Monday, February 18, 2013
Ladies and Gentlemen, Miss Claudette Colbert
For no reason at all, except that she is superb, and rarely more so than here.
Colbert is one of those '30s ladies (along with Myrna Loy, among others) whose career took an unexpected turn. We remember her as the durable Great Lady, full of a kind of high-mid-Atlantic sophistication, perhaps just a tad imperious with her insistence on only being photographed from the left, but with any suspicious foreignness (on account of her French birth) leavened by her good humor and common sense. We can forget that, in addition to the fine comic timing that helped make It Happened One Night immortal, early on she was no slouch at the exotic, enlivening a series of pictures like The Sign of the Cross, Cleopatra (above), and Under Two Flags (in which she plays the deliciously vixenous Cigarette) with her very credible vamping.
After 1938 (and a last fling as Zaza) she more or less left that kind of thing behind, but perhaps it the lingering influence of her Poppea (not to mention Cigarette) that make her '40s matrons so intriguing. It's a long, long way from the court of the last Pharaoh to The Egg and I, but Colbert makes it work. She's also one of the comparatively few film greats who saw no reason (and had no financial need) to trash her own legacy in Gothics or grand guignols once her day as a leading lady was done. She had a fine career on stage as well, and if she was the only reason more than a couple of her theatre outings lasted more than a night, audiences were always happy to see her and generally didn't mind that her vehicles were feather-light. Remembering her as the queen of light drawing-room drama, outfitted in good tweeds and country-club evening gowns, isn't it remarkable how at home she looks in her lamé and albino peacock fan? There's a lesson there for all of us, if we care to learn, about flexibility, durability, and, not least, that Little Something Extra, star quality...