…sits on a dowager’s Pomeranian in MIDNIGHT (1939). It takes quite a lot to make LW laugh aloud, alone on a wet May evening, but the gorgeous girl known at Paramount as The Fretting Frog¤ does the business. The dog-squashing is neither dwelt upon nor laboured, it flashes past and you’re already onto the next bit of business in this wonderful movie. Miss Eve Peabody arrives Third Class in Paris from Monte Carlo with nothing but the golden gown she stands up in. Picked up (in both senses) by a taxi driver with a beautiful nose – Don Ameche – she embarks on a series of comically saucy adventures in the horrible haute monde. The film (script by Charles Brackett & Billy Wilder) is as fresh, exhilarating and inventive as it was 76 years ago: it unreels with the polished rhythm and incantatory structure of a Weltschmerz fairytale – “Every Cinderella has her midnight”.
Posing as a Hungarian baroness, Eve falls into a succession of disastrous situations only to be miraculously delivered and propelled into the next pickle. In one of the most glittering casts since GRAND HOTEL, the snobbish fairies and sex-mad witches are incarnated by such entrancing personalities as:
– intoxicatingly beautiful and hatefully haughty Mary Astor, author of the notorious diary burned by Court Order, gamely going along with a gag about her slightly problematic chin. Amazing Astor, one of the greatest of forgotten stars.*
– John Barrymore, the Great Profile of the Silents in terminal alcoholic decline: very funny indeed (intentionally so) as the drunken but faithful Fairy Godfather. “I’ve always had a weakness for size 12”.
– Hedda Hopper, the gossip columnist as actress, playing a philistine musical saloniere with toy boy escort.
– Rex O’Malley (Garbo’s sympathetic aesthete in CAMILLE) as Astor’s malicious best gay boy friend.
– Francis Lederer! Need LW say more?
All this and Prince Charming Don Ameche (inventor of the telephone) too. The music is by Dietrich’s pal Hollander; the art direction by Von Sternberg’s Hans Dreier; gowns by Irene: MIDNIGHT is a confection of supreme cinematic luxury made at the peak of Colbert’s career.
She was then the highest paid woman in the USA, ergo the world. Unlike some of her legendary contemporaries – Astaire, Garbo, Crawford, Hepburn, Dietrich – she was never branded Box Office Poison (but then there was nothing disturbing about her)** and hers was the first face to be used to grace store window mannequins. Born in France but reared in the USA she had enough of the Old World to charm and enthral without being cast as a chilly exotic or an aloof vamp••. She tried all the genres except horror but excelled in romantic or screwball comedy, dressed to the nines before being stripped of her wardrobe by some unlikely catastrophe the better to show off her perfect figure, wasp waist and sculpted legs. In MIDNIGHT we are almost convinced that we have seen her nude as she wriggles into a negligee beneath the eiderdown.
Erotic but droll; audaciously risque, Colbert has the exquisite knack of leaving you to figure how much of the sometimes quite amazing suggestiveness is entirely in your own mind.
“What kind of work d’you want?”
“Well at this time of night and in these clothes I’m not looking for needlework.”
There is little gossip about her: she seems to have aroused affectionate if sometimes exasperated admiration in all including (rare in a star of her vintage) her own family. Her mother lived in; her brother was for a time her manager. Her second marriage (to the doctor who reputedly ruined Merle Oberon’s face) lasted over 30 years. An ancient story goes around that she once had a fling with Dietrich. I was told that in luxurious old age on Barbados she preferred to pinch magazines from the hairdresser’s rather than buy her own. Endearing peccadilloes: and on screen Claudette was equally appealing – tiny, discreetly sexy, chic, playful, flirtatious, delivering wisecracks in that smooth chuckling contralto. Confident, poised, cuddly and easy going she drove men nuts though not in the manner of her more frightening contemporaries. She sat on a lot of laps, was sometimes spanked. She was provocative & shrewd, but a reliable pal and a sport: the viewer always loves Claudette – an ideal girlfriend, best friend, wife, mistress, confidante and, later on, mum.
Do you remember the scene in THE PALM BEACH STORY when the senile smitten Weenie King invades her bathroom and (ahem!) enjoys her perfume? Off-screen, Colbert is said to have loved Caron’s Muguet de Bonheur, maybe attracted by the traditional French associations of the flower with l’amour. Ostensibly simple, Muguet de Bonheur is far from innocent. A highly complex formula including rose, orange blossom and jasmine plays out to a powdery lilac, heliotrope and dramatically musky finale. Needless to say there is no use of natural lily of valley for muguet defies oil extraction requiring to be synthesised from other floral oils in combination or else reproduced chemically. A conjuring trick of the highest order, a triumph of illusion and fantasy almost on a par with ‘Uncle Claude’ herself.
¤ she was tough and successful enough to negotiate a contract that limited her work to between 10 – 5pm. Her right profile was out of bounds to cameramen – “The Other Side of the Moon” they called it. Every set had to be constructed to enable this; just as every Colbert hairdo for 40 years had to accommodate her trademark bangs. It was a shock to see her on TV in The Second Mrs Greville in 1987 looking great but with her forehead at last exposed.
* when La Liz found herself seated next to Bette Davis at a dinner decades later, Taylor had the sauce to ask Davis whether it was true that she and Astor had once been to bed together. Davis “just laughed”. And don’t forget Claudette was the original choice for Margo Channing in ALL ABOUT EVE. Always an intriguing thought when you can’t sleep.
**though David Shipman thought her “probably after Dietrich the most consistently unreal of all the great stars”. Interesting, perplexing remark.
•Her portrayal of CLEOPATRA for de Mille succeeds because of her beauty but fails because she’s far too nice and jolly. As Poppaea Sabina in the same director’s SIGN OF THE CROSS she briefly exposes her beautiful bosom in a milk bath that the klieg lamps turned to cheese.
CLAUDETTE COLBERT 1903 -1996