Friday, January 2, 2015

Luise Rainer—The Fading Supernova Blinks Out

Luise Rainer as a teenage actress in Berlin.

With all of the hubbub of the holiday the news that Luise Rainer slipped quietly away at the astonishing age of 104 years old on Tuesday at her London home probably got less attention than it deserved.  Or perhaps it was just that despite a brief blazing glory of fame and acclaim in the 1930’s—the three years she spent at MGM making only 8 films—she had all but faded from the public memory of all but committed old movie buffs and TCM addicts.
But there was a lot in that brief legacy—including the achievement of being the first person to win back-to-back Academy Awards—and even more in a full, rich life lived lustily beyond the stage and screen.
Rainer was born on January 12, 1910 in Düsseldorf, Germany to Heinrich and Emilie Rainer, cultured middle class Jews.  Her father had been largely raised in Texas before returning to the old country and ever after Luise would stake a claim to American citizenship on being born the daughter of a citizen.  Her father was autocratic and ambitious.  Her mother had aspired to be a concert pianist who felt dominated and spiritually crushed by her husband. 
Her childhood spent first in Hamburg and then in Vienna, Austria was marred by the privations of World War I and the tumultuous postwar period and the depression and hyperinflation that followed.  Her father’s business ambitions were thwarted and he demanded that his attractive, diminutive daughter prepare herself for marriage to a suitably wealthy man by a conventional finishing school education.
At school she overcame her shyness and small size by becoming intensely athletic becoming a champion runner.  She also enjoyed mountain climbing, a passion she would return to later in life.
But Luise had dreamed of becoming a performer since watching tightrope walker in a circus at the age of 8.  She transferred those dreams to the stage after seeing stage performance in Vienna, then a major center of European theater.  At age 16 she told her father that she was going to visit her mother’s family in Düsseldorf, but actually successfully auditioned at the Dumont Theater where she began to play small roles and learn her craft.
Rainer soon came to the attention of Max Reinhardt, the most influential and innovative director of the German and Austrian stage.  She studied at his famed Max Reinhardt Seminar in Vienna, a renowned acting school that encouraged methods of emotional depth similar to those made famous by the Russian Constantin Stanislavski, who inspired the Method.  She became his special protégée.  She was very quickly a star of the Berlin stage with Reinhardt’s famed Viennese company making a mark in productions like Jacques Deval’s Mademoiselle, Sydney Kingsley’s Men in White, George Bernard Shaw’s Saint Joan, Measure for Measure and Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author.
By 1932 she was also starring in German films, the best known outside the country being her feature picture debut, Sehnsucht 202, a fluffy musical comedy.  Like many intensely serious young actresses, Rainer initially dismissed film, preferring the “purities of the stage.”
Barely in her twenties she was a star and moved in the sophisticated intellectual and leftist circles of the German capital.  So it was with growing alarm that she witnessed the rise of Nazism and Adolph Hitler.  She stood on the street and watched the Reichstag burn and saw the Brownshirts marching in the streets and brawling with Communists, Social Democrats, and trade unionists. 
Luckily for her fate intervened with a golden ticket out of the rising horror of Nazi Germany when MGM’s European talent scout Phil Berg spotted her acclaimed performance in the highly experimental drama Six Characters.  He signed her to a three year contract with the top American studio in 1934 and she was soon on an ocean liner crossing the Atlantic.
Rainer was the beneficiary of an ongoing obsession by all of the major studios—finding the next Garbo, MGM’s huge Swedish star.  She was one of a parade of European actresses who made the crossing to work at various studios.  Most would fail.  Others would make one or two pictures.  Some, notably Heddy Lamarr, would be wasted in inferior films by studios that did not know what to do with them.  Only a couple— Marlene Dietrich and Ingrid Bergman would go on to have long, rich careers.
Certainly Rainer, barely five foot tall, dark haired, wide eyed, heart shaped faced and radiating vulnerable warmth, could not be more different than the tall, blonde, regal, and coolly aloof Garbo. 
When she arrived Louis B. Mayer was alarmed.  She spoke little, heavily guttural English.  He found her personally so shy he felt she would disappear on film.  But MGM production boss Irving Thalberg immediately had faith in her and became her special protector at the studio.  He assigned veteran actress Constance Collier to be her personal English and dialect coach.  Under her tutelage Rainer’s English rapidly improved.  Meanwhile the studio built her up with the usual flurry of promotional photos, planted newspaper items, and carefully arranged interviews with sympathetic—of often well remunerated journalists.
Rainer’s attitude toward film work also changed after she viewed Helen Hayes’s work opposite Gary Cooper in A Farewell to Arms.  It opened her eyes to the possibilities of screen acting and convinced her to try and find high art in her new medium.   That was a quest that would ultimately disappoint her.  But not before some triumphs.
Without the usual build-up through supporting roles, Rainer was thrust into a lead in her first American film in 1935 when illness forced Myrna Loy to withdraw from her part in Escapade with her frequent partner William Powell half-way through the production.  With other leading ladies busy, Thalberg gave the part to Rainer.  The romantic comedy of confused identities and the pursuit of a philandering painter for the woman he as falsely claimed was his semi-nude model to cover his dalliances with two other ladies, was set in Vienna and thus perfect for Rainer.  Powell was impressed by her as an actress and a person.  The reviews agreed, praising Rainer.  The film was a hit and Rainer acclaimed as “Hollywood’s next sensation.”
The sensitive Rainer, however, was horrified and fled from the previews in tears.  “On the screen, I looked so big and full of face, it was awful,” she recalled later.  But it was those close-ups and those large, luminous, expressive eyes that captivated the audience.

As Anna Held in The Great Ziegfeld.

Although it is not well remembered today, Escapade made Rainer an overnight star.  Her next picture would make her a legend even though Mayer bitterly opposed casting her in what was expected to be one of MGM’s biggest films of the year—The Great Ziegfeld starring Powell as the legendary Broadway producer.  Thalberg wanted Rainer to play the part of the Polish/French singer Anna Held, Ziegfeld’s first big star and common law wife.  But it was a relatively small role—the character was out of the picture in the first third of its running time—and Mayer did not want to see his newly built-up star in a minor role.  When word got out to the press many complained that Rainer did not look anything like Held, a robust blond and didn’t believe she could sing.  They were unaware that Rainer had made musicals in Europe.  Thalberg, however, prevailed.
A single scene in the film has been called the most memorable telephone call in cinema history.  In a single shot, Held receives a phone call from her now estranged lover Flo Ziegfeld who calls to breezily inform her of his marriage to Billie Burke.  With the camera tight on her face, Rainer tries to smile and be graciously brave as waves of emotion break over her face.  She hangs up and breaks down into uncontrollable tears.  It was a stunning, honest, gut wrenching performance and it won Held her first Academy Award for Best Actress for a part that should probably have been nominated in the Best Supporting Actress category. 

Thalberg had even a harder time convincing Mayer to let him use Rainer in his next pet project. Pearl S. Buck’s epic novel of the struggles of a Chinese peasant through famine, natural disaster, war, and philandering, The Good Earth.  Mayer was horrified at the thought of using Rainer who had just been established as a glamourous star in picture he did not even want made playing an “ugly Chinese woman.”  Moreover the public was taken by Rainer’s charm and lilting voice.  As the stoic O-Lan she would be mute through much of the picture and have to age.  “She has to be a dismal-looking slave and grow old; but Luise is a young girl; we just have made her glamorous — what are you doing?” Mayer shouted at Thalberg in one epic argument.

Even Rainer first feared the dearth of lines would make her boring.  But she was soon caught up in Thalberg’s vision and threw herself into the challenge.  She refused the make-up department’s attempt to fit her with a latex mask to give her a more oriental appearance despite her wide, very non-Chinese eyes.  But on screen the subtleties of her expressions made the viewer instantly forget the dissimilitude—much more so than her co-star Paul Muni who opted for the prosthetic make-up.

From the credits of The Good Earth

The production was beset by difficulties.  The original director, George W. Hill died after returning from months of location shooting in China and had to be replaced by Sidney Franklin who first had to complete another film.  The delays and production costs were exceeding the budget and Thalberg was under intense pressure from Mayer and from MGM corporate bosses in New York.  Shortly before shooting was finally completed, Thalberg died of a massive heart attack at the age of 37.  It was a devastating personal blow to Rainer. 

When the film was released—dedicated to Thalberg’s memory—it vindicated his faith in the material and his actress.  It was one of the biggest hits of 1937 and a critical triumph for Rainer.  Once again she was nominated for an Oscar, but did not expect to win against popular favorite Garbo for Camille.  Her victory made her the first actor or actress to win in consecutive years.

She would, however, consider the award a curse, bringing with it ever higher expectations she felt she could not meet.  But with her gifts she could rise to any challenge.  Unfortunately without the visionary Thalberg in her corner, Mayer assigned her to a succession routine program films which, despite their charms, met neither her own expectations or the public’s.

The character of O-Lan appealed to Rainer not just as a dramatic challenge, but because of its portrayal of the struggling poor.  It resonated with her deeply held identification with the underground and leftist political sensibilities.  Those same sensibilities led to her attraction to playwright and screen writer Clifford Odets, a brilliant intellectual and a committed leftist.  Odets, however, was dominating in ways frighteningly similar to her father, and a notorious womanizer.  During their marriage he had affairs with Lillian Hellmann and Francis Farmer, among others.  It was a stormy relationship that soon broke up in separation and ended in divorce in 1940 after Rainer had left Hollywood.
Some critics have described Rainer’s final five films at MGM as a career death spiral.  And that is unfair.  All were at least moderately successful at the box office in line with the studio’s general expectations of its top stars to work regularly and make pictures that finish in the black between major hits.  All were solid, if unoriginal productions with top co-stars, directors, and technical crews.  Her own performances were generally praised.  But the films as a whole disappointed critics who expected more.  Worse, they disappointed Rainer who grew increasingly dissatisfied.
Her next film, The Emperors Candlesticks reunited her with William Powell in a period set piece espionage thriller cum romance.  Rainer played a Russian fem fatale and secret agent, Countess Olga Mironova and Powell a suave Polish operative matching wits and falling in love.  The MacGuffin in this case are two silver candlesticks with a hidden compartment containing a vital coded message.  Perfectly charming and silly popcorn fare.
The film was also one of the most criticized—Big City teamed her with one of MGM biggest stars, Spencer Tracy.  No two actors could have had more different styles.  Rainer was trained in a European stage tradition that emphasized emotion connection to the character.  Tracy was the most famous exponent of a mechanical acting style—hit your mark, remember you lines, and draw from a stock pile of gestures, expressions, and personal ticks to create a character and convey feeling.  Tracy’s great talent was that he made it seem so effortless and natural.  By contrast Rainer seemed high strung.  Which, of course, she was.  But in the first half of the film their scenes together as a young couple in love are endearing and compelling.  The film begins to fall apart when the wife, Anna, is framed in a bombing—a part of an ongoing Taxi war between monopolists and independents led by Tracy.  She is threatened with deportation.  To save her Tracy enlists the famous boxers and wrestlers gathered at a banquet at Jack Dempsey’s they all descend on the water front for a ridiculous brawl with the villains.  But Rainer was missing for most of that action and can hardly be blamed for the stupidity of the script.
In The Toy Wife Rainer was cast opposite Melvin Douglas as a vivacious and amoral temptress who steals the affections of her virtuous sister’s fiancé on an ante bellum Louisiana plantation.  Everyone, including her dashing lover played by Robert Young suffers from her recklessness.  It was the kind of a tear jerker that required a colder heart than Rainer could project—a perfect project for Bette Davis had it been made at Warner Bros.
In The Great Waltz Rainer was first billed over the bio flick’s alleged main subject, composer Johann Straus, Jr.  whose obsession with the “sinful” waltz nearly ruins his promising career as a serious composer and leaves his ever faithful and long suffering wife abandoned and destitute.  No wonder.  Rainer dominated the screen when she shared time with the leading man, a fellow European actor named Ferdinand Gravet was little known and at the end of his brief American film career.
The final picture, and final straw of Rainer’s MGM career was Drama School, a woman’s picture all the way with the putative male lead reduced to a symbolic straw man as the aspiring actress at a Paris theatrical school vie for his attention.  Rainer played Louisa, the poorest of the girls who must work in a factory by day to afford her lessons and dreams of the glamorous life of a famous actress.  Her friends and rivals include Paulette Goddard and rising starlet Lana Turner.  It was a weeper kind of like Ziegfeld Girl without music and production numbers.
Other, more serious films were said to be under development for Rainer, but for one reason or another never came to fruition.  Rainer’s patience was at an end.  She had become something of a prima donna on the sets, eclipsing her original reputation among a casts and crews as a cooperative sweet heart.
Under Louis B. Mayer MGM just did not know what to do with her.  Strangely just as the studio’s relationship with Rainer was falling apart the gifted actress Margaret Sullivan was building a reputation often playing European parts like the girl three ex-German soldiers fall in love with in the hugely popular melodrama Three Comrades with Robert Taylor, Franchot Tone, and Allan Young; the beloved comedy Little Shop Around the Corner with James Stewart; and eventually the anti-Nazi thriller The Mortal Storm again with Stewart.  Sullivan was brilliant in all of these roles, but one his struck how perfect each of them would have been for Rainer, an actual European actress with expressive charm and vulnerability.  Had she been given parts like that her career would have lasted longer.
Instead Rainer marched into Louis B. Mayer’s office one day and demanded better parts.  The prickly Mayer reportedly told her, “We made you and we can break you!”  where upon she abruptly announced that she was quitting Hollywood and the movies and told Mayer off in very colorful language.  She stormed out of the office and did not look back.  She still owed the studio one more film on her contract so she knew that by leaving she would probably never work in American films again.
Rainer sailed for Europe late in 1938 leaving her career and ruined marriage behind her seeking a completely fresh start.  A start that did not include acting at all.  Instead, the committed anti-fascist threw herself into relief work for children orphaned in the Spanish Civil War impressing many with the depth of her commitment.  That led to her going to medical school in hopes of becoming a doctor serving the poor.  She worked hard and won the respect of her classmates and professors.  But eventually she realized that it was her career as an actress that had opened the doors for her service with the war orphans and decided to return to the stage, at least part time where she could also make anti-fascist statements.
She played on the stage in London after World War II broke out and returned to the United States where she starred in a new production Shaw’s St. Joan, a part she had played a decade before in Germany but which now took on new significance.  On Broadway she did J. M. Barrie’s comedy A Kiss for Cinderella.
After America entered the war, Rainer swore an oath of loyalty to the United States, appeared in numerous War Bond rallies, and undertook USO tours entertaining the troops in North Africa and Italy.  She even gave the movies another try—she hoped to get the lead in Hemmingway’s Spanish Civil War epic For Whom the Bells Toll the novelist and star lobbied for Ingrid Bergman instead
In 1943, here contract ensnarement’s to MGM finally cleared up Rainer made one film for Paramount, a drama about the underground fighting the Nazis with Arturo de Córdova, William Bendix, and Paul Lukas, and Oskar Homolka.  She took the part more as a contribution to the war effort than to re-establish a film career.  She would not work again in a feature film for 40 years.
In the summer of 1945 Rainer married a wealthy New York publisher, Robert Knittel. They had a daughter, Francesca, a year later. After the war the couple moved to Europe where she made homes in Switzerland and London.  For the first time in her life, Rainer was really happy.  Her husband adored her and matched her intense need for intellectual as well as emotional companionship.  He also re-introduced her to an old passion—mountain climbing, a sport the couple enjoyed together nearly until he died in 1989.
Rainer worked very sparingly on British and occasionally American television over in the 50’s and into the 80’s.  Her American appearances included an episode of the World War II series Combat! and rather surprisingly a two show turn on the frothy Love Boat.  She preferred pursuing her many other intellectual and philanthropic interests which included opening her London home as a kind of salon for writers and artists, even the occasional actor, which continued up to her final illness.

Rainer in her London home in the 1990s.
In 1997 Rainer came out of retirement for one last feature film, a British production of The Gambler, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s dark novel.  She played the grandmother of the obsessed character.  The next year and again in 2003 she appeared at the Academy Awards during retrospective salutes to former winners.  Not that she ever cared much for the Oscar itself.  She gave one of them away as a memento to the laborers who helped move her things from Switzerland to London after she closed her continental home.  She had been using it as a doorstop and it was scratched and bent.

At age 100 in 2010 Rainer was honored with a retrospective of her work by the British Institute for Film at the National Film Theater where she was interviewed on stage.  Turner Classic Movies featured The Good Earth at its annual Classic film festival in Hollywood and host Robert Osborne interviewed her for a special broadcast.  In one of her final public appearances she flew to Berlin to receive a long over-due star on the Boulevard der Stars.
Rainer’s daughter Francesca reported that her mother was lively, alert, and active right up to contracting the pneumonia in December that finally killed her.
What a life!

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