Dec 27, 2013

Claudette Colbert, It Happened One Night

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Won: Academy Award - Best Actress

Claudette Colbert really didn't want to make It Happened One Night. The first picture she had ever made was directed by Frank Capra and it ended up being a complete failure. She had initially rejected the role of Ellie Andrews, but when Capra was told by Columbia head Harry Cohn that the "French broad likes money," Capra went to Colbert with the promises of doubling her salary and getting it all filmed within a month so that she could haul her ass off for a vacation. She agreed. She was allegedly difficult to deal with throughout the entire shoot. She told her friends right after production ended that she'd "just finished making the worst picture" she'd ever made. Colbert's relationship with It Happened One Night is almost as entertaining as the picture itself, but I'll be damned if you could clock any of that off-set bitterness in her performance. Because the woman is nothing less than an utter delight in the film, and despite everyone being so enraptured by Bette Davis' work and snub that year, it was really all about Claudette Colbert the entire time.

 photo CLAUDETTE7.png1934 was a huge year for Colbert--aside from It Happened One Night's surprise success, she also starred in Imitation of Life and Cleopatra, all of which were nominated for Best Picture, so it ought not to have been a surprise that she'd end up with the Best Actress statue. From the moment I first laid eyes on her in It Happened One Night, I found myself deeply interested. With that apple-face, those big eyes, and and those lines for eyebrows, she looks like a personified Betty Boop--it's hard to not pay attention to her. As she's screaming and glaring at her father and the help and flipping trays of food, I was so fascinated, and in the moment she's preparing to dive off her dad's yacht, I knew that this was a performance I was going to adore. Perhaps she infused her resentment of the picture and of Capra into the palpable bitchiness which in turn made her so exciting to watch in that opening scene, but nevertheless I was hypnotized by the woman from her introduction to the very last visual of her mad-dashing away from her wedding ceremony. She is really "on" from beginning to end and that makes her work tirelessly entertaining.

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Colbert's comedic timing is excellent. A lot of it is attributed to the dynamic chemistry between her and Clark Gable, but I roared a couple of times because of her execution in moments such as "are you talking to me?" when Peter refers to her as "Brat", when she lets out that jarring but fabulous faux-cry after her father's investigators have come to her cabin, and "oh he's marvelous" as she's broken-heartedly sobbing around the end. Ellie is also as clueless and lost as a child, and Colbert very effectively taps into that lively childish spirit--the way she smiles when she's living amongst the common folk in the cabin community, the defeated expression she gives as she begrudgingly eats raw carrots, and even the scene where she desperately confesses her love for Peter--all of these moments have an infantile quality about them that's so endearing. Finally, she's incredibly touching in her emotional scenes, such a contrast from the tough, rebellious exterior Ellie puts on in the beginning. The character of Ellie Andrews allows for many different facets--from naive fragility to spoiled brat to sassy dame to caged socialite itching for freedom--this is a wonderful and well-rounded portrayal of a  protagonist that we just don't see in romantic comedies that often anymore.


  1. Replies
    1. Indeed! I was pretty surprised at not only how much I enjoyed her but how rewatchable she was as well!

  2. Colbert thoroughly deserved her Academy Award for 'It Happened One Night'. She was wonderful.

    1. I wholeheartedly agree. And welcome Ralph!

  3. Colbert is terrific here. She could sometimes be a low wattage actress but here she's on fire and obviously having fun. She steels the hitch-hike scene from Gable with her bemused underplaying and I just love how she becomes a gal who's front-and-center for the duo's every adventure. I'm always more interested in characters who evolve, and watching her go from spoiled yet independent girl to intrepid and empathetic woman is wonderfully entertaining. A great performance.