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Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees's Blog

Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees • Location: Athens, Georgia
• Member since: March 2004
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Fantasy Box Set #6: Claudette Colbert
June 13th, 2005 6:31AM

One of the few things that rang false about the 1930s setting in Robert Altman’s Gosford Park was the moment when the character of the American film director was talking about Claudette Colbert to an associate over the phone. “Is she British? Or is she just pretentious?” he inquired. That made it all too clear that this man (and the screenwriter who put the words in his mouth) had never seen a Claudette Colbert movie. Although she was actually French, few native-born American actresses of the period had such an unaffected, down-to-earth, jauntily American persona. In a Colbert comedy, you often get the sense that she’s in on the joke. With that rich little chuckle or an amused glance, she shows that she’s enjoying the shenanigans as much as we are. Yet in dramas, like Imitation of Life (1934), she could be sincerely and genuinely moving--without becoming maudlin or losing her lightness of touch. Pretentious? That’s the very last word I’d ever apply to Claudette Colbert.

In addition to It Happened One Night, perhaps her most famous film, there are some excellent Colbert titles presently available on DVD: the madcap Preston Sturges comedy The Palm Beach Story, which is simply one of the best comedies of the ‘40s, and the enjoyable fish-out-of-water comedy The Egg and I (available as part of the Ma and Pa Kettle collection). Since You Went Away, a handsome wartime drama, is also available. Yet for a great comedienne and a capable dramatic actress, Colbert is still underrepresented. Here are the five Colbert titles I’d most like to see released on DVD.

1. Torch Singer, 1934. This enjoyable drama predates the enforcement of the Hays Code, so it’s unusually frank (and non-judgmental) in its plot about Colbert getting pregnant out of wedlock. Forced to give up the child, she eventually becomes a successful torch singer and a popular children’s radio performer. Talk about diversifying. When she tries to find her child again, though, life has more hard knocks in store for her. Colbert handles this potentially sappy material with her usual finesse and grace, and she belts out the bluesy “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Love” with style.

2. Tovarich, 1937. Colbert teams up with real-life friend Charles Boyer in this effervescent comedy about married Russian aristocrats fallen on hard times after the revolution. They find happiness working as domestic servants for a wealthy American family, but when old enemy Basil Rathbone reappears, their pleasant arrangement may fall to pieces. Colbert and Boyer make a perfect couple in this variation on the My Man Godfrey plot.

3. Midnight, 1939. Another great achievement of the wonder year that was 1939 is this sparkling, sophisticated comedy in which gold-digging chorus girl Colbert masquerades as a wealthy aristocrat. She’s bankrolled by John Barrymore--in one of his loopiest and funniest supporting roles--who wants her to break up his wife’s (Mary Astor) affair with Francis Lederer. Meanwhile, taxi driver Don Ameche pursues Colbert with marriage in mind. This is one of my favorite golden-age comedies, with a classic comic performance by Colbert and a smart, inventive script by Charles Brackett and Billy Wilder.

4. It’s a Wonderful World, 1939. Not to be confused with a certain other “wonderful” Jimmy Stewart movie, this madcap combination of screwball comedy and detective drama features Colbert as a dizzy poetess. She’s taken hostage by hard-boiled detective Stewart, who’s on lam from the law and trying to solve a murder. Hijinks ensue. The plot gets confusing at times, but the wacky couple at the heart of it all makes it a fun ride.

5. So Proudly We Hail!, 1943. The film that convinced David O. Selznick to cast Colbert as the courageous wife and mother in Since You Went Away, this war drama stars Colbert alongside Paulette Goddard and Veronica Lake (with her hair in war-appropriate braids) as brave nurses stationed in the Bataan. George Reeves, best remembered as TV’s Superman, plays the young soldier Colbert falls in love with. Melodramatic at times, it’s still a stirring and surprisingly powerful Hollywood tribute to the women who go to war. Lake’s final scene is riveting.

Coming Soon: Fantasy Box Set #7...

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