July 4, 1910 – Gloria Stuart:
“I never had a great role in a great film.”
When Gloria Stuart, who died at 100 years old, was nominated for an Academy Award for her spirited performance in James Cameron‘s titanically popular Titanic (1997), few film fans remembered her earlier acting career in the 1930s. Stuart played 101-year-old Rose, portrayed in the rest of the film by Kate Winslet, who recalls the time when she was 17 onboard the doomed ocean liner: “I can still smell the fresh paint“.
65 years earlier, Stuart played a blonde ingenue in gay filmmaker James Whale‘s terrific, funny, scary The Old Dark House (1932), where she wears a tight evening gown and is chased by Boris Karloff as a sinister butler. Whale had told her: “When Karloff chases you through the halls, I want you to be like a flame or a dancer.” She managed to be both.
In 1933, again under Whale’s direction, Stuart touchingly played Flora the fiancee in The Invisible Man. She overcame the difficulties of acting to an empty space, until the moment when she comforts Claude Rains as the title character who reappears as he dies. That the same year, Stuart was once again in a haunted house in Secret Of The Blue Room, where she is especially good as a mysterious woman who forces her three suitors to prove their bravery by spending a night in a castle where three people were murdered 20 years earlier.
But she didn’t just do Horror films; in the Busby Berkeley-choreographed musical Roman Scandals (1933), she was a princess. One of the writers on the film was Arthur Sheekman, Stuart married him the following year. Sheekman was a great friend of Groucho Marx, and had previously written jokes for the Marx Brothers comedies Monkey Business (1931) and Duck Soup (1933). Stuart claimed:
“I was one of the very few women that Groucho really liked“.
Stewart was born as Gloria Stewart in Santa Monica. She changed her surname so that its “six letters balanced perfectly on a theatre’s marquee with the six letters in ‘Gloria“. She attended Santa Monica High School but dropped out of the University of California, Berkeley. She began her acting career after her brief marriage when she was 19 years old.
She was discovered in 1932 at a Pasadena Playhouse production of Anton Chekhov‘s The Seagull by talent scouts from both Paramount and Universal studios. She went with Universal, who offered her more money, a decision she later regretted, because Paramount made more quality films.
After three years at Universal, where she made the films for Whale, she moved to 20th Century-Fox, but the roles weren’t much better. Between studios, she freelanced at Warner Bros. where she was cast as a young heiress in Gold Diggers Of 1935, performing in two Berkeley production numbers, I’m Going Shopping With You, where she and Dick Powell go through a department store spending her mother’s money, and The Words Are In My Heart, where she and Powell, dressed in 19th-century costumes, suddenly shrink into porcelain figurines in a floral arrangement as 56 girls appear seated at 56 pianos. Stuart:
“All I got to do in the musical numbers was stand and stare at Dick Powell as he sang to me.”
At Fox, Stuart provided the adult romantic lead in two Shirley Temple movies, Poor Little Rich Girl (1936) and Rebecca Of Sunnybrook Farm (1938), though the casts of both films were upstaged by the curly-haired star.
Stuart showed she had real acting chops portraying Peggy Mudd, the wife of the doctor who gave refuge to John Wilkes Booth after he had shot President Abraham Lincoln, in John Ford‘s The Prisoner Of Shark Island (1936). She played a doctor’s wife again in The Crime Of Dr. Forbes (1936), which bravely took on the subject of mercy killing. But mostly she was cast as the pretty ingenue in dumb films. Stuart:
“I was disappointed. There was no chance to do what I would have called real acting. I had much higher ambitions than when I started. I loved to act but it wasn’t worth the crying every day in the dressing room over these stupid, cliched parts.”
When her contract at Fox was up in 1946, Stuart decided to retire and enjoy the rest of her life. She began painting, calling herself “a self-taught primitive”, and had her work shown in galleries in Los Angeles. Stuart’s charming paintings are in many private collections and the permanent collections of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, J. Paul Getty Museum, Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the Desert Museum of Palm Springs.
She stayed active in the Screen Actors Guild, having been one of its very first members.
30 years later, Stuart decided to return to acting, appearing in small roles in made-for-television movies. Sheekman passed away in 1978, but a few years later, Stuart renewed acquaintance with an old friend from her college years, artist Ward Ritchie. Ritchie was a celebrated printer, book designer and printing historian.With his commercial Ward Ritchie Press and private Laguna Verde Imprenta Press, Ritchie produced books on the arts, poetry, cookery of the American West. Stuart invited him to dinner and they fell in love. Ritchie was 78 and Stuart was 72. When Stuart first followed Ritchie into his studio and watched him pull a printed page from his 1839 English iron Albion hand press, she was hooked. After studying typesetting at the Women’s Workshop in Los Angeles, Stuart bought her own hand press, and established her own private press, Imprenta Glorias.
They lived together without the benefit of matrimony until his death in 1996. After that she devoted her time to designing handmade, letter-press artists’ books in limited editions. She designed, wrote the text, set the type, carefully selecting the style of type to match the subject, printed the pages, then decorated the pages with water colors, silk screen, découpage or all three. She created large artist’s books and books in miniature. Several of her books took her years to complete. One of them, completed in 1996 with artist gay artist Don Bachardy is owned by the Met.
Stuart occasionally returned to film roles, appearing in a small part dancing with Peter O’Toole in a nightclub in My Favorite Year (1984). After her triumph in Titanic, she played the grandmother of Kate Capshaw‘s character in The Love Letter (1999), and was also an iconic presence in two Wim Wenders films: The Million Dollar Hotel (2000) and Land Of Plenty (2004), her last film.
Most of Stuart’s filming on Titanic in Nova Scotia was done over three weeks in early summer of 1996. Later, Stuart filmed and made recordings for several documentaries, did more looping and dubbing for Cameron, and received offers for additional films. Stuart:
“On April 7, 1997, the publicity blitz for Titanic kicked off… From that point on, the deluge of publicity never stopped.”
Besides that Oscar, Stuart was also nominated for a Golden Globe Award for her performance in the film. She remains the oldest nominee in the Academy Awards Best Supporting Actress category. The Screen Actors Guild awarded Stuart its Founders Award that year and Stuart tied with Kim Basinger (L.A. Confidential) at the SAGs. People magazine included Stuart on their list of “The 50 Most Beautiful People in the World” in 1998.
Stuart was a lifelong Democrat and Progressive. In 1936, she was one of the co-founding members of the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League. She was on the Executive Board of the California State Democratic Committee. She was also an avid environmentalist:
“I belong to every organization that has to do with saving the environment. I’m fed up with venal and avaricious forestry people, mining people, oil people, gas people. I think the abuse of the environment is sinful.”