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CLAUDETTE COLBERT, MOVIE AND STAGE STAR, DIES AT 92.

Byline: Eric Pace The New York Times

Claudette Colbert, the versatile stage and film star whose flair for light comedy cheered audiences during the Depression and for decades afterward, died Tuesday at Bellerive, her home on the island of Barbados. The actress, who also had a home in Manhattan, was 92.

Colbert's wit, gaiety, heart-shaped face and Cupid's-bow mouth took her from the Art Students League in New York to the heights of Broadway and Hollywood stardom. She is best remembered for screwball comedies in which, no matter what situation befell her, she usually managed to keep her aplomb and good humor. She had her greatest triumph playing a runaway heiress opposite Clark Gable's cynical reporter in Frank Capra's film comedy ``It Happened One Night.'' The film won her an Academy Award for best actress of 1934.

Colbert's ability to appear worldly and sophisticated yet down to earth, combined with acute attention to camera angles, lighting and other professional details, helped her to sustain a remarkably durable career that encompassed more than 60 films and many stage appearances.

In 1981, during her seventh decade in show business, The New York Times critic Frank Rich, praising her performance in the Broadway flop ``A Talent for Murder,'' called her ``a lady of piquant, irrepressible, ever-so-amusing common sense,'' with ``her big Betty Boop eyes, curly light hair'' and ``her low, one-of-the-boys voice, effortlessly hurling asides like pool balls into every pocket of the house.''

``Audiences always sound like they're glad to see me, and I'm damned glad to see them,'' she told an interviewer in 1978. ``If they want you, you want to do it. The feeling never dies.''

Colbert had her first film success in 1929, as the heroine of the early talkie ``The Lady Lies.''

Her early notable films, all box-office hits, included ``The Smiling Lieutenant'' (1931), a wistful Ernst Lubitsch comedy; ``The Sign of the Cross,'' a 1932 Cecil B. DeMille spectacular in which she played Nero's sensuous empress Poppaea; and the 1934 production of ``Cleopatra,'' in which she played the title role enticingly.

``The Sign of the Cross'' included a memorable scene of Colbert bathing in what was billed as asses' milk. That scene became widely admired. Film historian David Thomson wrote six decades later that Colbert had bathed, not only in asses' milk, but also in ``the director's boyish lasciviousness.''

Colbert confided in a 1984 interview that the asses' milk was really made from a powdered product called Klim.

``That's `milk' spelled backward,'' the star explained. ``I was in the pool all day. The Klim was so warm my bangs came uncurled. When the electricians turned off all the hot lights for an hour it congealed and the Klim turned to cream cheese.''

Besides DeMille, directors of her films included George Cukor, John Ford, Gregory LaCava, Mervyn LeRoy and Anatole Litvak. Among her leading men were Maurice Chevalier, Gary Cooper, Joseph Cotten, Melvyn Douglas, Henry Fonda, Fred McMurray, Fredric March, Ray Milland, Spencer Tracy, John Wayne and Orson Welles.

Her first films were followed by such successes as ``Imitation of Life'' (1934); ``The Gilded Lily'' (1935); ``Private Worlds'' (1935), a drama of a mental institution; ``Bluebeard's Eighth Wife'' (1938), another Lubitsch comedy; ``Midnight'' (1939); ``The Palm Beach Story'' (1942), a Preston Sturges caper; and ``Since You Went Away'' (1944), a drama of the American home front in World War II.

Her last artistically substantial movie role was as an American wife in a World War II Japanese prisoner-of-war camp in ``Three Came Home'' (1950). Her performance was warmly praised by the critics, but the film did not fare well at the box office.

Through much of her movie career she was under contract to Paramount, although she was on loan to Columbia when she made ``It Happened One Night.'' After 1950, her movie roles were largely vignettes. She made her last feature film, ``Parrish,'' in 1961, but went before the cameras again in 1986 for a television movie, ``The Two Mrs. Grenvilles.''

Colbert's most noteworthy stage vehicles included ``The Barker'' (1927), a great box-office hit in which she played an alluring snake charmer; Eugene O'Neill's ``Dynamo,'' which was produced by the Theater Guild in 1929 and won her considerable prestige, although it was not a popular success, and the fluffy comedy ``The Marriage-Go-Round,'' a smash hit that opened in 1958, co-starring Charles Boyer, with whom she had also appeared on the screen in such films as ``Private Worlds'' (1935) and ``Tovarich'' (1937).

An important ingredient in her early theater success was her skill at speaking all sorts of lines. When talking films began and many silent-film stars turned out to have inadequate voices, she was taken on by Paramount because she had proved she could speak well.

``Hollywood was not my dream, you know,'' she said in an interview in 1978. ``I only left Broadway when the crash came. The Depression killed the theater, and the pictures were manna from heaven.''

For many years, Colbert was among the top-earning movie stars, and some industry analysts calculated that she was the best-paid star of all in 1938 and 1942.

That made it more than easy for her to clothe her svelte, 5-foot-4-inch frame ultra-fashionably, and for several years she was voted the film capital's best-dressed woman.

But despite her long identification with Hollywood, Colbert's dramatic skills were so solid and versatile that she was among the few major film stars who managed to return to the stage repeatedly to critical acclaim.

Her first return to Broadway, after more than a quarter-century and the cooling of her movie career, came in the spring of 1956, when she replaced Margaret Sullavan during the spring and summer in the comedy ``Janus.''

Appearances in other Broadway productions followed, including ``The Marriage-Go-Round,'' and in 1963 she announced that she was bidding farewell to Hollywood for good.

CAPTION(S):

2 Photos

Photo: (1--Color) Claudette Colbert received a Best Actr ess Oscar in 1934 for her role opposite Clark Gable in the comedy ``It Happened One Night.''

Associated Press

(2--Color) Claudette Colbert

Received an Oscar in 1934
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Article Type:Obituary
Date:Jul 31, 1996
Words:1011
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