight-fisted Madame Moneybags. It’s not true.

Just the other night, I was at a benefit for the Nursery School for Visually Handicapped Children at Harold Lloyd’s beautiful estate. I was raising money, and I asked for $1,000 donations from the movie rich. Claudette’s hand was the third one up, which is typical.

Claudette may have a heart for gold, but it’s of gold, too. The day I dropped in to check up on her for MODERN SCREEN, she was rummaging through her clothes and stacking them in a huge heap. It seemed she’d given her French maid a vacation to visit her family in France, and when the maid returned and told Claudette of their desperate need for clothes, Colbert dropped everything and dove for her racks.

What Claudette’s most wrapped up in currently, I think, is the wonderful plan her husband, Dr. Pressman, and some other visionaries have for a new hospital in the Beverly Hills-Westwood-Bel-Air section.

Dr. Pressman, a strong, intelligent, top-drawer physician, is every bit as much a worthy character as Claudette. He’s a man of distinction, without the highball, a medical scholar, who dropped his private practice for duty as a Navy flight surgeon aboard a carrier. There’s a little leather framed picture of Claudette in her den that he carried all during the war. Claudette giggled when I spied it. “Don’t tell him, but it’s a picture I had taken 15 years ago!”

Joel runs absolutely no risk, and never did of becoming “Mister Colbert.” Once in Paris, he and Claudette were scheduled to go to a very ritzy affair to meet the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Came the night and Joel begged off. “Mind if I don’t go?” he asked Claudette. “There’s a chance to talk to Dr. So-and-So (another French medical expert) tonight.” Claudette understood perfectly, went on, and came back to find Joel and the scientist deep in discussion at their hotel when she returned. That, incidentally, was the first time she knew her husband could speak French. He’d been too shy to spring it around his expert wife, though.

If anyone can influence Claudette’s ideas and tastes, it is Joel. He even worked the miracle of making her air-minded, though she hated flying until he came home from the war, got a plane of his own and started buzzing around. “It just shows you,” Claudette sighed to me, “what you can do when you love a man. I fly now.”

Claudette and Joel circulate in a fairly tight little social set; you never see them at a night club, and when the Pressmans are entertaining, the food is a chef’s dream, the wine exactly right, the service faultless. Claudette isn’t domestic, herself; she’s too practical for that. “Why should I cook?” she once asked me, frankly, “when I can get someone a lot better than I am to do it for me?” Well, why should she?

I heard the other day that she was quitting acting in three more years, and I called her right up. “I’m coming out to do a story on you,” I told her.

She laughed. “Well, since it’s you.” That was pure flattery, but a compliment, too. Nothing makes Claudette ache like talking about herself.

She was curled up in one of those comfortable chairs in her drawing room, when I got there. The sun came streaming in through the wide window, and Claudette wore a rust-colored shantung silk suit. It gave her a golden glow.

“Look,” I said, “it’s not fair to anybody, including yourself, to retire from the screen.”

new career for colbert . . .

“Who said retire?” came back Claudette. “I’m just switching canvas chairs. Im going to direct. I’m forty-two. In three years, I’ll be forty-five. Cameramen can’t keep this face and figger beautiful forever!”

For once I wasn’t impressed.

“You look twenty-five,” I told her. “Besides, what’s forty-five to a modern woman?”

“Time to change,” grinned Claudette, paying my remarks no mind at all. So three years from now, I’ll bet she’ll be the best lady director in Hollywood. history, and I’ll bet she’ll make a ton of money, too. She always does. Why, a trust fund she started away back when she was a girl for her “old age” came due recently, and paid her off several thousand, and she put it in a certain silly-sounding venture and then was ashamed to tell even her brother and her lawyer.

“It was strictly my money,” explained Claudette, “and I decided I’d have a fling with a folly and probably lose it.” Uh-huh! Guess what she put it in—that Bub-a-Loon outfit with Matty Fox, the Hollywood gadget promoter, who hit a pure gold mine with those plastic bubbles the kids are blowing like mad all over the land. Heaven only knows how much money will come rolling in from Colbert’s “folly.”

“Lucky!” I sighed enviously. But luck, of course, has nothing to do with it. That gal just can’t miss. Even when she blows bubbles, Claudette Colbert picks ones that can’t burst!








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