Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Whatever Happened To...Luise Rainer

Luise Rainer outlived practically all her contemporaries. She was born on January 12th 1910 in Dϋsseldorf, Germany, the daughter of Emilie and Heinrich Rainer who were prosperous. Her father was a successful businessman, but instead of following the traditional route into marriage and family, Luise decided that acting was her future. She performed in stage plays in Germany and was discovered by the legendary theatre director, Max Reinhardt, joining his company in Vienna. She spent a number of years perfecting her craft under his guidance and became popular on the stage in Berlin and Vienna in the 1930s.

In addition to her theatre career, Luise's film career began when she was a teenager. She appeared in four German language films but, by the early 1930s, stormclouds were gathering over Europe - especially if you were Jewish and living in central Europe. Luise was both. When Hitler introduced draconian laws curtailing the rights of German Jews, Luise knew it was time to leave. Fortunately her transition to Hollywood was greatly helped by a seven year contract, resulting from a talent scout for MGM, who had seen her perform on film. At the age of 25, Luise emigrated to the USA.

Her first role was opposite William Powell in the 1935 film Escapade. She and Powell got along famously and she credited him with teaching her a lot about screen acting Holllywood-style. Luise referred to him as, 'a very fine person', and he undoubtedly furthered her prospects by recommending to Louis B. Mayer that he give her a starring role.

Career-wise, she went from strength to strength, starring in The Great Ziegfeld (1936) alongside her friend William Powell. This blockbusting success showed off her musical talent and gave her one of her best remembered roles - as Anna Held, Ziegfeld's wife. The film won the Oscar for Best Film and Luise won the first of her two back-to-back Oscars for Best Actress - the first actor ever to achieve such a double. 

 There was some controversy over her first Oscar, as the role was relatively short in comparison to some of the other nominees. But the passage of time has led to a consensus that her triumph came largely a a result of one key scene where she congratulates Ziegfeld, over the phone, on his upcoming marriage. She has to force herself to maintain her dignity and composure and she does it with exquisite skill. This entire scene has the camera focusing on her reaction, and she plays the part with a degree of emotion and pathos that stand the test of time. Even now, 70 years later, with acting techniques greatly modified, her performance can be hailed as a masterpiece.

Luise Rainer herself played down her achievement. 60 years after the film, she said, in an interview,   "I just did it like everything else. To do a film - let me explain to you - it's like having a baby. You labour, you labour, you labour, and then you have it. And then it grows up and it grows away from you. But to be proud of giving birth to a baby? Proud? No, every cow can do that."

Her second Oscar carried no such controversy.  Her performance as O-Lan in the screen version of Pearl S. Buck's novel, The Good Earth (1937), brought her wide acclaim. The part was originally intended for Anna May Wong, the famous Chinese-American actress, but the male lead role of Wang Lung was assigned to legendary actor, Paul Muni. In those days, the idea of casting two actors of different ethnic origin in a romantic context was against the dictates of the ubiquitous and censorious Hays Office.

The female lead would have to go to a Caucasian actress and Luise Rainer was just the woman to do it. She refused to wear heavy yellow make-up and managed an elfin look that enhanced her authenticity in the part. She worked, as she said, 'From the inside out', adopting a technique similar to Lee Strasberg's The Method, and pioneered by the man she had recently married - left-wing playwright Clifford Odets. She said, of her experience working with producer Irving Thalberg on The Good Earth,  'It's not for me, putting on a face, or putting on makeup, or making masquerade. It has to come from inside out. I knew what I wanted to do and he let me do it.'

Sadly, the films MGM then required her to make under contract were not to her taste and she rebelled. The philosophy of the studio had changed, following Thalberg's death. Well-connected Thalberg had been able to exert considerable influence over studio output, but now Louis B. Mayer was firmly in charge and determined to make family-friendly films - even if this meant watering down a script about a prostitute and turning it into a heartwarming story with more than a nod towards Cinderella. This happened with a Ferenc Molnar play called The Girl from Trieste. It was rewritten as The Bride Wore Red (1937) - a bittersweet love story with a happy ending.  Luise was earmarked for the lead role, but hating the part, withdrew - to be replaced by Joan Crawford.

 Louis B. Mayer had to virtually drag Luise to the Oscars that year and for the rest of her life, she retained a distaste for them. Certainly, she seems to have fallen foul of the curse that has seen many an Academy Award winning actor swiftly descend into post-Oscar obscurity. "What they did with me upset me very much," she said in an interview in 1997. "I was dreaming naturally like anyone to do something very good, but after I got the two Academy Awards the studio thought, it doesn't matter what she gets. They threw all kinds of stuff on me, and I thought, no, I didn't want to be an actress."

Despite her differences with Mayer, she enjoyed her role in The Toy Wife, opposite Melvyn Douglas, whom she later referred to as her favourite leading man. With him, she could talk about other subjects apart from acting. Her disillusion with Hollywood increased largely because of a lack of intellectual stimulation. By way of illustration she recalled a lunch she had when actor, Robert Taylor, was seated next to her. When she asked him about his ideas or ambitions, his only response was to talk about how many elegant suits he might buy. Luise Rainer said, 'I practically fell under the table.'

 Film roles she mostly hated, in The Big City, The Emperor's Candlesticks, The Great Waltz and Dramatic School, followed. But by 1938 her career with MGM was over and she never made another film for them. War was looming in Europe and Luise was naturally worried at developments over there - especially in Germany with the Nazis' anti-Semitic laws. To be asked to play trifling, shallow roles in the midst of such potential devastation was anathema to her. Mayer remained impervious to her protests. He told her if she refused to fulfill the terms of her contract he would blackball her in Hollywood. Still, she walked out on her contract and she and her husband moved to New York.

Her marriage to Odets, whom she had met while filming Escapade, was a flop and they divorced in 1940. After making one more film (this time for Paramount - a topical drama called Hostages), she turned her back on movie acting in 1943.

She returned to stage acting and debuted on Broadway in Lee Strasberg's A Kiss for Cinderella. But during the war, her main efforts were concentrated on more important work. She appeared at war bond rallies and toured North Africa and Italy as part of the morale-boosting Army Special Service. Now, for the first time since she had left Germany, she began to feel truly fulfilled, as she expanded her knowledge and experience of life and the world.

She found personal happiness in her second marriage - to publisher, Robert Knittel - and the couple settled in Switzerland and England. They had a daughter, Francesca in 1946. Robert Knittel died in 1989. 

Luise did some television work during the following decades, but it wasn't until 1997 that she acted again in a film - The Gambler - based on a short story by Dostoevsky.

In 2010, she celebrated her 100th birthday in London, receiving accolades from the British Film Institute and fellow actors. Then, in 2011, she received a star on Berlin's Boulevard des Stars. She also has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. 

Having outlived every other 'legend' of her time, Luise Rainer died from pneumonia at home in Belgravia, London on December 30th 2014 - just two weeks short of her 105th birthday. The last of her era.


  1. Wow. I didn't know she was still alive until the other day. Amazing! he lived through it all in Hollywood!.

    1. I know, it's amazing isn't it? Such a long life - lived largely on her own terms. Quite a lady!