Special Report By Monica Sullivan
Gloria Stuart had the good luck to star in James Whale's 1932 horror classic "The Old Dark House" opposite Melvyn Douglas, Boris Karloff, Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey & Ernest Thesiger. It was an auspicious start for the 22-year-old ingenue, who went on to co-star with Claude Rains in "The Invisible Man", another Whale horror classic, and with Eddie Cantor in "Roman Scandals", a Busby Berkeley musical, the following year. During her 15 years onscreen, Stuart appeared in 45 films, mostly for Universal and Fox, although she also made a memorable impression in another Busby Berkeley musical made at Warner Bros., "Gold Diggers of 1935", co-starring Dick Powell.
Two of her Fox musicals, "The Poor Little Rich Girl" and "Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm" have been colorized and are revived constantly, primarily because both starred Shirley Temple. A better showcase of Stuart's talent was 1936's "The Prisoner of Shark Island" directed by John Ford in which she gave a moving and restrained performance as the wife of Dr. Samuel Mudd (Warner Baxter) , who was nearly hanged as a Lincoln assassination conspirator for innocently supplying John Wilkes Booth with medical attention. But this sort of meaty dramatic role was simply not being offered to Stuart, for reasons best known to the Dead Studio Executives Society. At 26, Stuart found meaningful work offscreen as a Screen Actors Guild Board Member and with her membership in the Committee of 56, dedicated to fighting the Communist witch hunt in Hollywood.
After making "It Could Happen To You", a Stuart Erwin murder mystery, and playing Queen Anne in 1939's "The Three Musketeers" with Don Ameche as D'Artagnan, Gloria Stuart continued her career onstage, but remained off-screen until 1943. She made four more films, including "The Whistler", a William Castle chiller, before calling it a career in 1946, at least until the mid-seventies.
For the last 22 years, Stuart has been quietly establishing a new career as a supporting player in telefeatures and theatrical films. Like her latest Golden Globe-nominated role in "Titanic", for which she required aging make-up, she undoubtedly was aged to dance with Peter O'Toole in 1962's "My Favorite Year". And, like her 1932 co-star Melvyn Douglas, as well as many actors who worked under a studio system that gave them little or no choice about the direction of their careers, Gloria Stuart is somewhat dismissive about her early work onscreen. But her deep intelligence, free spirit and boundless energy have always managed to shine through her rather patrician screen image. In mid-February, she may, at 87, set a new age record for Oscar nominees. It's a fitting honor for the Wampas Baby Star of 1933 who rarely found a film role worthy of her---until now.
© 1997 - Monica Sullivan - Air Date: 12/31/97
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