Sunday, October 31, 2010

R.I.P Gloria Stuart

Most people know Gloria Stuart, who died recently at the age of 100, as the older Rose in James Cameron’s Titanic. But I, along with many other film buffs, also knew her as a lovely star of the second rank in the 1930s. In fact, she made 42 movies in that decade alone, mostly undistinguished B-dramas or romantic comedies. She made a handful more in the 40s, and was also instrumental in the founding of the Screen Actors Guild before retiring from acting, returning to the screen in a handful of films in the 1980s, then making a big splash (pun intended) in Titanic. Her early films are difficult to see these days because they were mostly made for Universal or Fox, two studios which have not been very good at marketing their archives (unlike MGM and Warner Bros. which have used cable and home video to their advantage). Fox Movie Channel has shown ISLAND IN THE SKY recently, and TCM has WANTED: JANE TURNER and SWEEPINGS in their holdings. My last post for October seemed a good time to salute this fine actress; she could hardly be called a "scream queen," but she did appear in two classic horror films while at Universal: THE OLD DARK HOUSE and THE INVISIBLE MAN, both directed by James Whale. I've reviewed the first one some time ago; it's an odd film, more black comedy than horror. To paraphrase my review, the story involves five travelers who are stranded by bad weather in an old, dark house inhabited by an eccentric family, the Femms: a crazy brother, his mostly deaf sister, a mute butler (Boris Karloff), and a deranged relative hidden away in an upstairs room. Stuart is one of the travelers along with Melvyn Douglas and Charles Laughton, and she does well as a damsel in distress. But aside from a couple of horror-movie scare moments, it's more a character-driven dark comedy, and I've never been as charmed by it as its fans.

THE INVISIBLE MAN is an undisputed classic and part of the Universal pantheon of "monsters" (Frankenstein, Dracula, the Mummy, the Wolfman) who still thrill modern movie viewers. To quote Rocky Horror, "Claude Rains was the Invisible Man," the least monster-like of the classic creatures. He plays a man who has developed an invisibility potion and has taken so much of it himself that he becomes mentally unbalanced, plotting to take over the world (with an invisible army, one assumes). He doesn’t get very far, though he does manage to irritate and scare a small English village, eludes a police dragnet, and even causes the death of a handful of people before he is caught. James Whale's sense of humor comes through in a number of places, including a scene of the Invisible Man, in just pants, skipping down a street singing, "Here we go gathering nuts in May..." Though we never see Rains' face until the very end, his unmistakable voice is commanding. The special effects are good for the time. Unfortunately, with so much focus on Rains, the other actors get short shrift--Stuart plays his girlfriend and was actually top-billed in the contemporary posters for the movie, and though she's OK, she doesn't have much to do. Una O'Connor outshines her with a very funny scene of hysterical shrieking, and Henry Travers plays a friend of the couple. If I were planning a salute to Stuart, I'd watch the beginning and ending parts of Titanic, and a few of her B-films, but you'll get a decent dose of her in this film. Rest in peace, Gloria.

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