Claudette Colbert, the versatile stage and film star whose flair for light comedy cheered audiences during the Depression and for decades afterward, died yesterday at Belle-rive, her home on the island of Barbados. She was 92 and also had a home in Manhattan.
Miss Colbert's wit, gaiety, cupid's-bow mouth and light touch took her from the Art Students League in New York to the height of stardom on Broadway and in Hollywood. She is best remembered for screwball comedies in which, no matter what situation befell her, she usually managed to keep her aplomb and good humor. Her greatest triumph was playing a runaway heiress opposite Clark Gable's cynical reporter in Frank Capra's film comedy "It Happened One Night," a performance that won her an Academy Award as best actress in 1934.
She could appear worldly and sophisticated yet down to earth, a quality that, combined with attention to camera angles, lighting and other technical details, helped her to sustain a remarkably durable career encompassing more than 60 films and many stage appearances.
In 1981, in her seventh decade in show business, the New York Times critic Frank Rich, praising her performance in the Broadway flop "A Talent for Murder," called her "a lady of piquant, irrepressible, ever-so-amusing common sense." He cited "her big Betty Boop eyes, curly light hair" and "her low, one-of-the-boys voice, effortlessly hurling asides like pool balls into every pocket of the house."
"Audiences always sound like they're glad to see me, and I'm damned glad to see them," Miss Colbert told an interviewer in 1978. "If they want you, you want to do it. The feeling never dies."
From 'The Lady Lies' To the Milk of Asses
Miss Colbert had her first film success in 1929, as the heroine of the talkie "The Lady Lies." Her early notable films, all box-office hits, included "The Smiling Lieutenant" (1931), a wistful Ernst Lubitsch comedy; "The Sign of the Cross," a 1932 Cecil B. DeMille spectacular in which she played Nero's sensuous empress Poppaea, and the 1934 production of "Cleopatra," in which she played the title role.
"The Sign of the Cross" included a memorable scene with Miss Colbert bathing in what was described by the studio as asses' milk, a scene that became widely admired. The film historian David Thomson wrote six decades later that Miss Colbert had bathed not only in asses' milk but also in "the director's boyish lasciviousness."
Miss Colbert confided in a 1984 interview that the asses' milk was really made from a powdered product called Klim.
"That's 'milk' spelled backward," the star explained. "I was in the pool all day. The Klim was so warm my bangs came uncurled. When the electricians turned off all the hot lights for an hour it congealed and the Klim turned to cream cheese."
Besides DeMille, directors of her films included George Cukor, John Ford, Gregory LaCava, Mervyn LeRoy and Anatole Litvak. Among her leading men were Maurice Chevalier, Gary Cooper, Joseph Cotten, Melvyn Douglas, Henry Fonda, Fred MacMurray, Fredric March, Ray Milland, Spencer Tracy, John Wayne and Orson Welles.
Her early films were followed by such successes as "Imitation of Life" (1934); "The Gilded Lily" (1935); "Private Worlds" (1935), a drama of a mental institution; "Bluebeard's Eighth Wife" (1938), another Lubitsch comedy; "Midnight" (1939); "The Palm Beach Story" (1942), a Preston Sturges caper, and "Since You Went Away" (1944), a drama of the American home front during World War II.
Her last artistically substantial movie role was as a married American woman in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp in "Three Came Home" (1950). Her performance was warmly praised by the critics, but the film did not fare well at the box office.
Through much of her movie career she was under contract to Paramount, although she was on loan to Columbia when she made "It Happened One Night." After 1950 her movie roles were largely vignettes. She made her last feature film, "Parrish," in 1961 but went before the cameras again in 1986 for a television movie, "The Two Mrs. Grenvilles."
Miss Colbert's most noteworthy stage vehicles included "The Barker" (1927), a box-office hit in which she played an alluring snake charmer; Eugene O'Neill's "Dynamo," which was produced by the Theater Guild in 1929 and won her considerable prestige, although it was not a popular success, and the fluffy comedy "The Marriage-Go-Round," a smash hit that opened in 1958 co-starring Charles Boyer, with whom she had also appeared in such films as "Private Worlds" (1935) and "Tovarich" (1937).
An important ingredient in her early success in the theater was her skill asa speaker. When talking films took hold and many silent-film stars turned out to have inadequate voices, she was taken on by Paramount.
"Hollywood was not my dream, you know," she said in an interview in 1978. "I only left Broadway when the crash came. The Depression killed the theater, and the pictures were manna from heaven."
For many years, Miss Colbert was among the top-earning movie stars: some industry analysts calculated that she was the industry's best-paid star in 1938 and 1942. That made it even easier for her to clothe her 5-foot-4-inch frame ultra-fashionably, and for several years she was voted Hollywood's best-dressed woman.
Despite her long identification with Hollywood, Miss Colbert's dramatic skills were versatile enough that she was among the few major film stars who managed repeatedly to return to the stage to critical acclaim.
Triumphant Returns To the Theater
Her first return to Broadway, after more than a quarter-century and the cooling of her movie career, came in the spring of 1956, when she replaced Margaret Sullavan during the spring and summer in the comedy "Janus." Appearances in other Broadway productions followed, including "The Marriage-Go-Round," and in 1963 she announced that she was bidding farewell to Hollywood for good.
Miss Colbert was born in Paris on Sept. 13, 1903, and was brought to this country as a child by her parents, Georges and Jeanne Loew Chauchoin. Her name was originally Lily Claudette Chauchoin. But she took the name Claudette Colbert (pronounced coal-BEAR) for her first Broadway role, an opening that resulted from an introduction to the playwright Anne Morrison at a tea party in New York in 1923. Miss Colbert, who was studying at the Art Students League, jokingly suggested that Morrison give her a role in her next play. Morrison gave her a small one in "The Wild Westcotts."
"I just went right onstage, and I learned by watching," Miss Colbert said years later, noting that she had never taken acting lessons. "I've always believed that acting is instinct to start with; you either have it or you don't."
Broadway fame came quickly. In 1927 the young Leland Hayward, who would become a celebrated theatrical producer, told the director Frank Capra that Miss Colbert was "a real headline maker, the finest young actress that's hit Broadway in years."
Mr. Capra was soon directing the silent movie "For the Love of Mike," with Mr. Hayward in overall charge of production and Miss Colbert in the leading female role.
The movie, nade on a shoestring, was a flop. In his 1971 book "The Name Above the Title," Mr. Capra wrote that Miss Colbert, "never easily pleased, said that for her it was a disaster, and vowed that it would be her first and last film."
Although she changed her mind, Miss Colbert was far from Mr. Capra's first choice for the female lead when he began preparing "It Happened One Night." First he approached Myrna Loy, who turned the part down. So did Margaret Sullavan. So did Miriam Hopkins. So did Constance Bennett.
Finally Harry Cohn, the head of Columbia Pictures, suggested Miss Colbert, who grudgingly took on the role. When the movie was being made, Mr. Capra reported, Miss Colbert proved to be firm yet engaging. For one intimate scene, he said: "Claudette refused to even partially undress before the camera. She wanted to feature her acting, not her sex appeal."
By the same token, she refused at first to raise her skirt for the subsequently famous hitchhiking scene, in which the script called for her to demonstrate that a display of leg could stop a motorist.
And so, Mr. Capra recalled: "We waited until the casting director sent us a chorus girl with shapely underpinnings to 'double' for Colbert's. When she saw the double's leg, she said: 'Get her out of here. I'll do it. That's not my leg!' "