Gloria Stuart: Actress who began her career in the 1930s and was nominated for an Oscar six decades later for 'Titanic'

The glamorous blonde actress Gloria Stuart was a popular leading lady of the Thirties, starring in two classic horror films directed by James Whale, The Old Dark House and The Invisible Man, and playing romantic leads in two vehicles for the child-star Shirley Temple. She was also Dick Powell's love interest in the Busby Berkeley musical, Gold Diggers of 1935, and starred in several "B" movies.

But she became known to a new generation when she was cast by James Cameron as Rose, the 101-year-old survivor of the Titanic sinking. Kate Winslet played the young Rose, a spirited rich girl whose love for a penniless artist travelling in steerage (Leonardo DiCaprio) endured for a lifetime after she lost him in the disaster, and Stuart's moving depiction of the aged Rose, who narrates the tale, won her an Oscar nomination – she was the oldest performer to achieve that distinction.

Gloria Frances Stewart was born in 1910 in Santa Monica, California. She acted in student theatre while at the University of California, where she met her first husband, the sculptor Blair Gordon Newell. The pair settled in Carmel, where Stuart became part of a bohemian community, writing for a weekly newspaper and acting at the local theatre. In 1932, she was playing Masha in Chekhov's The Seagull, and was asked to repeat the role at the Pasadena Playhouse.

"Like most players in those days,I was lofty about movies, but wewere broke, so I called Bob Holliday, who published the paper I wrote for and was a good friend of Randolph Hearst, and said, 'I'd like to make contact with someone in motion pictures.' Bob called someone at Paramount, and they sent a casting director to the opening night. The leading man's agent sent someone from Universal, so next morning I was offered contracts by both studios. People say, 'How do you get into movies? It's so hard!' It was just nothing, they flipped a coin and Universal won."

Changing the spelling of her surname, she was immediately loaned to Warners for Street of Women (1932). Her first Universal film, James Whale's The Old Dark House (1932) was arguably her finest, a superb blend of horror and comedy in which Stuart was among a group of stranded travellers on a stormy night taking refuge in a strange house with some very odd inhabitants, including a mute butler (Boris Karloff). "Boris was the most charming, the most considerate actor that you could imagine, the complete antithesis of the kind of character he played in the movies."

In The Invisible Man (1933) Stuart played the fiancee of a scientist (Claude Rains) who concocts a drug that makes him invisible. "Claude was an actor's actor," Stuart said. "That meansan enormous ego! Deep concentration all to himself and death to the rest of the cast. He would back many of his leading ladies into the scenery. When he did that with me, I'd simply yell, 'James!' and he'd say, 'Now, Claude, be nice to Gloria; this is not the stage. Now, do it again.'"

In Whale's stylish The Kiss Before the Mirror (1933), Stuart was as a faithless wife murdered near the film's start by her jealous husband (Paul Lukas). Lukas and Melvyn Douglas were actors who prompted Stuart to become actively involved in a campaign to form an actors' union. "Equity was already in existence for stage actors, but there were no unions for actors, writers or directors. I would get to the studio at six in the morning and sometimes we'd work straight through until midnight. I remember about halfway through The Kiss Before the Mirror, Paul Lukas said to me, 'I'm going to quit at six o'clock,' and I said, 'You can't do that unless Jimmy says so!' It was such a revolutionary idea, that you would walk off a film set. He planted a seed."

Stuart was the female lead in John Ford's Air Mail (1932), and she was effective in Kurt Neumann's Secrets of the Blue Room (1933), as a woman who tests the love of three suitors by having each of them spend the night alone in a castle in which three mysterious murders occurred 20 years earlier. But most of her Universal films were inconsequential, and she had better roles on loan, such as the Goldwyn production Roman Scandals (1933). During the filming, Stuart met the writer Arthur Sheekman, who provided material for the Marx Brothers and in 1934, after Stuart's divorce from Newall, they married, and in 1935 had a daughter.

Stuart then moved to 20th Century-Fox, headed by Darryl Zanuck, where John Ford wanted her for The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936), amoving account of the injustice that befell a doctor who treated the wound of Lincoln's assassin and was falsely convicted as a conspirator. Stuart was the convincingly steadfast wife. She was then cast in the Shirley Temple vehicle, Poor Little Rich Girl (1936). "I said 'I don't want to do a Shirley Temple picture. I'm a dramatic actress and I don't want to play her sister.' Zanuck said, 'Look Gloria, millions of people who have never seen you will see you in this picture. She's the most popular star today and it is very foolish of you.' Well, he was right."

Stuart also supported Temple in Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1938) and later described Temple as "a genius, an absolute miracle." She also enjoyed working with the comedy team the Ritz Brothers in a musical version of The Three Musketeers (1939).

When her 20th Century-Fox contract ended, she and her husband took a trip around the world before settling in New York. There, she hosted lively parties, since Sheekman knew so many comics. "George Burns, Fred Allen, Milton Berle, Groucho... I spent 40-odd years surrounded by some of the funniest people in the world."

The Sheekmans were also politically active. They were founder members of the Screen Actors Guild, and in 1938 Stuart was elected to the board of directors along with James Cagney and Joan Crawford. They also helped found the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League.

In 1943 they returned to Hollywood, and Stuart returned to the screen in four B-movies that included The Whistler (1944) and She Wrote the Book (1946), in which she was an outwardly prim college dean's wife who writes a racy novel under a pseudonym.

Stuart later took an interest in painting after visiting her daughter at the Sorbonne in Paris. "She took me to Jeu de Paume, where I saw the great impressionists. I was overwhelmed! I bought a book on how to paint, an easel and a canvas, and I started to paint – I'm a primitive." She also became an expert designer of prints; her work is in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

After Sheekman died in 1978, she occasionally acted on television (including Murder, She Wrote) and on screen, notably in My Favourite Year (1982), in which she danced with Peter O'Toole.

Stuart was largely forgotten, however, when she was sent the script for Titanic. "When actors or actresses get a script, we don't read anyone's part but our own. So I went through it reading 'Old Rose' and I knew it was going to be wonderful. It was what I had been waiting for all my life... When I read for James [Cameron], he only stopped me once. It was Old Rose's speech about how they didn't go back to look for survivors, for the 1,500 people in the water. He said 'You sound very angry' and I said 'Well, isn't that the way you wrote it?' He said, 'No, I hadn't thought of it that way.' When I met Kate Winslet it was immediate affection and identification. I had a wonderful tea set out for her at my house, and she said, 'Couldn't we have a drink?' so we killed a bottle of champagne instead. It was a VERY happy hour!"

Tom Vallance

Gloria Frances Stewart (Gloria Stuart), actress: born Santa Monica, California 4 July 1910; married 1930 Blair Gordon Newall (divorced 1934), 1934 Arthur Sheekman (died 1978, one daughter); died Los Angeles, California 26 September 2010.

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