Introductions to ''Cleopatra,'' ''It Happened One Night,'' ''The Palm Beach Story,'' and more

By Ty Burr
Updated August 09, 1996 at 04:00 AM EDT

Claudette Colbert’s best performances on video

Of all the great screen actresses of the ’30s and ’40s, Claudette Colbert, who died at her home in Barbados on July 30 at the age of 90, came closest to living a life as carefree as the frothy comedies that made her name.

The petite Colbert, who was born in Paris as Claudette Lily Cauchoin but grew up in New York City, appeared as light as a souffle. But while she is best known for showing Clark Gable how to hitchhike in 1934’s It Happened One Night — the first film to sweep all five major Oscars — she was nominated for Oscars twice for dramatic roles, in 1935’s Private Worlds and 1944’s Since You Went Away.

Twice married, Colbert essentially retired after the early ’50s and in the ’60s moved to the 200-year-old Caribbean plantation where, by all accounts, she lived in happy privacy. She returned to work after 26 years for the 1987 teleflick The Two Mrs. Grenvilles. ”I looked upon acting as a job,” she once said. ”And now, frankly, I regret it. I think of all the things I could have done.” It’s to our benefit, then, that she stuck with it. For whenever one of her classic films plays at whatever time of day, it’s always midnight and champagne corks are popping everywhere.

Here are her best performances on video:

Cleopatra (1934, MCA/Universal) Long before Liz Taylor, Colbert steamed up the screen as the queen of the Nile in Cecil B. DeMille’s enjoyably overstuffed sand opera. B

It Happened One Night (1934, Columbia TriStar) A dizzy heiress wins a reporter (Gable) in this early screwball comedy. The role Colbert reluctantly took won her an Oscar. A

Midnight (1939, MCA/Universal) Colbert and Don Ameche masquerade and make woo in a classic farce cowritten by Billy Wilder. B+

The Palm Beach Story (1942, MCA/Universal) In this demented comedy, she flees her wacky inventor husband (Joel McCrea), is pursued by a bumbling millionaire (Rudy Vallee) — and let’s not even mention the Wienie King. A-

Since You Went Away (1944, FoxVideo) She has some of her finest dramatic moments as the wife holding home and family together while her husband is away fighting WWII. B