Classic Hollywood: Gloria Stuart – From 1930s Horror Films to ‘Titanic’

Gloria Stuart Biography
Bill Paxton, Gloria Stuart, and Suzy Amis in ‘Titanic’ from Paramount Pictures and Twentieth Century Fox.

Gloria Stuart is best known for her role as Old Rose in the James Cameron spectacular, Titanic (1997), in which she played the older version of Kate Winslet’s romantic character, the girl in love with Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jack.

She was born in Santa Monica on July 4, 1910 as Gloria Stewart. While attending Santa Monica High School, she became interested in theater, poetry and writing. After graduating, she attended the University of California at Berkeley to study drama. She also worked on the campus newspaper, “The Daily Californian,” and contributed articles. She changed the spelling of her last name to “Stuart.”

While in her junior year in 1930, she met and married a young sculptor named Blair Gordon Newell. They moved to the artists’ colony of Carmel where they mingled with intriguing artists such as photographer Ansel Adams and writers Robinson Jeffers and Lincoln Steffens. These associations led to her later interests in activism.

While appearing in a play at the Carmel theater, she was invited to appear in Chekhov’s drama The Seagull at the Playbox in Pasadena. Talent scouts from Paramount Studios and Universal Pictures were in the audience and both offered her a screen test. Because she and her husband were flat broke, she signed with Universal in 1932 because they offered her slightly more money than Paramount.

Miss Stuart was one of the original members of the Screen Actors Guild, beginning in 1933 and subsequently serving on its National Board. She was a member for more than 70 years.

The Invisible Man

Being a gorgeous blond with a lovely figure, Universal cast her in famed director James Whale’s horror film, The Old Dark House (1932) with Boris Karloff, Charles Laughton, and Melvyn Douglas. She was also the leading lady in Claude Rains’ first film, The Invisible Man (1933). She made a slew of films at Universal, but Gloria said what they put her into “wasn’t garbage, but it wasn’t first-rate, second-rate, third-rate. Maybe fourth-rate.”

Universal loaned Stuart out to Warner Bros. to appear in the James Cagney sailor epic, Here Comes the Navy in 1934. She stayed on the Warner lot for the musical Gold Diggers of 1935 with crooner Dick Powell. She and her husband divorced about this time. While on the set of the Eddie Cantor comedy Roman Scandals (1933), she met screenwriter Arthur Sheekman who wrote all the Marx Brothers’ comedies. They fell in love and got married in August 1934 and produced daughter Sylvia in June of 1935.

She left her Universal contract and moved over to 20th Century Fox. On the Fox lot, she starred with the box office dynamo moppet Shirley Temple in Poor Little Rich Girl (1936) and again in Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1938), also with Randolph Scott and Jack Haley. Studio mogul Darryl F. Zanuck thrust her into a variety of “B” pictures. She even co-starred with child star Jane Withers in Keep Smiling (1938), yet another potboiler. Zanuck kept casting her in such films as Time Out for Murder, Winner Take All, It Could Happen to You, and The Three Musketeers with Don Ameche and the Ritz Brothers. Nobody noticed.

After making 46 films, she found herself in less demand and retired from the screen in 1946 at age 36 to pursue her artistic endeavors. Zanuck had not renewed her contract. She became a well-known artist and book designer. She did appear in many summer stock stage plays during the mid and late 1940s. With a 30-year absence from the screen, she returned to acting on many episodic television shows in 1975. She made a cameo appearance dancing with Peter O’Toole in My Favorite Year in 1982 and appeared in several more films and television movies.

In 1997 she was “rediscovered” by director James Cameron for the part of Old Rose in Titanic. It became the highest grossing film ever produced (until Cameron’s Avatar). For her part in Titanic, Stuart received the Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild and Academy Award® nominations.

Gloria Stuart is now known to a whole new era of movie fans. She attributed her long life to love. “If you’re full of love, admiration, appreciation of the beautiful things there are in this life, you have it made, really. And I have it made,” she once said.

Ms. Stuart lived until September 26, 2010, still beautiful at 100 years.