In 1998, Gloria Stuart became the oldest actress ever to be nominated for an Academy Award for her part in Titanic. The film itself has not held up at all, but Stuart deserved the recognition: after the death of Fay Wray (who turned the Titanic gig down) she became perhaps the last of the great thirties Hollywood stars.
A philosophy graduate from Berkeley and a gifted exponent of Shakespeare and Chekhov on stage, she was an intelligent and serious actress encumbered with Hollywood glamour. She came to films reluctantly, and was never certain she had made the right decision, particularly as her much announced superstardom never materialised.
“When I graduated from Santa Monica High in 1927, I was voted the girl most likely to succeed,” she once said, “I didn't realize it would take so long.”
The attempts to turn her into a production line Hollywood sexpot were often so blatant they seem deliberately antagonistic, as if intended to break her independence and feistiness. She appears in a 1932 Hollywood on Parade short in a cheesecake line-up of Hollywood’s unanimous choice of 1933’s starlets of tomorrow: fourteen girls, one from each studio. “I’m an all-American girl,” she says, in answer to her one question. (The 14 chosen proved a meagre crop, with only Ginger Rogers built for the long haul. Others included Patricia Ellis, Mary Carlisle and Lona Andre, who tells us she got into pick-chas bah bein’ the pantha woman. They didn’t realise when they said stars of tomorrow that they meant Monogram’s stars of tomorrow.)
At Universal, Carl Laemmle Jr was enraptured (“I have never seen such poise, such delicate beauty, such depth, why she almost scares you”) and insisted that “We’ll have to find some truly distinguished stories for her, in fact the finest, because… it would be foolish, and rather embarrassing all round, to put her in, well, a trivial story”.
. But none of her work, either freelance or contracted to Universal and later Twentieth Century Fox, made anything like full use of her talents. She looks stunning in the Eddie Cantor farce Roman Scandals, and does her best singing ‘I’m Going Shopping With You’ with Dick Powell in the Busby Berkeley musical Gold Diggers of 1935; at Fox she worked with Shirley Temple and the Ritz Brothers, and gave one of her best performances in one of her best films: John Ford’s The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936).
Today, apart from Titanic, she is probably best known now for her roles in Universal horror films. In The Invisible Man (1933) she is purely decorative, essentially reprising Mae Clark's worried girlfriend role from Frankenstein. But Secret of the Blue Room (1933), the least known of the bunch, at least has the sense to keep her the centre of attention.
Adapted from a successful German film, Geheimnis des Blauen Zimmers, no effort has gone into Americanising it, so Paul Lukas is our hero, Captain Walter Brink, and Gloria is our heroine, Irene Von Helldorf, doting daughter to Croydon-born Lionel Atwill. (At least Lukas has an accent: Irene is German by way of Long Island.)
We open in a large and imposing Germanic mansion, almost a castle, where Irene, younger, prettier and more kittenish than the Teutonic sobriety of her name might lead you to suspect, has chosen to celebrate her 21st birthday by inviting the three men who most fancy her to dinner and have them squabble over her. (We’ve all met girls like this.)
Stuart is coquettish and haughty here; with little in the script to bite into she plays the part as a prim tease; indeed, with Lionel Atwill on hand as master of ceremonies, we’re beginning to wonder just what kind of coming of age party this is going to turn into.
“And now,” he says, “Give us all a nice birthday kiss”; Stuart first kisses her father full on the lips, then all the other men in turn. But before Atwill has time to get the snake out of the cupboard, the contest between the three eligible bachelors (that’s Captain Walter Brink, Frank Faber and Thomas Brandt: stout Germanic types all, especially young Tommy) takes a sinister turn when it is discovered that the castle has a sealed bedroom, in which two guests were murdered years before, their killer never identified and his method of entering and escaping never found. In an only barely sublimated courtship display, it is mooted that they each spend consecutive nights there. One dies, one disappears, and one puts two and two together.
There are no surprises here. But it’s got the full compliment of panels and passages, it’s got red herrings of a sort, it’s got Gloria Stuart done up like Harlow in platinum curls and clinging satin nightwear… and how she must have hated teasingly delivering lines like “Oh, it must be terrible to be a man and have to be brave; thank goodness I can be a coward with a clean conscience!”
The masterpiece of her Universal years, and probably of her career, is James Whale's The Old Dark House (1932). (As well as The Invisible Man director and star also teamed on The Kiss Before the Mirror , a stylish murder mystery, between the two horrors.)
.How she must have relished the chance to begin a film not cooing in luxury but trapped in a car in the pouring rain, already deep in a bitter argument with her screen husband. She gives an excellent performance throughout The Old Dark House because she can see it’s worth the effort; she’s also at her most beautiful on screen here, too, which may not be a coincidence. The film is among the more authentically pre-Code of the early Universals, and the potent atmosphere of weird eroticism in the scene where she is subjected to sexual interrogation at the hands of Eva Moore is still disquieting and extraordinary.
Deciding to change out of her wet clothes, Stuart is taken upstairs by Moore, who sits on the bed and harangues her with lurid reminiscences of her hated sister, who had died in the same room at the age of twenty-one. She was wicked, “handsome as a hawk”, and “all the young men used to follow her about with her red lips and her big eyes and her white neck.” As each tragic episode of this poor girl’s life is recounted as if evidence of her evil – she fell off a horse and broke her spine, then lay screaming on the very bed on which she is now sitting (Moore gives the pillows a satisfied pat to make the point), begging to be killed for month after month, before finally expiring “Godless to the last” - Stuart is slowly undressing to her satin underwear, fixes her stockings, then dresses slowly, just her shoes first, then pulling on a fantastic (if quite inappropriate considering the temperature and the company) clinging white satin dress. (Like a white flame, director James Whale envisaged.)
The juxtaposition between the horrible narrative, recounted with obvious glee by Moore, and the alluring visuals is deliberately emphasised by Whale, who brings it to a memorable dramatic coda, as Moore concludes her diatribe against “brazen, lolling creatures in silks and satins” by circling Stuart and ending up staring into her face:
You’re wicked, too. 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 grabs the material of her dress.) That’s fine stuff, but it’ll rot. (She pinches Stuart’s skin.) That’s finer stuff still, but it’ll rot too, in time!
Whale finishes with a great shot of the curtains, and Stuart’s dress, billowing in the wind as she runs down a corridor on the beautiful, Cat and the Canary–ish set. Bravura, pre-Code tours-de-force from writer, director and cast alike, and one of those scenes where you most long for a look at one of those gleaming first run prints. (The Old Dark House survives only in a ratty old print resembling a DVD bootleg.) Stuart, her hair neatly parted and half-lit, half-shadowed, getting a chance to really perform while being photographed so magnificently, looks as beautiful as any actress has ever looked at the movies.
All of which helps make Gloria Stuart the world's most important living film star.