Classmates at Santa Monica High in 1927 voted her the girl 'most likely to succeed', and after earning an Oscar nomination for her role in 'Titanic' in the Nineties, the actress wondered why it took so long
Gloria Stuart, who died on September 26 aged 100, enjoyed a remarkable Indian summer of fame and acclaim when, at the age of 87, she was chosen to play Kate Winslet as a much older woman in one of the most successful films ever made -- the 1997 blockbuster Titanic.
It earned her an Oscar nomination (though not the award) as best supporting actress -- something for which she would have given her eye teeth when she was under contract to Universal and later Twentieth Century Fox in the Thirties. It was the studios' inability to see her as anything other than a girl reporter or a girl detective in B-pictures that eventually drove her to early retirement as an actress.
At its most prolific, her career spanned only eight years, from 1932 to 1939. After that, she took a five-year break before making three more potboilers in the mid-40s: Here Comes Elmer (1944), The Whistler (1945) and She Wrote the Book (1946). This was to be her last substantial screen role for more than 50 years, though she did sporadic work on stage and television.
She herself blamed the failure to make her mark (as more than just a pretty face) on an error of judgement early in her career. Hollywood talent scouts were in the audience when she made her debut in The Seagull at the Pasadena Playhouse in 1932.
Both Paramount and Universal made offers and she took the highest, which was Universal's, unaware that at that time its production slate, contract stars and directors ranked far below Paramount's. It was a decision she was bitterly to regret as she found herself cast opposite relative unknowns (such as James Dunn) rather than rising Paramount stars (such as Gary Cooper).
Her most memorable pictures were two she made for the director James Whale, The Old Dark House (1932) and The Invisible Man (1933), and The Prisoner of Shark Island (1936), directed by John Ford, in which she played the wife of Dr Samuel Mudd, who was jailed for life for treating the man who assassinated President Lincoln.
Titanic was one of those lucky chances that brought her name to prominence for an entirely new generation of moviegoers. Yet it is her presence more than her performance that stays in the mind.
She is not required to act much, simply to look beautiful and serene in old age as if guarding some special secret. As, indeed, in the film, she is: she's not just a survivor of the Titanic but Kate Winslet, no less, trailing a lifetime's memory of her brief shipboard romance with Leonardo DiCaprio.
On Oscar night in 1998, Stuart remarked: "When I graduated from Santa Monica High in 1927 I was voted the girl most likely to succeed. I didn't realise it would take so long."
She was born Gloria Frances Stewart on July 4, 1910, in Santa Monica, the daughter of Frank Stewart, a lawyer who died when she was only 10. Her mother later married a Texas oil man and Stuart completed her secondary education in Santa Monica before reading philosophy at the University of California at Berkeley, where she joined a local acting group, the Berkeley Players.
There she also met and married the San Francisco sculptor Blair Gordon Newell, subsequently setting up home with him at Carmel, California. While studying acting at the Theatre of the Golden Bough, she scratched a living writing for the local newspaper, The Carmelite. It was her involvement with the Theatre of the Golden Bough that led to her attention-grabbing performance (under the name Gloria Stuart) in The Seagull and the film offers from Paramount and Universal. Though she chose Universal, Paramount (as first bidder) took the matter to arbitration with the Motion Picture Producers' Association, and it was eventually settled by the toss of a coin.
For Universal, Stuart made Air Mail (directed by John Ford), The Old Dark House, Back Street and The All-American in the same year. The Old Dark House was the most auspicious, because it marked the first of a two-picture association with James Whale. She considered him the most talented director with whom she had worked and hung on his every word. Though homosexual and in no way drawn to her romantically, he knew how to flatter her. When she asked why she was required to wear a pink satin dinner-dress when the rest of the cast were in English country tweeds, he told her: "Because, Gloria, when Boris Karloff runs after you in the corridor, I want you to look like a beautiful flame." She asked no more questions.
It seems, however, to have been a clannish set. Whale, Charles Laughton, Karloff and Ernest Thesiger formed an intensely British clique, who took tea at 11 and four but never invited Americans such as Stuart or her co-star Melvyn Douglas to join them.
Universal proved a hard taskmaster. It worked its contract players six days a week from 5am until midnight and sometimes Sunday morning, too. It cut corners, using long-shots and extras from German pictures, requiring the American actors simply to bridge the gaps. And everything was rushed. This encouraged Stuart to play an early and active role in the formation of the Actors' Guild to obtain better conditions for screen actors. In 1938 she was elected to the board.
Whale was an exception to this rule of mediocrity. In favour at that time, he was allowed the luxury of extended shooting schedules. This was especially valuable during production of the special-effects-driven The Invisible Man. Stuart's part was again largely functional, and the unseen Claude Rains in his screen debut vocally upstaged most of the cast. But its combination of style, wit and camera trickery has made it one of Stuart's few early films still affectionately recalled.
A film more memorable to Stuart than to movie buffs was Roman Scandals (1933), a spoof of Roman times starring Eddie Cantor. It was made by Frank Tuttle, whom she labelled "the great non-director of them all".
According to her, the sum of his directorial advice was: "Ready? Okay, kids, believe it." On the set, however, she did meet one of the script-writers, Arthur Speekman, who became her second husband when her first marriage broke down.
Lent out to Warner Bros for Gold Diggers of 1935, directed by Busby Berkeley, and Here Comes the Navy (also 1935), opposite James Cagney, she began to suspect that her most successful films were being made for other studios, with Universal taking a fee -- none of which was coming her way.
It redoubled her commitment to the Actors' Guild and led eventually to her switching to Twentieth Century Fox, which picked up the end of her Universal contract.
For the most part, this was no improvement. In Poor Little Rich Girl (1936) and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm (1938), she played second fiddle to the infant Shirley Temple.
Only the John Ford film The Prisoner of Shark Island and a 1939 version of The Three Musketeers with Don Ameche, in which she played the queen, offered acceptable roles.
So when the Fox contract expired in 1939, she decided to abandon Hollywood. With her husband, she embarked on a world tour, then settled in New York, where she returned to the stage in a number of plays, including The Dark Turner and Sailor Beware. She made infrequent appearances in such movies as The Whistler and She Wrote the Book before devoting herself full time to bringing up her daughter, Sylvia. Later, when Sylvia was studying in Paris, Stuart moved to Europe for two years and took up painting.
After her husband's death, she appeared in one episode of The Waltons and the television films The Legend of Lizzie Borden and Adventures of the Queen. She also played cameo roles in the movies My Favourite Year (1982), Mass Appeal (1984) and Wildcats (1986). Had it not been for Titanic, she would have been almost forgotten.
But that film opened up new prospects and it was not long before she was being courted again. She turned it down one sci-fi offer, saying: "Space suits are not terribly becoming. They're great on young women, but they don't look so good on old broads."
Post-Titanic, she appeared in The Love Letter (1999), The Million-Dollar Hotel (2000) and Land of Plenty (2004) and in several television programmes, among them General Hospital in 2002-03.
In 1999, she published an autobiography, I Just Kept Hoping, which chronicled her many sexual conquests in the late 1920s: "I remember one weekend there was so much activity I could hardly get out of bed."
Stuart's second husband died in 1978, and she is survived by their daughter.