The Return of Luise Rainer
by John Swift
[This article originally appeared in the Radio Times, 25th November 1949]
UNTIL a week ago I had never really believed it. It was incredible that a young actress, at the height of film success and with two successively won ‘Oscars’ to her credit, should put aside her career because achievement had come too easily! You will remember her – Luise Rainer, of The Great Ziegfeld and The Good Earth, in both of which she won the Motion Picture Academy award for the best performance of the year. Over here in 1939, to star in Behold the Bride at the now non-existent Shaftesbury, she had to have police protection against mobbing. Then, suddenly, she renounced Hollywood, and we have seen her only once since, in the film Hostages about five years ago. Luise Rainer is back in England again, and her first appearance after ten years will be in Harold Clayton’s production of By Candlelight.
The story of this charmingly boyish, Viennese-born actress, whose Austrian accent has not been lost in Americanisms, is a remarkable one – and so very simple.
She made her first stage appearance at Dusseldorf in 1928, acted in various towns in such plays as St. Joan, Measure for Measure, and Six Characters in Search of an Author, and became a member of Max Reinhardt’s company in Berlin. After four years training in the theatre she went to Hollywood, made eight pictures in three years, found that somehow Rainer and Hollywood did not see altogether eye to eye – and ended the association. ‘The film world bewildered me. To my mind in those days everybody seemed to think that the only thing that mattered was money. When I said I was not interested in money they thought I was holding out for more. When they realised I was in earnest they thought I was mad. I thought they were mad.’
When war broke out Luise Rainer became an honorary officer in the United States Army, and toured North Africa and Italy with a chaplain, doing welfare work and entertaining the troops with a one-woman show. She was at Monte Cassino. After the war came the film Hostages, marriage, and a baby daughter. That is the story.
Miss Rainer paused while making-up for a film sequence for By Candlelight. She said, ‘You know, I was very young when I made The Good Earth – twenty-two, in fact.1 Success came much too quickly. I felt intuitively that it was wrong, because I was not satisfied with the work I had done. I had gone straight to Hollywood from Vienna and three of my biggest films were made in quick succession. I was overwhelmed – I wanted to get away from it all and breath freely again. I suppose I was too young to realise that in my profession one must learn to compromise.’
Luise Rainer learned a great deal about life while working in army welfare. She moved with the troops across Africa, advanced with them through Italy, and later collapsed with a nervous breakdown. ‘My experiences, I think, may have made me a better actress. Once I acted purely on my emotions. Now I know what I am doing. Now I understand so well – I have grown up.’
Although her role of Elizabeth in By Candlelight will be her debut in BBC television Miss Rainer is not new to the medium. She has been in five or six plays in American television2, but invariably she has been cast to play dramatic parts. Elizabeth will provide her with her first light-hearted part – ‘a part I am looking forward to because I am aware of the great future of television. in so many ways it is far more interesting – and more exacting – than the movies because you needreal acting ability. The challenge is so much greater because once the play has begun you must go through with it.’
But, Luise Rainer, now thirty-seven1 (‘my real age, not an actress’!’), has not given up films. She is over here to make one, not yet titled, based on a silent film she saw on the Continent fourteen years ago3. She lost no time, by the way, going into rehearsal. She was with Harold Clayton’s cast within ninety minutes of arriving at London airport.
1 In fact, Luise was 25 when she made The Good Earth and thirty-nine at the time of this article. She routinely shaved two or three years off her age for most of her life, even into her seventies.
2 I have found only two prior American television appearances: The Chevrolet Tele-Theatre episode: Trapeze, and the WPIX Theater Time episode, Lost Child, both in 1949. I would be very interested to discover more.
3 Whatever this film was, it was never made. I’ve found only scant evidence of Luise making a film in England at this time, but the most likely would be a project with the director Carol Reed which was briefly mentioned in contemporary news articles. The silent film to which this article refers is also unknown.