The lovely Luise Rainer is pretty much the forgotten star of Hollywood’s so-called Golden Era. The petite actress had all the assets necessary for screen success, but she was built of sterner stuff than her contemporaries when it came to ‘playing the Hollywood game’. Right from the beginning she set her own standards and never strayed from them. As far as Luise was concerned she came to Hollywood for one reason and one only – to make quality movies that would be remembered. She had little interest in the glamour or the fame, and the money was only incidental. In short, she was bordering on unique for the times. Her acting and her integrity took precedence over everything.
Luise Rainer was born in Dusseldorf, Germany, but the spectre of Nazism forced L B Mayer to change her birthplace to Vienna when he signed her to an MGM contract and began to promote her. Her later marriage to writer Clifford Odets ended after a shady therapist convinced him that sexual activity would destroy his creativity. From that day onwards he manifestly abstained from intimacy and their union soon ended in ruins. In truth, it was not a happy relationship in the first place.
Luise arrives in Hollywood
For just three short years Luise stormed the heights of Hollywood success. Then, quite suddenly, it was all over. Mayer chose to curtail her career, partly because he did not appreciate her ‘leftist’ views, partly because her movies were not commercially as successful as he would have liked, and partly because she refused to ‘play the game’. ‘Why don’t you come and sit on my lap when you’re discussing your contract the way the other girls do?’ he would ask her. Joan Crawford, for one, had no doubts at all about his reasons for dumping his latest hotshot star. ‘Mayer washed his hands of Luise when she gave him the cold shoulder’, she said. Joan knew precisely how things operated in Hollywood under the studio system. She’d been there and done that whenever it was required of her.
Publicity shot with her boss LB Mayer
Unfortunately for Luise her movies were critical successes, but they did not make much money for the studio. LB was about as sentimental as a buzzard. Making money was his primary objective, so he viewed her departure as something of a financial blessing. When Luise asked for a meeting with him, at which she explained her intention not to renew her MGM contract, he was furious that she had already decided to do so before arriving. ‘We’ve made you and now we’re going to kill you’, he told her. She was the first actor ever to win multiple Oscars, and the first to do so consecutively when she won for The Great Ziegfeld (1936) and for The Good Earth (1937). But other movies and stars made more money for the studio. Regardless of her enormous talent she was ‘expendable’.
Officially, Mayer let it be known that he had decided to place Luise under suspension because she had recently married a communist, the brilliant writer Clifford Odets. He had briefly joined the Communist Party in 1934, met Luise soon afterwards and married her. Unfortunately for Luise and the marriage, in between attempts at reconciliation he was conducting a tempestuous affair with the out of control Frances Farmer. And she was not his only extra-marital activity. Fay Wray (of King Kong fame) was another. He also ‘dated’ Olivia De Havilland, Ruth Gordon, Barbara Rush and Patricia Blair. There were scores more. In the fifties Odets would testify before the HUAC and name names, albeit people already known to the committee. In 1957 he wrote the screenplay for the superb Sweet Smell of Success.
Mr. & Mrs Clifford Odets in happier times
Luise was a shy young girl at home, but a fine athlete away from it. She was a champion runner and a fearless mountain climber, yet her love of the entertainment world would see her make acting her dream at a young age. She began performing on stage and in films in Germany and Austria at 16, but it was close to a decade before MGM talent scouts found her and signed her to a three-year contract in 1935. After her emotional performance in The Great Ziegfeld she was touted as the new Greta Garbo and, in typical Hollywood fashion, was lumbered with one of MGM’s stupid nicknames – ‘The Viennese Teardrop’ – would you believe?
Luise and Paul Muni in The Good Earth
In The Great Ziegfeld she played the real-life Anna Held, a vivacious chatterbox if there ever was one. In stark contrast, however, her next role saw her portraying the subservient Chinese peasant woman, O-lan, who barely spoke. The contrast was extraordinary and audiences (and the Academy) loved her versatility, rewarding her with a second Oscar. Even so, some critics were indignant that her win had overlooked Garbo’s effort in Camille, and they were not afraid to voice their dissention. Luise was hurt by the pressure of it all. Mayer was also severely annoyed by the lack of glamour in the role of O-lan, and he and Irving Thalberg (Luise’s champion) disagreed bitterly about the direction her career should take. Like Luise, Thalberg was more interested in creating quality pictures.
Luise and her Oscar for her portrayal of O-lan
There were other problems during the production of The Good Earth. Director George W. Hill committed suicide shortly after returning from several months of filming background material in China, and was replaced by Sidney Franklin after a lengthy delay in filming. Then Thalberg succumbed to a heart attack at 37. His death greatly affected Luise’s career decision to quit Hollywood. ‘Had it not been that he died’, she said years later, ‘I think I may have stayed much longer in films.’ She would make just a handful more movies for MGM as per her contractual obligations, but they were not well received. Mayer saved the best roles for more co-operative stars. In 1937 she was dubbed ‘box-office poison’ by the Independent Theater Owners of America. Not that she was singled out. Garbo, Norma Shearer, Kate Hepburn, Mae West, Joan Crawford, Kay Francis and even Fred Astaire would also earn that label, deservedly or not. In 1938 she abandoned the movie industry and sailed for Europe.
In Spain she helped get aid to children who were victims of the Civil War. Her three-year marriage to Odets while in New York City was a disaster and doomed. ‘All the acting I’ve done on the stage or screen has been nothing compared to the acting I did in New York, when I tried to make everyone think I was happy – and my heart was breaking.’ She studied medicine for a while in London, did some stage work, and made a brief return to movie-making in a small role in Hostages (1943), but it amounted to nothing. She married again in 1944, the union lasting until her husband’s death in 1989.
In her final years
Her name has been linked romantically with a few personages, among them George Gershwin, Lewis Milestone, William Wyler and Erich Maria Remarque, all of them when she was a single woman. She would live on until 2014, having enjoyed a long life of 104 years and 50 weeks! At the time of her death she was the longest-lived recipient of an Academy Award in the history of the movies. In an industry that produced so few men and women of integrity and strength, especially in those days when studio moguls ruled the waves, Luise Rainer shone like a beacon, albeit only briefly.