Claudette looked like a woman you could lift up over your head with one hand. So petite, refined and beautiful (those eyes in her head were so big and you couldn’t help but be mesmerized) who would ever think she could be a hellcat. But like the little kitten with a cold you got for Christmas when you were a little kid, then they get better and rip down the tree, shred the curtains and destroy the couch – Claudette was not a sugar puss you want to tangle with (note: puss in this usage means face, okay).
It happened on the set of It Happened One Night, the Frank Capra classic with Colbert playing a rich, spoiled heiress opposite Clarke Gable’s everyman newspaper reporter. If you haven’t seen the black and white gem, then crawl out of the color rock your suffering under and rent it tonight. It is sublime. It is ridiculous. It is one of the most magical pairs under the stars. And it was anything but fun to make. There were three big reasons for this and they were all Claudette Colbert. 1) She thought the script was crap. 2) She didn’t like Capra and; 3) She wanted to go on vacation in 4 weeks (non-negotiable) after the start of filming and made everyone on the set’s life a living hell to get the filming done before she flew off. The pay-off? Five Oscars. One for each of the stars, the director, best picture and and best screenplay adapted by Robert Riskin (so there, Claudette!).
Now, before you get the idea that I don’t like Claudette Colbert, you’re right – I don’t like her. I LOVE her. She is perfect in the movie. A sultry, sassy and sexy minx with so impeccable comedic timing and gams (i.e. legs) to die for. The fact she was insufferable to everyone around her on set must have super-charged the atmosphere to the point where it spilled on to the celluloid. Because everyone knows that the harder it is to make a movie, usually the better it turns out. Paradoxically, this is true of the reverse. If a star says the making of their latest movie was one big party, then you know not only are they lying – but that the film itself will be crap. If you don’t believe me, then rent one of Jennifer Aniston’s last five films. But I digress.
Claudette was an amazing screen presence whose beauty haunts to this day. She make Cleopatra sexy when Liz Taylor was still in diapers. And she was no prude. Even though she refused to lift her skirt up and expose her leg in the famous “hitch-hiking” scene in It Happened One Night (she later changed her mind after Capra brought a “leg double” on the set who didn’t come near to Claudette’s perfect gams) Claudette showed enough skin on screen in her many movies that one could imagine her naked. It only adds to her mystique that she could be a complete temperamental nightmare to work with. But the final result was so perfect, pure and magical that you didn’t care. That’s when you know you have a star in your midst. You’ll put up with anything from them because you know you’re making cinematic history – and those opportunities just don’t come around that much to avoid the pain-in-the-ass part of Hollywood filmmaking.
To Claudette’s credit, when she accepted her Oscar (she had to be whisked from a train station to the theater, after not bothering to even show up) she gave a special thanks to her long suffering director, Frank Capra. She knew she had put him through hell, and in return got Hollywood’s highest honor. What happened on It Happened One Night had all been made worthwhile. The exact definition of all’s well that end’s well, I’d say.