Luise Rainer: “Whatever I was able to give or do in my work, came from inside out”

Screen legend Luise Rainer passed away on December 30, 2014, at her London home, at age 104, just two weeks shy of her 105th birthday. Unbelievable as it is, so was she. I met her twice for an interview at her London apartment on Eaton Square in 2000. Up until now, I still remember vividly how impressive it was to be welcomed by Miss Rainer when she opened the front door, very much alive and incredibly energetic, then at age 90, a screen veteran who made film history at a very young age, so many decades ago.

The first person to win two consecutive Academy Awards as best actress for “The Great Ziegfeld” (1936) and “The Good Earth” (1937), she ended her short-lived career as a screen actress a few years later and virtually retired from acting. Her first marriage to screenwriter Clifford Odets ended in divorce (1940); in New York, she later married publisher Robert Knittel (1945), and, together with daughter Francesca (b. 1946), the family settled in Switzerland. Mr. Knittel passed away in 1989, and since then, Miss Rainer resided in obscurity in London. After decades out of the spotlight, she was rediscovered by journalists and reporters who got in touch with her to talk to her about her career, her meteoric rise followed by her premature and abrupt departure from Hollywood a few years later after clashes with her boss Louis B. Mayer. Without a biography published about her screen career and her—give or take a little bit—five years in Hollywood, with Greta Garbo, Norma Shearer and Jean Harlow as some of the other leading ladies on the MGM lot in Culver City, Miss Rainer became a living legend in her own right as the fascinating story of her life and career gradually unfolded.

Initially, she was a star of the Vienna stage, guided by the legendary stage and film director Max Reinhardt (1873-1943). Miss Rainer: “Reinhardt, though never titled, was a ‘prince,’ a true aristocrat from inside out, he was wonderful. There was an extraordinary aura about him. He sensed people and artists, he sensed their talent. When someone needed help and advice, he was there. Otherwise, he would watch, let go which made one feel his approval, giving encouragement and confidence to make one better.” Lured to Hollywood in 1935, she was soon to be heralded as the new Garbo. “Escapade” (1935) was her American film debut; Variety wrote in its film review on July 10, 1935: ‘Miss Rainer, entirely new to America, brings from Europe a wealth of skill in theatrical art. She acts with feeling.’ A talent had arrived and, right away, she proved herself to be a star. Her next film, “The Great Ziegfeld” (1936), a hugely entertaining biography of flamboyant impresario Florenz Ziegfeld (1867-1932), was an ode to showmanship with Miss Rainer impersonating Ziegfeld’s first wife, Anna Held (1872-1918), a former famous actress-singer. A telephone scene Miss Rainer had to make became very famous; Ziegfeld had divorced Anna Held and broken hearted, by phone, Anna—holding back her tears—congratulated Ziegfeld to his next marriage. This scene, with Miss Rainer showing how immensely forceful she can be in dramatic scenes, earned her a first Academy Award.

Luise Rainer around 1940, and at her London apartment in the 1990s | Luise Rainer

It was followed by “The Good Earth” (1937), based on Pearl S. Buck’s 1931 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel about a hard-working Chinese farmer and his family, resulting in another triumph for Miss Rainer. Playing the demanding role of O-Lan, the ever-patient wife of Paul Muni, she stole the show. Her part, she said, had the dialogue of no more than three pages. Her feelings and deepest emotions had to be expressed through eyes and action. At the end of the film and after O-Lan’s death, Muni, in deep sorrow, touched a peach tree she had planted, saying ‘O-Lan, you were the earth!’—providing one of the most powerful closing lines ever seen on film.

It was Irving G. Thalberg (1899-1936), Louis B. Mayer’s creative driving force, who insisted Miss Rainer would play O-Lan—very much against Louis B. Mayer who wanted her to be beautiful, ‘one of his racehorses in the stable,’ as she remembered. She didn’t know Mr. Thalberg very well, though. When she was one week in Hollywood, she was invited to a small party where she met him and his wife Norma Shearer. “He saw me. I did not see him then, you understand,” she said. With only a little bit of dialogue, Miss Rainer thought her portrayal of O-Lan might be ‘such a bore! How will I be able to get that out?’ She had never read ‘The Good Earth’, but once she had the script, she didn’t want to read the book anymore because she wanted to work with the script, with the lines that were given to her and do what she felt she should do. It turned out to be another triumph: the film earned her a second Academy Award.

“The Good Earth” (1937, trailer)

There is a considerable difference between the importance and the impact of an Academy Award back then compared to now. A highly publicized main event with worldwide coverage on television, the internet, and in newspapers from the moment the nominations are announced, the value—both commercially and artistically—of being nominated or winning an Academy Award can be terribly influential for the box office receipts of a movie. Although important in the 1930s as well, winning an Academy Award didn’t mean that much to Miss Rainer—not in those days at least. It certainly put her on a pedestal which is something ‘very dangerous: it is on the earth, it is not rooted in the earth, and it wiggles so you can fall off,’ she said. She was not happy in Hollywood, also because she loved to observe and look at people. And what happened? She became famous all of a sudden, so she couldn’t look around anymore because everybody was looking at her. Miss Rainer: “It wasn’t comfortable. I wasn’t sure if I wanted that life. I felt as though I had arrived at a dead end. I wanted to give, and I wanted everybody to accept it, hopefully, whatever little I was able to do.” She compared it with being the Queen of England, “The poor Queen, everybody stares at her. She can hardly have a life without everybody noticing anything she does. And whatever she does in private, people try to prey into it. I didn’t want that kind of life, I wasn’t groomed for that. I wanted to be successful, but I didn’t want to be famous.”

Miss Rainer, who started on the stage with Max Reinhardt, said, “There’s a direct contact when you’re on the stage. You feel the atmosphere, even when you make a long pause. When I did “Joan of Arc” or things like that, you could feel how long you could keep the pause until your audience got restless.” When she made films, she could not feel she really had done anything because there was no response—which was exactly what she needed. Miss Rainer: “I really was very unhappy in Hollywood, it was an atmosphere I was not ready for. I was very young, I thought of doing something marvelous. I wanted to become an actress to breathe something out—anything—but I never wanted to become famous.”

Luise Rainer on the cover of Screen Guide (April 1937), Modern Screen (June 1937) and Screenland (September 1937)

Miss Rainer: “It may sound strange to say so, but I never felt to be what is called ‘an actress’. Whatever I was able to do or give in my work came from inside out. It is in real life that people often act or need to act. On stage or screen, to be convincing, you have to be true, as true as you can be. For better or for worse you have to find within yourself that color and shade most similar to the character you have to play, build it up with the help of memory and intuition to be it. It should not be acting, it must be being!”

What did she consider her greatest achievement? Miss Rainer: “I don’t feel I have achieved anything, though I am told I have. I am grateful to have been permitted to give out a tiny bit of what was given to me in the cradle. I’ve been asked often why I don’t teach acting. I couldn’t! My sole schooling was to live alert and open-eyed, to feel and to sense. How could I teach that? I wouldn’t know!”

Returning to the stage or the screen once in a while, she thoroughly enjoyed her final film “The Gambler” (1997), directed by Karoly Makk, and over the years she occasionally showed up in Hollywood at the Academy Awards, presenting the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 1953 and 1983, and to celebrate the 75th Academy Awards in 2003 when she was surrounded on the stage by approximately sixty other previous Oscar winners.

The 75th Past Oscar Winner Reunion on March 23, 2003, at the Kodak theatre in Hollywood, presented by Olivia de Havilland. Ms. Rainer, seated between Jack Palance and Julia Roberts, was announced as ‘the most senior member,’ at 08:34 in this clip.

Irving G. Thalberg, MGM’s Boy Wonder as he was often referred to, was the studio’s production executive and Mr. Mayer’s right hand; he died of pneumonia in September 1936 at age thirty-seven, a few weeks after the principal photography of “The Good Earth” was completed; the film was dedicated ‘To the memory of Irving Grant Thalberg—His last great achievement.’ Miss Rainer concluded that ‘his death was a terrible shock to us. He was young and ever so able. Had it not been that he died, I think I may have stayed much longer in films.’

In her lifetime, Miss Rainer went everywhere and she knew everyone from the Roosevelts to Albert Einstein—she practically embodied the 20th century. Having met her twice at her home, I will always remember her as a wonderful, charming and most gracious lady, very vivid, bright, energetic, dynamic, literate and modest, with a great sense of humor. She looked at life through the eyes of someone who was eager to learn all that was new, fascinating and enriching.

March 26, 2000

+ Luise Rainer, born in Düsseldorf, Germany, on January 12, 1910, died of pneumonia in London on December 30, 2014, at age 104.

March 4, 1937, at the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles. Luise Rainer receives her first Best Actress Academy Award for “The Great Ziegfeld” (1936)


SEHNSUCHT 202 (1932) DIR Max Neufeld SCR Emeric Pressburger, Karl Farcas, Irma von Cube CAM Otto Kanturek MUS Richard Fall CAST Magda Schneider, Fritz Schulz, Luise Rainer (Kitty), Rolf von Goth, Attila Horbiger, Mizzi Griebl, Hans Thimig

MADAME HAT BESUCH (1932) DIR Carl Boese PROD Gregor Rabinovitch SCR Karl Farkas, Rosa Wachtel CAST Attila Hörbiger, Hans Olden, Herbert Hübner, Luise Rainer

HEUTE KOMMT’S DRAUF AN (1933) DIR Kurt Gerron CAM Bruno Mondi ED Milo Harbich MUS Bronislau Kaper, Walter Jurmann, Paul Mann, Stefan Weiss CAST Hans Albers, Luise Rainer (Marita Costa), Oskar Karlweiss, Oskar Sima, Max Gülstorff, Baby Gray

ESCAPADE (1935) DIR Robert Z. Leonard PROD Bernard H. Hyman SCR Herman J. Mankiewicz, Ethel Borden (based on the Austrian film MASKERADE [1934], screenplay by Willi Forst, Walter Reisch) CAM Ernest Haller ED Tom Held MUS Bronislau Kaper, Walter Jurmann CAST William Powell (Fritz Heideneck), Luise Rainer (Leopoldine), Frank Morgan (Karl Harrandt), Virginia Bruce (Gerta Keller), Reginald Owen (Paul Harrandt), Mady Christians (Anita Keller)

THE GREAT ZIEGFELD (1936) DIR Robert Z. Leonard PROD Hunt Stromberg SCR William Anthony McGuire (suggested by the life of Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. [1867-1932]) CAM Oliver T. Marsh. ED William S. Gray MUS Arthur Lange CAST William Powell (Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr.), Myrna Loy (Billie Burke), Luise Rainer (Anna Held Ziegfeld), Frank Morgan (Jack Billings), Fanny Brice (herself), Virginia Bruce (Audrey Dane)

THE GOOD EARTH (1937) DIR Sidney Franklin, Victor Fleming SCR Talbot Jennings, Tess Slesinger, Claudine West CAM Karl Freund ED Basil Wrangell MUS Herbert Stothart CAST Paul Muni (Wang Lung), Luise Rainer (O-Lan), Walter Connolly (Uncle), Tilly Losch (Lotus), Charles Grapewin (Old Father), Jessie Ralph (Cuckoo)

THE EMPEROR’S CANDLESTICKS (1937) DIR George Fitzmaurice PROD John W. Considine, Jr. SCR Monckton Hoffe, Harold Goldman, Herman Manckiewicz (novel ‘The Emperor’s Candlesticks’ [1899] by Baroness Emma Orczy) CAM Harold Rosson, Oliver T. Marsh. ED Conrad A. Nervig MUS Franz Waxman CAST William Powell (Baron Wolensky), Luise Rainer (Countess Mironova), Robert Young (Grand Duke Peter), Maureen O’Sullivan (Maria Orlech), Frank Morgan (Colonel Baron Suroff), Henry Stephenson (Prince Johan)

BIG CITY (1937) DIR Frank Borzage PROD Norman Krasna SCR Dore Schary, Hugo Butler (story by Norman Krasna) CAM Joseph Ruttenberg ED Frederick Y. Smith MUS William Axt CAST Luise Rainer (Anna Benton), Spencer Tracy (Joe Benton), Charles Grapewin (Mayor), Janet Beecher (Sophie Sloan), Eddie Quillan (Mike Edwards), Victor Varconi (Paul Roya)

THE TOY WIFE (1938) DIR Richard Thorpe PROD Merian C. Cooper SCR Zoë Akins (play ‘Frou-frou’ [1869] by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy; play ‘Frou Frou’ [1870] by Augustin Daly) CAM Oliver T. Marsh ED Elmo Veron MUS Edward Ward CAST Luise Rainer (Gilberte, Frou Frou), Melvyn Douglas (Georges Sartoris), Robert Young (Andre Vallaire), Barbara O’Neil (Louise Brigard), H.B. Warner (Victor Brigard), Alma Kruger (Madame Vallaire)

THE GREAT WALTZ (1938) DIR Julien Duvivier PROD Bernard H. Hyman SCR Samuel Hoffenstein, Walter Reisch CAM Joseph Ruttenberg ED Tom Held MUS Dimitri Tiomkin CAST Luise Rainer (Poldi Vogelhuber), Fernand Gravet (Johan Strauss), Miliza Korjus (Carla Donner), Hugh Herbert (Julius Hofbauer), Lionel Atwill (Count Hohenfried), Curt Bois (Kienzl)

DRAMATIC SCHOOL (1938) DIR Robert B. Sinclair PROD Mervyn LeRoy SCR Ernest Vajda, Mary C. McCall, Jr. (Hungarian play ‘School of Drama’ by Hans Székely, Zoltan Egyed) CAM William Daniels, Joseph Ruttenberg ED Frederick Y. Smith MUS Franz Waxman CAST Luise Rainer (Louise Mauban), Paulette Goddard (Nana), Alan Marshall (Andre D’Abbencourt), Lana Turner (Mabo), Genevieve Tobin (Gina Bertier), Anthony Allan (Fluery), Henry Stephenson (Pasquel, Sr.).

HOSTAGES (1943) DIR Frank Tuttle PROD Sol C. Siegel SCR Lester Cole, Frank Butler (novel ‘Hostages’ [1942] by Stefan Heym) CAM Victor Milner ED Archie Marshek MUS Victor Young CAST Arturo de Cordova (Paul Breda), Luise Rainer (Milada Preissinger), William Bendix (Janoshik), Roland Varno (Jan Pavel), Oscar Homolka (Lev Preissinger), Katina Paxinou (Maria)

THE GAMBLER (1997) DIR Károly Makk PROD Charles Cohen, Marc Vlessing SCR Katharine Ogden, Charles Cohen, Nick Dear CAM Jules van den Steenhoven ED Kevin Whelan MUS Brian Lock CAST Michael Gambon (Dostoyevsky), Jodhi May (Anna Snitkina), Polly Walker (Polina), Dominic West (Alexei), John Wood (The General), Johan Leysen (De Grieux), Luise Rainer (Grandmother)