Gloria Stuart, '30s Film Star with a Titanic Comeback

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John Springer Collection / Corbis

Gloria Stuart in 1935

The Femms of The Old Dark House are ancient and deranged — not suitable hosts for a dazzling damsel whose car has broken down in an awful rainstorm. When slim blonde Margaret (Gloria Stuart) changes into dry clothes in the presence of Rebecca Femm (Eva Moore), the crazily righteous old woman leans toward her and spits out a tirade. "You're ... young and handsome, silly and wicked. You think of nothing but your long, straight legs and your white body, and how to please your man. You revel in the joys of fleshly love, don't you?" She fingers Margaret's silk gown, purring, "That's fine stuff — and it'll rot. That's finer stuff too," Rebecca adds, placing her withered hand on the young woman's chest, "but it'll rot too, in time."

Stuart, just 21 when she was cast in James Whale's 1932 prototype horror film, was indeed a sight for old eyes: alabaster skin, lovely, questing features, the slim radiance of a Piero della Francesca Madonna. The camera loves youth, and Stuart provided an essential decorative element to films directed by such masters as Whale and John Ford. She fussed over Shirley Temple in two films and starred in a Gold Diggers musical. Eddie Cantor made goo-goo eyes at her; Claude Rains' invisible man brought her to screams and tears. Once or twice, she even got a leading role — in B-minus movies. But that couldn't satisfy this California girl, and in 1946, she quit films.

If she had remained a lady in retirement, she might be a silvery soubrette in old-timers' memories, but a shadow on the modern screen. Yet today's moviegoers do recall Stuart, for she was old Rose, the elderly version of Kate Winslet's lovelorn aristocrat, in James Cameron's 1997 Titanic. Stuart was 86 when she played that part, but the character was 100. And when she died Sunday of respiratory failure in the Los Angeles suburb of Brentwood, she was 100 too.

For most of that century, Stuart pursued a life more romantic and dramatic than those in any of her movie roles. Born in Southern California on July 4, 1910 — the year the first film companies went west to make movies — Gloria Frances Stewart, the daughter of an attorney and his wife, was a golden girl from the start. "When I graduated from Santa Monica High in 1927," she said during her Titanic resurgence, "I was voted the girl most likely to succeed. I didn't realize it would take so long." She went off to the University of California, Berkeley, but quit in her junior year to marry sculptor Blair Gordon Newell. They lived in artsy Carmel, where Gloria worked on the local newspaper and acted at the Carmel Playhouse. A trip back to Los Angeles and the Pasadena Playhouse got her a contract at Universal Pictures.

Whale, who had directed Frankenstein the year before, put Stuart in The Old Dark House, then cast her as a furtive adulteress in a 1933 nonhorror drama, The Kiss Before the Mirror. The opening scene shows Stuart at her most sublimely sexual: she glides across the patio of a country home for an ecstatic rendezvous with her lover (Walter Pidgeon); she finds him, plays an air on a grand piano, exchanges endearments and surrenders to him in one adulterous kiss — when she is shot and killed, seven minutes into the film. The rest is the guilty consciences and purred recriminations of the survivors, and the viewer is left wishing for a whole movie with the elegant woman who had a last kiss before the mirror.

In this brief role, Stuart must have made an impression on the Universal brass, for she is billed second in the Whale version of H.G. Wells' The Invisible Man. Rains, playing the chemist whose experiments have made him as unstable as he is unseeable, gets to do all the heavy emoting, while Stuart, his sweetheart, begs him to get treatment — "Let's fight this thing out together!" ("It was a struggle treating Claude Rains as my lover," she later said of her role opposite the homosexual star, "but we were friendly. It was no great love affair.") She has an expert moment: the dawning of despair on her face as he goes from whispered love talk to raving about ruling the world with invisible armies. But Stuart knew she was really billed third, not just to Rains but to John P. Fulton's pioneering visual effects.

She got another wan female lead as a British princess in Roman Scandals, with Cantor cavorting in a minitoga and blackface. Ford put her in his 1932 Airmail — as a worker at a post-office airfield who sees her brother burned alive in a crashed plane and her lover taunting death every time he flies — and as Dr. Samuel Mudd's loyal wife in the 1936 The Prisoner of Shark Island. So often Stuart was the girl to come home to in stories about wandering guys. To put it more harshly: in the movies audiences remembered, she was cast in the parts people forgot. (Another fine actress of the period, the brunette Frances Dee suffered a similar career fate of mostly bland roles; a half-century later, she was up for the Rose role in Titanic but lost it to Stuart.)

Restless at Universal, she signed up at 20th Century Fox, where she mothered Shirley Temple and, finally, headlined a few films. As an assistant in the district attorney's office in the 1938 Island in the Sky, Stuart actually gets to boss men around. "You keep quiet and let me do the talking," she tells one supporting male, and says of her lawyer beau, "If I don't give him a chance to argue, he'll do what I told him to do." Starring roles in B-minus programs didn't fulfill Stuart; she had her heart set on Broadway. "I wanted to be a theater actress," she said later, "but I thought it would be easier to get to New York and the theater if I had a name than if I just walked the streets as a little girl from California." Poor Gloria: "When I went back to New York with somewhat of a name, they didn't want movie actresses."

Stifled in acting, Stuart poured her creativity into decoupage, opening a shop, Décor Ltd., to sell her wares; later she became adept at bonsai. She also found a life partner — not all of her life, but all of his. Stuart's Roman Scandals gig had introduced her to one of the film's writers, Arthur Sheekman, who had also helped write Monkey Business, Horse Feathers and Duck Soup, the Marx Brothers' three sassiest, most anarchic film comedies. After divorcing Newell, she married Sheekman in 1934; they had a daughter, Sylvia, a year later and stayed together until his death in 1978. She then took up with the print master Ward Ritchie, with whom she created a handmade publishing company, Imprenta Glorias. She eased back into movie acting — she shares a dance with Peter O'Toole in the 1982 My Favorite Year — before getting the fateful call from James Cameron.

Stuart was the oldest actor to receive an Oscar nomination, but she was not the oldest living movie star. The German-born Luise Rainer, who won consecutive Best Actress Oscars for The Great Ziegfeld in 1937 and The Good Earth in 1938, was born Jan. 12, 1910, and is still spry: last April, she returned to Hollywood to present a Turner Classic Movies screening of The Good Earth. But Stuart, rejuvenated by Titanic and the attention it afforded her, kept acting into her mid-90s, guest starring on such TV shows as Murder She Wrote, Touched by an Angel, General Hospital and ... The Invisible Man. (Observation from a sentimental obit writer: Stuart lived exactly as long — 100 years, two months and 22 days — as my mother. Sometimes the best old gals stick around.)

As Rose in Titanic, Stuart looks at herself in a mirror salvaged from the ship's wreckage and exclaims, "This was mine. How extraordinary! And it looks the same as it did last time I saw it ... The reflection's changed a bit." She could be the old woman in The Old Dark House — but much more gracious — searching the glass for the "young and handsome" Gloria Stuart. Now the skin was weathered, the features sagging, but the familiar spark and elegance were undimmed. Gloria Stuart always deserved a kiss before the mirror.