The Great Rainer
by Freda Bruce Lockhart
This article first appeared in the Summer 1937 edition of Film Weekly magazine.
Just two years ago, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer took the unusual step of presenting Luise Rainer as a new star in her first picture, “Escapade.” It was a daring experiment, and a complete reversal of the usual M.-G.-M. policy of subjecting promising newcomers to a long course of training in subordinate roles before hailing them as stars. Film Weekly, perhaps equally daring, but actuated by an instinctive appreciation of Miss Rainer’s possibilities, went so far as to endorse M.-G.-M.’s estimate of her in a pictorial preview of her first screen performance, boldly headed “A New Star is Born.” Never before had we risked our reputation by making so sweeping a statement on the basis of one performance in a not-very-difficult screen role. But both Film Weekly and M.-G.-M. have had the gratification of seeing their faith in Luise Rainer more than justified; first by her surprising display of emotional acting in a few memorable moments of “The Great Ziegfeld,” and more recently by her brilliant performance as O-lan, the Chinese slave-wife, in “The Good Earth.”
TWO months after seeing Luise Rainer in The Good Earth, in which time a score of other films have blown on my first fervour, I can still say in cold blood and print that, if I have ever seen great acting on the screen, this was it.
As O-lan, the Chinese slave-wife, a peasant with hardly more standing in her husband’s home than his ox, Rainer managed to convey a universal sense of the primitive nobility of womanhood, its courage, devotion, and its touching small vanities.
O-lan is a woman of no intellect, no culture, no conversation. Only once she breaks into speech, in pride at the thought of showing off her child to the people in the “big house” where she grew up. Yet that one speech is startlingly dramatic, and pathetic in its elementary feminine vanity. The inner understanding of these situations Rainer interprets with a kind of implacable, placid realism more moving than any histrionics.
One hears, too often, of “born actors,” of people who have “acting in their blood.” I have never before seen acting which seemed to penetrate into the player’s bones. There was not a muscle, joint or nerve in Luise Rainer’s body, not a dart of thought or feeling, which was not acting. Yet she did nothing. She hardly moved, hardly spoke. She only felt.
This was the very marrow of film acting, stark and stripped of all stage or studio tricks. Dressed in a sack, her hair dank and scraped cruelly off her face, only allowed to look physically beautiful in one single shot, Luise Rainer proved herself capable, to an unprecedented degree, of making herself a clear transparency for the emotions she was portraying. Nothing came between the audience and the direct nobility and beauty of these emotions. There was not one technical point, not one gesture, tone or idiosyncrasy to notice.
I could only notice the unaccountable way in which tears came to my eyes every time she appeared on the screen; and my own consciousness that a star of quite n
ew dimensions had appeared in the cinema.
This crowning performance is an ultimate proof of the firm foundations of FILM WEEKLY’S early, unshaken faith in Luise Rainer. Consideration of her two early successes in the light of this transcending one reveals her as an acting genius, in whom the embryonic emotions generating a characterisation, the controlling imagination, the artistic conception, and the physical technique are all flawless.
One of my strongest impressions, after experiencing The Good Earth, was that I didn’t want or need to know anything about Luise as a person. “Nothing,” I thought, “that she might ever have done or said could be as important, or even as real, as what she is expressing in her work.”
Unfortunately, such exaltation rarely lasts. Natural curiosity comes to life again. One begins to ask: “Who is this Luise Rainer? What kind of person is she? By what right has she this disturbing power?”
Inquiries are rewarded by only a few authentic facts, and by a kaleidoscope of contradictory, confused and baffling impressions. Most of the facts are familiar.
Luise Rainer was born in Vienna in 1912*, the daughter of a well-to-do merchant. When she was sixteen, the family fortunes evaporated. She had to earn her living and chose acting. At eighteen, she was a star for Max Reinhardt in Vienna. At twenty-three she came to Hollywood.
Only a few sidelights are available on this part of her life. During her fashionable, cosmopolitan education, she neglected schoolroom studies for the more vivid excitements of real life, people colours and music.
When she had to choose a profession, she chose acting because emotional expression was the only activity she understood. She had already tried painting and writing.
A skinny girl in pigtails, going to Düsseldorf for her first audition, she had no idea she could act. She had no idea how to. She gave herself up to her own responsive emotions which carried her through on a flood of words she was barely conscious of.
Kept Reinhardt Waiting
She stayed two years there, at the Dumont Theatre, keeping Max Reinhardt waiting because she said she was not ready for him.
Under Reinhardt, though she was only a young girl, she was never an ingénue. She played the classical heroines, tragic and modern parts. For her holidays, she used to go off to out-of-the-way country places in France, Italy, the Balkans.
On one of these trips, in Jugoslavia, she saw a station she liked. So she got off the train, put on all the clothes in her suitcase, and slept the night on a bench. She woke to the derision of a crowd of gaping peasants, but “we got to be such good friends I hated to part with them,” she says.
At twenty-one Luise fell in love, with a man of international importance. To make sure that he wanted to marry her, she sent him away for a year. He was on his way to Italy to marry her when his plane crashed. Luise said: “My life must be fuller, richer, for having loved him,” and went back to the theatre.
Spotted by Hollywood
Playing in Pirandello’s “Six Characters In Search of An Author,” she was seen by Clarence Brown, M.G.M. director, and Bob Ritchie, M.G.M. talent scout. Both carried back fervent reports of the startling discovery they had made in Vienna.
So, in 1935, Luise Rainer came to Hollywood. Her entry was as inauspicious as Garbo’s. She got off the train drably dressed and almost without make-up. Her first interviews were disastrous. Her erratic knowledge of English was quite unequal to the eager naïve impulsiveness which made her try to talk. Her outrageous malapropisms were hailed with glee. Hollywood thought she had made a fool of herself.
Quickly, she was advised a sealed-lip policy. The studio didn’t know what to do with her, and that, of course, made her a recluse in Hollywood.
Months later, Myrna Loy stepped out of Escapade, Luise was bundled in, and the rest is history.
Hollywood supposed that, with success, Luise would blossom into a conventional citizen of the community. She didn’t. She never has, and she continues to baffle Hollywood with her chameleon changes from exuberant childishness to Russian gloom and intensity. She can be labelled neither highbrow nor lowbrow, high hat nor shy, mysterious, aloof, or sociable.
All parties and social activities she avoids with scorn. That would make her a hermit. But her house is open to her friends, to Carole Lombard, Mady Christians, Peter Lorre and his wife, Constance Collier and quite a few more; and when she goes out of town in her little car, she makes friends with everybody.
Dreamer and Athlete
At home she plays Beethoven and Bach all day, and studies philosophy. That would make her a dreamer. But she plays tennis and hockey vigorously; romps madly on the sands with her beloved Aberdeen terrier, Johnny; tap-dances feverishly between scenes on the set; and plays jazz for inspiration.
Hating Hollywood artificiality, she speaks plaintively of her longing to return to Vienna and the stage. But she is intoxicated with the beauty of California, town and country.
“I would go anywhere to find beauty,” she says. That includes sitting up all night to see a dawn, or driving off with a friend to see the opening of the bridge at San Francisco. She spent three days there, mostly just gazing at the bridge, because it seemed part of beauty.She has the Continental attitude of humble, almost religious, devotion to her art. Yet she cleared off cheerfully, when the studio wanted her, over the Mexican border for five days, with only fifteen dollars in her bag.
The Rainer home is one of the few in Hollywood decorated without professional advice. It is filled with pieces lovingly collected by Luise, and is usually untidy in the lively, lived-in way of a house in which every object has its vitality and use.
Luise capped her bewilderment of Hollywood with her madcap marriage to Clifford Odets. Hollywood says she is crazy.
Now, the funny, an the important, thing is that Hollywood is never catty about Luise Rainer. Cynical, old-young Hollywood has seen plenty of other stars being capricious, naïve and whimsical; and behaving with disregard of conventions. Recognising the eccentricities for tricks, Hollywood jeered. But not at Luise.
Hollywood may not understand her eccentricities, but it recognises their sincerity; and because she is always unaffectedly herself, it does not resent them.
Even over her extraordinary marriage, it is inclined to accept Luise’s word that she and Odets live apart because both have important work to do.
In this attitude, Hollywood is shrewd. For, after all, is this magpie collection of characteristics so inconsistent? Doesn’t there emerge from it a clearer pattern than from most people’s conventionality?
Simplicity, a love of beauty – almost a need of beauty, and a grand disregard rather than dislike of anything unreal. These are the motives behind all her behaviour from childhood onwards.
Nothing is too big or too small fro Luise’s avid acceptance, if it is real. Gambolling puppies, earthy peasants, sunsets, bridges, aeroplanes, or fine art; infantile gaiety, colourful adventure, or high tragedy. In these, Luise finds emotional reality. In parties and publicity on one hand, dry book-learning on the other, none at all.
She, herself, has summed it up, saying: “It frightens me – this tendency to make idols of human beings. If I permit such attention, shall I not lose my touch with the simple things, and lose my ability to react simply to simple emotions?”
Simplicity is an attribute of greatness, but without greatness it can be shallow. Luise’s whole way of living is dedicated to extending the range of her emotional response, in any and every direction, while preserving its simplicity. That, I believe, is the source of her great power as an actress.
It is not going to be easy to find parts for Luise Rainer, because she is versatile in a way quite unfamiliar to the screen. She can create an entirely fresh, but equally strong, personality for every part, because of her gift for complete emotional identification with the character.
Frivolity to Pathos
Evidence of this power was the fact that she could make the part of Anna Held, with its precarious switch from almost imbecile frivolity to heart-rending pathos, even a possibility for the Award.
She will play any part she is given perfectly, and there is no hint that one type would suit her better than another. For this reason, Hollywood may be at a loss to cast her. All she needs is any kind of worthwhile part. She has proved her right to them, and should not be returned to the Continental glamour of her first two pictures.
Luise and her admirers owe deep gratitude to the late Irving Thalberg for his vision in casting her as O-lan. Restless little Rainer was no obvious choice for this almost contemplative part. It was a terrific risk to put a beautiful girl into a part in which physical charm meant nothing, stillness and emotional depth everything.
Few stars would have dared tackle the job; fewer still have had the opportunity. Had Garbo ever been given such a part, nobody knows what we might have seen.
Luise Rainer may never again find a picture like The Good Earth. At least she, and we, can always be grateful to Thalberg for giving her the unique opportunity to prove the full measure of her art on screen.
This article first appeared in the Summer 1937 edition of Film Weekly magazine.
*Luise was born in Dusseldorf in 1910, not Vienna in 1912. The place was changed by MGM in publicity materials to avoid any anti-German sentiment. her age was routinely aged downwards, perhaps on her own request; she ws still shaving a couple of years off in ineterviews in the 1970s and 1980s.
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