When James Cameron’s box-office phenomenon, Titanic, came out in late 1997, there were plenty of juicy subplots to savor: the rise of Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet as worldwide box office stars, the film’s 11 Oscar wins, its meteoric rocket-shot to the the highest-grossing film of all time. But perhaps the sweetest story was the unlikely comeback of 88-year-old actress Gloria Stuart — a Depression-era starlet who returned to the silver screen as the elderly incarnation of Winslet’s Rose Calvert, whose reminiscences of the ill-fated voyage bookend the Oscar-winning film. Stuart, who passed away at her West Los Angeles home yesterday at age 100, earned a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination for her sentimental (and long-delayed) return performance. But even if she never had her late-in-life Titanic triumph, her career would be well worth remembering.
Stuart got her start in Hollywood in the early ’30s and Tinseltown wasted no time putting the blond California beauty to work. Between 1932 and 1946 she appeared in 46 films. She may have been busy, but she wasn’t happy. Later in life, she looked back on that period in the spotlight less than favorably, telling EW in 1998, “I hated practically everything I did. Not only hated, resented. I didn’t think I was being used properly.” Stuart was right about being typecast, but she was also being too hard on her resume. After all, anyone who’s seen 1932’s wonderfully atmospheric The Old Dark House knows Stuart was a talent. Directed by horror legend James Whale, who also had a bit of a reputation renaissance when the biopic Gods and Monsters hit theaters in 1998, The Old Dark House is exactly what its title promises — an eerie haunted house story about an odd collection of travelers who find themselves having to spend a dark and stormy night in a creepy mansion with a deranged family and Boris Karloff. Even Stuart had to admit that she liked that one. “It’s my favorite because of the cast, the dialogue, and because Whale was a master of setting moods,” she told EW. She was right. It’s on DVD if you want to check it out…and you should.
Stuart stepped in front of the camera for Whale again in 1933’s sci-fi/chiller classic The Invisible Man, playing the horrified wife of Claude Rains’ mad scientist. No one could wring her hands in horror quite like Stuart, who recalled about the film, “I didn’t do much except say, ‘Don’t go; please come back; it’s dangerous.’ But the movie was, of course, a big [f/x] breakthrough.”
Like any in-demand star of the era, Stuart’s resume is loaded with a lot of disposable filler cranked out quickly and on the cheap. But there are some real gems in there, too, if you’re willing to do some digging. Some of these include the Busby Berkeley extravaganza Gold Diggers of 1935, John Ford’s underrated 1936 adventure picture Prisoner of Shark Island (part of the recent “Ford at Fox” DVD collection), and the 1938 Shirley Temple movie Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm. But by the end of WWII, Stuart had finally had enough with La La Land. And after a thankless part in 1946’s She Wrote the Book, the beauty called it quits. She left Hollywood and took up painting and printmaking, both of which she was good enough at to earn several gallery and museum shows.
Stuart stayed away from the movies for the most part until the early ’80s, when she danced with Peter O’Toole in 1982’s My Favorite Year. Still, it wasn’t until James Cameron came calling 15 years later that Stuart would be given the marquee treatment she so truly deserved (and probably missed more than she would admit). She seemed to revel in the accolades and attention she received after her long absence from the spotlight, going so far as to tell The Chicago Tribune, “If I had been given plum roles like this back in the old days, I would have stayed in Hollywood.”