Cooking With the Stars: Claudette Colbert’s
Cheese and Olive Puffs
If you’re a Cooking with the Stars devotee, you might have noticed that I attempt to curate the recipes and honorees with a specific theme or date in mind each month. As summer is reaching its end, we find a break in the notable days and holidays. While there are a ton of significant classic movie star birthdays throughout the month of September, I thought it would be fitting to honor one specific star during Cooking with the Stars’ inaugural year: Claudette Colbert, who shares a birthday with yours truly on September 13th!
Claudette is an actress who has perhaps slid under the radar compared to other ladies in Tinseltown despite the array of incredible films that she left behind for the world to appreciate. Even I’ll admit that I’ve been severely lacking in my Claudette knowledge, aside from hearing about her recipe for this savory hors d’oeuvre and watching a few of her movies here and there, so I thought now would be the perfect opportunity to put Claudette on a well-deserved pedestal and show my readers what an instrumental part of Hollywood she truly was.
Claudette Colbert was born Émilie Claudette Chauchoin on September 13, 1903 in Saint-Mandé, France. Her association with the theater came early in her life as she was given the nickname of ‘Lily’ after actress Lily Langtry. Due to the fact that many of Claudette’s relatives were born on the Channel Islands between England and France, the Chauchoins spoke both French and English. This proved helpful when the family emigrated to the United States in order to find work when Claudette was only three years old. They settled in a New York City apartment on the fifth floor, and Colbert later stated that climbing multiple flights of stairs to her home every day made her legs beautiful.
Once in America, Claudette’s legal name was changed to Lily Claudette Chauchoin, but despite her theatrical namesake, her dream as a youth was to become a painter. She studied at Washington Irving High School, which was known at the time for its arts program, and while there she was encouraged to audition for a play that her speech teacher had written. Colbert made her stage debut at the Provincetown Playhouse in The Widow’s Veil in 1919 at the age of 15, though this opportunity didn’t move the teenager away from her true aspirations.
She enrolled at the Art Students League of New York with the intention of becoming a fashion designer, paying for her education by working in a dress shop. While attending a party with writer Anne Morrison, Colbert was offered a part as an extra in Morrison’s Broadway production of The Wild Westcotts in 1923, using a combination of her middle name, Claudette, and her maternal grandmother’s maiden name, Colbert, as her stage name. After her first Broadway appearance, her stage offers only multiplied, so Claudette decided to make a go of it as an actress and signed a five-year contract with producer Al Woods in 1925.
Woods was keen on promoting Colbert as his newest discovery, but the actress was disappointed by the stereotypical French parts she was given. As she later remarked, “In the very beginning, they wanted to give me French roles. That’s why I used to say my name ‘Col-bert‘ just as it is spelled instead of ‘Col-baire‘. I did not want to be typed as ‘that French girl.'” She was noticed by legendary producer Leland Hayward while starring as a snake charmer in the critically acclaimed play The Barker in 1927. He gave Claudette her first film role in For the Love of Mike (1927), which unfortunately failed at the box office and is now considered lost. It wasn’t long before Colbert was offered a contract with Paramount Pictures, which was largely due to her lovely speaking voice during a time when Hollywood was clamoring for actors who were able to deliver dialogue.
At first Colbert was hesitant to dive into the motion picture business, attempting to find work on the stage in the evenings while she worked in front of a camera in the mornings, but as the Great Depression hit the nation, theater after theater closed their doors and she quickly found out which medium would be more lucrative in the long run. The coming decade seemingly made Claudette a star overnight. Some of her first speaking roles were in first-rate productions opposite some of the most sought-after leading men of her era, in works such as The Big Pond (1930) with Maurice Chevalier, Manslaughter (1930) opposite Fredric March, and His Woman (1931) with Gary Cooper.
Her career reached even greater heights when visionary Cecil B. DeMille saw potential in the up-and-coming star and cast her in one of the most iconic and provocative films of the pre-code era, The Sign of the Cross (1932), which is still considered notable today for her scandalous nude bathing scene. She reteamed with DeMille only two years later in the titanic role of Cleopatra (1934), and by this time she was ranked as the 13th highest-grossing star in the business. In addition, she was fortunate to star in a variety of leading roles that tested her acting talents and had the power to make some of her own decisions regarding her career, so when she was offered the lead in It Happened One Night (1934), she initially turned it down.
After Columbia sweetened the pot by offering the actress more money and a quick shooting schedule that allowed her to take a vacation, she reluctantly agreed to star in her first feature opposite Clark Gable. Despite the fact that both leads wanted to walk away from this picture, it ended up being a resounding success and was the first film to sweep the Academy Awards, netting a Best Actress Oscar for Colbert as well as awards for Best Picture, Best Actor for Gable, Best Director for Frank Capra, and Best Screenplay for Robert Riskin.
The film is still regarded one of the finest romantic comedies of all time, making it a tough act to follow, but Colbert delivered in spades by starring in the original version of Imitation of Life (1934). If that wasn’t enough, Claudette Colbert climbed to the rank of sixth and eighth in the annual Top Ten Money-Making Stars Polls of 1935 and 1936 respectively and received her second Academy Award nomination for her role in the hospital drama Private Worlds (1935). The following year, she signed a new contract with Paramount which made her Hollywood’s highest-paid actress, only to renew her contract once again in 1938 for another salary increase. This made her the highest-paid star in Hollywood, man or woman, with a salary of $150,000 a film.
The remainder of the 1930s were kind to Colbert as she continued to play the leading lady in a steady stream of successful films, such as my personal favorite picture of hers, I Met Him in Paris (1937) with Melvyn Douglas and Robert Young, Bluebeard’s Eighth Wife (1938), which paired her once again with Gary Cooper and is known for perhaps being the best example of the “meet-cute”, and It’s a Wonderful World (1939) with Colbert starring opposite James Stewart.
Even though she was a formidable moneymaker at Paramount, in 1940 Colbert made the courageous move to not renew her own contract with the studio after realizing that she could make more per film as a freelance actress than she could make per year at the studio that made her a star. Boom Town (1940) with MGM, her first picture away from Paramount, paired her with Clark Gable once again and added the attraction of Spencer Tracy and Hedy Lamarr, proving how successful Colbert could be on her own.
She soon added another iconic comedy to her belt, The Palm Beach Story (1942), and held steady through the wartime period as well with hit features like So Proudly We Hail! (1943) and Since You Went Away (1944), picking up her third and final Best Actress nod for the latter work.
Colbert went on to maintain her reputation as a gifted star opposite Fred MacMurray in the comedy The Egg and I (1947), which became the 12th-most profitable American film of the 1940s and was still drawing in the masses as the 22nd-highest box-office star of 1949. Colbert was even set to play the role of Margo Channing in the iconic All About Eve (1950) until she was forced to leave the production due to a back injury, later stating: “I just never had the luck to play b*tches.” After a couple more film successes in movies such as Thunder on the Hill (1951) and Let’s Make it Legal (1951), Colbert worked mostly on television for the rest of the decade, effectively retiring thereafter and living between her Manhattan home and her summer plantation in Barbados for the rest of her life. She passed away after a series of strokes on July 30, 1996, at the age of 92.
Claudette Colbert’s Cheese and Olive Puffs
- 2 cups shredded sharp cheddar cheese, at room temperature
- 1/3 cup butter, softened
- 1 cup flour
- 1/4 teaspoon Tabasco
- Dash of Worcestershire sauce
- 2 (10-ounce) jars of pimento-stuffed green olives, drained and blotted dry
- Add cheese and butter to the bowl of a food processor and blend until smooth.
- Add flour, Tabasco and Worcestershire sauce to form the dough.
- Wrap each olive in a small amount of dough, completely covering the olive and forming a ball.
- Place on an ungreased cookie sheet and freeze (should take two hours at most).
- Place on a baking sheet and bake at 400˚ F for 12 minutes, or until crust is golden. Serve hot.
Despite this recipe having few ingredients and steps, Claudette’s Cheese and Olive Puffs are certainly time-consuming to make. I was gifted a food processor a couple of Christmases ago, which I’m afraid to admit that I’ve barely used due to its massive size and many, many parts. I usually whip it out during the Thanksgiving season for Lucille Ball‘s Cranberry Sauce recipe and I can’t recall using it since then, but lo and behold, this was an occasion that required it. If you’re a food processor whiz, forming the cheesy dough probably wouldn’t take as long for you as it did me, but I basically had to re-learn how to assemble and use the appliance in order to recreate Claudette’s appetizers.
The dough ended up being very promising once it was finished, almost having a fancy Cheez-It sort of taste and consistency, so I had very high hopes for the final result. After struggling to open the jar of Spanish green olives for the better part of ten minutes, I finally was able to start covering each individual olive with the dough, which proved to be the most tedious part. Even though I only ended up using about three-quarters of one ten-ounce jar of olives before running out of dough, which was much less than the two full jars of olives the recipe calls for, I still feel like I faced enough hors d’oeuvres to feed an army.
These puffs need very little time to freeze, only about an hour and a half, before they’re ready for the oven. The dough was already a lovely golden color, so it was a little difficult to tell when the puffs were done, but after fifteen minutes I had some piping hot appetizers that really looked delicious. These little cheesy balls, however, were something entirely different than I expected. Believe me when I say that these puffs are INTENSE. I mean barely edible, enough to make you gag intensely. Don’t get me wrong, the flavor wasn’t objectionable, but the strongest-tasting olive wrapped in the strongest-tasting cheese was just too much for the human palate to handle. I tried to mellow the flavors out by dipping the puffs in ranch dressing, which helped some, but I couldn’t come anywhere near eating all of the appetizers I made.
Meanwhile, my boyfriend barely ate a single puff before stating that they’re “just too much” and refused to eat anymore. I became so captivated by Claudette through the process of writing about her and discovering her work, but disappointingly I can only give her recipe for Cheese and Olive Puffs two out of five Vincents as it is. These puffs could very possibly be saved if the more mellow black olive is used with a milder cheese, and I would strongly suggest that my readers give these a try with those modifications! No matter what, I feel so grateful and honored to share a birthday with this incredible and accomplished actress, and I urge everyone to watch more of her films and fall in love with her as I did!
–Samantha Ellis for Classic Movie Hub
Samantha resides in West Chester, Pennsylvania and is the author of Musings of a Classic Film Addict, a blog that sheds light on Hollywood films and filmmakers from the 1930s through the 1960s. Her favorite column that she pens for her blog is Cooking with the Stars, for which she tests and reviews the personal recipes of stars from Hollywood’s golden age. When she isn’t in the kitchen, Samantha also lends her voice and classic film knowledge as cohost of the Ticklish Business podcast alongside Kristen Lopez and Drea Clark, and proudly serves as President of TCM Backlot’s Philadelphia Chapter. You can catch up with her work by following her @classicfilmgeek on Twitter.