Know Luise Rainer
by Kirtley Baskette
[This article first appeared in Photoplay magazine, October 1935]
The tiny Viennese lovely is a whole lot of exciting something Hollywood never experienced before
She isn’t much bigger than a minute hand on a Swiss watch, but that doesn’t keep Luise Rainer from being the current “it” of Hollywood.
Luise Rainer (if you say “Ry-ner” you go to the head of the class, and if you say “Ry-nah,” as they do on the dear old Danube, you get a gold star to paste in your notebook) is, of course, the little windblown, elfin actress whose big brown provocative eyes flashed the danger signal in “Escapade” as she doubtless hummed “Who Walks In When You Walk Out” over her shoulder to Myrna Loy.
And now that everyone is hailing this tiny Austrian lovely as the latest exotic and the new super star from across the Pond, the “going Garbo” game has started.
Only little Fraulein Luise is proving pesky to pick on for three good reasons.
Because first, she used up practically all of her fear complexes before she ever got to Hollywood; because second, the pack waited a bit too long to waggle the old familiar scarecrow; and because third, Die Rainer is something the like of which the old town has never come up against before. And when I say something, I mean a bit of a whole lot, in spite of her half pint dimensions.
About this scare business – maybe Luise read too many stories and believed that Hollywood should be taken by storm. Anyway, before being duly discovered as a screen bet by super talent scouts Robert Ritchie, Rufus LeMaire and Director Clarence Brown, she set out from Berlin by automobile on the first leg of her Hollywood hegira.
A snowstorm blew up and the automobile promptly dived over an embankment when Luise left it for a moment to brush the snow off a road sign. Profoundly unnerved, she mushed back to Berlin and boarded a plane for the the seacoast only to slither and sideslip through a gale into a series of forced landings.
No sooner had she bid the home shores of Europe good-bye than the steamship got the idea too, proceeding to nose into one of the worst Atlantic storms of the season so that they trundled Luise, the shade of an unripe olive, down the gangplank at New York and right into a hospital on the fringe of Harlem.
Darktown “hi-de-hoes” and “yeah mans” which floated up through her window failed to have the expected tonic effect on her chart since Luise harbored a definite suspicion that all colored folk were cannibals. She was sure of it later when she boarded the transcontinental train and was confronted by a huge ebon porter flashing two rows of expansive ivory choppers at her. She knew they were designed to devour her.
After four days locked in her compartment in mortal horror of impending consumption, Hollywood held no terrors for Luise – not even the terror of being tagged a Garbo copy cat.
As a matter of fact, no one bothered to tag her as much of anything when she first arrived, except, of course, Messrs. Ritchie, LaMaire and Brown who had marked her tremendous talent in Pirandello’s “Six Characters in Search of an Author.”
Her status to practically everyone else was something like “x,” the unknown quantity, because she certainly didn’t look like anything worth labelling “dangerous.”
I remember seeing her, months ago, sitting self-consciously in an office at M-G-M, looking very much like a stenographer about to ask for a job. She was being utterly miserable parting with the facts of her life history.
“That’s Luise Rainer,” someone said, “the new actress from Vienna. She’s going to be something, you ought to write about her.”
I PEERED again and she quickly turned her face. Her hair was down over her eyes like the tassels of a curtain. A few faint freckles saddled her perky nose. I didn’t see the eyes – those eyes.
“So?” I said politely, “interesting – very interesting.” What I meant was that I wasn’t interested. And that was all right with Luise, I’m sure.
This little wonder girl from Vienna has, frankly, sneaked right up on Hollywood, under its very nose which she has seen fit to tweak delightfully in the very first picture she ever made in her life.
She came – and she vanished (which is great for the “Going Garbo” game now) to a remote house in Santa Monica Canyon where she stills lives alone save for two servants, a Scotch terrier named Johnny, who growls unless addressed in German, and one of those musical contraptions which plays records all day long if you let it.
There for months, while the busybodies forgot about her, she walked up and down in the rambling garden as the long winded phonograph ground out the strains of Beethoven, her musical god. It seems she used to tread a certain tree-lined lane in a Vienna park where the composer had heard his immortal symphonies through the boughs, and this synthetic California lane helped her, no doubt, to rise above the tedious task of learning English, which had been started on the boat over, but which hadn’t flourished so well in the throes of mal de mer or under a Harlem moon.
In fact, this learning English was the big bete noir she had to whip. A liberal education in some seven European schools for some reason had skipped it.
So from the very minute she arrived until Myrna Loy took an unexpected powder on “Escapade” Luise plugged at it with various and sundry tutors.
ALL the while, Luise shunned the studio like poison – to all appearances. They had to call her at least three times to persuade her to come on the lot.
The secret of her shyness, in this respect, she confessed to a friend, was that she knew the longer she stayed away the more noticeable her improvement in English would be each time she did show up!
On the sly, however, she invaded the lot and crept mouselike into sound mixing booths and into the dark shadows of sound stages, getting a wise eyeful of how it was done. Her visits presented the inevitable picture of a glossy bob flying in wisps in front of her tanned face above a queer little tailored jacket, madly in the Hollywood mode.
This worried a certain gentleman at M-G-M.
“You should dress up more,” he hinted.
Luise took this in her stride. “For my lover, yes,” she admitted, “for my producer – no.” And that was that.
It was a surprise for everyone when she was picked to pinch hit for the runaway Miss Loy in “Escapade,” despite the fact that Luise had played the role on the stage in Europe. You see, most everyone had forgot about her even being here, and the few that remembered had no idea her English was anywhere near ready to record.
So one big surprise was Rainer herself, about whom, as you might have gathered, the sum of all Hollywood knowledge added up to practically nothing.
She surprised the natives by flashing a dynamic, tomboyish personality, capricious and humorously naive one minute; solemn, sophisticated and stunningly inspired the next.
Her little turned-up nose with its powdering of freckles was into everything. She wanted to ride on the rubber-tired camera dolly. She twisted her sturdy little body and threw her firm, slim legs in mad tap dances to the phonograph arias of Cab Calloway and the Mills Brothers, for whose “hi-de-hoes,” oddly enough she developed a mad passion. One particularly she demanded, “the one about why Miss Otis cannot go to dinner.”
SHE ran away to haunt the set where Ted Lewis was sobbing on his clarinet, regarding him in wide-eyed wonder. “He plays loose music,” she explained.
She made bosom friends of Charles Laughton, Peter Lorre and Lillian, the make-up woman, under whose ministrations she would fidget until that worthy threw up her hands and threatened.
“If you don’t be good, Miss Rainer, I’m going to quit and go.”
She had a way about her that immediately won the hearts of everyone around her, and she kept them all in convulsive stitches with her earnest but often comic attempts at colloquial English. The day, for instance, when she arrived whirling on the set in a bubble of excitement.
She had seen a snake in her garden.
“It had a doorbell on the tail,” she said. That didn’t get over so she ran around the stage going “b-z-z-z – b-z-z-z.” Yes – it was a rattlesnake.
And at the cocktail party which Bill Powell cooked up on the set the last day of the picture, Robert Leonard, the director, thinking to have his little joke, said jovially, “Well, Luise, it’s too bad – just too bad that your part of the picture had to land on the cutting room floor.”
Whereupon Luise raised sad eyes mournfully and reproached:
“Do not say such things.”
From then on she ate practically nothing else but the bars of Dutch chocolate which her mother forwards in great bundles. Leonard had no idea he was founding a gastronomic bond between America and Austria. For Luise immediately secured the recipe and had her mother distribute it among all her friends in Vienna and Dusseldorf, where her father, a wealthy merchant before the Depression got him, and her family still live. The same Leonard, doubtless unaware of the international significance of his act, introduced her to the mysteries of apple pie one day in the commissary.
The Rainer nature is such that when she goes in for anything there are no half measures, and no compromise with time.
Someone, observing the apple pie and chocolate diet, told her she was getting fat. Even though the scales told her that her five feet weighed only a little over a hundred pounds still she worried.
Donald Loomis, physical conditioner at M-G-M, was called in.
“How quick you make me thin?” asked Rainer.
LOOMIS said he thought some weight ought to vanish in about six treatments.
“Good,” was her answer, “I take them all right now!”
Her moods, volatile and spontaneous, can change in an instant from an eager, bubbling child she can become a serious artist with the weight of the world on her slender shoulders. A few bars of the inevitable Beethoven on a portable phonograph does it. Rainer lives in a world of music. If the repeater phonograph isn’t playing she’s playing the piano. On the set she snaps on a record, sits and listens a moment, snaps it off and walks right into her scenes in the perfect mood, no matter if she has been flinging her feet to a jazz band the minute before.
Bill Powell, Robert Leonard and everyone who was in on the first demonstration has been walking about shouting the praises of this strange little exotic as a valid, gifted, job-understanding actress.
Personally, too, beneath the theatrical masque and the elfin exterior, lives a very deep thinking, elemental person. In her way she’s deeply religious.
One of her closest friends is Krishnamurti, the Hindu messiah.
I don’t know whether or not his teachings have had any effect on her philosophy, but she believes devoutly in several things, and she orders her life by her beliefs.
SHE believes in living very close to nature, for one thing. The first ones to talk to her discovered, to their astonishment, that in the few months she has been here she has taken in practically all of the sights of California – all by herself.
Right after “Escapade” was completed, Luise told her maid she would be gone “about an hour” and rolled away in her little Ford roadster. She had fifteen dollars in the pockets of her little jacket, but she didn’t let that stop her.
She stayed away five days, during which she penetrated Mexico to the little town of Ensenada, sleeping in rural inns and eating fifteen and twenty-cent meals. She took up with some picknickers for one day’s outing, stopped by by the Wolrd’s Fair in San Diego, which she thoroughly investigated, and arrived home broke but happy, lugging a seat full of souvenirs and samples, wildflowers and rocks.
She’s just home now from another roadster tour through the Northwest and Canada.
You look in vain to the background for the why of Luise Rainer’s genius or her personality. She was merely the daughter of a middle class European who migrated from Mexico to Austria and became a wealthy merchant. There were no artists in her family and she had never read a dramatic line until the day she walked into the small theater of Luise Dumont near her beer-and-schnitzel sounding hometown of Dusseldorf and after a half hour’s study gave a scene so well that she won the part.
All of this was at the age of sixteen years, when the family wealth vanished. There is little to account for the spark of her brilliance, except, as Bill Powell guesses, “It started before she was born.”
Somewhere, and not so far back, a love tragedy clouded Luise Rainer’s life. She doesn’t speak of it, and no one knows much except that he was killed in an accident. But the tragedy hasn’t clouded her outlook, for she believes in the immortality of the mind of love.
Also she believes in the power within herself to do anything she wants and be anything she desires.
PERHAPS that accounts for the extreme capable confidence which Europe labelled “prodigy” six years ago and which Hollywood terms “talent” today. Perhaps that is why Luise could walk, when she had to, into that small theater and make it lead her upon a career through Shakespeare, Ibsen, Pirandello, on to Max Reinhardt’s theater and then to Hollywood.
Perhaps that’s why this little twenty-two-year-old Viennese extraordinaire, who is the screen’s current sensation, can smile her sweetly mischievous mouth into apple dumpling cheeks and puff her bangs with a chuckle when she hears the cry that haunted Dietrich and many another invader from across the seas – “imitating Garbo.”
She knows herself – and she knows better than that.
[This article first appeared in Photoplay magazine, October 1935]