In a film career spanning 70 years, Luise Rainer appeared in just 14 feature films. In that time, however, she broke, and still holds, a number of records and famously garnered two Academy Awards for her mantelpiece – the first actress to win two Oscars in consecutive years; the only German actress to win a Best Actress Oscar; the youngest person ever to win a second Oscar and the oldest living winner…. Most of Luise’s film output remained unavailable on DVD until the release in 2010, to celebrate her 100th birthday, of Warner Archive’s three-disc Signature Collection. Despite so few films she appeared in everything from costume drama to comedy, musicals, MGM epics and wartime melodrama. The stories of Luise’s relationship with Hollywood are now legend; plucked from Germany by an MGM talent scout seeking out the “new Garbo”, Luise was flown to Los Angeles with a slight grasp of the English language and only her beloved Scottie dog, Johnnie, for company. In interviews Luise has recalled being holed up in a beach-side apartment wondering what kind of terrible mistake had been made. When Myrna Loy dropped out of filming on Escapade (1935) the studio realised that it had found the perfect vehicle with which to launch its new acquisition. Luise received joint billing with the film’s leading player, William Powell, and a star was born. But, even before Hollywood came calling Luise had appeared before the cameras in three German films, which she rarely mentioned, often citing Escapade as her debut. Little has been written about these three films and they are now either lost or very difficult to find, although her very first screen appearance recently surfaced on DVD.
The trajectory of of Luise’s career was swift but short-lived. Within four years Luise would make seven further films for MGM, win two Academy Awards, and come to be a thorn in Louis B. Mayer’s side. A terrific workload and the pressure to live up to the studio’s hype, led to difficulties in her marriage and her personal life. By 1938 she was all but worn out and she informed Mayer that her “source had dried up”, to which he replied, “why do you need a source, you have a director!” She resisted the glamorous Hollywood A-list spending her time instead with the literati and artistic elite who looked upon her film career as aesthetically bankrupt and artistically worthless. In many respects Luise agreed with them and hankered after the great roles which she believed she was destined to play. When Irving Thalberg, joint head of the studio, sought to bring
one of the most popular novels of the decade to the screen it resulted in her most famous role and most accomplished performance, that of “O-Lan” the Chinese peasant farmer in The Good Earth (1937), for which she won her second Oscar. Unfortunately, Thalberg’s premature death at only 37 years of age left Luise out in the cold; now she was at the mercy of Louis B. Mayer with whom she had never seen eye-to-eye. Refusing to bow down to the studio boss, refusing to be just another horse in his stable and demanding better parts in better films, her career was already effectively over. Mayer’s commercial movie-making saw a shift in the studio’s output to more easily accessible material and the pair regularly argued about the suitability of roles offered to Luise. The final straw for Luise was her casting as a prostitute in The Bride Wore Red (1937) – Mayer had the script rewritten and the prostitute replaced by a naif. Luise argued her case but left the project to be replaced by Joan Crawford. She put her case for other roles such as ‘Nora’ in A Doll’s House and the title role in a biopic of Nobel Prizewinning physicist Marie Curie. But her pleas fell on deaf ears and Mayer found this two-time Oscar winner parts in a series of B movies which were entertaining but light and unmemorable.
By this time Luise had met and married the playwright Clifford Odets, but even at the
start of this relationship Luise’s commitment to her MGM contract and filming of The Good Earth came in direct conflict with Odets’ work with the Group Theatre in New York City; in the first year of their relationship they barely saw each other. By her own admission, she wanted out of Hollywood just as much as Mayer wanted her out. After she walked out on her MGM contract she performed on stage in New York and London, divorced from Odets and remarried, to the publisher Robert Knittel.
Her opinion of Hollywood was changed somewhat during the Second World War when she realised that her ability to reach a huge audience, and the fame that she had so often avoided, was useful for bringing attention causes which she felt were important or overlooked. She was offered various opportunities to return to the screen, notably a three-picture contract with a major studio in 1940, and a chance to make a British picture around the same time but neither of these came to fruition. After a five year break she made one final film in Hollywood, Hostages (1943) for Paramount. Once filming was over she left the big screen for good…almost.
Over the best part of 60 years Luise continued to work sporadically on stage and for television. Now, though, she applied herself only to those projects she deemed important enough at the time. For a detailed look at these intervening years see the TV and Radio and Theatre and sections of the website. In 1997 Luise made an unexpected and low-key comeback in The Gambler (1997), based on a novel by Dostoyevsky, starring Michael
Gambon, Jodhi May and Dominic West. Her brief cameo, as “The Grandmother”, steals the film and, in my opinion, if Judi Dench can win an Oscar for 8 minutes in Shakespeare in Love (1998), then Luise’s performance at least deserved a nomination! It was a glorious return after 54 years away from cinema screens.
Below you can see a complete list of all of Luise’s films made for the big screen. Click on a title to see full details, including credits and brief synopses.
Theatrical feature films:
Sehnsucht 202 (1932)
Madame hat Besuch (1932)
Heut kommt’s drauf an (1933)
The Great Ziegfeld (1936)
The Good Earth (1937)
The Emperor’s Candlesticks (1937)
Big City (1937)
The Toy Wife (1938)
The Great Waltz (1938)
Dramatic School (1938)
The Gambler (1997)
Poem – Ich setzte den Fuß in die Luft und sie trug (2003)
Documentaries and films made-for-television:
Another Romance of Celluloid (1938) (documentary short)
By Herself: A Dancer (1988)
MGM: When the Lion Roars (1992)
Greta Garbo: A Lone Star (2001)
Behind Poem (2004)
Ziegfeld on Film (2004)
Hollywood Chinese (2007) (documentary)
Although Luise left her MGM contract in 1938 she did not, as is often reported, give up on acting or retire from films. She continued to appear on stage and television and there were many other offers to return to the big screen. During her MGM tenure her name was attached to a number of projects that didn’t see the light of day, as well as those films which went to other actresses, and after walking out there were occasional reports of a comeback. These films are listed below together with films in which Luise wanted to appear and those which were never made but to which Luise aspired. Of all of the films she didn’t make, there are three which she has regularly cited as her greatest regrets; For Whom the Bell Tolls, Marie Curie and Love is a Many Splendored Thing; I will be writing about all of these films individually so click on a title (where available) to read more about how they fit into Luise’s story. Also in this list are any other films to which Luise’s name was attached, however briefly.
The Man who Broke the Bank at Monte Carlo (1935)
The General Died at Dawn (1936)
The Bride Wore Red [The Girl from Trieste] (1937)
Double Wedding (1937)
Merry Christmas (1937)
Untitled Sarah Bernhardt biopic (1937)
La charrete fantome (1939)
Maiden Voyage (1939)
For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940)
Madame Curie (1943)
The Song of Bernadette (1943)
The Temptress (not filmed)
Dragon Seed (1944)
China Sky (1945)
Johnny Belinda (1948)
Two Hearts in Three-Quarter Time (1949)
Give Us This Day (1949)
Unknown Vittorio de Sica Project (c.1950)
Unknown Carol Reed Project (c. 1950)
Love is a Many Splendored Thing (1955)
La dolce vita (1960)
The Singing Nun (1966)
Torn Curtain (1966)
Out of Africa (1985)
Love Affair (1991)