Today I’m reflecting on that tiny woman with the deep, sexy voice who managed to develop fully realized characters even in the smallest of roles. And in her greatest ones, set the bar so high for future comediennes that few have managed to approach, much less equal, her performances since.
Like many of us out there, I knew Claudette Colbert’s legs first, as she starred in one of the most iconic scenes in American film, proving “once and for all” that when it comes to hitchhiking, “the limb is mightier than the thumb.”
It took several years after seeing the image of her legs that I actually got around to It Happened One Night, which I’ve watched at least 30 times since. In her Academy-winning role as Ellen Andrews, she first perfects a chilly posture and refined voice as the stuck-up heiress. But slowly, Colbert reveals Ellen’s vulnerabilities and inexperience through expressions, gestures, stance, and tone. When Ellen and soon-to-be love interest Peter Warne (Clark Gable) stop at a motel en route to New York, she is ill at ease with the arrangement he makes to keep the room platonic–strapping a blanket between their beds. While she’s technically married, she has never been with a man. When she oversleeps the next morning, Peter threatens to come get her, and her clumsy, embarrassed fumbling to ensure he doesn’t makes me laugh every time I see it.
That winning performance made me a fan. Without it, I never would have sought out The Palm Beach Story, Midnight, and so many other wonderful movies since. Although I appreciate Colbert’s dramatic abilities, her skill with romantic comedy is what wows me. Here are just a few of the megastars she managed to upstage, in spite of the camera’s deep love for them (and theirs for it): Miriam Hopkins in The Smiling Lieutenant (1931), Clark Gable in It Happened One Night (1934), John Barrymore in Midnight (1939) and John Wayne in Without Reservations (1946).
So on her birthday, I’d like to say thank you to the actress who has lightened my mood again, and again and again: the mesmerizing Claudette Colbert.