Gloria Stuart, the pretty, blonde leading lady in the Universal horror classics The Old Dark House (1932) and The Invisible Man (1933), and the elderly Rose in James Cameron’s megablockbuster Titanic (1997), died on Sunday, Sept. 26. Stuart had turned 100 last July 4; a breast-cancer survivor, she had been diagnosed with lung cancer five years ago.
Stuart’s death is world news today solely because of Titanic, which earned the then 87-year-old performer a belated Academy Award nomination in the Best Supporting Actress category, thus making her the oldest Oscar nominee on record. Else, her passing would have been a minor footnote. And that’s unfortunate, as Gloria Stuart (born Gloria Frances Stewart in Santa Monica, Calif., on July 4, 1910) appeared in a number of important releases of the 1930s and was active in liberal causes during that time and beyond.
Best of all among her films was James Whale’s funny/spooky-as-hell The Old Dark House, in which Stuart, Melvyn Douglas, and Charles Laughton find themselves stranded in a mansion inhabited by freaks, among them religious nut Eva Moore (“Yes. No beds!”), Boris Karloff, Ernest Thesiger, Elspeth Dudgeon (a British stage actress very convincingly playing – as “John Dudgeon” – a decrepit old man), and Brember Wills, whose final confrontation scene with Douglas made my hair quite literally stand on end.
One of the highlights in The Old Dark House takes place when, after feeling the fabric of the “immodest” gown worn by Gloria Stuart’s character, Eva Moore remarks: “fine stuff, but it’ll rot.”
Moore then touches her guest’s skin above the neckline, adding: “finer stuff still, but it’ll rot too!"
According to the Los Angeles Times, The Old Dark House was also the production that led Stuart to become an actors’ union supporter.
“All of us were just exhausted by the long hours, and Melvyn Douglas leaned over to me in this theatrical way. He whispered the word ‘union’ in my ear. And I thought, ‘Yes!’"
The Screen Actors Guild was founded in 1933.
Also for James Whale, Stuart supported Nancy Carroll in The Kiss Before the Mirror (1933) and was the unlucky leading lady in The Invisible Man, which launched Claude Rains’ film career.
In Lloyd Bacon’s surprisingly enjoyable Best Picture Oscar nominee Here Comes the Navy (1934), Stuart was the girl sandwiched between Navy guys James Cagney and Pat O’Brien, while in Busby Berkeley’s Warner Bros. musical Gold Diggers of 1935, she was Dick Powell’s love interest – though the lovebirds didn’t get to sing the Oscar-winning song “Lullaby of Broadway” in that one.
In addition to Whale, Bacon, and Berkeley, during that first phase of her career, first at Universal and later at 20th Century Fox, Stuart worked with the likes of John Ford (The Prisoner of Shark Island), Karl Freund (Gift of Gab), Frank Tuttle (Roman Scandals), and Alexander Hall (The Girl in 419).
Besides the aforementioned actors, Stuart’s leading men included Warner Baxter, Edmund Lowe, Lee Tracy, and Eddie Cantor. Additionally, Stuart supported Shirley Temple in Poor Little Rich Girl (1936) and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1938).
Stuart, once called “orchidaceous” by some flack, never became a star. That was chiefly because she – like so many other young and pretty actresses of her day – was used as decoration in movies that focused on the male characters.
In her Hollywood movies, she was supposed to look pretty and kind, or pretty and scared, or pretty and loving. That was about it. She never got the break that could have propelled her to bigger and/or showier roles like those played by fellow young blondes Joan Bennett, Bette Davis, or Carole Lombard. Even Madge Evans got better parts.
Off-camera, however, Stuart was much more than merely “orchidaceous.” In addition to SAG, she reportedly helped to form the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League and a league to support Spanish war orphans. She also became a member of the Hollywood Democratic Committee and was on the executive board of the California State Democratic Committee. (Members of both the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League and the Hollywood Democratic Committee were later targeted by the House Un-American Committee’s right-wingers.)
Boris Karloff, Gloria Stuart in James Whale’s The Old Dark House
In the ’40s, Gloria Stuart did stage work and later retired from acting altogether, devoting her time to painting and fine printing. Her comeback in front of the camera took place in the mid-’70s, a few years prior to the 1978 death of her second husband, screenwriter Arthur Sheekman, among whose credits was Roman Scandals. (Her first husband was sculptor Blair Gordon Newell.)
Stuart’s work at that time was strictly for television, including supporting roles in Paul Wendkos’ The Legend of Lizzie Borden (1975), starring Elizabeth Montgomery; The Incredible Journey of Doctor Meg Laurel (1979), which also featured movie veterans Jane Wyman and Dorothy McGuire; and The Violation of Sarah McDavid (1981), with Patty Duke.
One US newspaper erroneously printed her obit in the mid-’80s, but Stuart reminded everyone that she was alive and well, playing minor supporting roles in big-screen fare such as My Favorite Year (1982), starring Peter O’Toole; Mass Appeal (1984), with Jack Lemmon; and Wildcats (1986), with Goldie Hawn.
Following an eight-year break, Stuart stepped in front of the camera once again to play a 100-year-old survivor of the Titanic tragedy. The insanely expensive and much troubled Titanic turned out to be the biggest box office hit of the 1990s.
“I knew the role I had wanted and waited for all these many years had arrived!” Stuart wrote in her 1999 memoir, I Just Kept Hoping. “I could taste the role of Old Rose!"
James Cameron told the Los Angeles Times at the time that he had been “looking for a pro from the ’30s or ’40s, someone probably retired, maybe off the Hollywood radar for awhile.
“I had to have someone who’d play the latter part of the life of someone we’d recognize, Kate Winslet, so it couldn’t be someone like Katharine Hepburn. We know so well what she looked like [when she was young],” Cameron said. “Gloria had just enough distance, and she gave this fantastic reading.”
Stuart was voted the year’s best supporting actress by the Kansas City and Online Film Critics, and came in second among the Los Angeles critics. She also nabbed Oscar, SAG, and Golden Globe nominations as well.
But even though Titanic went on to win 11 of its 14 Oscar nominations, Stuart, fellow Rose player Kate Winslet, and the film’s make-up artists went home empty-handed. (Kim Basinger was that year’s Best Supporting Actress Oscar and Golden Globe winner for L.A. Confidential; Basinger and Stuart shared the SAG Award.)
In I Just Kept Hoping, Stuart remarked about her Titanic success: “When I graduated from Santa Monica High in 1927, I was voted the girl most likely to succeed. I didn’t realize it would take so long.”
Following Titanic, Stuart could be seen in a handful of movie and television shows. On the big screen, her last role was that of an old lady in Wim Wenders’ bleak Land of Plenty (2004), starring Michelle Williams.
I wrote to Gloria Stuart while I was working on my Ramon Novarro biography, but never heard back from her. I was going to try again, but unfortunately I got sidetracked. I saw her at an Academy function a few years ago, looking quite frail but smiling and greeting people who would approach her to pay their respects.
By the way, Gloria Stewart became Gloria Stuart reportedly because the actress felt that two names with six letters would look better on a theater marquee.