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Gloria Stuart Remembered

by Leonard Maltin
September 27, 2010 5:37 AM
6 Comments
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When you’ve lived a full life and made it to the century mark, it’s hard to complain, but Gloria Stuart still had a special spark even in her 101st year on the planet. Her energy was waning, and her mind could wander, but she loved life, including her family, her artwork, her fine-edition books, kites and bonsai plants. I’m happy that she was able to celebrate her 100th birthday in high style two months ago with a series of events, including a citation from the Screen Actors Guild, which she helped to found, and a gala evening at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which positively thrilled her. (I was privileged to host that evening, and wrote about it HERE). She was also feted by Suzy Amis—who played her granddaughter in Titanic—and her husband James Cameron, who treated her like—

—a member of the family.

As much as I enjoyed watching her revel in the attention that Titanic brought her—including the opportunity to write her candid and engaging autobiography, I Just Kept Hoping—I will never fully understand why Gloria didn’t become a bigger star the first time around, in the 1930s. She was beautiful and smart, a rare combination. Perhaps she lacked the drive to make it happen, or perhaps she just didn’t get the breaks. Her first contract was shared between Paramount, which didn’t make good use of her at all, and Universal, which primarily made undistinguished “program pictures,” although she did get to work with James Whale and John Ford there. She longed for better material and made her way to 20th Century Fox, where again she worked for Ford but toiled mainly in B movies. (Having married screenwriter Arthur Sheekman she wasn’t interested in the advances of notorious studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck; perhaps that was a factor, as well.) It was Hollywood’s loss; she brought charm and conviction to even the silliest films she was forced to make.

Gloria and Shirley Temple in Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1938). When she complained about being given supporting roles in two of Temple’s films, studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck responded that she’d be seen by millions of moviegoers—and he wasn’t wrong.

She held her own in the heady company of her husband’s witty friends, including his best pal Groucho Marx. And she succeeded in every one of her non-acting pursuits, from throwing imaginative dinner parties (vividly described in her book) to painting (selling out her first show at the prestigious Hammer Galleries) and finally, the creation of paper and hand-setting of type for her fine-art books.

I don’t know if Gloria really ate Ry-Krisp, but it couldn’t have hurt!

No life is perfect, but hers was varied and rewarding. And just when she’d stopped thinking about acting, Titanic came along. I spoke to her on the phone when she was awaiting a callback from the casting director, and she asked me to cross my fingers for her. When she got the part she was elated; as it turned out, that was just the first step in a parade of unexpected joys, from an Oscar nomination to the enduring friendship of her costar and director.

The one thing Gloria didn’t do was live in the past. She didn’t mind reminiscing, and for years she was sought after by anyone writing about James Whale, Boris Karloff, or Groucho Marx…but she was much more interested in tending to her garden or setting type.

Gloria poses on the famous Super Chief of the Santa Fe Railroad, setting for her 20th Century Fox movie 36 Hours to Kill (1936).

I feel very fortunate to have known her. If you haven’t read her book, I urge you to do so, and you’ll see why she was so much more interesting than most of the characters she got to play on screen.


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6 Comments

  • Jeffrey Spivak | September 30, 2010 4:13 AMReply

    Wonderful words for a fine actress.

    She won the lead role in Busby Berkeley's "Gold Diggers of 1935" and she's delightful in the "I'm Going Shopping With You" number.

  • Robert Matzen | September 28, 2010 8:02 AMReply

    Imagine seeing yourself onscreen at the premiere of The Invisible Man...and then 70-some years later at the kickoff of Titanic. It's crazy even to imagine it, and only an extraordinary person could have pulled it off. Thank you for this heartfelt tribute to a woman for all seasons and Hollywood original.

  • Dean | September 28, 2010 7:18 AMReply

    Thanks for the lovely tribute to one of our last links to 30's Hollywood. Recently my family were watching Poor Little Rich Girl, and we were commenting on how beautiful she was and her fabulous screen presence. It's such a pity she didn't get the roles she deserved. Thank you Gloria, you will be missed

  • Jim Reinecke | September 28, 2010 6:37 AMReply

    Thanks for sharing your memories of Ms. Stuart, Leonard. . .and remembering her with such affection and respect. I still recall as a kid back in the '60's seeing Ms. Stuart late one Saturday night while watching Whale's "The Invisible Man" and being smitten by her loveliness. It wasn't until I reached adulthood that her earlier film for Whale, "The Old Dark House" emerged from its long hibernation and I was able to view that one, but in the meantime I had enjoyed seeing her as James Cagney's leading lady in "Here Comes the Navy" at Warners and (as a John Ford idolator) her fine performance as Warner Baxter's devoted wife in "The Prisoner of Shark Island". Ms. Stuart's return to the public conciousness in "Titanic" and her subsequent Oscar nomination were richly deserved. Her long, full life is certainly one worth remembering and celebrating. Thanks again for sharing with us, Leonard!

  • Cladrite Radio | September 28, 2010 4:51 AMReply

    What a lovely tribute to a wonderful lady -- thanks, Mr. Maltin.

    I got to interview Ms. Stuart on the occasion of the publication of her memoir. The interview was conducted over the telephone, but then she came to NYC, where I live, when the book came out, and I got to meet her in person. What a treat.

    I posted the interview on my blog just after her 100th birthday. If any of your readers would like to read it, they can at the following address:

    http://cladriteradio.com/archives/1792

  • Karen | September 28, 2010 1:08 AMReply

    A wonderful tribute for a lovely and talented lady. Her movies were always worth seeing, if just for her. I wish I'd had the opportunity to know this very special person. Leonard -- you are one lucky guy !

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