A Classic Appreciation: Claudette Colbert endeared herself to millions in "It Happened One Night," a movie that changed destinies. She died yesterday.

Claudette Colbert: Sept. 13, 1903 - July 30, 1996

July 31, 1996|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,SUN FILM CRITIC Staff writer Chris Kaltenbach contributed to this article. fTC

It almost didn't happen at all, much less one night.

Myrna Loy turned it down.

So did Miriam Hopkins and Margaret Sullavan.

Then Constance Bennett said she'd buy it for herself but Capra wouldn't sell it; Bette Davis wanted to do it but Warners said no. Loretta Young wanted to do it, but Capra said no. Carole Lombard turned it down, to star in the famous (huh?) "Bolero."

Finally Harry Cohn, the crass vulgarian who ran Columbia Studios, suggested Claudette Colbert, who was largely famous at that time for taking a bath in asses' milk for Cecil B. DeMille. But Colbert preferred to go skiing.

Desperate, and despite the fact that she and Capra cordially loathed each other after making "For the Love of Mike" some years earlier, the studio offered Colbert the then-unheard-of sum of $50,000, because it was already locked into a deal with Clark Gable. And so Samuel Hopkins Adams' Cosmopolitan story "Night Bus" eventually became a movie, under Frank Capra's sure professional hand.

They changed the name, of course, to "It Happened One Night" and the movie changed -- well, everything. It changed the destinies of its stars, its director, the studio that produced it, and probably the country that loved it.

Claudette Colbert, who died yesterday at 92 in Barbados, achieved the defining moment of her career when she was required to raise her skirt briefly, to attract cars, after the hearty Gable had failed to do so with a stout, manly digit. It was a case of the thumb vs. the gam.

The story goes that she really didn't want to do such an indiscreet thing; a stunt double was brought in, but Colbert realized that her legs were more beautiful than the double's and so she grimly consented. Up went the hemline, just barely over the knee, exposing just a sliver of flesh; pulses stopped, heart attacks increased, strong men fainted, teen-age boys were ruined for life.

Even in oversized men's pajamas, hiding sheepishly behind a wall of blanket in the tourist cabin where circumstances had forced her nutty heiress to co-habit with Gable's earthy newsman, she was adorable.

In both their cases, faltering careers were rescued and in both cases -- though neither could know it then -- immortality was achieved. The 1934 movie went on to sweep the Academy

Awards; then it entered legend and possibly the collective unconscious of the species. The two had a chemistry that brought the best out of each of them.

To him, she was another dame, flighty, not to be trusted, merely to be manipulated; worse, she's rich and she doesn't even know how to dunk a doughnut! To her, he was a big lug without money or connections, maybe trying to get his hands on her daddy's money. But over the course of their adventure, they bonded; one could feel the palpable attraction each had for the other. They never regained quite that sense of vitality.

But maybe the one film -- one of those accidents of perfection that the clanking industrial gears of big-time studio Hollywood occasionally created amid the thousands of complete formula numbers -- was enough.

Until then, the French-born but American-raised young stage actress had been a steady if unspectacular player, astonishingly pretty but locked in a series of mediocre melodramas like "Manslaughter" and "Four Frightened People" as well as the titillation-concealed-within-piety that was the DeMille stock in trade. Her stardom happened one night, the night "It Happened One Night" opened. She was a wonderful light commedienne whose shrewd eyes and sharp, almost sculptured cheeks always suggested intelligence and wit, never mere sexuality. As in "It Happened One Night," she was coy, a teaser, never an overt symbol of lust, like a Harlow. She hadn't Bette Davis' whiplash intensity or Loy's vivid sophistication and irony, but she had a cheeky ease that made her a wondrous presence, particularly in the films of directors who understood her appeal.

Born in Paris

Colbert was born Lily Claudette Chauchoin on Sept. 13, 1903, in Paris. But she moved to America when she was 6, was educated at Washington Irving High School and the Arts Student League in New York, and no trace of French accent or pretensions remained. She hoped to become a fashion designer.

Of course her extreme attractiveness led easily enough to opportunities on the New York stage; she made her debut in 1923, and like many a beauty before and after her, played ingenue roles. The vehicle of her debut was "The Wild Westcotts." She made her film debut in 1927, in the silent "For the Love of Mike," impressing no one, including the director, Frank Capra; he didn't impress her either.

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