Sunday, March 27, 2011

Luise Rainer (b.1910)

Born in Düsseldorf Germany,  Luise found her way to the stage in Vienna, Austria at the age of  17.  Lucky enough to be trained by the great Max Reinhardt a year earlier, Luise found success on the stages of Vienna before finding success in a couple of German films in the early 1930's.  She had acting chops and a unique look that Hollywood desired during the 1930's so like classically trained, European actresses before her, she was enticed into relocating to California.  It also didn't hurt that MGM was looking for a new European import to replace Greta Garbo, who was on the verge of retirement.

Luise landed a seven year contract with MGM but her first film role didn't come as easily as she would have hoped,  Acting on the stage and acting in front of a camera are two different animals, then there was her thick German accent that would be a huge limitation on being cast in certain roles.  Fortunately for her two things happened. Myrna Loy had to bow out of the film "Escapade" in 1935 and William Powell, the star of the picture took Luise under his wing and pushed for Mayer to have her replace Loy.  When you have William Powell, a power player behind you, mentoring you then pushing for your success, good things happen.  "Escapade" which also starred Virginia Bruce, Reginald Owen and Frank Morgan became a moderately successful comedy, allowing Powell to save face with the studio for pushing so hard for Luise AND for her to receive star billing right out of the gate.

Shortly after rapping up "Escapade", MGM was ready to start production on "The Great Ziegfeld" which would be their blockbuster for 1936 with an all star cast.  All while Luise was receiving diction lessons from actress Constance Collier and William Powell and now Irving Thalberg were in her corner, pushing for her to play stage actress Anna Held in the film.  Once again Mayer was reluctant, not seeing any resemblance of Held, then there was the fact that Rainer was German and Held was Polish.  Another  issue was the fact that the character has a very small part in the film and Mayer felt Rainer, already a star should hold out for a bigger role fresh off of her success in "Escapade".

With William Powell in "The Great Ziegfeld" 1936

"The Great Ziegfeld" was a huge success and Luise was outstanding in her role.  A performance that won her an Academy Award and caused many in Hollywood to feel outrage.  I don't think it was because Luise wasn't outstanding in her role but that as a new comer with only two films under her belt she beat out Irene Dunne, Gladys George, Norma Shearer and Carole Lombard for her win.  By today's standards I think she should have been nominated in the Best Supporting Actress category instead since she had a very small role by comparison to everyone else nominated.  (I wonder how Norma Shearer must have felt since her husband, Irving championed for Rainer to get the part)

I've seen this film several times and I re-watched it again just recently during Oscar month and I have to say that I thought Luise's performance was superb although she looked nothing like Anna Held and her accent didn't sound like someone of Polish decent, you just don't sit there while watching it thinking about comparing the two.  And lets face it, the great Anna Held passed away in 1918 so I've never seen one of her stage performances and I've only seen photos and read about her career.  (If you don't want to sit through the film and all of the lavish musical numbers just find the 'breakup phone scene' between Powell and Rainer's characters, an Oscar winning phone call).  The scene garnered Luise the nickname "The Viennese Teardrop".

click on Luise's autograph from my collection and photos for a larger view

Luise was having a grand time in Hollywood one would imagine with an Oscar win under her belt at the age of 27 then there was her personal life.  She had met the successful playwright/screen writer, Clifford Odets during filming of "Escapade" the previous year and they were now married.  Luise was also up for the part of a sub-servant peasant girl in "The Good Earth:"  shortly after rapping up "The Great Ziegfeld" and once again Irving Thalberg had to fight for her to play the part since Mayer was anything but convinced she could play a character so opposite of the one she had just pulled off.  Of course Thalberg didn't get the nickname 'boy genius' for nothing and Rainer not only gave another amazing performance but she won a second Oscar for Best Actress.  (More on her Oscar records a bit later).

The film co-stars Paul Muni and Walter Connelly who play a farming family in China who struggle through many hardships to survive and keep their family and land from crumbling.  Luise, never to waiver on giving an opinion went against the studio wanting her to wear a Chinese mask during the film to portray her as she ages.  Luise felt this was a terrible idea so she sat through hours of makeup daily in order to achieve the look to perfection.  You would think that Rainer would have earned her place in Hollywood by now, quieting critiques but once again there was outrage and controversy surrounding her second Oscar win.  

First of all it was common knowledge that MGM had a huge Academy voting block so which ever film or actor they backed in any given year was most likely going to win.  Then there was the "Garbo's turn" talk.  Garbo had not yet won an Academy Award so everyone felt that "Camille" was THAT film that would finally land her the Oscar.  This was also the year that Irene Dunne gave another outstanding performance in "The Awful Truth" and Janet Gaynor was nominated for "A Star is Born" not to mention Barbara Stanwyck for her performance in "Stella Dallas".  Well, Greta Garbo would always have her performance in "Ninotchka"  and Irene Dunne would have her performance in "Love Affair" a couple of years later in 1939 to have another shot at an Oscar.  Oops! A little picture called "Gone With The Wind" came out that year (Thanks again MGM) and Vivien Leigh would dash their hopes once again.  

Luise in "The Good Earth" 1937

You would think that fresh off of back to back Oscar wins, Luise would be given her pick of roles or screenplays would be adapted for her, MGM would be in a frenzy to find her another plum role but that just wasn't the case. Back in 1936 MGM obtained a script for Luise called "Maiden Voyage" but it was eventually scrapped, renamed "Bridal Suite" and the part went to Annabella in 1939.  Instead the studio put Luise in the picture "The Emperor's Candlesticks" opposite her friend William Powell, Robert Young and Maureen O'Sullivan.  A historical drama centered around a Russian spy who finds love while actually smuggling candlesticks. (It sounds delightful!)  The all star cast couldn't save it and as you can guess there was no Oscar nod for Luise that year.  This would also be the first year that Luise would star in two films, her second being the drama "Big City" co-starring Spencer Tracy.

With William Powell in "The Emperor's Candlesticks" 1937

Mayer was also dealing with another issue with Rainer that year, her image.  She ran around town dressed in untidy slacks, no makeup and her hair a mess.  They would go round and round over it as he felt a star should look like a star on and off of the set.  By now Irving Thalberg had died suddenly so Luise didn't have him fighting for her against the studio head.  She felt all alone in a town that can burn you as quick as it can make you a star.  It didn't help that her husband Odet was spending his time in New York, leaving her all alone in Hollywood to fend for herself against wolves in sheep's clothing.  (I have to laugh because other than Luise's Oscar wins the one thing I think of with her is her wild hair and her beautifully scrubbed face in her photo's which made her stand out amongst so many arched eye brow, perfectly coiffed actresses, most of which had bleached hair and very fake high pitched voices)

With Spencer Tracy in "Big City" 1937

Luise started out 1938 with "The Toy Wife", another historical drama co-starring Melvyn Douglas and Robert Young.  She followed it up with "The Great Waltz", a musical drama co-starring Fernand Gravey.  The film follows the life and career of Johan Strauss II, the famous Viennese composer.  Her third film of 1938 was  the romantic drama "Dramatic School" co-starring Paulette Goddard, Alan Marshal and Lana Turner.  All three films had mediocre success and weren't pulling in millions for MGM but we all know what the studio was busy putting its heart and money into during this time.  

With Melvyn Douglas and Robert Young in "The Toy Wife" 1938

By the end of 1938 MGM wasn't that in to Luise and she felt the same way about them! Disillusioned, she made her way to New York to spend time with her husband who by now was used to living alone so they had a lot to work out while finally in the same city together full time.  Luise, although still under contract with MGM did not return to Hollywood for another five years and then it was only to fulfill her studio contract.  She appeared in one last film for them in 1943, the war drama "Hostages" co-starring Arturo de Cordova and William Bendix.  

A scene from "The Great Waltz" with Fernand Gravey

Not unlike Garbo herself, Luise knew when to walk away from Hollywood.  Now divorced from Odet, she packed up and moved to London once free from her contract.  She entered University in London where she studied medicine and occasionally took to the London stage to supplement her income.  She married publisher Robert Knittel in 1945, they would remain married until his death in 1989.  They had one daughter together, Francesca Knittel in 1946.  

Luise has appeared in several television shows throughout the years like Combat in 1962, in The Love Boat in 1982, then she appeared in the film "The Gambler" most recently in 1997.  She also appeared with other Oscar winners during the Academy Awards 2003 ceremony, being the oldest living Best Actress Oscar recipient at the age of 93.  (This was the 75th Annual Awards). Luise still resides in London, England where it's reported that she is still spry and in fairly good health at the age of 101 now.   

Interesting Luise Rainer Facts:

She had no intentions of attending the Academy Award ceremony of 1936 since she felt there was no way that she would win.  When Louis B. Mayer heard that she was sitting at home he had a crew sent over to her home to make her presentable before having her delivered to the ceremony to accept her award.  (I guess she should have spoken to Joan Crawford in advance who always had full hair, makeup and camera's rolling on her to look surprised while at her home, awaiting the outcome)

Luise is the oldest living Best Actress Oscar winner and also the FIRST actress to win back to back Oscars. Her first Oscar win was over 74 years ago.  She also holds the record for the first actor to receive two Oscars before the age of 30 and she has a perfect Oscar record with two nominations and two wins.  She was also the first actress to win the Oscar for portraying a real life person in "The Great Ziegfeld". (Well Done Luise!)

Luise took the 7 year MGM contract that was offered by a talent scout due to the fact that she was a Jewish girl living in a repressed and unsettled Austria during a time that Adolf Hitler's army was making it's way south into Vienna.  Although at one time her father was a successful businessman she spent a period of time at an orphanage at the age of 6 when her parents were going through hard times.

After winning her second Academy Award she remarked that "Nothing worse could have happened to me as audience expectations from then on would be too high to fulfill".  

Luise felt that "The Good Earth" actually brought her bad luck and that the movie was plagued.  It's original director George W. Hill spent months in China filming locations and footage before production began on the film but upon returning to Hollywood he committed suicide, hence postponing the film until another director could be found.  Then Irving Thalberg, who fought so hard for Luise to get the lead died suddenly before filming was completed.  Luise commented years later that if Thalberg had not died she would have stayed on in Hollywood much longer.

Although no longer in favor at MGM, she was one of many actresses considered for the role of Scarlett O'Hara.  

The apartment where she resides in Eaton Square London was once occupied by Vivien Leigh.

She's mentioned in the novel "Breakfast at Tiffany's" by Truman Capote.

Luise made it known years after her divorce from Odet that pretending to be happily married to him was the best acting job of her life.  They didn't get along from the word go and the marriage was in name only.

With Paulette Goddard and Alan Marshal in "Dramatic School" 1938

Thanks for joining me for a look back at the life and career of Luise Rainer.  I hope she's happy and healthy in life as she gave us some amazing performances, I only wish she had stayed on in Hollywood to give us much more.  Please fill free to comment and enjoy the below clip of Luise from "The Great Ziegfeld"


  1. This was very interesting to read, as I knew next to nothing about Luise Rainer. It's sad that she didn't have greater success but it sounds like ultimately she was able to build a happy life. And she must be doing something right if she's still going strong at 101!!!

  2. Very well-done post, Page, full of fascinating facts and great insight into Luise's personal life and career. I have always thought she was the most delicate beauty on film (even her signature is delicate). I think The Good Earth is one of the best books ever written, and have to admit I was a bit disappointed in the movie. Paul Muni is a great actor, but they had him play Wang Lung in a caricature way, typical Hollywood smiling, kind of dumb Chinese, at least in the first part of the film. It did improve later when things got serious, and his real acting ability and the depth of the character got through. The only fault I could see with casting Luise was the fact that O-Lan's plain, homely looks played a big part in her life and marriage. But, Luise pulled it off beautifully -- she was too pretty to really look ugly, but her body language, facial expressions and fabulous acting brought O-Lan to life in a heartbreaking performance. I'm so glad she refused a mask! It would have ruined the whole reason she was so good.

    It was interesting to see that marriage to Odets was never a good one for her. Odets was a great playwright, but he was a real stinker. The whole time Luise was struggling in Hollywood, he was full of himself with his Broadway plays, and having plenty of extramarital affairs, including one with Frances Farmer. Just not a nice guy in general.

    Beautiful pictures, good bio of Luise -- Kudos, Page!

  3. Audrey,
    I'm so glad you enjoyed this write up on Luise!

    Thanks again for the nice comments. You know it's funny because as much as I love Luise in "The Good Earth" I always want to compare her character to Helen Hayes in "The Son-Daughter"! I LOVE that movie so much it's not even funny. Even though both Hayes and Ramon Novarro were ripped apart by critics for their portrayals of love lorn Asian Americans I think it's wonderful and oh, so romantic. I feel the same way about Rainer wearing a mask instead of the makeup. I can't imagine what the studio was thinking with that stupid idea. At times though I felt like her makeup was way too dark, making her look of Indian decent.

    I haven't had the pleasure of reading The Good Earth (So sorry Pearl Buck) so I went into the film without expectations, enjoying Muni and Rainer equally then the cinematography blew me away.

    Of course I need to scrub my brain because I can't stop thinking of Muni in Scarface now instead of his other GREAT roles. Ha Ha.. Please go away Scarfalfa.

    Thats interesting gossip about Frances Farmer and Odet. What a cad he was even though Farmer must have been very hard to resist in the day and it appears that he and Luise were married in name only. I think there must have been dozens of couples in that situation during that time in Hollywood.

  4. Great profile, Page! It's so bizarre that Luise won back-to-back Oscars and yet is so little-known today.


  5. Caroline,
    Thank you!
    I started thinking about her when everyone was tweeting and talking about Elizabeth Taylor being the LAST star etc etc.

    In actuality there is Luise, Bacall, Sophia Loren, Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine to name just a few. (certainly no slacks themselves). Although I understand what they were talking about I wanted to do a little write up on Luise.

  6. Looking at those beautiful pictures in your post, makes me really appreciate what a classic beauty Luise Rainer is.

  7. It frustrates me that everybody is calling Liz the last star, too! Especially because my favorite actress, Joanne Woodward, is very much still alive, as are Debbie Reynolds and all the wonderful ladies you mentioned. In fact I have a friend who just met Olivia de Havilland about a week ago, who's 94 but still kickin'! I don't want to diminish Liz's star power and talent -- she was certainly one of the last MEGA stars -- but calling her "the last" diminishes so many other people.


  8. Caroline,
    Shame on me for forgetting to add Joanne Woodward and especially when addressing you. : )
    My favorite actress is Joan Fontaine so it looks like we're both lucky that these two beautiful ladies are alive and well.

  9. Lobosco,
    Luise looked like a tiny porcelain doll and she reminds me a lot of Meryl Streep in her facial features during her 30's.

  10. Thank you for a very interesting post!!she looks beautiful!!And the story about her is interesting to..thank you for sharing this Page..))

  11. Hi Anita,
    I'm glad you enjoyed this one! Luise actually just turned 101 in January. She certainly deserved a nice little write up. What would be fabulous is getting her or someone who knows her to do an interview. : )

  12. What a nice tribute to Luise Rainer. I've only seen her two Oscar-winning performances, but I am still blown away by her performance in "The Good Earth." Here she is, a Viennese beauty, playing a plain Chinese peasant, and yet she does it so movingly. Her style is much more subtle when compared to Paul Muni, who tended to overact. I was watching her interview with Robert Osborne on TCM recently (she flew to Hollywood at age 100 for the TCM showing of "The Good Earth") and she had hilarious things to say about Muni. I also remember a story of Luise sitting next to Robert Taylor at some function. she wanted to discuss the craft of acting and she was shocked that all he wanted to discuss were the expensive suits he was buying. That illustrated Hollywood to her and another reason she became disillusioned with moviemaking.

  13. Brian,
    The kind words mean a lot coming from you! Luise was perfect and somehow I just can't blame her for exiting Hollywood when she did! I am sorry I missed her interview on TCM. I'm going to search around and see if I can find it.

  14. Thanks for this great write up. It's all that I need to get to know Rainer better.

  15. Christian,
    I'm glad you enjoyed my Rainier bio! Please come back often and join in on our conversations, check out the archives. Always glad to have other Classic Film lovers around.

  16. Well, Luise is 103 now, and still kicking it. Her interview with Robert Osborn in 2010 at the TCM Festival is out on DVD. Awesome to watch! I've written her a couple of fan letters, and keep asking her to make another appearance on the Oscars...could you imagine the film intro? Followed by Luise waving and smiling as always. Such a classy lady.