IN HOLLYWOOD, WHERE “TO HAVE legs” connotes lasting clout at the box office, Claudette Colbert had “legs” all right. And she also had legs—most famously in Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night, where her shapely stems literally stopped traffic—not to mention costar Clark Gable. The doe-eyed Colbert, who suffered a stroke in 1993, died on July 30 at 92 in her Barbados home. She had been a star for nearly seven decades. Her 64 movies included spectacles (The Sign of the Cross and Cleopatra), comedies (Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife and The Palm Beach Story) and World War II weepies (So Proudly We Hail and Since You Went Away). But Colbert’s legend never went to her head. “I did this picture. I did that picture,” she told PEOPLE in 1987. “I went skiing. Then I did another picture. Then I went swimming. And I was happily married [for 33 years, to Dr. Joel Pressman, a Los Angeles surgeon]. Who gives a damn?”
Others were far more impressed. “She had absolutely no airs about her,” says Ann-Margret, who costarred with Colbert in her final TV role, in the 1986 miniseries The Two Mrs. Grenvilles. “The long hours didn’t daunt her at all.” Adds American Film Institute cochairman George Stevens Jr., a friend: “Claudette had a wonderful sense of humor, and that translated onto the screen. She was jovial and did not take herself terribly seriously.”
Not that she couldn’t be demanding. Capra called Colbert “a tartar, but a cute one,” and audiences adored her curled bangs, her big, round eyes and that throaty voice that always seemed to be saying, “Hey, boys, I wanna play too!” Born Lily Claudette Chauchoin in Paris on Sept. 13, 1903, she came with her parents to America—already despising her first name—at age 3, and by 1923, when she first came to Broadway, it was as Claudette Colbert. “Audiences always sound like they’re glad to see me,” she once told an interviewer, “and I’m damned glad to see them.”
When the Depression turned theaters dark, she went to Hollywood. Her breakthrough came in 1934 in a film for which she was the director’s fifth choice (Myrna Loy was first) and which she initially disdained. Later, accepting a Best Actress Oscar for It Happened One Night, she said, “I owe Frank Capra for this.”
Colbert was proud of never having taken acting lessons. “I’ve always believed that acting is instinct to start with,” she told The New York Times in 1978. “You either have it or you don’t.” She had it.