When Gloria Stuart, who has died aged 100, was nominated for the best supporting actress Oscar for her spirited performance in James Cameron's Titanic (1997), there were few filmgoers who remembered her earlier acting career in the 1930s. Stuart played the 101-year-old Rose (portrayed in the rest of the film by Kate Winslet), who recalls the time when she was 17 onboard the doomed liner. ("I can still smell the fresh paint," she says.)
Sixty-five years earlier, Stuart stood out as a blonde ingenue in James Whale's comedy-thriller The Old Dark House (1932), in which she wore a tight evening gown and was chased by Boris Karloff as a sinister butler. Stuart recalled how Whale told her: "When Karloff chases you through the halls, I want you to be like a flame or a dancer." She was both.
The following year, again under the direction of Whale, Stuart touchingly played Flora Cranley, the fiancee in The Invisible Man. She overcame the difficulties of acting to an empty space, until the moment when she comforts the titular hero (Claude Rains) who reappears as he dies. In the same year, Stuart was once again in an "old dark house" in Secret of the Blue Room. She was very effective as a mysterious woman who forces her three suitors to prove their bravery by spending a night in a castle where three people were murdered 20 years earlier.
By way of contrast, in the Busby Berkeley-choreographed musical Roman Scandals (1933), she was a princess for whom Eddie Cantor plays Cupid. One of the writers on the film was Arthur Sheekman, whom Stuart married the following year. Sheekman was a friend of Groucho Marx, and had previously been a gagman on the Marx Brothers comedies Monkey Business (1931) and Duck Soup (1933). Stuart later claimed to be "one of the very few women that Groucho really liked".
Gloria Frances Stewart was born in Santa Monica, California. She later changed her surname so that its "six letters balanced perfectly on a theatre's marquee with the six letters in 'Gloria'". She was educated at Santa Monica high school and dropped out of the University of California, Berkeley. She embarked on an acting career after her brief marriage, aged 19, to the sculptor Blair Gordon Newell. (They divorced in 1934.) She was discovered at Pasadena Playhouse in a 1932 production of Anton Chekhov's The Seagull by scouts from both Paramount and Universal studios. She went with the latter, who offered her more money, a decision she later regretted, because Paramount made "classier" films.
After three years at Universal, where she made the Whale pictures, she moved to 20th Century-Fox, which served her not much better. Between studios, at Warner Bros, Stuart was the juvenile lead in Gold Diggers of 1935 in which she played an heiress, performing two Berkeley numbers, I'm Going Shopping With You, during which she and Dick Powell go through a department store spending her mother's money, and The Words Are in My Heart, during which the couple, dressed in 19th-century costume, suddenly shrink into porcelain figures in a floral arrangement as 56 girls appear seated at 56 pianos. Stuart claimed: "All I got to do in the musical numbers was stand and stare at Dick Powell as he sang to me."
At Fox, Stuart provided the adult romance in two Shirley Temple movies, Poor Little Rich Girl (1936) and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1938), though the casts of both films were upstaged by the curly-haired moppet. Stuart was more satisfied with her portrayal of Peggy Mudd, the wife of the doctor who gave refuge to John Wilkes Booth after he had shot President Abraham Lincoln, in John Ford's The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936). She was a doctor's wife once more in The Crime of Dr Forbes (1936), which dealt quite bravely with the subject of mercy killing. However, these were exceptions to the rule that continually cast her as a pretty ingenue in empty-headed movies.
"I was disappointed," she remarked. "There was no chance to do what I would have called real acting. I had much higher ambitions than when I started. I loved to act but it wasn't worth the crying every day in the dressing room over these stupid, cliched parts." So when her contract with Fox was up in 1946, Stuart decided to retire and enjoy herself. She took up painting, calling herself "a self-taught primitive", and had her work exhibited. She also continued to be active in the Screen Actors Guild, having been one of the first members in the 30s.
In 1975, Stuart decided to return to acting, this time on television, appearing in small roles in TV movies. Sheekman died in 1978. A few years later, Stuart renewed acquaintance with an old friend from her college years, Ward Ritchie, a printer. They lived together until his death in 1996, after which she devoted much of her time to designing handmade, letter-press artists' books in limited editions.
Meanwhile, Stuart occasionally returned to the big screen, appearing in a cameo role dancing with Peter O'Toole in a nightclub in My Favourite Year (1984). After Titanic, she was given rather more substantial parts, such as the grandmother of Kate Capshaw's character in The Love Letter (1999). She was also an iconic presence in two Wim Wenders films: The Million Dollar Hotel (2000) and Land of Plenty (2004), her last film.
Stuart is survived by her daughter, Sylvia, from her second marriage, and by four grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren.