I don’t know why Colbert was Oscar’d for “IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT” when clearly, her performance the year before in “TORCH SINGER” ( 1933 ) puts her through her paces royally, and shows her off to good advantage in a grand way.
SPOILERS! SPOILERS! FOR GOSH SAKES…SPOILERS!
In “Torch Singer” Colbert plays a pregnant unmarried woman who has to give up her child, SALLY, for adoption. We see the repercussions of her decision as she goes from hopeless and helpless, to ‘torch singer’ ( based on life experience…and a very clever montage showing her move UP the show biz ladder ), to becoming a radio diva. Colbert does a good job in each phase of her life. Underneath it all, is a woman missing her child.
She figures out a way how she can find her daughter, but gets depressed when faced with the possibility the child might already be dead. She starts to spiral downward as only alcohol can lead you. Colbert goes through a slew of emotions in this movie like a champ, very believably. She’s not showy or actress-y. Her line readings are very down-to-earth and natural. Oh….and she wears the hell out of her outfits. She’s very glamorous. How come that’s news to me? Why am I the last to know? No one tells me any thing!
Mildred Washington plays her maid and confidante, Carrie. Now bear with me while I digress from the movie for a moment, thanx! However brief her appearance, it is apparent Washington has personality. She is saucy, not subservient. Young and attractive too. If it were another time in American history, she could even be construed as a…friend ( ? ); she could be more of a friend in the context of those times than the Louise Beavers character in “Imitation of Life.” ( To be fair to Ms. Beavers, I direct you to watch her moment opposite Una Merkel in “Bombshell” at the start of that movie. ( There’s fire there. )
Washington was a very popular singer and personality in show business. And even with the constraints of the time, might have really broken through in movies in a big way. Read about her here on IMDB and her tragic death at 28.
A scene that positively shocks and blows away 21st century me is when a hopeful Colbert goes to visit a little girl named Sally, who’s written into the radio station to try and win a doll. The child is not hers, but the scene shocks me as it plays out. I must say, Colbert is very loving to children in her movies. ( Well..at least in the two movies I’ve seen of hers recently; this one and “Imitation of Life.” ) She’s very tender with them, and I hadn’t really known that before. I know I know…where have I been.
What’s also interesting for me is the bifurcation of Colbert’s character. At night she works in a nightclub, torching the blues like nobody’s business, and she does it in backless slinky sparkly shiny satin-y tight-fitting outfits. ( Yeehaw, let’s hear it for pre-code! ) By day, in a fluke, she’s a wholesome children’s radio show storyteller. She also sees that her radio backers want her for just her Voice and not what’s going on in her internally. She’s a commodity and that’s not quite sitting well with her. I like how she goes from mocking a song, to seeing its meaning…all within the one reading.
There are also two men in her life: the one who runs away ( David Manners ) and a radio program manager ( Ricardo Cortez – who doesn’t hit a woman ONCE in this movie. Boo! ) It’s just too neatly tied in a predictable bow for me when Manners returns and wins her over. ( I usually like Manners but this time, I wanted her to be with Cortez. )
What probably would have been unpalatable for the 1930’s audience, was if Colbert re-connected with her child but, chose NOT to be with the the child’s father ( Manners. ) That would have been radical choice for Colbert’s Mimi Benton to make.
I like the way Cortez is in the movie. There’s a hint of shadiness in him, not so much white bread. But I might be reading into it because he IS the same guy who mistreats Loretta Young in “Midnight Mary” ).
I guess for me, Colbert suffers from what Loretta Young suffers…suffered for me. It’s like they had two different personas. I discover them in the 1940’s, when they were scrubbed maternally clean without a trace of the ‘hotcha’ in ‘em. But again, like my friend told me, it’s in the 30’s, the pre-code 30’s, where Colbert’s slinky and sexy and uses that dulcet voice to great advantage. 1930’s look out. I’m-a comin’. Heck, I’m here with these series of posts on 1930’s films. I’m taking a time machine. I’m ready to get my preconceived notions turned inside out on Claudette Colbert.
Wait…what?!!! What the heck just happened to me?
Claudette Colbert passed away July 30th, 1996. Please, check out the video from film maker Sarah. The clips chosen, music, editing and poignancy her video evokes, moves me to tears. And yes…you’ll find Colbert featured amongst the clips. Of course…
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