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Sunday, October 28, 2007

Gloria Stuart Movies (originally published 1/98)

Last week we looked at the earlier work of Teresa Wright, who is featured, nearly sixty years after her career began, in this year's John Grisham adaptation, "The Rainmaker." It would seem that Wright is in the vanguard of a full-fledged trend toward bringing performers from Hollywood's golden age back to the screen.

James Cameron's "Titanic" also makes use of a star who has been largely absent from the screen for decades. Gloria Stuart was a particularly apt choice to portray Kate Winslet's character as an older woman. Like Winslet, Stuart was once a fresh-faced young actress who was cast at least as much for her youthful good looks as for her thespian talents. For a sampling of Stuart's work back in her ingenue days, look for these titles on home video.

"The Old Dark House" (1932). This classic chiller is so revered among movie fans that its title has entered the cinematic lexicon as the accepted name for an entire sub-genre. Those movies - and they are legion - in which a group of people find themselves spending a creepy night in a gloomy old mansion are invariably referred to by film buffs as "old dark house" films. Based on a J.B. Priestly novel called "Benighted," "The Old Dark House" was directed by James Whale. Although he directed two of the most famous films ever to come out of Hollywood, "Frankenstein" (1931) and "Bride of Frankenstein" (1935), Whale has become something of a forgotten man. That's unfortunate, because he had a rare knack for investing scary material with a sense of fun without undermining the macabre atmosphere that is the cornerstone of such films. Stuart and Whale seemed to work especially well together, and were to be reunited on a number of subsequent projects. Here, Stuart plays one of a group of travelers who find themselves stranded (on a dark and stormy night, of course) at the forbidding home of the grim and ghastly Femm family.

"The Invisible Man" (1932). Stuart and Whale worked together a second time on this adaptation of the H.G. Wells classic about a mad scientist who develops a drug that renders him invisible. Unfortunately, it also alters his personality, transforming him into a raving, amoral megalomaniac. Stuart plays his long-suffering fiancee. Claude Rains, in his film debut, plays the title role, but since he's only heard and not seen until the very end, Stuart in her supporting role actually gets more face time onscreen.

"Roman Scandals" (1933). Unapologetically ripped off from Mark Twain's "A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court," the plot of this Eddie Cantor vehicle contrives to send the popular singer-comedian back to ancient Rome as a modern-day man. Like many such comic vehicles, this one weaves the comedian's antics around a love story featuring two young, attractive actors. Here, the two lovers are played by David Manners and Stuart.

"Gold Diggers of 1935" (1935). The "Gold Diggers" series of movies (of 1933, of 1935, and of 1937) were never really about gold diggers in the traditional sense of women using their feminine wiles to extract money from a "sugar daddy," but if we stretch a point or two we can make the title fit. The gold diggers in this case are the producers of a charity show at a New England resort. The person from whom they're trying to get money is a tightwad millionairess played by Alice Brady. Stuart plays Brady's daughter in yet another ingenue role, this one pairing her romantically with Dick Powell. But the real star of the show is director-choreographer Busby Berkely, whose elaborate dance numbers are the whole reason for the movie.

"The Three Musketeers" (1939). There have been many adaptations of the classic Dumas swashbuckler, but none quite like this one. What makes it different is the anarchic presence of the wild and looney Ritz Brothers, a comic trio second only to the Marx Brothers in their genius for inspired nonsense. The brothers don't play the title roles - they are billed instead as "three lackeys" - but they certainly occupy center stage. As the queen, Stuart has the thankless task of lending a little dignity to the proceedings.

Next week we'll look at yet another classic actress who returned to the screen this past year. She's been Brando's Stella and gone ape for Charlton Heston, but it took Clint Eastwood to lure her back to the screen after an extended absence.

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