Thirties Screen Legend Luise Rainer Makes Her Comeback After 50 Years
by Richard Stirling
[This article first appeared in Hello! magazine, September 1997]
From her London home she shares memories of Hollywood’s Golden Age
In an elegant apartment overlooking the London skyline is one of the last stars from the Golden Age of Hollywood, Luise Rainer. Few actresses have ever enjoyed a more meteoric rise to film stardom – and none made such a rapid and complete disappearance.
Luise Rainer spent just three-and-a-half-years at Metro Goldwyn Mayer in the Thirties but achieved astonishing success, winning back-to-back Best Actress Oscars for her roles in The Great Ziegfeld and The Good Earth. Yet not long after she reached the peak of fame, she quit Hollywood.
Quick fade-out. End titles – or so it seemed… Because this November Luise is making an amazing return to the screen after more than half a century, having been persuaded to join Michael Gambon and Jodhi May in the British film The Gambler, based on Dostoyevsky’s novel.
Meeting her, it is hard to believe she is now in her eighties. Her figure is that of a 30-year-old, but what one notices first are the eyes – huge, intense, enquiring, framed by the perfect heart-shaped face that was well-known to pre-war audiences.
Luise was born into a prosperous Dusseldorf family and grew up mainly in Switzerland. “I was still a schoolgirl of 15 when my father found out I had set my mind on becoming an actress,” she recalls. “It sent shockwaves through our family, because no one had ever been on stage before.”
She started her career in Dusseldorf,where her early work was spotted by legendary impresario Max Reinhardt and he invited her to join his theatre company. Very soon she was touring Europe playing major roles in the classic and contemporary repertoire, to great critical acclaim.
Then, in 1935, European theatre lost its most vital young star – to Hollywood. “It was quite crazy. An MGM scout came to the theatre one night. The next day, I made a film test in a makeshift studio. Amazingly, I was offered an optioned contract. I didn’t take it seriously, never having thought of myself as a movie star, but I must admit it intrigued me. I made only one condition – that I be permitted to take my Scotty dog Johnny with me. He was my best friend.”
MGM was the ultimate Hollywood film studio and Luise was joining stars like Joan Crawford – “She was extremely nice and pleasant to me” – and Greta Garbo. “Garbo was always quiet and reclusive,” recalls Luise, “but so was I. Nobody believes it, but an actress can be shy!”
Life at MGM was full of surface glamour, but ideas and debate were far down the agenda and Luise chose her close friends from outside the Hollywood establishment. “I met most of the leading actors of that time, but my real friends were not of my profession. One was George Gershwin, who used to come to my house to compose. He said, “You’re so European, it inspires me!” Another composer friend was Arnold Schoenberg, who lived in the same road, Rockingham Avenue. “Later, Mr OJ Simpson lived there. That was after my time, fortunately!”
Luise also got to know the writer Thomas Mann, architect Richard Neutra and Albert Einstein, whose warmth and humour she remembers fondly. However, she recalls his violin playing was “maybe not quite up to a par with his theory of relativity!”
As for work, initially scripts were far from forthcoming and Luisa [sic] spent her time walking Johnny along the beach. Then one day Anita Loos (author of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes) alerted her that Myrna Loy hd dropped out of the film Escapade – and Luise got the role.
The male lead was William Powell, who was to prove of great help to her. “After the film was made, Bill went to Louis B Mayer and insisted I was given star billing,” says Luise. “He said, ‘You’ve got to star that girl or I’ll look like an idiot.’ And so, after my first film, I was a star.”
Star treatment followed. “Joan Crawford, Greta Garbo, Norma Shearer and I shared a luxurious house within the studio. Each of us had our own apartment – one room for making up, another for resting.”
Her next assignment was the mammoth extravaganza The Great Ziegfeld. Ironically, its best-known scene is not a big dance sequence but one that features Luise on the telephone congratulating her ex-husband on his new marriage. “To me, the film was like a big sugar cake,” says Luise, but that little telephone scene, which I had written myself, gave me my first Oscar.”
It is her dramatically different next role as the downtrodden Chinese wife O-lan in The Good Earth for which Luise is possibly best remembered.
“Mayer was furious when MGM’s top producer, Irving Thalberg, cast me as O-lan.