By Ed Garea
In the mid-Thirties, a meteor burned brightly over Hollywood. And like most meteors, it burned out quickly, but while it was active, it was one of the brightest ever to be seen in that town. That meteor was named Luise Rainer.
Rainer was the first actor to win multiple Academy Awards and the first to win them consecutively. She won the Best Actress statue for her performance as Anna Held in 1936’s The Great Ziegfeld, and Best Actress the next year for her performance as O-Lan in The Good Earth. Yet, her stay at the top of her craft was short, and by 1938, her career at MGM was over. She tried a comeback for Paramount in 1943 in the film Hostages, but we would not see her again on the silver screen until 1997 in the film The Gambler.
Rainer (pronounced “rye-ner”) was born on January 12, 1910, in Dusseldorf, Germany, into an upper-class Jewish family. Her father, Heinrich, was a businessman who settled in Europe after spending most of his childhood in Texas, where he was sent at the age of six as an orphan. Her mother Emilie (nee Konigsberger) was a pianist from a cultured family.
Her father wanted her to attend finishing school and eventually marry the “right sort” of man, but Luise, who was rebellious by nature, fell in love with the world of entertainment, inspired at the age of six by the circus. At the age of 16, she decided to follow her dream and become an actress. She began studying acting under the great Max Reinhardt, and by the age of 18, many critics were hailing her talent. She became a member of Reinhardt’s Vienna theater ensemble and scored several major successes on the Berlin stage, including George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan, Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure, and Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author.
She began her film career in Germany in 1930, and in 1934, was signed by MGM talent scout Phil Berg, who offered her a three-year contract, thinking she would appeal to the same audience that flocked to see Greta Garbo. Rainer, for her part, stated in an interview that she had no real interest in films until she saw the 1932 production of A Farewell to Arms. After that, she said, film moved to the forefront in her career. Her decision to leave Europe for America was made easier by the ascension of Adolf Hitler in Germany and his draconian anti-Semitic laws, which would have made it impossible for her to work in Germany.
She sailed to America aboard the Ile de France in 1935. The first thing her handlers at MGM had to do was to subdue her rather pronounced Mittel-European accent. Actress Constance Collier was given the assignment, and under her tutelage, Rainer’s command of English grew rapidly. She was then cast in MGM’s 1935 comedy-romance Escapade, after Myrna Loy turned the role down. It was a remake of the 1934 Austrian film Masquerade, starring William Powell as an artist who persuades the married Rainer to pose semi-nude for him, but when the illustrated poster is printed, it causes a potential scandal.
Her next film was The Great Ziegfeld, again co-starring Powell, in which she played the real-life character of Anna Held, the actress, singer and (scorned) common-law wife of the showman Florenz Ziegfeld, played by Powell. She almost didn’t get the part. MGM chief Louis B. Mayer thought the part was too small for such a star, but Irving Thalberg felt she was the only actress on the MGM lot that could play it. Shortly after filming began in 1935, doubts about Rainer’s ability to play Held began to circulate in the press, mainly centering on the fact that she didn’t resemble the Polish-born Held.
But as Thalberg predicted, Rainer more than held her own in the part. In what may be the most famous telephone scene in film history, the heartbroken Anna attempts to congratulate Ziegfeld on his marriage to Billie Burke (Loy). As the camera records her, she smiles through tears with a voice alternating between false gaiety and utter despair. As she hangs up that camera catches her breaking down into rivers of tears.
Later Hollywood legend would have Rainer writing the teary telephone scene for the film, and Mayer, thinking it too dreary, trying his best to excise it from the picture. Ironically, it is widely believed that it was that very scene, and Rainer’s tour de force performance in it, that clinched the Oscar. Rainer later said in an interview that she based her interpretation of the scene on Jean Cocteau’s play La Voix Humaine: "Cocteau's play is just a telephone conversation about a woman who has lost her beloved to another woman."
On the evening of the Oscar ceremonies, Rainer stayed home, not expecting to win. When Mayer learned she had won the award, he sent MGM publicity head Howard Strickling to her home to fetch her. As she finally arrived, master of ceremonies George Jessel mistakenly introduced her, a task that was originally scheduled for Bette Davis.
Now that she had the Oscar, pundits wondered how she would follow it up. Rainer’s next film was The Good Earth (1937), in the role of O-Lan. Her co-star was Paul Muni, playing her husband, Wang Lung. Muni’s casting actually opened the door for Rainer to play O-Lan. Thalberg’s original choice was actress Anna May Wong, but once Muni was signed, Thalberg knew the Hays Office would not allow even the slightest hint of miscegenation, even between an actual Chinese woman and a Caucuasian actor in yellow-face drag.
O-Lan presented a challenge to Rainer, as the character was the complete opposite of Anna Held. Whereas Held was talkative, O-Lan was practically mute, speaking only a few lines of dialogue throughout the movie, which required Rainer to do a complete turnaround. Again Mayer opposed her casting, wanting her to remain a glamorous star, while Thalberg enthusiastically supported her in her desire to stretch out in unaccustomed roles. She refused to wear heavy makeup or don a Chinese mask made especially for her by the makeup department, preferring to express herself without prosthetics.
The results of Rainer’s decision helped her to portray a Chinese woman far superior to those Loy assayed in her Oriental vamp phase or Katharine Hepburn in 1944’s Dragon Seed. In an interview in the late '90s, Rainer praised her director, Sidney Franklin, as "wonderful," and explained that she used an acting technique similar to "The Method" being pioneered by husband Clifford Odet's Group Theatre.
At any rate, she collected another Oscar as Best Actress, becoming the first actor to win in consecutive years and establishing a record for actresses that lasted 30 years before Hepburn matched it. Her win was considered something of an upset, the favorite being Garbo for her performance in Camille. She was on the threshold of greatness: the public adored her, and even rivals like Carole Lombard, Norma Shearer, and Loy concurred. But suddenly her career went into free-fall. She came to see her Oscars not as a blessing, but as a curse, setting expectations so high as to be impossible to achieve. She made five more films for MGM, but with the exception of 1938’s The Great Waltz, they were critical and box office failures.
Because Reiner refused to be stereotyped and knuckle under to the studio system, Mayer refused to be sympathetic to her demands for serious roles. The fact that she was also fighting for a higher salary didn’t help matters either. She soon acquired the label of being difficult and temperamental, which caused her to miss out on serious roles such as the female lead in the Edward G. Robinson opus, The Last Gangster (1937), which, ironically went to Viennese actress Rose Stradner. Her last film for MGM was the disappointing Dramatic School (1938). By this time, Rainer was listed, along with Garbo, Joan Crawford, Shearer, Mae West, Marlene Dietrich, Hepburn, Fred Astaire, Kay Francis, and others, as “Box Office Poison” by the Independent Theatre Owners of America.
After finishing Dramatic School, Rainer abandoned Hollywood for New York, where her then-husband, playwright Odets, was living.
Rainer was also unhappy off the set as well. Her marriage to Odets, whom she met at the Brown Derby while dining with Gershwin and composer Harold Arlen, and married in 1937, was also in free-fall. Odets cheated on her and, as she told Vanity Fair, reacted so coldly to the news she was pregnant that she opted for an abortion. Odets was also extremely jealous, even accusing Rainer’s friend Albert Einstein of having an affair with his wife. She and Odets divorced in 1940.
Her unhappiness also extended to Hollywood itself, which she saw as intellectually shallow and absurdly materialistic. In a 2009 interview with The Daily Telegraph, she said Robert Taylor had once invited her to lunch. When she asked him his ambition, he replied that he wanted to own 10 very good suits. That was why, she said, she preferred the company of George Gershwin, Thomas Mann, Frank Lloyd Wright, Einstein and other intellectuals and artists to that of Hollywood people. It all boiled over in her oft-repeated account of her last meeting with Mayer, which over the years became a Hollywood legend.
"Louis B. sent for me and said, 'I understand that you want to leave us.' I said, 'Yes, Mr. Mayer, my source is dried out.'" She explained that she had run out of inspiration. "He looked at me and he said, 'What do you need a source for? Don't you have a director?' What could I say? He looked at me for a long time," and then he delivered his you'll-never-work-in-Hollywood-again threat. She managed a dignified reply and left, heading first to New York City, and later relocating to Europe. She was not yet 30, and yet her Hollywood career was over. While in Europe, she studied medicine, aided orphaned refugees of the Spanish Civil War, appeared at war bond rallies in the United States and entertained Allied troops in North Africa and Italy during World War II.
When World War II broke out in Europe, Rainer fled to America with her family. Her German-born father was also an American citizen, allowing them all to escape Hitler and the Holocaust. Rainer returned to Hollywood in 1942, her contract at MGM long expired. David Rose, head of Paramount, offered her the starring role in an English film shot on location, but war conditions prevented her from accepting the role. Rose then suggested her in 1942 to take a screen test for the lead role in For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943), but Ingrid Bergman was cast. Rainer eventually settled on a role in Hostages (1943), telling the press during interviews that while it was something unspectacular, she nevertheless hoped it was a step back in the right direction. Alas, it was not to be and it wasn’t until 1997 that she would again appear in a film, taking a small role in the English production of The Gambler.
It’s not that she wasn’t tempted. Director Federico Fellini pursued her to play “Delores,” a cameo role he wrote for her in his 1960 film La Dolce Vita. But it never came off, even though she came to Rome, with the reasons still unclear to this day. One story has it that she insisted on writing the part herself, which for Fellini was a no-no. Another has it that she refused because the role required an on-set sex scene with co-star Marcello Mastroianni. At any rate, after her refusal, the role was excised from the screenplay.
She made sporadic television and stage appearances following her and her husband's move to Britain, appearing as Countess De Roy in an episode titled “Finest Hour” for the World War II television series Combat! It aired on December 21, 1965. In 1983, she played Dorothy Fielding in an episode of The Love Boat that aired on March 3.
Regarding her personal life, things took a turn for the better in 1945. Rainer married publisher Robert Knittel. The marriage was a very happy one, lasting until Knittel’s death in 1989. In 1946. they welcomed daughter Francesca. Rainer abandoned filmmaking, though, as previously mentioned, she did make occasional appearances on the stage and television. She and Knittel split their time between residences in Geneva, Switzerland and Eaton Square, London. Their London residence was an apartment in a building once inhabited by actress Vivien Leigh.
The couple loved travel, books, plays, and music. Their friends reflected their interests and included such luminaries as Arturo Toscanini, Marian Anderson, Thomas Mann and Bertolt Brecht. Of special interest to the couple was climbing in the Alps. “He was a mountain climber, and he taught me how to climb,” she recalled years after her husband’s death in 1989. “Robert went with a fiddle up to the Matterhorn, and at the top of the Matterhorn he played a Bach sonata.”
In the early 1980s, Rainer memorized all 900 lines of "Enoch Arden," Tennyson's epic poem, which she performed in Europe and the United States, including at UCLA's Schoenberg Hall. After Knittel died, she maintained an active life in London.
Rainer returned to Hollywood for the 1998 and 2003 Academy Awards shows honoring previous Oscar winners, and in 2010 for the TCM Classic Film Festival, where she was interviewed by Robert Osborne and presented a screening of The Good Earth. 2010 was a special year for her, as she celebrated her centenary. She was feted at the British Film Institute, where she was interviewed before screenings of The Good Earth and The Great Waltz.
In 2011, Rainer was at the center of a controversy involving her inclusion on the Boulevard der Stars in Berlin, which was created to honor actors and directors from German film and television. Despite being Germany's only Academy Award winning actress, Rainer had been overlooked when the Boulevard opened in 2010. In 2011, she was nominated, but initially rejected by the jury (Senta Berger, Gero Gandert, Uwe Kammann, Dieter Kossliock, and Hans Helmut Prinzler).
In October 2010, New Zealand music executive Paul Baylay, who had noticed Rainer's omission on the Boulevard, began a campaign to get the actress a star. Baylay campaigned in Germany, lobbying press and politicians to have the actress and her work recognized. Baylay also picked up a key supporter when the Central Council of Jews threw their weight behind the campaign. In August 2011, the Boulevard der Stars finally relented, acknowledging Baylay’s Facebook, e-mail and letter campaign had been key in their decision to awarding an extra star to Rainer. And on September 5, 2011, Rainer traveled to Berlin to receive her star on the Boulevard der Stars.
The lights finally went out for Luise Rainer on December 30, 2014. She died at her home in London from complications from pneumonia. Besides daughter Francesca Knittel-Bowyer, granddaughters, Luisa and Nicole, and great-grandchildren, Luca and Hunter also survive Rainer.
TCM will honor Rainer with a marathon of her films on January 12 that was originally to celebrate her birthday. The schedule is as follows:
6:00 am – THE GREAT ZIEGFIELD (MGM, 1936): William Powell, Luise Reiner, & Myrna Loy. This lavishly filmed biography of Broadway’s great showman won Reiner her first Oscar.
9:00 am – BIG CITY (MGM, 1937): Spencer Tracy, Luise Rainer When officials attempt to pin a bombing on a taxi driver’s foreign-born wife and deport her. Tracy takes it to heart and fights back.
10:30 am – THE EMPEROR’S CANDLESTICKS (MGM, 1937): William Powell, Luise Rainer. Spies on opposite sides fall in love in pre-Revolution Russia.
12:00 pm – THE GOOD EARTH (MGM, 1936): Paul Muni, Luise Rainer. Sidney Franklin and Victor Fleming directed this epic adaptation of Pearl Buck’s classic novel about Chinese farmers battling the elements.
2:30 pm – DRAMATIC SCHOOL (MGM, 1938): Luise Rainer, Paulette Goddard. This ensemble piece about the struggles of a young actress on the stage and in marriage could’ve been better, but Rainer sinks it.
4:00 pm – THE GREAT WALTZ (MGM, 1938): Luise Reiner, Fernand Gravey. The story of waltz king Johann Strauss II.
5:45 pm – THE TOY WIFE (MGM, 1938): Luise Rainer, Melvyn Douglas, & Robert Young. Southern belle Rainer finds herself torn between two suitors.