The TITANIC actress on working with director James Whale on THE OLD DARK HOUSE and THE INVISIBLE MAN
Today’s mainstream audiences remember the late Gloria Stuart, who died on September 26, 2010, for the box office blockbuster TITANIC, but for cult fanatic and horror buffs the actress holds a special place in film history, having worked with FRANKENSTEIN-director James Whale on two of his classic horror pictures, THE OLD DARK HOUSE (1932) and THE INVISIBLE MAN (1933). In these films – more than in FRANKENSTEIN and, perhaps, even its sequel BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN – Whale indulged his penchant for sly humour, using the conventions of the horror genre as a springboard for satire and black comedy.
In both cases, Stuart had the possibly thankless task of’ playing the leading lady – that is, one of the normal characters whose lot on screen is to act as the equivalent of a straight man in a comedy team, while the eccentrics or the mad scientist gets all the good lines. Nevertheless, she managed to inject a little personality into her roles, and even garnered some of the laughs in THE OLD DARK HOUSE when her character, Margaret Waverton, alone and unprotected in the titular manse, notices the spooky shadows cast by the firelight – and instead of reacting in fear, proceeds to make a series of hand-shadows on the wall.
Gloria Stuart started her film career in the early 1930s as a contract player at Universal Pictures, the studio where Whale had made FRANKENSTEIN. Her third picture was THE OLD DARK HOUSE, which is one of the earliest examples from the sound era of the now-familiar archetypal horror film plot: a group of innocent travelers is forced to take shelter in a scary house filled with strange characters, in this case the Femms, a family ranging from the eccentric (Ernest Thesiger and Eva Moore as brother and sister Horace and Rebecca) to the threatening (Boris Karloff as their butler) to the outright homicidal (Brember Wills as Saul).
Rather like her character in TITANIC, Stuart had vivid memory of events from decades past, which she shared with audiences at 2003 double bill of her two James Whale Horror films, which took place at the American Cinemathque’s Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood.
Of her stint on THE OLD DARK HOUSE, she recalled: “It was wonderful working with James. He was brilliant. He came on the set every morning with the script, and on the blank side he had all the setups that he’d pencilled in the night before. It was very precise. He knew exactly what he wanted, which in those days for film directors was not usual, because most of them had been silent directors. They weren’t used to dialogue, and they weren’t used to directing dialogue; they were used to directing silent action. So it was refreshing working with him, particularly because I wanted to be a stage actress, and I was very snobbish about film. I felt I was slumming, but I needed the money, and the money was in film.”
Although Stuart respected Whale as a director, she did not always understand the method to his madness. For example, when she and her compatriots first take shelter in the Femm household, Margaret Waverton changes from her wet clothes into a fancy evening dress, not at all suited to her gloomy surroundings.
“The gown was bias-cut, very pale pink silk-velvet,” she explained. “I said to James, ‘We come in out of the rain; we’re muddy; we’re tired. It’s late. And I change into this pale pink dress with jewellery. Why?’ He said, ‘Because, Gloria, when Boris chases you through the house, I want you to appear like a white flame.’ I said, ‘Okay, I’m a white flame, but I still don’t understand it.’ That’s how precise he was. When I change and get down to my chemise,” she adds with a laugh, “I had a big audience on the set.”
Stuart credited Whale for adding humour to the film, a sort of tongue-in-cheek comic relief that plays off the awkward social tension in the scenario – for instance, Horace Femm’s forced civility at the dinner table, when he practically demands that each guest eat a potato.
“Ernest Thesiger was one of the great character actors,” said Stuart. “When he says, ‘Have a po-ta-to,’ and when he throws the bouquet of flowers into the fireplace, that’s all James. All those very sardonic, witty points of view and presentations – all James, not in the script. He was a wonderful man to work for.”
Stuart also credited the film with inspiring the creation of the Screen Actors Guild of America. She and Melvyn Douglas were the only US citizens in the cast; Karloff, Thesiger, Moore, Charles Laughton, Raymond Massey and Lillian Bond were English, and during production the Americans got a glimpse at how actors were treated outside Hollywood.
“THE OLD DARK HOUSE is the reason that you have SAG, with almost a million members,” Stuart claimed. “It was a wonderful happenstance. James imported all the English actors, with the exception of Melvyn Douglas, who had just come from the New York Theatre, and me.”
Stuart and Douglas noted that the English cast broke for tea at eleven
and four each day – an option not offered to the two Americans.
“James joined all the English actors,” Stuart recalled. “So on one side of the set they had their ‘elevensies’ and
foursies,' and Melvyn and I would be sitting together, not invited. One day, Melvyn said to me,Are you interested in forming a union together?’ I said, ‘What’s a union?’ He said, ‘Like in New York – Actor’s Equity. The actors get together and work for better working conditions.’ I said, ‘Oh wonderful,’ because I was getting up at five every morning; in makeup at seven, in hair at eight, wardrobe at quarter of nine, and then sometimes if production wanted you to, you worked until four or five the next morning. There was no overtime. They fed us when they felt like it, when it was convenient for production. It was really very, very hard work. He said, `We’ll have a meeting, and we’ll try to get overtime, eight-hour days, eight hours in between for ourselves.’ So I started working as an organizer for SAG. Actually, my union number is 183, because I was so busy canvassing and getting others to join, that I forgot to join myself. Anyway, I’m one of the few remaining founders of the Guild. That’s one reason I’m very grateful to THE OLD DARK HOUSE. I thank that English cast for having their elevensies and foursies.”
Afterward, Stuart appeared in several non-horror films at Universal, including one directed by Whale called KISS BEFORE THE MIRROR, which, according to Stuart “was considered very sexy in those days, but believe me, it wasn’t!”
Then in 1933 she played the fiance of Jack Griffin, the ambitious scientist whose experiments turned him into THE INVISIBLE MAN. The titular role was essayed by Claude Rains; it marked his first “appearance” in film, although his face was not seen until the final fadeout. THE INVISIBLE MAN also featured Una O’Connor in a supporting role; her over-the-top hysterical reactions to the strange happenings play like a preview of her similar role in Whale’s THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN.
Stuart characterized the shooting as “an extraordinary experience,” adding that “we weren’t allowed on the set when Claude became invisible, and it was a very big thing on the Universal lot. There’s a great deal of wit in this picture, especially O’Connor.”
Despite the invisibility of his character, Rains did work with Stuart, during scenes in which Griffin is clothed, with his head wrapped in surgical bandage and his eyes covered with dark glasses.
“Claude had not made any films up until this time; he came from the New York stage,” said Stuart. “He was what we call ‘an actor’s actor.’ He was completely involved in being an actor, which doesn’t make for fun and games on the set. Besides,” she laughed, “he was shorter than I was, so either he was on a platform, or I was in a trough.”
Stuart found that Rains employed a few tricks he had learned on stage to keep audience attention focused on himself, but thanks to the medium of film she managed to hold her own.
“On the stage, whatever happens goes that night, and you don’t go back and do it over again,” she explained. “The first day of shooting on the film, Claude and I had a scene together, and he would upstage me. He would take me [by the arm] and all of a sudden he’s with his full face to the camera, and I had my back to the camera. I stopped in the middle of filming – you don’t do that with Whale; he was a very strict disciplinarian – and I said, ‘James, look what he’s doing to me’ He said, ‘This is movies, not the theatre, and if we don’t get it right the first time, we can do it over again and again.’ Rains said, ‘Oh, I’m sorry. Oh, Miss Stuart, please forgive me.’ I said, ‘It’s all right, Mr. Rains.’ The next take he was upstaging me again. I didn’t have to stop; James stopped it.
The final take features Stuart and Rains evenly balanced in the shot. “So our relationship during the – I guess it was normal between an actor’s actor and – well, I hope I’m not an actor’s actress,” laughed Stuart.
THE INVISIBLE MAN turned out to be Stuart’s last picture with Whale. Shortly thereafter, Universal sold her contract to Columbia Pictures, and she went onto appear in such films as Busby Berkeley’s GOLD DIGGERS OF 1935 (sort of the MOULIN ROUGE of its day) before retiring in the mid-1940s. During the decades that followed, she tried her hand at painting, and even learned to work a printing press in order to publish her artwork in coffee table books. Then – the mid-1970s, she started acting again, mostly in made-for-television movies like THE LEGEND OF LIZZIE BORDEN and TWO WORLDS OF JENNIE LOGAN, although she did appear in some theatrical films (including MY FAVORITE YEAR). Finally. in 1997, she gave an Oscar-nominated performance in TITANIC.
“For thirty-three years I’d been in the past, you might say, and Cameron brought me back,” Stuart recounted. “It changed my life completely. I was so reclusive, working hard with painting and printing. What happens to an Academy nominee is unbelievable. One day in my patio and on my front yard, there must have been four companies with cameras and lights setting up to interview me about ‘How does it feel to be an Academy nominee.’ After that. I’ve done so much in the last six years that I feel like I’m back in the business; I’ve become more active in the Screen Actors Guild, too. In my old age, I feel that anything I can do to help. I would like to.”
Looking back on her films, Gloria Stuart considered her two favorites to be THE OLD DARK HOUSE and TITANIC (“naturally”), but she seemed prouder of her work in the 1997 Oscar-winner. As for the older film, she gave all credit to the director.
“James Whale is a cult figure in England, and I think he should be here in the United States, too,” she said. “All of his films have great individuality; all of his films are imaginative and witty. He was an actor and a cartoonist, and a newspaper man. He brought all of his talent and his taste to film. I think that of all the directors I’ve worked for – with the exception of James Cameron, who is a writer, a director, a producer, everything – James was the most wonderful man that I’ve worked with. He knew exactly what he wanted, having been an actor – which none of the other directors that I worked with had been. It’s very difficult, as an actor; if the director can’t tell you what he wants.”
This is a revised version of an article that originally appeared in 2003. Copyright by Steve Biodrowski.